Corrado’s surgery for cancer is not completely successful, so he gets a second opinion. After speaking to a psychiatrist,
Carmela insists to Tony that he must make a sizable donation to Meadow’s university.
EPISODE 33 - ORIGINALLY AIRED APRIL 8, 2001 WRITTEN BY LAWRENCE KONNER DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
Carmela and Corrado both seek out second opinions in this episode, and neither of them like what they hear. The hour begins with a dream sequence which, as usual, creates some viewer confusion – we don’t immediately realize that we are watching a dream. For a moment we believe that the FBI are actually trying to cut a deal with Corrado as he lies on the surgery table, but then the image of a newspaper proclaiming his marriage to Angie Dickinson confirms that this is an anesthesia-fueled fantasy.
Corrado has idealized his surgeon. Dr. John Kennedy has an arrogant, cut-and-dry manner which Corrado has mythologized as an All-American toughness (mainly because the doctor shares a name with his hero JFK). The surgery to remove Corrado’s tumor is not completely successful, and so Tony convinces him to get a second opinion. Dr. Mehta at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is not as gung-ho as the forward-charging Kennedy, and offers a more complicated plan of treatment. The difference in temperament between the two doctors is underscored by the pictures that hang in each of their offices. Dr. Kennedy’s office is adorned with photos he has snapped during his travels:
Kennedy’s photographs tell their story clearly, with very little ambiguity. (Corrado even suggests they could appear in National Geographic, a magazine known for its photojournalism i.e. photography that conveys information clearly and objectively.) The non-figurative artwork that hangs on Dr. Mehta’s walls, in contrast, require more effort to be understood, if they are to be understood at all:
Corrado is shown juxtaposed against the abstract, ambiguous prints in Mehta’s office just as he lauds Kennedy’s lack of ambiguity. But cancer is a complex problem that can sometimes be approached only ambiguously. Corrado and Tony ask for a tumor board to be convened to deal with the uncertainty of the situation. As the camera pans across the table of the tumor board, it recalls past scenes, such as in 3.01, when Federal agents convened to discuss the mobsters:
Being prosecuted in federal court or getting whacked is not always the main problem that aging gangsters have to deal with, sometimes it’s aging itself. The tumor board acknowledges that another surgery would normally be the best option for Corrado’s particular cancer, but as an elderly man, his low blood pressure puts him at greater risk under anesthesia. When Dr. Kennedy learns that Corrado sought another doctor’s opinion, he squashes the idea of a second surgery: “Mehta? Sloan-Kettering Mehta?!…Forget it then. Last thing I need is to operate with that little shit looking over my shoulder.” We get the sense that Kennedy is an asshole from his first scene (when he walks into the waiting room and expects everyone to rise from their seats for him). His decision now, motivated by medical politics rather than medical outcomes, along with the brush-off that he gives to Corrado, confirm that he is a jerk.
Carmela doesn’t suffer from a physical problem as Corrado does, but she is having an emotional crisis. Carmela goes to see Dr. Melfi without Tony for the first time. As with Tony’s first visit, Chase opens the scene by shooting Carm through the legs of the waiting room statue:
David Chase’s previous comments regarding this opening shot from the Pilot led us to believe that the shot was a reference to Livia’s constricting influence on her son. It does not require a great leap to conclude that this parallel shot here similarly comments upon the constriction Carmela feels from her mother. Mary DeAngelis is unhappy with her daughter’s marriage to a mobster, and believes that Carm should have married pharmacist Stamfa (who owns a chain of drugstores now). Carmela lashes out at her parents, telling them that they get a “free pass,” (particularly her father, whose contracting business has benefited from Tony’s influence) while she herself has to “earn it.” We will see one way that she “earns” it at the end of the episode.
