…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power… (3.10)

Bobby Bacala is enlisted to play Santa Claus now that Big Pussy is not around to do it anymore.  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

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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 - godfather II

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?  There are all sorts of questions that the flashback scenes raise, and some of them will probably never be answered.  For example, was justice truly served by the OJ Simpson trial?  And does Corrado recognize the irony of killing Brendan Filone for hijacking trucks when he himself did the same thing just a few years earlier?  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 Santa 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.  (A five-year old ends up yelling “Fuck you Santa!” at him. ) But I’m more interested in how David Chase uses Tony Soprano 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:

tony's list

When Tony drives to the Russian club where he meets his money launderer, the image 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 in a window display beneath a sleigh, it’s as though Santa himself ran the man down:

tony claus

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 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:

Jesus fish

(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.  If Christ is the Guy that’s supposed to save us from Satan, judging by His emissary Aaron, we might be in some trouble.  Christ seems unable to protect us in contemporary times, He is absent from SopranoWorld.  His absence is highlighted throughout the 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, where 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: 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 Virgos Merlot’s 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 the Anti-Christ 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 in 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 understand that Tony must struggle to keep his composure as he accepts his present, 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 Pussy’s final resting place:

Billy Bass beach

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 we can 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 clearly 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.”  The 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.

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ADDITIONAL POINTS:

  • 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.
  • 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:

alik sakharov

8 responses to “…To Save Us All From Satan’s Power… (3.10)

  1. I recall reading somewhere that David Chase, real name David DeCesare, is actually a Protestant, not a Catholic. If true, I’m sure growing up a non-Catholic Italian-America, in the Italian/Irish Catholic haven that the NY/NJ area was in the mid 20th century, has a profound effect on Chase as a writer.

    I chuckled when Janice watched the news report about the Russian goon having been attacked while effortlessly tilting a glass of wine with her supposedly injured wrist, that was somehow in unbearable pain when she grieved to her mobster brother about the Russian attacking her. Those Soprano women. Makes me think of the final season, when Carmela and Meadow vow to not tell Tony about Phil’s goon Coco sexually harassing Meadow, mere seconds before going right ahead and telling him.

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    • Yes, I remember being surprised to learn that Chase grew up Protestant – I always assumed that all Italian-Americans are Catholic. (Which was really dumb of me. I, of all people, should know better than to make broad categorizations – people often assume I’m Hindu but I was actually born into a Catholic family.) It is certainly possible that being an “outsider” to Catholic Italian culture while being an “insider” to the larger Protestant American culture shaped Chase as a person and as a writer.

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  2. I’m going to add this episode to my yearly list of must watch Xmas specials. It is as good as the best of them. I mean you got elements of “A Xmas Carol” with Big Pussy as the ghost of Xmas past and Paulie as Scrooge. I put Paulie’s “Him? I’d Kill’em Again if I could” right up there with Scrooge’s ” If they would rather die they had better do it and decrease the surplus population”. You also have a “Year without a Santa Claus” Bobby may fit the suit but he can’t fill the Boots. Last but not least you have the “The Little Dumber Boy” Jackie Jr. Speaking of Jackie I was thought he was the ‘New Born King” in that scene at the strip club. Tony, Sil & Chris are like the Three Wise men or in this case Wise Guys. I remember Chris referring to him as the heir apparent in an earlier episode. When Tony takes Jackie into the Mens Room for the Nativity beat down the only thing that could have made it more perfect is if he told him “you’ll shoot your eye out” after he takes that Pistol off him.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. one of my favourite write ups so far… cam here to say thanks, again!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. not sure u r still checking the replies, but i want to add janice’s incredible line “worst night of my life” talking abt the russian attacking her. what abt that night u shot and murdered ur new husband? isnt that at least 2nd place? funny

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  5. straight outta iowa

    (Sort of gives new meaning to the phrase “sleeps with the fishes,” doesn’t it?)
    Now that is really funny.

    Like

  6. I wanted to make a couple of small points that I was wondering if anyone else noticed, they don’t specifically relate to this episode but the reemergence of pussy in this episode and the ambiguity of when pussy may have been flipped made me think of both of them. They both to me just seem like inconsistencies where one thing that was said at one point in the show is refuted by something later on. The first happens during a flashback scene with pussy, which I believe was in this episode, when Jackie, pussy, and tony are walking on the boardwalk and pussy says something along the lines of “I always wanted a place by the ocean”. In a different episode, cant remember which, may have been the episode where angie was considering divorcing pussy where she says something like “kevin don’t care as long as he doesn’t lose his privileges at the house at the shore”. The second instance is when paulie and sil go see richie april about building beansie the ramp on his house, sil says “come on richie, you’re a captain now”, whereas dino (jackies friend) in the episode where chris, after just having been made, goes into the pizza parlor with benny where dino and jackie are and jackie exclaims “without tony soprano he’d be a zero with shoes, my uncle richie…(dino interrupts) but he didn’t” or something to that effect. Maybe I’m mistaken but can you become a captain without being made? Just was curious if anyone else noticed this, or maybe I am off base here. Either way thank you for these great write ups!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Edit: I also just remembered that beansie, before getting assaulted by richie in the episode “toodle fucking oo”, beansie says “you’re a made guy richie, so I lose either way”. Obviously some minor inconsistencies but just wanted to point it out

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