Tony and Noah (Meadow’s new friend) talk about movies, among other things. Livia passes away, and Janice returns
to New Jersey to organize a memorial service for her. Guests at the service try to think of something nice to say.
EPISODE 28 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 4, 2001 WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
This episode, along with “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” was part of a two-hour doubleheader that opened Season 3. It was the only time during the original run of the series that two episodes premiered on the same day. As I mentioned in my previous write-up, I think this may have been part of an effort to both deflect and deal with the issue of Nancy Marchand’s death.
According to Prof. David Lavery, Chase had originally wanted to kill off Livia at the end of Season 1, but Marchand was so good in the role that he changed his mind. The loss of Marchand must have been quite a blow to the cast and crew, but the quality of the series certainly didn’t diminish after losing the high-caliber actress. Season 3 takes The Sopranos to new heights, giving us memorable episodes such as “Employee of the Month,” “University,” and of course, “Pine Barrens.”
“Proshai, Livushka” is memorable for a number of reasons, one of which is its very uncharacteristic opening sequence. The camera pans across the kitchen to reveal Tony face-down on the kitchen floor. Has he been killed? Did Patsy Parisi return and shoot Tony through the kitchen window as he almost did in the previous episode?
No, Tony has not been shot. (That is tomato juice on the floor, not blood.) The reason why Tony is passed out on the floor is revealed to us in a very irregular way: the narrative “rewinds” to an earlier point (when Tony meets Meadow’s black friend Noah) and plays out once again for our benefit. Verisimilitude is a hallmark of The Sopranos, and therefore this self-conscious, postmodern gambit feels like a gross violation of the show’s usual realism. But the violation works here. It helps establish the series’ status as a postmodern work. The classic mob movies that Tony and Noah discuss are arguably part of the first wave of American gangster movies. Later works such as The Godfather trilogy, which built upon the original classics, are part of the second wave. The third wave is more recent, and include some of Scorsese and Tarantino’s films along with The Sopranos. A characteristic of these most recent works is that they build upon the earlier works, but also deconstruct and depart from previously established conventions. William Wellman’s 1931 film The Public Enemy, which Tony watches throughout the course of this episode, represents a foundation which Chase plays on and plays against.
The “rewinding” ploy would never have been used in a first or second wave gangster film. It could only be used now, in a contemporary work like The Sopranos. And this underscores a predicament that conservative Tony must deal with: the passage of time. As much as he wishes that “in this house, it’s 1954” (as he proclaimed in episode 1.11), Meadow’s friendship with Jewish-African-American Noah Tannenbaum proves that the 1950s are long over. Noah’s racial makeup is a non-issue for most viewers in 2001, but it is Noah’s defining characteristic for unenlightened Tony. Noah’s multiple ethnicity multiplies Tony’s hostility. The epithets that Tony hurls at the young man—creative in their own right but ugly nevertheless—confirm a well-practiced racism. But we can chuckle a little bit at Tony’s bigotry because we suspect that it may not be as deep-seated or hostile as he would like Noah to believe. We might recognize Tony as something of a modern-day Archie Bunker:
Meadow is understandably upset that Tony is trying to drive Noah away from her, particularly in light of what she sees at her grandmother’s funeral:
Tony has business partners that are black (Rev. James) and Jewish (Assemblyman Zellman). Tony’s hypocritical attitude toward Black Jewish Noah is more than she can swallow. While Tony’s racism cannot be condoned, we do understand that he is acting in what he believes is his daughter’s best interest. (The primary tension in the final stage of Season 3 will come out of Tony again trying to protect his daughter – not from Noah but from Jackie Jr.)
Tony tries to be a good father to his children. Being a good son, however, is hardly worth the effort with a mother like Livia. In his last conversation with Livia before she dies, he tries to counsel her on what to tell the Feds regarding the stolen airline tickets. (One wrong word from her and he’s looking at time in federal prison.) But she hems and haws and complains and makes faces – in other words, she behaves typically like herself. His last words to her are: “For a year I didn’t speak to you, maybe I should have kept it that way. Fuck it – do what you want.” Many viewers took exception to the computer-generated Livia that appears here, finding the whole scene flawed and unbelievable. The CGI does get the lighting and shadows wrong at times, and Livia’s hairstyle changes from one shot to the next. But I think the CGI, on the whole, is done fairly well, and more importantly, is narratively justified: it eases us into the removal of Livia from the series. If Livia had died without ever appearing on-screen in the third season, it arguably would felt more unrealistic – we would have become hyper-aware that it was Marchand’s death that precluded any more appearances by Livia. And in truth, many viewers never even realized that Livia was artificially generated for her final scene.
