University (3.06)

We meet Tracee for the first (and last) time.  Tony and Ralph get into a fight.  Meadow and Noah have a falling out.

EPISODE 32 - ORIGINALLY AIRED APRIL 1, 2001
STORY BY DAVID CHASE, TODD KESSLER, ROBIN GREEN & MITCH BURGESS
TELEPLAY BY TERENCE WINTER AND SALVATORE STABILE
DIRECTED BY ALLEN COULTER

___________________________________

It’s interesting that a series that lends itself so well to academic analysis and scholarship would have one episode named “College” (1.05) and another named “University.”  Like “College” (and other stand-alone episodes), this hour is relentless in its story, barely giving a minute to other Season 3 concerns.  This episode also shares a parallel structure to 1.05.  There were basically two storylines in “College” which intertwined and played off one another.  “University” also features two storylines, one of Meadow and the other of Tracee, which intertwine and play against each other.  Like “College,” this episode utilizes a variety of film and narrative techniques to make comparisons between its double storylines.

We first meet Tracee in the episode’s opening scene, when she is violating the boundary that has been set for the Bing girls.  She is trying to befriend Tony and give him some date-nut bread that she has baked.  We recognize immediately how young and vulnerable she is.  This sweet and youthful girl is extinguished by Ralph later in the hour.  Nut-job Ralph makes his first appearance of the hour very early in the episode, when we see him acting like a kid with AJ, excited over the movie Gladiator.  As AJ describes a particularly violent scene from the film, Ralph mimics the scene in his enthusiasm:

Gladiator Ralph

Meadow, about the same age as Tracee, is in a relationship with a young man who seems far more mature and stable than Ralphie.  Noah impresses Meadow with his sensitivity and thoughtfulness, particularly in his attitude towards seriously troubled Caitlin:

Meadow: Most guys wouldn’t give a shit.
Noah: I’m not most guys.

In the following scene, Tony suggests the best way to deal with Caitlin is with a straitjacket, prompting Meadow to sarcastically call him “Mr. Sensitivity.”  Meadow has placed Noah and her father at opposing ends of the sensitivity spectrum, but she has done so prematurely.  As the hour progresses, we see that Noah is actually not very different from “most guys.”  This episode is quite single-minded in its depiction of men.  All the male characters, at various times, treat women with insensitivity, incompetence, cruelty or brutality.  While Gladiator is the film that is referenced here, it is another Ridley Scott film that “University” calls to mind: Thelma & Louise.  In this latter film, Scott focuses on the failures of the male characters.  Thelma and Louise are mocked, ignored, and brutalized by various men.  They are treated as sexual objects.  Louise can’t get a commitment from her boyfriend while Thelma is taught how to commit armed robbery by a smooth-talking Lothario.  Their money is later stolen by the smooth-talker.  And finally, the male police detective fails in his effort to get the women to turn themselves in.  In spite of all this, I don’t believe that Thelma & Louise is simply a two-hour exercise in male-bashing.  The one-dimensional portrayal of men was necessary to set up the powerful ending: when forced to make a choice between oblivion and the world of men, the ladies understandably (given their experience) choose oblivion. One-dimensionality is not a usual trait of Sopranos characters but Chase uses it here somewhat as Ridley Scott did – the third act of “University” draws its power from the failures of its men.  Ralph fails to treat Tracee like a human being.  Tony fails to protect Tracee from Ralph’s rage and insecurity.  Noah, too, fails in his dealings with women.  He is far more concerned with one poor grade on an essay than he is with Caitlin’s worsening emotional problems (even allowing his father to file an absurd restraining order against the troubled girl.)  And after he gets his fill of Meadow, Noah cites some laughable reason to break off their relationship.