The Sopranos eventually became a series about Carmela as much as it was about Tony (with some viewers finding Carmela’s arc even more compelling). The pathos of Carmela’s life truly begins to be explored in this episode. (Edie Falco won a “Best Actress” Emmy for her performance in this hour.) Carmela is becoming depressed. When she waits for Meadow at Columbia, a student in the neighboring dorm room turns up Nils Lofgren’s “Black Books.” A close-up shows that Carmela is slipping into a black mood. She has sadness emanating from her. But she is happy to see Mead and deliver her beloved sausage to her. The two discuss what they’ve each been reading lately, and Carmela is intrigued by one of Meadow’s assigned books: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen.
Things get a little heated when the conversation turns from books to Noah. Carm doesn’t fully believe that their breakup was solely due to Tony’s prejudice. An angry Meadow responds, “Don’t drag me into whatever bullshit accomodational pretense you’ve got worked out with daddy.” Carmela is curious what Mead means by this, but Meadow does not want to continue the conversation. Of course, it’s a difficult subject for Meadow – she herself has had to accommodate her father’s criminality and the ways that she has profited from it.
Carmela has not come to Columbia solely to visit her daughter. She has an appointment with Dean Ross. The Dean wines and dines her in his attempt to get a sizable donation from the Soprano family. Carmela is ready and willing to make a donation as she is convinced that it would benefit Meadow’s college experience. Meadow surely is the first Soprano (and probably the first DeAngelis) to attend an Ivy League university. This must be a great point of pride for Carmela, and Dean Ross (himself a second-generation Italian-American) targets her pride in trying to secure a $50,000 gift – all donors at that level will have their names inscribed in the black marble “Donors Wall” at the new Student Center. Thorstein Veblen, in the book that Carmela was holding earlier, wrote:
In order to gain and hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.
Carmela has always sought respect through displays of wealth (her house, car, jewelry, clothes). The inscription of the Soprano name in Columbia’s hallowed halls would be a new way of gaining esteem. Tony, however, is not impressed by Ross’ plan. He see the university administrators simply as “Morningside Heights gangsters” who are trying to extort his family. Tony reaches into his pocket for a much smaller sum that Carmela can donate to the school:
The clip contains an interesting cut. Carmela says that a $5000 donation would be an insult to the university; moments later, Chase cuts to Dr. Mehta talking about a “5-FU regimen.” It’s almost as though the doctor is corroborating Carmela’s belief that 5 grand would be a “fuck you” to the school. (Of course, “5-FU” is not a reference to the 5 grand, but to the chemotherapy agent Fluorouracil.) Carmela cannot believe that her husband is willing to spend money on all sorts of other expenses but is only willing to donate $5000 (essentially pocket change pulled out of his trousers) to his daughter’s school. Along with his philandering, it seems to be more proof of his lack of domestic commitment.
Carmela goes to see Melfi’s old teacher, Dr. Krakower, whose frank opinion is difficult for her to hear. Pyschiatrist Glen Gabbard, author of The Psychology of The Sopranos, is conflicted about this scene in Krakower’s office. On the one hand, he writes, Carmela will probably ignore Krakower’s advice since the doctor doesn’t really make an “effort at empathic understanding and the building of a trusting relationship.” On the other hand, “In a sea of moral relativism, where deans and priests and therapists seem as slippery as loan sharks, a straight shooter like Krakower is a welcome addition to the cast of characters.”
But Krakower isn’t exactly an “addition to the cast” – he is only here for a couple of minutes and then is never seen or heard from again. His function within the narrative is largely symbolic. He personifies an ethical Immovable Object that is not swayed by relativistic (or even pragmatic) arguments. Carmela tries to argue that her Catholicism prevents her from filing for divorce. We have often seen Carmela wear a cross around her neck as a fashion accessory. Now, seeing the jewelry in Krakower’s office, we wonder: does it represent an excuse for Carmela, or does it represent a genuinely held belief?
Jewish Krakower is not moved by her Christian argument, and he brings judgment down upon her like an Old Testament prophet. Krakower says that Tony has little chance of redeeming himself, and Carmela is his enabler (if not his accomplice outright). If she continues living with Tony Soprano, she must realize she is living off of blood-money.
