Corrado’s legal and medical bills are mounting. Paulie makes a phone call to Johnny Sac from
jail. Christopher avenges his father’s death.
EPISODE 40 - ORIGINALLY AIRED SEPTEMBER 15, 2002 WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE DIRECTED BY ALLEN COULTER
Like all the previous season openers, this one has a scene of Tony going out into the driveway to pick up his copy of the Star-Ledger. But inside the house, Carmela is reading a different newspaper – The New York Times. She believes she has found a story that AJ can use for his social studies project. Here’s an excerpt from the actual 2001 article:
“Essentially, the judges are saying what everybody in Italy believes: It is not a crime, as long as you do it well,” Franco Ferrarotti, an Italian sociologist said of the Wednesday ruling on ”raccomandazione,” the Italian custom of seeking and receiving special treatment from people in power, or close to it. ”This is our version of the Protestant ethic,” Mr. Ferrarotti said. ”When a favor works successfully, it ceases to be a crime and becomes a work of art.”
The article continues that Mario Campana, the director of an Italian court, received 88 pounds of fish from a plaintiff in return for expediting his legal proceedings. This little anecdote introduces us to what this episode is all about – public and private debts, and how they get paid.
Virtually every character in the episode believes they are not getting paid the money or the respect that they are owed. Corrado is feeling the pinch of legal fees running at $1 million (and counting – and this is on top of his medical bills). He believes he is not getting his fair share of the famiglia’s income. But Tony is not willing to cut him a higher percentage. Tony has got expenses of his own, like his two kids’ private school tuitions.
Tony pressures his crew to kick up more money, because he feels that he and Corrado are being shortchanged as heads of la famiglia. Ralph Cifaretto, Albert Baresi, and Ray Curto all listen patiently to Tony’s tirade. Paulie, notably, is not present – he is in an Ohio jail. (Tony Sirico suffered from back problems this season, severely limiting his shooting schedule, so Chase used the “prison” story to give him time to recover.) There’s also a new face in the crowd: Carlo Gervasi. (I don’t know if Chase used Carlo to “replace” Paulie, but his character never really gets fleshed out. He does become a more significant player in Season 6, however.) Ray Curto wants to blame the poor receipts on the economic downturn but Tony doesn’t want to hear it. It is true that the U.S. economy was troubled after the 9/11 terror attacks, but Mob earnings, traditionally, have been immune from economic downturns. (More on 9/11 later.)
Christopher doesn’t believe he is getting the respect from Tony that he deserves. We see the tension between the two men in their first scene. Chris believes that Tony is giving Furio preferential treatment. But Tony has big plans for his nephew. He wants to eventually hand the reins over to Chris, because he is a blood-relative and therefore—ostensibly—trustworthy. Tony gives Christopher a giant gift: information on who killed his father. Chris forces Detective Barry Haydu to pay his debt to the Moltisanti family with his life. Of course, there is a possibility that Haydu wasn’t actually Dickie Moltisanti’s killer. Tony may have just wanted to get rid of the recently retired detective because he is no longer able to provide favors to the mob or engage in raccomandazione (the practice reported in the New York Times article). Regardless of whether or not Haydu was Dickie Moltisanti’s killer, he clearly wasn’t an honest cop, and this is reflected by some of the Magnum P.I. dialogue heard on the TV set after bad lieutenant Haydu is killed. We hear Magnum ask, “Police? In a Ferrari?!” in a kind of meta-indication that Haydu used his position to profit greatly. And the line about “impersonating an officer” points to Haydu’s ethical failures as a policeman.
Carmela also doesn’t feel she is getting the respect that Tony owes her. After seeing mob widow Angie Bonpensiero working at the supermarket to make ends meet, Carm wonders if a similar fate would befall her should she become a widow. She has no clear idea what her family’s financial situation is nor what kind of plan would go into effect were Tony to die. Tony is dismissive, he insists he’s got it all taken care off. Still, Carmela wants to bring in her cousin Brian Cammarata who could help them with some legitimate estate planning. Last season, Father Obosi instructed Carmela to “learn to live on the good part” of Tony’s earnings; perhaps estate planning with an authentic financial advisor is part of Carm’s attempt to live on some legitimate income. Of course, keeping Carmela out of the financial loop is not the only disrespectful thing Tony does to his wife. He continues his philandering. Carmela intuits here that the business meeting that will keep Tony out late is actually more than just business. Indeed, after his meeting, Tony parties with a bevy of open-minded Icelandic Air stewardesses. Carmela’s arc this season is set afloat primarily by these two issues: her money worries and her goomar worries. (And the two converge with remarkable effect in 4.08 “Mergers and Acquisitions.” The other major issue for Carmela in Season 4 is the lady-boner she develops for Furio, a storyline that is only hinted at here.)