CONNECTIVITY
Chase connects Tracee to Meadow and to Caitlyn throughout the hour.  Tracee and Caitlyn are counterparts of one another.  Caitlyn is situated in a better environment than Tracee is, but, like the stripper, she has virtually no effective support system to help her through her difficulties.  Tracee (who works at a famiglia establishment) is contrasted to Meadow (who is a member of Tony’s actual family).  Chase connects them to each other in myriad ways, some subtle, and some more obvious.  It is not necessary to list all the connections, but a small sample can reveal how Chase utilizes the techniques that he has at his disposal.

Chase cuts between scenes using graphic matches.  One such example is Tracee walking toward a door → Cut to a matching shot of Meadow walking toward a door:

graphic edit

Chase uses sound editing to connect scenes.  The sound of Ralph’s laughter bleeds from a famiglia-oriented scene to a family-oriented scene:

sound edit

Chase juxtaposes scenes conscientiously.  He cuts from the scene in which Meadow seeks comfort and advice regarding her man to the scene in which Tracee seeks advice regarding her man:

scene edit

Chase cuts from one location to another with purpose.  He cuts from the dark, dirty parking lot where marginalized Tracee is literally crushed by Ralph, to the manicured campus where privileged Meadow is more metaphorically crushed by Noah:

location edit

Meadow and Tracee are also contrasted thru dentistry.  Meadow (who is still probably on her family’s insurance plan) is reminded by her mother to make a dental appointment.  Tracee, on the other hand, relies on her boss Silvio to loan her money to fix her teeth – and he does so just so he can “juice” the loan.  It is because of this debt to the Bing manager that Ralphie allows Silvio to come to his house and viciously beat the young woman.  “Listen to me, you little pucchiach,” Silvio yells at his victim, “until you pay what you owe, that shaved twat of yours belongs to me!”  Ralph’s laughter as Tracee gets beaten is despicable, and it is particularly egregious considering that he knows Silvio is roughing up a woman who is pregnant with his child.

DEMONIC RALPH
Up until now, Ralph could be classified simply as an insolent and irreverent asshole, his disrespect toward others largely a manifestation of his bitterness at being passed over for the position of Captain.  But now it is becoming clearer that he is pathologically unstable.  He says that he was supposed to be an architect, which is laughable given that his true nature is that of a destroyer, not a builder.  (His professional aspiration almost sounds funnier and more surprising than when George Costanza said he wanted to be an architect on Seinfeld.)  Ralph is progressing from being a devilishly cheeky character to one that is truly demonic.  Such figures have existed in the real Mafia, as well as in mob-related films.  Real-life Philly boss Nicky Scarfo, for example, was a vicious and unpredictable man.  Joe Pesci has famously played wild, maniacal characters in movies such as GoodFellas and Casino.  Franco Ricci believes that Ralph’s diabolical nature is emphasized through some art that appears in “University.”  In his essay, “Aesthetics and Ammunition,” Ricci analyzes the artwork that characters are juxtaposed against throughout the series, and he notes that in this episode,

Confused visual patterns are reserved for a character where no love is lost: Ralph Cifaretto…we see him watching Spartacus on TV in his home, behind him a painting that is a splatter of color, a swirl of emotions and turbulence that reflects his demoniacal character…

ralph painting

Ralph is not as impressed by Spartacus as he is by Gladiator, perhaps in part because it lacks the latter’s gore and violence.  In the VIP room of the Bada Bing, he tries to relive the Gladiator scene which had so excited him and AJ earlier:

Gladiator Ralph2

Ralph feels no regret for almost taking poor Georgie’s eye out with his vicious hijinks.  Tracee is completely justified when she later mocks Ralph’s lack of manliness – he is an adolescent (perhaps even a demon) at heart; he certainly does not behave like a man.  The guys (who are sick of Ralph’s misbehavior) enjoy Tracee’s ribbing, which stings Ralph’s ego.  The ensuing scene contains what are arguably the most brutal moments of the entire series.

Some viewers apparently stopped watching The Sopranos and even cancelled their HBO subscriptions after seeing Ralph savagely kill Tracee.  It is, without question, a horrific act that is difficult to watch.  But I don’t think the scene is as explicitly violent as many viewers believe it is.  I believe Chase effectively uses the elements of film to create a heightened sense of violence so that he can reduce the actual display of violence.  As in the scene of Melfi’s rape in 3.04, sound design and a dark color palette are used here to amplify our perception of menace and brutality.  Ralph’s violent acts are, in some instances, visually obscured by his body, or by Tracee’s body, or by the darkness of the location, or by the distance between the camera and the actors:

tracee's death

I am not trying to downplay the barbarity of the scene.  I am only trying to point out that intelligent control of filmic elements can induce the effect of violence without being gratuitous.  That being said, there are moments here when the brutality is not obscured at all, when the camera holds to the unfolding cruelty without flinching.  Vanity Fair reported that Bob Wright, who was president of NBC at the time, sent out videotapes of this scene to others in the television industry very soon after “University” aired.  He wrote in an accompanying letter that the violence, language and nudity of HBO’s The Sopranos were having a “major impact” on the television business, and cited these characteristics as the reason why NBC could not air such a program.  The magazine article continues,

It is unclear what precisely Wright was getting at, but to Chase, the general intent seemed evident.  “It was an attack,” he says. “There was a lot of envy that we had freedom, while they were crippled by Standards and Practices.  But it’s not like the whole reason the show was a success is that people could say ‘fuck’ and shoot somebody in the head.  Everything has to be appropriate to some version of reality.”

The past three episodes, starting with “Employee of the Month,” have had moments of surprising brutality.  I think all this violence is part of Chase’s commitment to realism and verisimilitude.  Life is filled with moments of commonplace banality but also contains moments of heart-rending drama, perhaps even violence.  This episode’s parallel storylines (the Meadow-storyline and the Tracee-storyline) highlight both of these aspects of life.  To unceremoniously dump someone (or be dumped, as Meadow was) is an extremely commonplace occurrence – many of us have sat on both sides of that table.  Ralph’s vicious beating of Tracee is not exactly a commonplace event, but violence and murder do actually occur every hour in America.  SopranoWorld reflects the ubiquity of violence in America, and as others have pointed out, we are primed to this fact by the very logo of the series: the “r” in the banner is actually a gun.  Professor Yacowar says this signifies that what The Sopranos “are” is violent:

sopranos logo

Ralph’s extreme violence reflects a brutal dimension of life, but it also serves another “purpose” – it turns Ralph into the arch-villain of the series.  There are bad guys galore on The Sopranos, but Ralph sets a standard among Tony’s antagonists.  Tracee is not the only youngster to be victimized by Ralphie.  Later in the season, Jackie will suffer greatly from Ralph’s influence and actions.

These last three episodes emphatically complicate the viewer’s feelings toward Tony Soprano.  In “Employee of the Month,” we half-hoped Melfi would use Tony to illegally avenge her brutal rape.  In “Another Toothpick,” we sheepishly watched as Tony got revenge on Officer Wilmore in the most petty way.  Now, in “University,” we do not hesitate to ally ourselves with Tony as he swings on Ralph after the murder of Tracee.  Of course, Tony cannot admit that he is angered by the death of a mere dancer – he growls at Ralphie, “You disrespect this place,” as though not having respect for a dilapidated strip joint is the greater of the crimes he has just committed.  I think most viewers sense that Tony’s callousness towards Tracee—like his racism—arises more from his conformity to mobster expectations and less from an innate heartlessness.  This is confirmed when we see his profound sadness in Melfi’s office over the death of an “employee” (as he must describe her, especially since Carmella is also at the session).  Chase orders and structures these episodes in such a way that our emotional investment in Tony Soprano can’t help but get deepened.

Cindy Donatelli and Sharon Alward write in their essay, “I Dread You,” that “Perhaps Tracee ends up dead because she makes the mistake of trying to create ‘family’ relations with Tony (the date-nut bread) and Ralphie (the baby).”  Dana Polan presents a related possibility for why Tracee meets such an ignominious end:

…the episode says some resonant things about sexual exploitation: whereas in virtually all other episodes, the Bada Bing dancers tend to remain in the back of the image as they dance uninspiredly to bored customers, “University” brings one of the dancers into the foreground and grants her voice and identity (to have it then taken away by her brutal murder)…the episode could be taken to imply that women will inevitably be punished when they assume a voice and identity. 

But Polan does not say that this is the definitive statement that the series makes about sexual politics or patriarchal power.  Polan is one of the great defenders of the ambiguity of The Sopranos, and he argues against unequivocal interpretations of the series throughout his book.  Nevertheless, the episode pretty clearly makes the point that the Bing dancers are, in the minds of the mobsters, less than human and easily replaced.  As the episode ends, we see Georgie explaining the club rules to a new girl.  It’s back to Business As Usual.  One worker disappears and another simply takes her place – and everyone knows to keep their mouth shut about the “disappeared” woman.  The Kinks’ “Livin’ on a Thin Line” starts up again, sounding like an elegy for the dead girl.  The two times that we had heard the song earlier, it was accompanied by images of Tracee.  The song now, bereft of those images of the lithe and lovely woman, only underscores her absence.  There is nothing left of her.  Perhaps her life, as Livia used to say, was just “a big nothing.”

When I did the Sopranos bus tour in 2012, the final stop was Satin Dolls a.k.a. the Bada Bing.  Everyone felt drawn to the area behind the club where Tracee was killed.  The exact spot where her corpse lay was now occupied by a garbage dumpster.  Make of that what you will.

tracee's body2

dumpster2

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ADDITIONAL POINTS:

  • Actor Joe Pantoliano told Vanity Fair that after this episode aired, women approached him wanting to feel his arms.  Some women were apparently turned on by Ralph’s physical domination of Tracee.  (These women either lack any maternal instincts, or they’ve overlooked the fact that by killing Tracee, Ralphie also killed his unborn child.)
  • There are several references to horses in this episode.  In Ralph’s final episode (next season), Tony makes a strong mental association between Tracee and his horse Pie-O-My.  I don’t know if this episode’s horse references were simply a coincidence or whether the writers were setting up Tony’s mental association a year before it occurred.  I’ll explore these references in my write-up for “Whoever Did This” (4.09).
  • Possible media critique: Noah says Caitlin is overreacting to seeing “a homeless woman with the Daily News up her butt.”  Perhaps David Chase is suggesting that a butt crack is the proper place for the New York newspaper.
  • Meta-world: Len Tannenbaum (Noah’s father and Tim Daly’s lawyer) says that he has come to NY to meet with real-life producer Dick Wolf.  Actor Tim Daly makes his first appearance as JT Dolan in “In Camelot” (5.07), the episode in which he first mentions that he is trying to get on Dick Wolf’s staff.
  • Fortunate son: Noah seems to have attended the famous Crossroads School in Santa Monica, from which many celebrities and celebrities’ kids have graduated.
  • Some advice to parents everywhere: if you name your daughter “Tracee” with an “ee” rather than a “y” I think you dramatically increase the odds that she’ll make her living on a stripper pole.
  • The Sopranos’ greatest strength is the quality of its writing.  It is an all-star team, including Green & Burgess (who were my favorites of the pre-Weiner era), that gets credit for writing this episode.     

16 responses to “University (3.06)

  1. I watched this episode again last night, and just shut it off at the point when Ralphie walks out to the parking lot to talk to Tracee. I just can’t watch it again. I’ve seen it several times through the years, and honestly, if I ever saw that beating again it would be too soon. Tracee is discarded like a cockroach being stepped on, and it’s juxtaposed with a precluding story of a confused, innocent teenager, clearly an abuse victim, trying to find, as you pointed out, whatever support group she could. Yes, innocent is the term I’m using. Tracee being a nude dancer and a prostitute, and Chase’s rather futile attempt at hardening the audience to Tracee by giving her a line where she admits to abusing her first child, does absolutely nothing to remotely justify Ralph’s brutality in the eyes of any sane viewer with a shred of a conscience. If I were the age that I am now when this episode aired, I too might have cancelled my HBO subscription the following morning. I’m glad I didn’t. And I do understand where Chase was going with it, but you get to a point in life where you can only stomach so much. I really do think Chase went too far with University. The scene of Tony Soprano being shaken by Tracee’s death when talking to Melfi almost reeks of Chase trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube as he polished off the final script. When Tony talks about it to Melifii, he fictionally casts a young male mob apprentice as the fatally beaten woman, and retells it as being some sort of mob related incident, meaning Tracee’s demise was so brutal and so intolerable to the “civilian” world that Tony was willing to violate “Omerta” and throw his mafia affiliation under the bus to avoid a civilian like Melfi conflating his way of life to such a brutal circumstance. I think Chase’s idea was for us, the viewer, to digest Tracee’s death the way Tony would. By being appalled. But when you build a Frankenstien, you have to factor the risk of Frakenstein doing what Frankenstien want. You can read any reddit or IMDB forum about this episode to see what seems like half the male commenters believing that Tracee got what she deserved. Since 2001, the American male has sadly become more Ralphie than Tony in regards to the dynamic with Tracee. It’s both a depressing and frightening thought.

    On somewhat of a lighter note, and speaking of art work being juxtaposed throughout the episode, how about the classic retouching of Einstein with his tongue acting as a voyeur to Meadow losing her virginity to Mr. Sensitive, Intellectual, Non-Tony? Maybe the Einstein poster sums it all up. Academia, relationships, trust, it’s all a fraud, man. Naa naa, naa, naa naa.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. We see Meadow, Noah & Caitlyn in the city celebrating Caitlyn’s birthday while on a building behind them the US National Debt Clock furiously counts it’s way upwards as they walk towards….a homeless woman. Is Chase commenting on the future America’s youth have to look forward to? Saddled with issues of ever burgeoning debt, unemployment & homelessness? Then cut to Paulie with a handful of cash praising Chris on a ‘not bad week’ while Chris complains about his work hours. It seems that any problems America’s youth may be facing are not issues the mob need worry about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe I read somewhere that Chase said the reason he did University was because he was getting concerned that viewers seemed to admire the gangsters on the show, and he wanted the viewers to realize just how heartless these people really were.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To be honest the only people who would cancel HBO over this episode are just self-hating baby boomers and libcuck 80s kids. Thankfully both generations are getting increasingly irrelevant with every passing day and will no longer moan about good television just because their pleb reddit sensibilities get triggered.

    Like

  5. Man oh man do the IMDb and AV Club and Reddit people all HATE Noah Tannenbaum–in fact, only Harry Crane from “Mad Men” seems to be a more hated character. I was stunned. I get that he’s a smug college brat and he speaks in a condescending voice, but Noah’s uglier aspects really seem to pale in comparison to people like Ralphie Cifaretto. And yet people seem to hate Noah more.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I honestly didn’t care for this episode. I was more invested in the Noah-Meadow story than the random Tracee story. She is, imo, the laziest piece of writing the Soprano’s ever did. She just happened to be everywhere Tony was and.. really? He sums it up in one when she says she has braces; What you want a fucking parade? Really? Why does he even care about her? Random and lazy imo.

    Like

    • Catlin is lazy.

      Like

    • Tracee only meets Tony at the Bada Bing which is where he spends a lot of his time. It is hardly inconceivable that they would bump into each other. Noah makes me want to hurt myself and others. Although I enjoy the thorough examination of the Sopranos offered by autopsy sometimes there is pleasure to be taken from the simple things. Tracee was a worthwhile character if only to hear Ralphie say ‘Whore’.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I don’t think Tony’s racism derives from pressure to conform with mob attitudes. I think, as a man of working class background, those are his beliefs. I grew up working class and have similar beliefs. Definitely wouldn’t want my daughter dating a moolie

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    • So you’re blaming your working class background for your ignorance without even digging into the fact that having prejudice on a large group of people is very stupid. I guess you’re comfortable in you’re own blindness.

      Like

      • You intoned your own judgment to what I said – I don’t lay blame, there’s no wrongness of action here.
        I used to be like you until I realized the Enlightenment was mostly wrong. Will you call all the denizens of the third world, including developed countries like Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Qatar etc ignorant for still possessing a tribal backbone with respect to their race?
        I shouldn’t think so: it’s in vogue to condemn white people who do, though. Usually by calling them ignorant or stupid, or blind. Yes, if only I could aspire to the heights of your high mindness. Unfortunately I’m left out in the dark of my own ignorance.

        Where is the prejudice in not wanting your children to marry another race? That doesn’t require prejudice of another race, merely privileging your own. How is that wrong, and how is your position – ambivalence – any better? As Burke said, equal neglect is not impartial kindness.

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        • I didn’t assume you were white. I would’ve said that if you were any kind of race. The wrong is pretty clear. You have no say on the choice of husband your daughter makes when she’s adult enough to get married. For your information, cross breeding humans makes humans with better genetics. Whatever prejudice you’re trying to hide with the excuse ”I just think they should stay in the same race because [insert traditional bullshit]” is stupid and that is what I was saying in my previous comment. ”Privileging your own”. You’re just privileging and justifying your own ignorance. Have a real conversation with ”moolies”, you’ll how values do not differ because of race.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. “For your information, cross breeding humans makes humans with better genetics.”
    Is this tacit support for eugenics? Because a child between an Asian and an African will have a noticeably lower IQ than between an Asian and an Asian. I’ve read this “hybrid vigor” hypothesis is pseudo science based on assumptions that since mutts have “better” genes than purebreds we can extend this thinking to humans.

    “I just think they should stay in the same race because [insert traditional bullshit]”
    Very lazy summation of the views I’ve stated. You seem to think that the word prejudice can be used any which way; any argument I raise is just some bullshit, by virtue of it being contrary to yours, and I only have this view because I’m prejudiced. The logical fallacies abound here.

    “You’re just privileging and justifying your own ignorance.”
    You really like these buzzwords don’t you?

    “Have a real conversation with ”moolies”, you’ll how values do not differ because of race.”
    Indeed, as Tony remarked in this episode, his black business associates don’t want their children intermingling any more than Tony does with his.

    Its always fun to argue with people whose best arguments against you are that you’re prejudiced, dumb and ignorant, only to show through the course of the argument that they themselves are the dumb, prejudiced and ignorant ones.

    Like

    • First of all, I use those words because english is not my native language and I live in Canada, Quebec where people speak french. I do not have the same variety in vocabulary in english as I do in French.

      Secondly, I did some research and you’re kind of right. Let me explain. For the IQ part, I’ve read analysis from blogs to articles(with scientific examples) and I’ve come with the conclusion that there’s too many variables to even make a real study on the vertue or the bad consequences of mix-race children. That is the page I spent most of my time on(and don’t forget the comments) : http://human-stupidity.com/stupid-dogma/racial-differences-intelligence/race-differences-in-intelligence-how-i-changed-my-mind So I’m sorry that I stated that as factual. Maybe you have studies that could present your views on bi-racial breeding. Side note : Maybe some studies express that Blacks have lower IQs than other races, but it doesn’t mean that EVERY black person is less smart than EVERY white person and this is factual.

      Finally, it is all about having an open mind. Let’s say your daughter shows up at your house to present her boyfriend. Simply because of the colour is skin, you will neglect every word coming out of his mouth and still judge him as a treath to your lineage? Even though he would fit every expectation you have of a good husband and a good man? Do you see how ridiculous it sounds? I want to know what are your reasons for you to not want a black man in your lineage. Make a list without any stereotypes in. Try. I open my mind to your argument.

      Like

    • You’re a racist troll.

      Like

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