Davey Scatino falls into deep debt at the Executive poker game and has to use his son’s Nissan to get himself out of the hole. Eric Scatino is not happy about this, and neither is Meadow. Richie and Janice are not happy in this hour either. Neither is Tony. Nor are low-level goombahs Sean and Matt. No one is happy in “The Happy Wanderer.”
EPISODE 19 - ORIGINALLY AIRED FEB 20, 2000 WRITTEN BY FRANK RENZULLI DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON
Ducks, which had had such a strong presence throughout Season One, make an appearance of sorts in the very first line of this episode: a university rep at Meadow’s school advises the students, “Get all your academic ducks in a row – leave nothing to chance.” We may remember that ducks had previously been associated with applying to college in that striking scene in “College” – Tony sees ducks after killing Febby Petrulio and before picking up Meadow from a potential school:
This first line, uttered by the university representative, immediately sets up a couple of plot points for the episode. Meadow is doing everything she can to get into a good university (which also becomes a major plot point for her—and her mother—over the course of the season). The line also introduces the idea of chance. Eric Scatino tries to get his applications in order, and leave nothing to chance as the advisor recommends, but he is undermined by his father’s addiction to games of chance.
Due to some typically efficient dialogue, we can surmise within the first 20 seconds of meeting Davey Scatino that he owns a sports merchandise store. The store will figure heavily in “Bust Out” later this season. Although Davey’s last name ends in a vowel as do the last names of most of the mobsters, he seems quite different from Tony and his ilk. Physically, Davey is lean and has light-colored hair and eyes. Professionally, he’s the proprietor of a type of store that we associate with fitness, self-discipline and athleticism – characteristics that the mobsters often lack. Right from the get-go, Tony lumps Davey together with that other good guy Artie Bucco. Tony breaks their balls, contrasting their macho glory days in high school to their currently emasculated lives. It is perhaps this sense of emasculation that drives Davey to gamble. He tries to get into the Executive Card Game but Tony is unwilling to let him in.
Tony: I don’t wanna see you get hurt.
Davey: You know how many jockstraps I sold last week?
I think Davey’s line can be interpreted in two ways, but both interpretations lead to the same place. The line could mean that Davey is bored out of his mind (bored with the fucking regularness of life), or it could mean that his business is slumping. Either way, Davey wants into the Executive Game, either to increase the excitement in his life or to increase his income. Regardless of his motive, playing with the big boys will reduce his sense of emasculation. He sells jockstraps for a living, but right now his own sense of manhood is dangling in the air. We may sense from this early conversation between Tony and Davey that the issue of masculinity will be a central concern of this hour.
Davey does play in a lower-level poker game with Artie and some other guys. But this game is not manly enough, these players are still emasculated – Artie leaves before it gets late, otherwise “Charmaine will have my balls on the menu tomorrow.” (In last season’s “Boca,” the Artie-character was used as a marker of goodness, a man of both domestic and civic responsibility in contrast to Coach Hauser and Tony Soprano. Artie is used in the same way here. Just as it was with Coach Hauser, we believe early on that Davey falls somewhere close to Artie on the scale of virtue, but as the episode progresses, we come to see that darker desires are pulling at him.)
Davey shows up at the motel where the Executive Game is being held. If this motel doesn’t immediately ring a bell, the sound of Furio actually ringing the desk bell should – it is the same bell that Paulie banged Ariel over the head with in episode 1.03:
Tony tries hard to keep Davey out of the game, but he finally relents. This is where the big fellas play. In addition to a couple of high-level NY and NJ mobsters, Frank Sinatra Jr. himself is at the table. (Paulie may call him “Chairboy of the board,” but he is no boy – his bloodline guarantees his masculinity.) Urologist Dr. Ira Fried, whose specialty is penile implants, also has chips on the table. Note the comparison: the lower-level game had Artie, who went running back to his wife lest she clip his nuts, while the Executive Game hosts a player who could probably reattach them.