The computer-generated Livia and the “rewind” scene are examples of how this episode explores notions of realism in TV and art. Another example is the use of Cozzarelli’s Memorial Home for Livia’s funeral. Cozzarelli’s is a real-life institution in Belleville, NJ, originally established over 100 years ago. Tony and his sisters visit Cozzarelli (actually played by Ralph Lucarelli here) here in a funny duplication of the Godfather scene in which Don Corleone meets with undertaker Bonasera:
Cozzarelli refers to Livia as “Mom” in an attempt to be thoughtful and sympathetic, but it is only ironic as Livia was hardly motherly to her children. Livia wished for her funeral to be quick and uneventful: no Mass, no service, no wake. But Tony is convinced by his sisters to have a small gathering at his house, and it is here that Janice herds everyone together before asking them to give a remembrance about Livia Soprano.
We are all guilty of using conventional, generic words after the death of an acquaintance. It is difficult to know what to say in that situation. The Sopranos, which has so adamantly investigated the conventions that make up our lives and our art, now looks at the conventions that surround death. The series, which has always embraced the mundane, now depicts the banalities that we utter when confronted by the reality of death. Livia’s acquaintances offer up generic platitudes (“At least she didn’t suffer”) not only because of their discomfort in the situation, but also because it is so difficult to find something nice to say about her. They shuffle their feet and avoid eye contact until Carmela finally brings the ridiculous wake to an end, describing Livia as she really was and everyone knew her to be. But did we really know Livia? Unexpectedly, from the back of the room, Fanny raises her voice to tell everyone that Livia was her best friend. We might remember Fanny from 1.02:
It is hard to imagine that Livia could have a best friend. Perhaps Livia was nice to Fanny out of guilt for driving into her and breaking her hip. More likely, mousy Fanny has difficulty making friends and mistook Livia’s morbid conversations about death as an act of friendship. In any case, Fanny’s quiet statement is the closest that Chase really ever came to humanizing Livia. All of the show’s major characters—even the most villainous—are shown, at some point, in the fullness of their humanity. Livia is the one exception, she was never much more than a caricature. Perhaps Chase would eventually have fleshed Livia more humanely, but the death of Nancy Marchand put an end to that possibility. As it is, Livia will forever be the severe, one-dimensional embodiment of a grim philosophy of nothingness that lingers throughout the series.
With Livia dead, Chase’s narrative could use a family member that will bring some more tension into Tony’s life. Cue Janice. Chase may not have planned to bring Janice back into SopranoWorld so soon (if at all) after her sending her back west at the end of Season 2. But the death of Marchand may have hastened Janice’s return. When Tony calls her at her bungalow in California, she answers the phone as “Ace Garage,” reminding us what a shady character she is. She finagles an airline ticket to New Jersey from Tony, purportedly coming to take part in Livia’s funeral but we suspect that she may have an ulterior motive:
Janice has long believed that Livia has hidden riches somewhere in her house. She is quite willing to take a hammer to the foundation of her family home (metaphorically as well as literally) to get what she wants. Janice will function essentially as a replacement for Livia for the remainder of the series.
In Dr. Melfi’s office, Tony falls back on generic banalities while discussing his mother’s death, but eventually his anger and bitterness comes through. “Miserable cunt,” he calls her, even saying that he’s happy she is dead because now there is no possibility of Livia testifying against him. “Mothers” are a recurring topic in psychotherapy offices, and this is probably more true of Tony’s sessions than in most cases. He facetiously tells Dr. Melfi, “So we’re probably done here, right? She’s dead.” But Tony has reasons to continue therapy: Chase ironically cuts from this facetious line to the scene in which Ray Curto is meeting his FBI handler. Any pressing threat from Livia may have dissipated with her death, but Tony is definitely not in the clear: Curto is eager to wear a wire for the Feds; Janice is back; and Ralph Cifaretto, one of the great villains of the series, is introduced into SopranoWorld in this episode. The so-called “garbage wars” are heating up and ambitious Cifaretto is adding fuel to the fire, torching trucks and smashing bodies.
The series’ greatest departure from its usual realism occurs at the gathering for Livia at Tony’s house, when Pussy appears for a moment in the mirror:
Is this actually the ghost of Pussy Bonpensiero? Or is it a hallucination by Tony? It is never made clear. Apart from Paulie’s vision of the Virgin Mary in Season 6, and some strange moments that occur in dream and in coma, nothing quite as supernatural as this ever occurs again on the series. Although this paranormal moment seems out-of-place for The Sopranos, it actually fits well into this episode which radically breached realism with the “rewind” ploy right in its opening scene. What I find really interesting about this possible breach of reality, though, is that it occurs just as Furio is talking about a reality show; he (jokingly?) tells the guys his new moneymaking scheme: muscle the winner of Survivor into forking over a quarter of his $1 million prize. Reality shows were just beginning to have a presence on primetime network TV when this episode aired. Chase sometimes seemed to have a prescient sense of where the culture was headed, but even he probably could not have predicted just how ubiquitous reality shows would become. I don’t have a problem with the shows themselves, or with their popularity. If viewers want simple entertainment after a hard day at the office, these programs fit the bill perfectly. I do have an issue, however, with the name of the genre; “Reality TV” is, for the most part, not very real at all. The shows amp up the drama with absurdly exaggerated musical scoring and with teaser clips that turn out (after the commercial break, of course) to have been falsely titillating. The setups are staged and the conflicts are contrived. On the scale of realism, they are closer to Cartoon than to Documentary. The Sopranos is the true reality show: very little non-diagetic scoring, scenes that depict the banal minutia of life, dialogue that is always true to its characters. Most importantly, the series is able to evoke real emotion and real thoughts and real empathy. (This is something that so-called Reality TV fails miserably at.) With its postmodern self-awareness and supernatural moment, “Proshai, Livushka” temporarily departs from the series’ customary realism, but ultimately the episode returns to a simpler, more earnest tone, evoking our genuine emotion. In the closing scene of the hour, we see Tony shed tears while watching a tender scene in The Public Enemy, and we too might feel a sting in our eyes. Tony is such a flesh-and-blood character that we—perhaps despite ourselves—feel sympathy for the man.
