Italian-Americans and Native-Americans have
a showdown over the Columbus Day parade.
The Baccalieri family suffers a horrible tragedy (and things
are about to get even worse for them, as Janice begins to eye Bobby).
Episode 42 – Originally aired Sept 29, 2002
Written by Michael Imperioli and Maria Laurino (Story)
Directed by Tim Van Patten
My cable TV was down when this episode first aired, so I asked a friend if I could come over and watch it at her place. I sat in front of her television as she did some errands around the house (she hadn’t gotten into The Sopranos yet) and proceeded to laugh my head off for an hour. She was surprised by my laughter, saying that she didn’t realize The Sopranos was a comedy. Although there was always a high probability that The Sopranos would provide viewers with the funniest moment of their TV-watching week, the series could not exactly be classified as a “comedy.” It was just too dark and serious. “Christopher” is the great exception—it’s a hilarious satire from its first minute to its last.
I can’t say why David Chase provided such comic relief so early in the season. Perhaps it was to relieve the gnawing sense of threat presented in 4.01 (the first episode to air after 9/11) and the high-intensity family dynamics of 4.02. In any case, 4.03 is unusually playful. The gags begin with the title itself. “Christopher” ostensibly refers to the controversial “star” of the hour, Christopher Columbus, but of course it also points back to the fact that it is Michael Imperioli—aka Christopher—who wrote the episode. Chase, as I’ve mentioned before, often utilizes Imperioli in his meta-level manipulations (perhaps most notably in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” which, with its exploration of ethnicity, is the thematic forerunner of “Christopher”). Now it is Imperioli’s turn to demonstrate his meta-level gamesmanship. This hour is filled with moments in which the real-world bleeds into fictional SopranoWorld. I find the episode’s “wink-wink” self-awareness very amusing, but many viewers do not find this hour as enjoyable as I do. They note (with some validity) that much of the episode’s dialogue feels too forced and didactic. The entire hour, in fact, feels a bit contrived. But I think these criticisms miss the point. “Christopher” is primarily a farce; we shouldn’t fault it for being “contrived” any more than we should fault a Marx Brothers routine or a Mel Brooks film for being “unrealistic.”
The hour starts out with the guys hanging out in front of Satriale’s, killing time by playing the License Plate Game. (“Ohhh, Massachusetts!” exclaims Patsy.) Bobby Bacala reads aloud a newspaper article about a planned protest of the Columbus Day parade, and everyone’s emotions start running high. Silvio decides he’s going to take some action. (I think it’s quite possible that if these guys couldn’t kill time all day—if they had real jobs to go to—they might have let this protest pass. The Devil will find work for idle hands to do.)
The guys attempt to break up the initial demonstration in front of the Columbus statue at Washington Park, but it doesn’t go well for them. They get pushed back by a crowd sympathetic to the Native Americans. Little Paulie is felled by a bottle to the head. Artie less perilously gets hit by a Slurpee, but reacts as though the Apocalypse has arrived, rushing back to the safety of the car. Long-suffering Georgie gets beat down and thrown to the ground by the cops. (The poor guy can’t even catch a break outside the Bing.) Patsy gets arrested and the remaining guys beat a hasty retreat. (In the pandemonium, a random voice yells out, “Down with globalization!”—those frickin’ hippies were everywhere back then.)
Tony is disappointed in his guys, especially consigliore Silvio, who is supposed to be the voice of reason (and who was particularly reasonable and savvy in the previous episode). But Sil is unwilling to let it go. He is a proud Italian who makes donations to the “Italian Anti-Defamation Coordination Council.” (The name of the organization recalls the real-world “Italian-American Defense Association,” which had once filed a spurious lawsuit against HBO for The Sopranos’ depiction of Italian-Americans. Coincidence? Probably not, knowing David Chase.) Tony doesn’t share their outrage but, like any good manager, he takes leadership on an issue that is important to his guys. Silvio assures Tony that they will counter the Native-Americans’ threat with a “hearts-and-minds” campaign.
“Hearts and minds” was the description of the U.S. government’s policy in Vietnam in the 1960s. And President George W. Bush revived the term soon after invading Afghanistan (about one year before this episode first aired) and then doubled-down on the phrase after invading Iraq. The NJ mob’s campaign against the Indians turns out to be only slightly less of a clusterfuck than these U.S. military campaigns. Armed with a poster of Iron Eyes Cody, Ralph Cifaretto confronts Professor Del Redclay in a comical scene filled with puns, double-entendre and farcical menace. Redclay admirably stands his ground but his steely-eyed confidence vanishes the moment Ralph departs. Redclay worries that the truth of Cody’s Italian ancestry will equal a public relations disaster for the Native Americans. (His T.A.’s comforting caress suggests that Ralphie’s crude double-entendre about her might actually have been right on the money.) But Redclay’s worries are premature—the mob’s P.R. campaign ultimately falls flat.
Tony reaches out to Assemblyman Zellman for aid. But Zellman declines to help—it is too touchy an issue. Just two weeks after this episode aired, real-life politician Mayor Michael Bloomberg stirred controversy by skipping the Manhattan Columbus Day parade because its organizers refused to allow his guests Lorraine Bracco and Dominic Chianese to march alongside him. The Columbus Citizens Foundation, who organized the parade, tried to get a court order to prevent the actors from marching because the organization believed The Sopranos to be demeaning to Italian-Americans. Bloomberg—a true mensch, unlike Zellman—ducked the parade and took his two friends out to lunch instead.
Tony has another card up his sleeve. Through his friend Hesh, Tony meets Mohonk Chief Doug Smith (“Smith”—the most generic name in America) whose suave and confident manner reassures the guys that he can squelch the planned parade protest. But he can’t. This strategy hits the wall too.
As you might expect in a satire, practically everyone in the episode is gripped by the issue at hand. Even the usually oblivious AJ engages in the debate. He is reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which opens with Columbus’ misdeeds against natives. (The book found a new generation of fans on the Left during the Bush years, and its presence here feels like a preview of Chase’s later criticism of the administration.) Unsurprisingly, Richard LaPenna, Melfi’s ex-husband, also makes a quick appearance. (Unsurprising because Chase loves to use this character to represent all those racially-sensitive, easily-outraged Italian-Americans who continuously balk at The Sopranos.) Richard comes to Melfi’s house to settle up their son’s tuition but quickly gets caught up in the news report of the demonstration at the park. As he watches the violence on TV, he comments, “My god, this is tragic. It could be scored with Albinoni’s Adagio.” Ah Richard, still the elitist douchebag, making a highbrow reference that most of us won’t get. But the reference may have a deeper significance—and a deeper humor. As Will Lerner explains for Rhapsody, the beautiful adagio “is one the composer didn’t really write. A sketch was found just after World War II by a musicologist who went on to make it into a full-fledged work of art.” So, the Adagio was not crafted by the 18th-century Italian Albinoni, but by a 20th-century musicologist. Richard’s reference, it turns out, is as erroneous as his outrage.
It’s not only the guys that defend their ethnic heritage here—the gals get in on the act too. The Dantes are quite the activists in this hour. Silvio Dante leads the charge against the Native Americans while his wife Gabriella goes after Father Phil:
Much to the consternation of the mob wives, Fr. Phil has invited a professor to the church luncheon who gives a lecture that attempts to distance Italian culture from the Mafia. Her inspirational talk wins the hearts and minds of the all the women present—except, of course, the mob wives. As the de facto Queen of the NJ famiglia, Carmela feels the sharp end of the professor’s criticism. But there’s nothing she can do about it. She rhetorically asks “Whaddaya gonna do?” But when Carmela repeats the question, with a more pointed tone, she seems to be channeling some of Tony’s managerial skills—Gabriella promptly gets up to do something about it. Father Phil, predictably, is about to munch into a pastry when Gab comes in and gives him an earful about the offense to Carmela: “How dare you let her suffer humiliation and embarrassment at the hands of an outsider?”
But is the professor truly an outsider? A little bit of earlier dialogue underscores the fact that the professor is actually Italian:
Father Phil: Thank you Professor Murphy. Or should I call you Professor Longo-Murphy?
Professor: As longo’s you don’t call me late for dinner.
The exchange highlights her Italian surname. It’s true that the professor is not a mob wife, but it’s nevertheless ironic that Gabriella would call a fellow Italian-American an “outsider.” (In a kind of supreme meta-irony, the actress who plays this proudly Italian professor has one of the most “Italian” sounding names of any actor to appear on the series—Roma Maffia—but she is not actually Italian. She is of German, Spanish, English, and Afro-Caribbean descent. So how, pray tell, did she get the last name “Maffia”? Wikipedia provides the answer: “Her Italian surname derives from her Italian stepfather.”) This business with the names (both fictional and real) points to how strange, paradoxical and permeable the circles that we circumscribe ourselves within (and without) really are. “Insider” and “outsider” are culturally constructed terms that have no real consistent meaning, and yet we are wildly enthusiastic—even to the point of violence sometimes—about creating various “in-groups” and “out-groups” for ourselves.
A particular word in the title of Professor Longo-Murphy’s book, Strega: The Sorceress as Imago Figure in Italian Literature, may point to a reason why we try so hard to join particular in-groups: the “imago,” Wikipedia states, is a “term coined by Carl Jung to describe a way that people form their personality by identifying with the collective unconscious.” In-groups, it seems to me, such as “the Mafia” or “Italian-Americans,” are smaller, easier-to-handle chunks of the collective unconscious. For some people, ethnicity—rather than being a foundation from which to construct their individual personalities—becomes the primary material with which they form their Self. If their ethnic group is attacked, it then becomes easy to mistake it as a personal attack on the Self.
There are several times in the episode (to the viewer’s great amusement) that characters radically and rapidly shift from “insider” to “outsider” status. In his essay, “From Columbus to Gary Cooper,” Christopher Kocela looks more closely at this pattern:
Three scenes depict a discussion in which two or more characters, first portrayed as allies in their view of Columbus and his legacy, suddenly find themselves at odds with one another owing to an unexpected “historical” turn in the conversation.
Kocela analyzes the three scenes:
- Furio is willing to be a comrade-in-arms in action against the Native Americans, but it turns out he hates Columbus. As an Italian southerner, Furio despises all northern Italians, including Columbus, for their long-standing condescension toward the South.
- Montel Williams (in a hilariously self-deprecating appearance) allies himself with guest Phillip Donatti—that is, until he feels that the Italian-American spokesman trivializes the plight of African-Americans, at which point he turns on his guest.
- Longtime friends Hesh and Reuben both find Columbus’ behavior in the New World to be deplorable, but when Cuban Reuben compares Columbus to Hitler, Hesh sees it as evidence of “covert anti-Semitism.” The two buddies almost come to blows.
We may recognize Yul Vazquez, who plays Reuben, as “Bob” from three episodes of Seinfeld, including “The Puerto Rican Day” (the second highest-rated episode in Seinfeld history).
The plotline about the Columbus Day Parade in “Christopher” might evoke Dr. Krakower’s reference to ethnic pride parades last season, when he told Carmela, “Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament because of events that occurred in their childhood…Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade to witness the results.” Krakower was highly critical of our culture of victimization, in which we blame our failures and unhappiness on a victimizer, such as Columbus or history or childhood, rather than take responsibility for our own failings. Now, I cannot reasonably suggest that Yul Vazquez was cast here to activate our memory of that widely watched Seinfeld episode, but “The Puerto Rican Day” does feature an ethnic pride parade, the memory of which (at least for me) underscores those words by Krakower which now seem so germane to understanding “Christopher.”
The Sopranos makes hard judgment on the culture of victimization, but this doesn’t mean that there are not legitimate victims in SopranoWorld. Exploitation in the service of financial profit is a common occurrence on the show, and it produces real victims. We may remember this scene from “Do Not Resuscitate” in Season 2:
In “Do Not Resuscitate,” Tony and Rev. Herman James exploited ethnic/minority discontent in order to line their pockets. Now, in “Christopher,” Chief Doug Smith exploits his tiny sliver of Mohonk ancestry to profit in the casino business. In this hour we are also reminded of how Tony victimized his uncle for the sake of profit, exploiting Corrado’s financial difficulties in order to buy and then sell the house on Frelinghuysen Ave. Chase cuts from the scene in which Johnny Sac requests a piece of this sale’s profit to the scene in which Furio shows Carmela pictures of his recently purchased house, underscoring that in SopranoWorld, the business of buying and selling continues without cease, and financial exploitation related to this ceaseless economy is what produces the true victims.
The final scene of the hour ties all the concepts in “Christopher” together. Driving back from their fully comped trip to the casino, Silvio and Tony argue the merits of “group identity” versus “individualism.” Tony, as might be expected, invokes Gary Cooper who represents the strong, silent individual, the man who refuses to wallow in victimization. (Tony had also explicitly linked Gary Cooper and the culture of victimization in episode 2.06 “The Happy Wanderer.”) When he mentions the “Miller Gang,” Tony is specifically alluding to one of Cooper’s most famous films, High Noon. With its lone hero and stark imagery, High Noon holds a place in American culture as an embodiment of our mythology of tough individualism. But this wasn’t necessarily the case when the film came out in 1952. At the time, some viewers found the film too “psychological” for a Western, and saw Sheriff Kane (Gary Cooper) as weak and soft. Howard Hawks and John Wayne made Rio Bravo, a more traditional Western, in 1959 as a direct response to High Noon.
I wouldn’t even mention all this if not for the fact that Rio Bravo appeared on Tony’s TV just two episodes ago, and there will be another allusion to it two episodes from now. The political and ideological messages of the two films have become muddled over time, and so it is difficult to determine what Chase had in mind—if anything—when referring to these two opposing films in this first quarter of Season 4. While modern audiences might interpret the two films very differently from the way a 1950s audience would, High Noon and Rio Bravo are both clearly concerned with issues of “individualism” and “group identity.”
I’ll go deeper in a later write-up into how these two ’50s films take two radically different approaches to the question of American identity, but for right now I’ll just say that issues about national identity were crucially important in the 1950s when the Cold War was putting a chill in every American’s spine. (Some have even interpreted High Noon to be an allegory of McCarthyism, that effort to question the “loyalty” of certain Americans during that period.) In 2002, as the War on Terror—a conflict every bit as unnerving as the Cold War—was escalating, Chase gave us “Christopher,” an episode that explores the ways that we now identify ourselves as Americans.
When Silvio realizes he missed the parade because he was at the casino, he ponders the possibility of simply whacking Del Redclay. Tony lets him hear it: “Who the fuck are you kidding?! All you thought about was blackjack.” Tony is right. The various issues of the olive-skinned or red-skinned or black-skinned or white-skinned eventually fall away for these characters—ultimately it’s all about the green, all about money. Tony informs Silvio of the junket’s true purpose: Chief Smith (a man who represents all of America with that most generic and common of last names) wants to exploit the mob’s connection to Frankie Valli. Tony orders Silvio to contact Valli and arrange the performances that Chief Smith wants. Cue the final credits, scored to “Dawn” by (of course) Frankie Valli.
Valli is revered as an Italian-American hero, in part because of his work for “heritage-related” causes. (The National Italian-American Foundation gave him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.) This proud, great man is now going to be manipulated by the NJ mob for a business deal. Silvio’s ethnic pride has been co-opted by financial demands. We can discuss race relations, tribalism and identity-politics all we want but, in the final analysis, we have to say: it’s all about money in America.
There is a death in “Christopher” but it hardly subtracts from the laugh-fest because we hardly knew ye, Karen Baccalieri. She first appeared only two episodes ago and racked up a minimal amount of screentime. Karen was a minor character but her death has a ripple effect in SopranoLand: it drives Ralph closer to Janice, which in turn pushes Janice closer to Bobby.
Rosalie Aprile has already lost her husband and son, and now the death of her friend Karen sends her into despair. Ralph can’t (or won’t) comfort her in her anguish, so she gives him the boot. That’s ok with him, it’s what he wanted anyway. Earlier, Ralph had a romantic interlude with Janice (she pegged him with a strap-on) during which she murmured sweet pillow talk (“Work that ass, you little cunt”) as they experienced unbridled bliss (his amyl nitrate poppers probably also contributed) but they were interrupted by a phone call from Rosalie. Ralph doesn’t have to worry about such interruptions anymore. He flees from Rosalie and returns to Janice: “Now, there can be no more fear. No more guilt. Just sex.” Tonight is Janice’s night to bring food to Bobby and his kids, but she scampers upstairs with Ralphie instead.
Janice arrives at Bobby’s the next day with a bucket of KFC and an excuse for her absence last night. Valerie Palmer-Mehta writes in “Disciplining the Masculine: The Disruptive Power of Janice Soprano” that Janice’s bullshit excuse about her Bible group’s potluck dinner sharply contrasts her to Karen who was going from an actual church event to the dentist’s office when she was killed. Prof. Maurice Yacowar notes the significance of her death en route to the dentist: she told Bobby, “I’m going to get my crown today,” and her death, in fact, “crowns” her in Bobby’s mind. Janice is moved by the depth of feeling Bobby has for his wife, a depth that Ralph Cifaretto does not seem to have.
Janice seeks advices from her counselor Sandy regarding insensitive Ralph. Sandy is a fool, she gets multiple things wrong during their sessions (although to be fair, Janice is feeding her a lot of wrong information). There’s something I wanna throw out there, though it’s not something I’m convinced of—the table sculpture between Janice and Sandy seems to be an abstracted eggplant:
Is this is a visual reference to Karen’s last message to Bobby—to pick up some steaks and eggplant on the way home? (If so, Chase may be further distinguishing Karen—who cooks with that staple of Italian cuisine, the eggplant—from Janice, who shows up with Kentucky Fried Chicken.) Or it might be making some additional commentary on the nature of race and ethnicity. Eggplant, after all, is loaded with racial baggage in SopranoWorld, because a corruption of its Italian name—mulignan—is a slang term for black people. Sandy’s abstract, “deracinated” eggplant may point to her inability to grasp the subtle dynamics of minority (Italian-American, or American Mafia) culture due to her membership, as a Caucasian, in a generic majority culture. (I think I’m reaching here…let me get away from this line of thought.) Sandy advises Janice to break it off with Ralph “with the compassion and respect you’re famous for.” Janice does treat Ralph with precisely the level of compassion that we expect from her—she practically breaks his neck by shoving him down the stairs. We know by now that staircases are associated with cruelty in The Sopranos:
Janice fantasizes about pushing her mother down the staircase in “Do Not Resuscitate”:
Amy Safir not only rejects Chris professionally and romantically from a staircase in “D-Girl,” but also treats him condescendingly:
Dr. Melfi is raped on a staircase in “Employee of the Month”:
Cruel Livia’s first appearance after being discharged from the hospital is her menacing trip down the staircase in “Bust Out”:
From the same staircase, Livia harshly criticizes her daughter in “The Knight in White Satin Armor” for not being able to make romantic relationships work (Richie has just “departed” from her):
Now, Ralph lies in a heap on the landing. In case we need a reminder that this is the same location of some of those previous cruelties, Chase has placed Livia’s disassembled Stair Lift in front of the fireplace:
Ralph is relatively lucky—he only ends up bruised in the living room, instead of dead in the kitchen like former lover Richie Aprile. Ralph limps out of the house, and now Janice can continue to pursue Bobby with the cunning and pretense that she is so famous for.
“CHRISTOPHER” (TITLE SIGNIFICANCE)
I’m making a bit of a “hearts and minds” campaign myself with this write-up, trying to get fans to appreciate this episode more. But I know my efforts are in vain—many viewers will always feel a sort of disgust for this hour. I do hope, however, that viewers will recognize the sheer genius of the episode title, if not of the entire episode. The title contains a meta-joke, as I mentioned earlier, coming out of the fact that Michael Imperioli (aka Christopher) wrote the episode. This meta-joke highlights the fact that the script for this hour is something that was written—it is a fiction that has been constructed. And this idea parallels the hour’s theme: the historical story of Christopher Columbus is also something that has been constructed. The issue of whether the long-accepted story of Columbus is accurate has been debated, and will continue to be debated, for years. When I was a kid, you couldn’t get through grade school without being asked at some point to pull out your crayons and draw a picture of Columbus’ heroic journey across the Atlantic (see the header pic above). But perhaps the narrative of Columbus’ heroism deserves to be challenged, as it is in this hour. Ultimately, we have to accept that it is sometimes impossible to discern what is fiction and what is non-fiction in an historical account. Chase has always excelled at drawing out an hour’s themes with his episode titles, and “Christopher” is one of the greatest examples of this.
When Carmela describes one of her acquaintances as a “two-face,” the camera lingers on Adriana. The camera used to similarly linger on Big Pussy back when he was an FBI informant.
- Paulie is still talking to Johnny Sac from prison, setting up the main storyline for the next episode.
- The “stair” thing: there are still a few notable incidents that occur on staircases yet to come in Seasons 5 and 6.
- In my entry for episode 4.05 “Pie-O-My,” I’ll take a closer look at how Chase may be using the two films High Noon and Rio Bravo to clarify certain notions of “individualism.”
- A line from Were You Always An Italian?, a book by Maria Laurino (who gets story credit for “Christopher”), sums up the basic theme of the hour: “…ethnic truth is a muddy conceit, and in America often beheld through the ersatz.”