Davey isn’t the only one trying to prove his manliness. Tony must maintain his position as the Alpha-male of the NJ mob. At Tom Sr’s funeral, Tony and Richie go into a side parlor to talk. Even though the funeral home probably disallows it, Tony lights up a cigar:
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes it’s more. The fact that Tony says “It’s a big joint” just as he lights it up strengthens the phallic association because we’ve heard “joint” used with this slang meaning in previous episodes. Moments later, in full masculine mode, Tony rules that Davey must pay him the full $45,000 owed to him before Davey pays back a single dollar to Richie. It may be unfair, but Tony has to tax Richie for the brouhaha he made at the Executive Game. Tony must maintain his masculine posture: “If I don’t do somethin’, how is it gonna look?”
Davey is perhaps lucky that Tony is now considered his primary creditor. Tony may be a villain but he’s not as villainous as Richie – Tony is not going to run him over with an SUV for missed payments. But when Davey does quickly fall behind, Tony confronts him in his office:
The low camera angle emphasizes Tony’s hulking mass. The Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” plays on the office radio, with its line, “And it’s a hollow feeling when it comes down to dealin’ friends.” Tony doesn’t tone down his threat just because Davey is an old high school buddy or because their kids now attend high school together. Desperate for cash, Davey approaches Artie for a loan. Artie is unwilling to help him, so Davey makes up a bullshit reason to confiscate his son’s car, which he gives to Tony, who in turn gives it to Meadow.
All hell breaks loose at the Soprano home when Meadow realizes that her father has just tried to make a gift of her friend’s car. The end result of all the masculine anxiety and posturing in this episode is that the Soprano women are made to suffer. Tony forces his wife and daughter to confront their own complicity in his criminal work. It is a testament to Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s abilities that she is convincingly able to play a typical teenage brat and, at the same time, play a Mafia daughter faced with difficult moral and existential dilemmas. Meadow and Carmela’s struggle with their complicity is starting to take shape as one of the narrative anchors of the series. We will see this dynamic of the Soprano family explored in emotional scenes again and again.
The issue of masculinity comes up in Melfi’s office. Gary Cooper is Tony’s ideal man. Actually, he is Tony’s idealized man, his symbol of “the strong, silent type” (a phrase which Tony can’t help but add every time he brings up Cooper). In the Pilot episode, Tony held him up as an idol, a man who could get by without psychotherapy: “He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.” Tony resurrects this idea in this episode, complaining that he himself has now become one of the “fuckin’ pussies” that need therapy. For Tony, psychotherapy is part of an effeminate culture of victimhood; a real man would face the world with square jaw and stoic heart, and never allow himself to be thought of as a victim. He tells Melfi that sometimes he resents her for making him feel like a victim. But he feels real anger towards “the happy-fucking-wanderer” who goes whistling through life without a worry.
In reality, there is no one in the world who goes through life without a worry. Some people may have sunnier dispositions or be naturally optimistic, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have worries. In his typical black-and-white way, Tony allows for only two possibilities: you are either the Happy Wanderer or you’re Gary Cooper. But most of us (including Tony Soprano) occupy the gray terrain in between: we are neither happy-go-lucky fools nor square-jawed Hollywood heroes. Perhaps the only exception would be the feeble-minded. (Like uncle Ercole, for example, whose existence Tony recently learns of. Despite having the manliest of names [derived from “Hercules”], Ercole might have been something of “a happy wanderer” because of his developmental disabilities.)
WHADD’YA HEAR, WHADD’YA SAY
Just before the Executive Game begins, Paulie is pulled over by a police officer. They have a surprising exchange:
Paulie: What do you hear, what do you say?
Cop: License and registration.
Paulie: [Pulling out a gun] How about if I give you one of these instead?
Cop: I’m wearing a vest.
Paulie: Oh yeah? [Pointing the gun into the officer’s crotch] If I shoot, it’s going right in your braciola.
Obviously, the two men know each other. In this episode about masculinity, the threat of physical emasculation appears even in the playful banter between cop and criminal. But I wanted to spotlight this scene for another reason. The pullover is staged so that Paulie can pay off the local police in order to keep them away from the motel during the Executive Game. The mob always finds a way to tilt the scales in their favor. They don’t play fair, they stack the deck. Poor schlubs like Davey take a shot at winning big, but since they play by the rules, the odds are stacked against them. When they lose, sharks like Tony and Richie victimize them savagely.
