Bobby Bacala is enlisted to play Santa Claus.
Tony gives Jackie Jr a knee to the groin,
and Meadow gives Tony a punch to the gut
(with her Christmas gift—a Big Mouth Billy Bass).
Episode 36 – Originally Aired April 29, 2001
Written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess
Directed by Jack Bender
The title, a line from a popular Christmas song, immediately discloses that this hour is Season Three’s Christmas episode. As in Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol, this episode (sort of) features a Ghost of Christmas Past: Pussy Bonpensiero. Tony’s trip to Asbury Park to winterize his boat precipitates memories of Big Pussy. This will be the Soprano crew’s first Christmas without Pussy, and their flashbacks, dreams and reminisces of the man pepper the entire hour.
The question that preoccupies the crew is whether or not Pussy was an FBI informant as early as 1995. We know that this is unlikely because Agent Skip Lipari mentioned last season that the Feds flipped Pussy only in 1998. But Tony and the guys convince themselves that Pussy had flipped by ’95. This belief, probably mistaken, points to the ambiguity and uncertainty that resides at the heart of the series. The guys see what they want to see, believe what they want to believe. Uncertainty is such a difficult thing to live with that people, both in and out of SopranoWorld, will do whatever they can to reduce it.
It doesn’t help that David Chase revels in ambiguity. He mischievously gives his audience moments like this one that feed our own uncertainties:
Silvio jokingly refers to Pussy as “Fredo,” the great traitor from The Godfather Part II. Is Chase giving us a clue that Pussy was in fact betraying his friends in ’95? Or is Chase teasing us the way that the Universe teases us, always hinting at answers but never providing the answers outright? The flashback scenes raise all sorts of questions, and some of them will probably never be answered. For example, does Corrado recognize the irony of killing Brendan Filone for hijacking trucks when he himself did the same thing just a few years earlier? And was justice truly served by the OJ Simpson trial? Did we all wear such goofy sweaters back in the ’90s? Did the New Jersey famiglia have a group discount to Supercuts in 1995?
TONY AS SANTA
What’s Christmas without Santa Claus? The crew enlists Bobby Baccalieri to replace Big Pussy as Santa at Satriale’s annual gift giveaway. Bobby revolts at the idea of playing the role because of his shyness, but he finally relents. They would have been better off finding someone else because Bobby is somewhat lacking in the ‘people-skills’ department. (He provokes a spirited five-year old into yelling “Fuck you Santa!” at him.) But let’s put aside Bobby’s time as Santa, because I’m more interested in how David Chase uses Tony as a (pseudo) Santa in this episode. Tony is makin’ a list, he’s checkin’ it twice, he’s added Janice’s Russian to it, who’s naughty, not nice:
When Tony drives to the Russian club to meet his money launderer, the footage is scored with a high hat and snare drum that sound a bit like sleigh bells, making Tony’s red Suburban seem like a sleigh. That same scored beat is heard when Tony, in Santa hat, tracks down the Russian who attacked Janice. When the Russian is found badly beaten beneath a sleigh in a window-display, it’s as though Santa himself ran the man down:
Chase’s comparison of Tony to Santa Claus might simply be in good fun, just an innocuous bit of holiday good cheer. But Tony is also compared, I believe, to someone a bit more sinister than Santa…
TONY AS SATAN
I think that Chase makes a subtle criticism of Christianity in this episode, just as he seems to have been doing over the last few episodes. Dr. Krakower wryly eviscerated Carmela’s Catholicism three episodes ago. And two episodes ago, we met Aaron Arkaway who fell asleep right in front of criminal Tony while wearing his Christianity over his heart—he slumbered through Thanksgiving dinner with a crucifix and Jesus-fish on his lapel:
(Sort of gives new meaning to the phrase “sleeps with the fishes,” doesn’t it?) I think Chase may be using the Aaron-character to represent the impotence of Christianity in the face of evil. In the current episode, Aaron falls asleep at Livia’s house just moments before Tony enters the place. He also sleeps while the story of Tony’s criminal vengeance against Janice’s Russian is broadcast over the news. Judging by His sleepy and sluggish emissary Aaron, we might be in some real trouble if Christ is the Guy that’s supposed to save us from Satan. Christ seems unable to protect us in contemporary times. He has seemed almost completely absent from SopranoWorld, and His absence is highlighted throughout this hour. Dr. Melfi has literally taken Christ out of “Christmas”—she has replaced Him with the word stress to come up with “Stressmas.” Janice tries to break into Christian Contemporary Music not because it expresses Christ’s message but because of its potential monetary profits. Christopher is far more impressed by The Grinch’s enormous box office earnings than he is by the film’s holiday message of love and brotherhood. Jesus doesn’t even appear in the episode title: He has been replaced by an ellipsis. The lyrics of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” where the title comes from, go like this:
God rest you merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
For Jesus Christ our savior
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy
By substituting an ellipsis for Jesus, Chase raises an important question: With Jesus absent, who exactly is it that will come and save us from Satan’s power? One answer may be found in a quick scene at the Bada Bing:
A stripper descends from above, upside down and arms to her side—almost like an upside-down crucifix—while the Virgos Merlot song exclaims “I wait for no one, no one comes.” If we’re waiting for Jesus to come and save us, we may be waiting in vain. No one comes.
The idea of Tony Soprano as a Satanic figure is made at another strip club:
A sultry version of “Little Drummer Boy” plays at the nudie bar. The camera cuts to Tony just as we hear the line, “A newborn King to see.” The lyric “So to honor him” is heard just as Tony notices Jackie dishonoring him (and his daughter) with a lap dance. Jackie will pay for his transgression against this new, wicked King—he gets a knee to the groin from Tony here, and he pays a dearer price by the end of the season.
(I’m making a bit of a leap comparing Tony to Satan here. The idea of Tony as an Anti-Christ figure is more deeply explored later in the series, particularly in Season Six’s “The Second Coming.”)
In the closing moments of the episode, Tony receives a Big Mouth Billy Bass from Meadow. We recognize that Tony’s is struggling to keep his composure as he accepts this gift because he has long-associated Billy Bass with Big Pussy, the Ghost that has haunted this entire hour. Chase cuts from Billy Bass to a shot of Big Pussy’s final resting place:
Todd VanDerWerff wonders in his write-up for this episode, “Has any show gotten as much weirdly tragic mileage out of a bit of cultural ephemera so instantly disposable as The Sopranos got out of Billy Bass?” I think it’s possible to get even more mileage out of Billy Bass. Tony has clearly associated fish with Big Pussy, but fish have also historically been associated with Jesus Christ (which is why Aaron Arkaway wears a fish-pendant on his lapel). This episode which essentially asks the question “Who will save us from Satan’s power?” closes with an answer that is sadly inadequate: Billy Bass, far from being a representation of Christ, is little more than a bit of disposable pop culture. As the tide rolls in to the desolate beach of Asbury Park and the episode fades out, Kate Jackson and the Campbell Brothers sing, “Jesus told me everything is gonna be alright.” Their repeating lyric may be a tiding of comfort and joy, but—at least in SopranoWorld—it represents a grasp at hope where none might actually exist.
We learn here that Mr. Satriale committed suicide after Johnny Boy Soprano bust-out his butcher shop. Davey Scatino, we remember, came very close to killing himself while Tony bust-out his sports store.
- Ray Curto rages against “despicable” Pussy, “that two-faced fuck” who betrayed them to the FBI. Curto wishes he could have been there for Pussy’s whacking. We know that Curto himself is an FBI informant.
- Carmela’s Spidey-senses are telling her that Tony is up to no good—she knows he’s cheating on her but guesses incorrectly that it is with Charmaine. Of course, Carm wouldn’t be able to make the correct guess as she has never met Gloria Trillo.
- Director of Photography Alik Sakharov, who was born in a part of the former Soviet Union, plays one of the Russians here:
- We also get a quick intro to Valery the Russian here. He, of course, sets off the storyline of the next hour “Pine Barrens,” one of the great showpiece episodes of the series.