Furio suddenly decides to move back to Italy. Carmela is heartbroken, and her bitterness ruins the annual tea
with Meadow at the Plaza Hotel. Johnny Sac makes a surprising proposal to Tony.
EPISODE 51 - ORIGINALLY AIRED DECEMBER 1, 2002 WRITTEN BY TERENCE WINTER DIRECTED BY JAMES HAYMAN
“Eloise” defies expectations. We’ve been waiting for The Sopranos to ratchet up the dramatic tension at the end of Season 4, as any self-respecting dramatic series should do in the homestretch of a season, but it hasn’t really happened here yet. Sure, there is an affair brewing between Carmela and Furio which could have potentially violent consequences. And yes, the threat of warfare with New York has grown over the last coupla episodes. But the last two episodes have spent a lot of time closing tensions: Chris checks into rehab; Janice finally lands Bobby. “Eloise,” as the penultimate episode of the season, will surely ramp up the drama and set up an explosive finale, right? Or it may even function like the penultimate episode of Season 1 did, in which an attempt was made on Tony’s life – which was more explosive than anything that happened in that year’s finale. Right??
Well, yes and no. Some minor tensions are built up, but the major potential conflicts mostly dissipate, with a whimper rather than a bang. (That being said, the explosive event of the season finale “Whitecaps” is set up here, but we don’t quite realize it yet.)
The hour begins with Corrado’s trial. The prosecutor seems like an able man with a solid case — real trouble for Corrado. But Bobby eyes a juror with a wedding ring, a man with a family and thus a good target for the mob version of jury tampering. Eugene Pontecorvo catches up to the unfortunate man and his young child at a convenience store, and—with a wink and a smile—lays down the threat. Perhaps Chase is leading us to believe that a potential source of this season’s final fireworks might be the juror’s unwillingness to play ball with the mob.
This season’s climax may also potentially come from the ongoing friction between New York and New Jersey over the HUD scam. Little Carmine comes up from Florida to speak to his dad as he assured Tony he would do. But when old man Carmine declares his admiration for Tony’s decisiveness, it ignites Little Carmine’s jealousy and derails his good-intentions. He badmouths Tony to his father: “He’s a bit of a pose-oor, if you ask me.” Johnny Sac recognizes that Little Carmine’s ego has been bruised and quickly tries to change the subject, but it’s too late: Carmine solidifies his position against Tony. Little Carmine’s effort to ease the tension between the two families has turned into (to borrow his phrase), a “total debicle.“
After Tony trashes Carmine’s restaurant as payback for roughing up Vic the Appraiser, Carmine tells Johnny Sac that they’re going to retaliate. We think for a moment that the NY Boss has decided to send Tony on a “permanent vacation.” But no, Carmine has only decided to call for a work stoppage at the Esplanade:
Up north, giant inflatable Rats are used to bring attention to sites where there are union labor disputes. (The CAT excavator next to the inflatable prop almost seems to underscore the cat-and-mouse conflict between NJ and NY.) Johnny Sac is not happy about the work stoppage, because it takes money out of his pocket. So Johnny approaches Tony and asks (without really asking) for Carmine to be hit. (This is a neat inverse of the time that Carmine very similarly “asked/not asked” Tony to hit John in 4.04 “The Weight” because of his oversensitivity to a fat-joke.) “Holy shit,” muses Tony. We might be even more surprised than he is because we were expecting the threats to our protagonist Tony Soprano to mount in this episode, but they’re actually decreasing: Carmine chooses a labor strike over bloodshed, and NY’s second-in-command is now in collusion with Tony.
Another way that Tony becomes more secure is that Paulie—his most estranged capo this season—realigns himself with Tony and the NJ famiglia. Paulie happens to run into Carmine at a wedding. When the NY don doesn’t recognize him whatsoever, Paulie retreats to the restroom to take a long look at himself in the mirror:
Paulie has been playing a double game, showing one face to NY and another to NJ. Now he needs to get back into Tony’s good graces – and knows exactly how to do it. He’s never been a fan of that “malignant cunt” Minn Matron, and the car accident that she causes only deepens his dislike. Talkative Cookie Cirillo mentions the money that is hidden beneath Minn’s bed, and Paulie takes note. While there is certainly something gruesome and ugly about Paulie’s ensuing murder of the old woman, the scene also seems to be played for laughs – it’s almost farcical. Judith Shulevitz recognizes the comical aspect of this scene, writing at the Slate.com Sopranos forum:
Maybe the way to understand Paulie is not as a character but as an homage to Scorsese and Joe Pesci, since they are past masters at making us laugh at this sort of exceedingly comical, gratuitously awful nut job.
This “awful nut job” has a job done to his nuts – Minn Matrone gives him a knee to the groin. It’s not the first time we’ve laughed at Paulie as he takes one in the “walnuts” – Valery the Russian thumped him with a shovel in 3.11:
Paulie goes to Tony with Minn Matrone’s stash. When Johnny Sac’s name comes up, Paulie describes him as a “prick.” All is well now between Paulie and his Boss. But if all is well, then where the hell is this season’s climax supposed to come from?
Ahh, Furio and Carmela – we mustn’t forget this storyline as a source of suspense. The two grow closer this hour when Carmela arrives with decorating tips for his mother’s detached apartment. They even make a “date” to go to Color Tile. (I guess Furio’s mom is going to be moving to the U.S. now that her husband has died of cancer, as we learned in episode 4.08.) In her Slate.com piece, Shulevitz says about Carmela that…
…at long last she gets to be real, to have an inner life as sexual and operatic as Tony’s: a desperate longing for an encounter that she knows full well could only end in her lover’s or husband’s death…
We certainly seem to be headed towards the “operatic” death of one of these characters. Tony is a bonehead, believing that Carm’s new hairdo has something to do with Pie-O-My’s death and misunderstanding her anger over his vacation plans. Furio rolls his eyes at Tony’s insensitivity, and fumes at Tony while he cavorts with a beautiful escort at the casino. When one girl suggests that the guys take the casino helicopter instead of the limo service, cousin Brian starts humming Wagner’s “The Ride of The Valkyries,” undoubtedly thinking of the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now. As Tony and Furio urinate near the chopper’s blades, we are led to believe that we will witness Tony’s apocalypse now. But Furio pulls himself back. We may have thought for a moment that we would see the propeller shred Tony to pieces in a riot of blood and gore, but the only damage to Tony is his hangover the next morning. This is SopranoWorld; we shouldn’t expect it to be operatic like Wagner’s The Valkyrie or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the fuckin’ regularness of life rules Chase’s universe.
Even if Carmela’s storyline felt a little soapy or sappy this season, the techniques used to tell her story have been first-rate. Her storyline in “Eloise” continues with technical brilliance. For example, when Carmela tells Rosalie that she felt like “somebody punched me in the stomach” upon learning that Furio has fled the country, we can relate to her, because we too were blindsided by this information – it only takes about a minute-and-a-half for this substantial plot point to get revealed and developed:
The 1.5 minute clip begins with a church bell (as though the bell tolls for Carmela’s dying hopes) and finishes with Tony shutting his rear gate (underscoring that a door has permanently closed in Carmela’s life). The middle part of the clip is dominated by that phenomenal camera dolly. As the camera dollies backwards, diminishing Carmela in the frame, we intuitively grasp that Furio’s sudden flight has severely diminished her life:
Through the window above the radiator, we can see the garage that Carmela was supposed to help Furio convert into an apartment. The empty rooms now echo the emptiness of Carmela’s heart. If we manipulate these images, blacking out everything but the window that frames Carmela, we get a better idea of how the shot is able to express her sense of diminishment and isolation:
At the beginning of the camera dolly, the window takes up about 1/2 of our TV screen, but by the end of the shot, that same window only fills up about 1/50th of our screen. Everything else is just emptiness (or as Livia might have said, it’s all a big nothing).
Immediately after finding out Furio has gone back to Italy, Carmela arrives at Meadow’s apartment for dinner. Her dashed hopes color her behavior at the dinner party. Meadow has a new boyfriend, Finn, who viewers are learning of for the first time. The fact that Mead has got roommates and a boyfriend and a whole life that viewers no longer know very much about just underlines how independent she is becoming. Meadow is no longer trapped in that little corner of NJ where she grew up. But Carmela still is, and she knows it. She envies her daughter’s opportunities. When Finn gallantly assures everyone that he will protect Meadow from any criminals that may be lurking around, Carm has to make an effort to conceal her jealousy. Carm may be further thrown off-kilter by the undertones of race and class division that vibrate through the apartment: Colin (and his mother) from Ohio personify the white, All-American family in a way that the Sopranos do not, and Alex is of Old Money and Royal Blood. Of course, Carmela cannot openly gripe about these race/class distinctions nor reveal her envy of Meadow, so she displaces her anger on to the discussion about Billy Budd.
Carmela has equated Furio to Billy Budd (and Tony to the “evil” Officer Claggart) ever since the morning that AJ read from his essay to her: “When Mr. Claggart gets mad at Billy, it is a surprise because he is always saying how handsome Billy is. This does not seem realistic because why would an officer care if a sailor was handsome or not?” The camera cut to Furio at the mention of “handsome Billy” and captured Tony coming down the stairs just as AJ referenced the “officer.”
As a social conservative, Carmela would be upset by a queer reading of the classic novella. But she now defends Billy Budd’s heterosexuality not because of her conservative morality, but because she identifies Billy Budd with her lost lover Furio. Meadow puts up a solid argument, referencing prominent literary critic Leslie Fiedler, but this only makes Carmela lash out even more wildly. (When I read Billy Budd in college, the “gay stuff” barely came up; our class read it as a study of the contrasting doctrines of natural law versus legal positivism – which could be an enlightening lens through which to view The Sopranos. But the primary significance of Billy Budd to this episode might simply come from its somewhat analogous story: Billy is accused of conspiring to mutiny at a time when military tension against France is high, similar to how Furio thinks about mutinying against Tony when tension with New York is high.)
Carmela’s ugliest display of jealousy occurs at the Plaza Hotel where she meets Meadow beneath the portrait of Eloise for their annual tea. “Eloise,” of course, is the famous character who appeared in a series of children’s books in the 1950s.
Eloise is a 6 year-old who finds adventures around the Plaza Hotel, and even around the world, independent from the reach of her mother. Meadow too is growing independent and worldly, living in an NYC apartment and planning trips with her well-traveled, Navy-brat boyfriend. Carmela can’t help but feel envy as her own life has suddenly become diminished. Mother and daughter have their tea with biscuits and rancor. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, in their essay “What has Carmela done for feminism?” note the…
…intellectual divide between the women. Meadow now has an educated (elitist) feminist language to explain, narrate, her daily experience. Achieving a fluency not available to her mother lends clout to Meadow’s cruelly questioning her mother’s choices: ‘Would you rather I go to Montclair State? Then maybe I could drop out like you did.’ Hurtful words.
Meadow certainly does unleash some hurtful words towards her mother, but she also senses that Carmela is suffering from some deep pain. When AJ tells her about the trips to Furio’s house, Meadow starts putting the pieces together (before AJ runs her out of the room with an epic fart). Tony sits Meadow down on the staircase to explain that Carmela is not exactly herself right now, but that her mother loves her nevertheless. Meadow—as usual—is a step ahead of Tony, she has a better understanding than her father of what it is that afflicts Carmela.
Staircases are usually places of menace and cruelty on The Sopranos, but this scene bucks that trend. Meadow is incredibly sensitive here, not only towards her mother, but towards her father as well – she lets him believe that Carmela’s mood has something to do with menopause, and does not share her devastating intuitions about Furio. Tony’s words to Carmela, as they lay in bed in the final scene, underscore the decency that Meadow displays here: “She’s becoming a wonderful woman, Carm. Smart, beautiful, independent woman that you created.” Meadow’s decency may indeed be a result of the benevolent love and influence of her mother, and it differentiates her from Livia and some of Livia’s other descendants, some of whom have exhibited—and will exhibit—horrible cruelty on staircases.
But Tony’s comforting bedtime words to Carmela also manage to drive a stake into her heart. Although her daughter is growing independent, she herself is not. Annie Lennox’ “Little Bird” starts up and continues over the credits, voicing Carmela’s unutterable wish:
I wish that I could be that bird
And fly away from here
I wish I had the wings to fly away from here
There is small but interesting parallel between Carmela and Little Carmine here: Little Carmine is made jealous by the respect that his father has for Tony, while Carmela is jealous of her daughter’s romantic relationship. We may have expected this penultimate episode of the season to drum up murderous tensions, but instead, we get jealousies between parents and children and literary discussions about Melville’s novella. There is a death, but Minn Matrone’s demise is not a substantial development, and it’s almost played for yuks. “Eloise” confounds viewer expectations…and yet, the hour has in fact slyly built up tension with the storyline of Carmela’s unhappiness, laying the groundwork for “Whitecaps,” which I think is one of the most powerful and wrenching episodes of the entire series.
- There are a couple of scenes in this hour that are quite clumsy by series standards, and I don’t know if it has something to do with this being James Hayman’s first crack at directing a Sopranos episode. An example is the staging of the helicopter scene: why would Tony and Furio, even in a drunken stupor, line up to take a piss in the airstream of a propeller? We’ve never known Tony to be a sloppy drunk, and nothing could be more sloppy than two guys pissing in a helicopter’s wind.
- In the December 2002 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. Leslie Fiedler expresses his happy surprise at hearing his name mentioned in “Eloise.” He was a great fan of the show, and never missed an episode. He says of the Sopranos’ writers, “It was amusing that one of the things they picked up on was that ambiguous first name of mine. I keep getting letters addressed to ‘Ms. Leslie Fiedler.’ And I always write back, ‘I prefer to be called Mrs.'”
- I love how we don’t actually see Chief Doug Smith here (who we remember from “Christopher”), but when Marty telephones him for the helicopter, we can precisely picture the smug bastard’s unenthusiastic response.
- I did the Sopranos bus tour that runs out of Manhattan and which was hosted by Marc Baron, who appears as the waiter in the scene at the Plaza Hotel in this episode. (He’s done a bit of work on the series as an extra/stand-in.) During the tour, he recounted Edie Falco’s repeated attempts during this scene to engage the waiter in dialogue – which would bump up Baron’s wages for the day by giving him a speaking part. But the producers couldn’t allow it, so they kept calling “Cut” and starting over – and Falco generously kept trying to speak to the waiter. Eventually she had to give up, and Baron appears in the scene without any spoken lines.
- Federico Castelluccio (Furio) had a great run on the show, and he probably didn’t struggle to make ends meet after ‘Furio’ got the boot. He is an accomplished artist who made an oil painting of Tony and Carmela that replicates a 15th century portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. Castellucio sold the painting to an oil company executive for $175,000
- And in 2014, Castelluccio purchased a painting for about $140,000 which turned out to be a masterpiece worth millions of dollars. Way to go, Furio!