Chris literally tilts the scale at the fish market. He tells Matt and Sean that the Executive Game “is no nickel-and-dime shit,” just after nickel-and-diming the fish market by using a matchbook to shave a few bucks off their purchase:
I think this is a key scene because it reveals the mobster mentality. Their instinct is to always be on the hustle. All events, from high-roller card games to buying fish, can be manipulated to their advantage. This should be a great lesson to up-and-coming mobsters Matt and Sean, but the two young men have a very different takeaway from this trip to the market. After Chris tells them what their duties at the card game will be (and makes them pay for the fish), they feel like they’re just “piss boys.”
At the card game, the two young men are further emasculated. Sean never seems to assert himself, he’s just a wallflower here. Matt has it worse. Tony doesn’t take him seriously enough to even get his name right, calling him “Mike” instead. Tony also plays a practical joke on him, asking him to clean up after Silvio during a losing streak. Silvio, who has a reputation for meanness when the cards go against him, unloads a flurry of insults on the young fella in front of everybody. Matthew and Sean continually fail in their attempts to be respected as men, and their frustrations erupt into violence two episodes from now.
Meadow tells Tony that she received a phone call informing her that Tom Sr (Tony’s brother-in-law’s father) died. She does not know the cause of death. The camera cuts from this scene to Tony in Melfi’s office, whistling “Whiisht” – it was a gust of wind that pushed Tom off the roof as he tried to install a satellite dish. Absurdly, the accident occurred one day after Tom retired. Tony’s “Whiisht” describes both the wind and the fragile, fleeting nature of life. Wind and life & death were previously associated together in “Isabella” – we heard the wind and saw trees swaying in the minutes leading up to the attempt on Tony’s life. Chase will associate “wind” and “life” and “death” more vividly in later seasons.
Upon hearing of Tom’s death, Melfi says, “Well, at least Tom Sr. isn’t the happy wanderer anymore…He’s joined the ranks of the unlucky.” She recognizes that luck plays a role in our lives. This episode takes a look at how we make our own luck, and in particular, how the Mafia makes its own luck at the expense of others. The opening and closing dialogue of the episode point to this manipulation of “luck” by the Mafia. The academic advisor kicked off the hour by telling the kids not to “leave anything to chance.” Eric Scatino tries to follow this advice, but his college fund, as we will see, gets eaten up by the mob as his father tries to close his gambling debts. In the episode’s final scene, Eric quits his duet with Meadow. The final dialogue comes from Carmela when she learns that Meadow will be performing solo (which is what Meadow wanted all along): “That’s a lucky break. I wonder what happened?” Carmela is clueless, but we viewers, privy to a backstage argument, know that “Tony” happened: Eric backed out of the duet with Meadow after feeling victimized by her father’s predatory behavior. For her solo, Meadow chooses “My Heart Will Go On.” Indeed, she does go on and will continue to go on, benefitting from her father’s criminality for years to come.
- We see a slightly softer side to Richie here. He apologizes to Tony for his behavior at the Executive Game, and defends Tony in conversation with Janice. Janice is becoming more monstrous as the season progresses. Here, she eggs Richie on, citing Tony’s lack of generosity towards him. She notes that the $50,000 Tony gave him when he got out of prison is less than what mailmen earn.
- I love that final scene in the school auditorium: we watch Tony enjoy the sweet bouquet of fresh flowers while, on the side of the curtains, Eric Scatino struggles mightily with the consequences of how Tony makes a living.
- The episode closes as Meadow’s classmate Gudren sings Franz Schubert’s powerful and somber German lied, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” The song quickly segues to the English-language version of the German pop song, “The Happy Wanderer,” over the end-credits. This version of “The Happy Wanderer”—particularly because of its juxtaposition to Schubert’s solemn lied—comes off sounding as silly as Tony’s simplistic conception of “the happy wanderer” in Melfi’s office.
- Paul Mazursky plays the Executive Game dealer. Mazursky was an accomplished director and screenwriter, nominated for several Academy Awards. He appeared in many films and TV shows over a fifty-year period before dying in 2014.
- Corrado says that his brother Ercole looked like George Raft. Raft was a handsome leading man, best known for playing gangsters in the ’30s and ’40s.
- References to the sun thread their way through the episode: the Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” plays at the sports store; Eric and Meadow were to duet “Sun and Moon” from Miss Saigon; the poker dealer is nicknamed Sunshine; “The Happy Wanderer” which plays over the credits has a line about “the stream that dances in the sun.”