Krakower tells Carmela that he will not accept payment for this visit. A surprised Carmela says, “That’s a new one.” This is indeed an uncommon sentiment in SopranoWorld. In this episode alone, several characters have greedily grabbed at money and goods that are tainted with blood: Dean Ross wants a $50k contribution from the Sopranos; Angie Bonpensiero tries to finagle extra “widow payments” from Tony; and Adriana reaches out with both hands for designer shoes:
Krakower will not accept payment from Carmela because he knows that her money is ill-gotten. His use of the term “blood-money” further undermines Carmela’s use of Catholicism as an excuse for not divorcing. She would know that, in a Christian context, “blood-money” refers to the 30 pieces of silver that Judas received to betray Christ. Carmela is perhaps being faithful to Catholic dogma if she refuses to divorce, but she is betraying fundamental moral principles by remaining married to a criminal. By the end of the scene, Carmela seems to have accepted that she must leave her husband.
But of course she doesn’t leave him. In the episode’s final scene, we see that Carmela has decided to stay in the marriage. Tony must make a payment of $50,000 in the form of a donation to Columbia for his marriage to remain unbroken (although he has no idea that this is the accounting that is in Carmela’s mind; he only recognizes that Carmela is resolute about the gift to the University). Like many of the Big Moments on this series, Carmela’s decision here is open to interpretation. Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan, in their essay, “This isn’t a negotiation: ‘Getting to Yes’ with Tony Soprano,” have a harsh interpretation of her actions, believing that Carmela…
…in a rather despicable display of manipulation, feigns severe depression, lying on the couch wrapped in a blanket…Carmela uses Tony’s interest in preserving the marriage and his struggle with mental health issues to negotiate the donation she wants. Tony is no match for this kind of manipulation…
Sutherland and Swan are both lawyers, and perhaps that accounts for their extremely cynical view of Carmela’s behavior. A less cynical interpretation might be that Carmela has not manipulated Tony so much, but that she has manipulated herself into accepting, once again, the charade she has been deluding herself with all these years (and what Meadow referred to earlier as “bullshit accomodational pretense”). Perhaps we can view her behavior with no cynicism – Carmela may be making an earnest effort at sincere Christian forgiveness. The Gospel of Mathew recounts:
Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to 7 times?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to 7 times, but up to seventy times seven.’
Regardless of whether you interpret “seventy times seven” to mean 77 or to mean 490, it comes out to a buttload of forgiving. Christian Carmela may genuinely be trying to forgive Tony’s misdeeds, both minor and major.
I think that Carmela is motivated by multiple reasons simultaneously. Lofgren’s “Black Books” starting up again over this final scene underscores Carm’s multiple motivations. When the song was heard earlier, it seemed to be the soundtrack to her depression; by being replayed now, it points to her sadness as something real, not “feigned” simply to manipulate Tony. But there is something distasteful, if not manipulative, about the way that she has gotten the money for Columbia; the song’s title “Black Books” can possibly refer to the lengths Carm will go to in order to keep the ledger book of her life “in the black.” I think the song also gives us another way of looking at the term “blood-money” because the song directly links this final scene to the earlier scene in Meadow’s dorm where it was first heard; we recognize that Carmela has secured the money not for herself, but for her “blood,” her closest kin – daughter Meadow. If Carmela does manipulate her husband, or engages in a morally questionable accounting, she does so primarily for the sake of her children. Carmela loves her children, and the depth of her maternal concern is reinforced by the plot point of AJ’s school trip to Washington DC. Carm embraces and kisses and fawns all over AJ when he returns from DC because this short trip is the longest he has ever been away from her. How can we or Dr. Krakower expect Carmela to divorce her husband and deal with joint custody and visitation issues over AJ when she can barely handle a short separation from him?