Sopranos episode titles are usually very clever things. They often pun or wordplay or refer to something outside of SopranoWorld. They routinely have double or triple meanings. But this episode’s title is much more straightforward. It comes from the simple Russian toast that Svetlana gives Livia. I think its simplicity reinforces the ultimately genuine, earnest nature of “Proshai, Livushka.” Despite the episode’s postmodern gamesmanship and possible foray into the supernatural, it finally becomes a simple goodbye to Livia Soprano – and Nancy Marchand.
“ASSHOLE ROBERT FROST”
This episode contains a small but, I think, extremely significant scene. AJ needs to turn in a close-read of “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” by “asshole Robert Frost” for English class the following day. He enlists Meadow’s help because close-reads are not really his forte. Meadow tries to guide her little brother into figuring out the poem’s meaning. What ensues is a biting parody of much of the analysis that has been done of The Sopranos itself. Many viewers are convinced that the series can be “solved” like a Rubik’s Cube or a crossword puzzle, with one unequivocal, clear-as-day solution. They disregard the ambiguity that is woven into the show. In his essay, “Christopher, Osama and AJ,” Jason Jacobs writes that the scene…
…warns us to beware of pat answers of the kind that Meadow confidently offers. We may see in AJ’s frustration the wider impatience of a consumer society that wants packages of meaning that clearly define and orientate their subjectivity; but the scene also seems to warn that even relatively sophisticated solutions to the problem of meaning (“I thought black was death,” says AJ; “White too,” replies Meadow) ultimately provide clarity where there may be none.
Dana Polan, in his fine book The S0pranos, has something similar to say about the scene:
Meadow tells him that the symbolic key is to see white as death. When he answers that he thought black symbolized death, Meadow replies that both do, demonstrating unintentionally the very silliness of a fixed catalogue of symbolic forms.
It is particularly ironic that Meadow and AJ ponder which color represents death when neither the word “black” nor “white” actually appears in the poem. It is not even certain that the poem is actually about death; my Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry footnotes that “Frost always insisted that the repetition of the last line was not supposed to invoke death but only to imply a somnolent dreaminess in the speaker.” It might be that Meadow and AJ are preoccupied with the idea of death only because their grandmother just passed away. This is quite understandable. Everyone brings their own preoccupations and experiences into their interpretations – and this is why it is unjustifiable for anyone to insist that any one conclusion is absolutely definitive and universally acceptable. After that final scene at Holsten’s Diner, many viewers proclaimed that the cut-to-black signified Tony’s death. That may very well be the case, but it’s silliness (to borrow Polan’s word) to insist that it is so.
- The episode begins to the sounds of Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain” playing as a garbage truck explodes. We later learn that the explosion was the handiwork of Ralph Cifaretto, who is trying very hard to become a Captain within the NJ famiglia.
- The class that Meadow and Noah are taking is “Images of Hypercapitalist Self-advancement in the Era of the Studio System.” Almost sounds like a description of The Sopranos itself.
- The opening placard of The Public Enemy says that the movie’s intention is “to honestly depict and environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” This too almost sounds like a description The Sopranos.
- Bobby mentions in passing that his father is sick. We’ll meet Bobby’s sick father in a few episodes.
- Irony: Livia (probably) faked a stroke in Season 1 to escape Tony’s wrath; she dies of a stroke in this episode.
- I think it’s fitting that Svetlana delivers the simple toast to Livia, as Svetlana herself has a refreshing simplicity about her – there is very little drama or subterfuge in her. Last season, she calmly reasoned with overly emotional Irina after the goomar‘s suicide attempt. Now, she stands in contrast to the overly dramatic Soprano women: she seems like she would have been a worthy opponent to old Livia, and she faces off admirably with Janice over the possession of Livia’s old records.
- A character credited only as “2 to 5 / 7 to 9” played by Marie Donato appears here at the funeral home. The character’s name is explained only much later in the series when she appears at a funeral home again.
- Corrado asks AJ, “How’s the surfboard I gave you?” He complained about buying the boy a $400 surfboard all the way back in 1.03.
- We see Tony watch the famous “grapefruit scene” from The Public Enemy here. Chase paid homage to the scene back in episode 1.09: