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:
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 a world of men in which they have little agency, 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.
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:
Chase uses sound editing to connect scenes. The sound of Ralph’s laughter bleeds from a famiglia-oriented scene to a family-oriented scene:
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:
Chase cuts from one location to another with purpose. He cuts from the dark, dirty parking lot where an isolated Tracee is literally crushed by Ralph, to the manicured campus where a privileged Meadow is more metaphorically crushed by Noah:
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.
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 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:
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:
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:
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 Carmela 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 Tracee, in the sick logic of SopranoWorld, would have been better off staying in her place, even though it is a place of humiliation and disadvantage. In the minds of the mobsters, the Bing dancers are less than human and don’t deserve even a basic level of respect. As the episode ends, we see Georgie explaining the disgusting club rules to a new girl. It’s back to Business As Usual. One dancer 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 for a third time, 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, deprived of those accompanying 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.
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 overreacts when she sees “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), and in that episode he 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, which many celebrities and celebrities’ kids have attended.
- 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.
- I gotta give a shout-out to Ariel Kiley (who played Tracee) for sharing her thoughts about this episode on her blog: https://arielkiley.me/2017/10/23/playing-tracee-on-the-sopranos/