While there is something admirable about the hard line that Krakower takes, Chase pushes us to question whether such a hard stance is tenable. As I argued in my last few write-ups, Chase has been ordering and structuring recent episodes in a way that complicates our feelings toward Tony Soprano. In “Second Opinion,” the final four scenes work to further complicate our attitude toward the man:
- Fourth to last scene: Tony and Furio convince Dr. Kennedy (“You got a bee onna you hat”) to treat Corrado with the respect that he deserves
- Third to last scene: Dr. Krakower essentially draws a line in the sand and tells Carmela she must not cross it if she is to save herself
- Second to last scene: Dr. Kennedy is full of smiles and good-will when he sees Corrado at the hospital
- Last scene: Carmela quietly insists that Tony must make the large contribution to the school and Tony quietly assents
By sandwiching Krakower’s appearance between one scene that shows Tony’s actions on behalf of his ailing uncle and another that depicts the good result of those actions, Chase undermines the simplistic stance that Krakower takes against the mob boss. I know that Krakower is fundamentally correct—Tony Soprano is a wicked man—but I love how Tony puts douchebag Kennedy in his place. Anyone who has been aggravated by unsympathetic doctors or the cold bureaucratic machine of American healthcare would wish they had a thug like Tony Soprano on their side. I know I should distance myself from Tony Soprano just as Krakower advises Carmela to do – but it is a difficult thing to do. These final four scenes highlight this concept of distance. At the golf course, Tony thrusts a titanium club at Dr. Kennedy, insisting it will add 10 yards to his drives:
Kennedy: I could use a little extra distance.
Tony: Who couldn’t?
Tony and Furio then close the distance between themselves and the doctor, invading his space and backing him into a lake. In the next scene, Carmela throws “distance” into the mix of psychological jargon she tries to hide behind in Krakower’s office:
Carmela: You think I need to define my boundaries more clearly, keep a certain distance, not internalize my–
Krakower: What did I just say?
Carmela: “Leave him.”
Krakower may be able to insist that everyone should distance themselves from Tony Soprano, but that is because he has a very limited picture of him. Our understanding of Tony, like Carmela’s, is more complex, and we cannot take a simple black-and-white stance on him. Things are never as simple as that on The Sopranos.
BIG MOUTH BILLY BASS
Poor Georgie – he’s still wearing the bandages from Ralph’s attack last episode when Tony attacks him in this episode for bringing the gag gift Big Mouth Billy Bass to the Bing. Obviously, the singing fish reminds Tony of his dream of Big Pussy as a fish (who “sang” to the Feds). The lyrics of Billy Bass’ song must also remind Tony of how Pussy’s body was disposed of:
Billy Bass will appear again in a future episode. (And poor Georgie will suffer at the hands of these mobsters again in the future.)
- Ever since Chris has gotten made, the tensions between him and Paulie have been mounting – Chris even reaches for the gun strapped to his ankle at one point, suspecting that Paulie is reaching for his own gun. (He’s not, he is reaching for a Big Mouth Billy Bass.) The rising tension between the two men is leading us to one of their great episodes together, “Pine Barrens.”
- One of my favorite lines of the whole series: panty-sniffing Paulie says, with complete earnestness, “As of the wedding day, anything that touches her pussy is off-limits.” Paulie is a simple man that lives by simple rules.
- Dr. Gabbard explains in his book how writer Robin Green came up with some of the dialogue for Krakower. Green’s brother is a psychiatrist who, after reading Crime and Punishment, suggested to two clients who were child molesters that they should read the novel and then turn themselves in to the authorities. I don’t know if the two clients took the suggestion. It’s very unlikely that Tony Soprano would seek redemption this way.
- Nils Lofgren, whose “Black Books” is used so effectively here, joined Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1984.
- It’s strange how Tony keeps trying to use the Witness Relocation Program as the reason why Big Pussy is nowhere to be found, because everyone knows that the FBI would not leave Angie Bonpensiero behind. (Of course, everyone knows, deep down, that Tony’s excuse is simply that – an empty excuse.)
- The doctor that is at the center of the tumor board meeting is played by Sopranos’ Executive Producer Ilene Landress.