Perhaps the only person in this episode who is completely happy with the way things are running is Assemblyman Ron Zellman. But the people of New Jersey are being shortchanged by Zellman. As a member of the State Legislature, Zellman owes it to the NJ public to perform his job with ethical diligence and conscientiousness. But he does not pay this debt to the public. Zellman uses his position of influence to practice raccomandazione (and he’s getting a lot more than 88 pounds of fish in return). When he meets Tony to discuss their illicit plans, we notice that Zellman is wearing a new fashion accessory:
American flag lapel pins were all the rage after 9/11, particularly for politicians. Assemblyman Zellman wears this signifier of patriotism while violating the trust of his constituency. Following Zellman’s advice, Tony offers to buy a property on Frelinghuysen Ave. from Corrado. Tony violates the trust of his uncle. He makes it seem like he’s doing Corrado a favor by purchasing the property, but he is actually capitalizing on the old man’s financial difficulties. Corrado berates himself for not being able to recognize that the nurse at his doctor’s office was in reality an FBI agent, but perhaps his greater mistake is not being able to see through his nephew’s underhanded machinations.
In the final scene of the hour, Chris sticks the $20 bill that he swiped from Det. Haydu’s wallet on to his mother’s refrigerator. The $20 represents the collection of the debt that the unscrupulous officer owed to the Moltisanti family (and may further represent Chris’ indebtedness to Tony now for leading him to his father’s killer).
As Chase slowly zooms in on the $20 bill, we understand that this final image speaks about the horrible ways that debts are assumed and paid—or not paid—in SopranoWorld. Maurice Yacowar nails this closing image: “The climactic emphasis on money reminds us that the currency for paying off all the titular debts public and private is loyalty and trust. In these, there are creeping signs of bankruptcy.”
Old threats and new threats fill Tony’s life. Driving with Chris, Tony worries about being followed by the FBI and constantly checks his mirror. A car that they think may be the Feds turns out actually to be a Chevy full o’ nuns. Tony is relieved he is not being tailed by the FBI, but Chase undercuts his relief by cutting to the FBI’s most effective (piece of) tail:
We’ve gotten used to these sorts of ironic cuts that are sometimes a bit too obviously ironic. Perhaps less obvious is the use of the mirror to underscore Agent Ciccerone’s doubling as “Danielle.” Definitely less obvious is the fact that the next scene also carries a threat – the nurse at Dr. Schreck’s office is also an undercover agent. The nurse’s true identity is discovered by the end of the episode, but by that time, she has potentially gathered very damaging information. Danielle, however, is not discovered. She has gained Adriana’s confidence and now even enters the Soprano domicile (where Tony shows some interest in her).
Some of Tony’s capos also pose a threat. We learned very early last season that Ray Curto has flipped, and will learn in a later episode that he was wearing a wire at the meeting that Tony called in this episode. Ralph is doing cocaine and continuing a relationship with Janice. And Paulie is building his friendship with NY mobster Johnny Sac from prison.
Perhaps most troubling, Chris—the man Tony is grooming to take the reins—has a worsening drug habit. We first saw Chris’ inability to control his habit back in “Commendatori” two seasons ago. Now, he is shooting up between his toes to hide the tracks, and is doing it almost everyday. Tony, too, is becoming increasingly self-indulgent. Chase makes a telling edit from Chris getting high to Tony in his kitchen:
You might think I’m joking comparing heroin to ice cream, but my point is that from this season onwards, the characters’ self-indulgences take on a darker tone. Through the first 3 seasons, we may have envied the luxuries and pleasures that were so readily available to characters in SopranoWorld. But from this season forward, we see more clearly how the inability to exercise restraint puts many of the characters on a road to dissipation. Even if they are able to survive their gluttonous ways, the harmful effects of their excesses on their loved ones—and to the larger society in which they live—become more evident. Many characters start acquiring bigger, brighter, shinier things, but their lifestyle nevertheless seems less enviable. It stops being pretty.
Todd VanDerWerff expresses the view of several Sopranos commentators when he puts the series in the context of the Sept. 11 attacks:
…the attacks neatly cleave the series in two. Creator David Chase’s plan was likely always to have a long, slow build of the good times getting ever better, even as those good times had the taste of ashes at their core, followed by a long decline, a slow malaise that gives way to self-destruction. The vaguely apocalyptic tone of the rest of the series can’t entirely be blamed on the attacks, but those attacks inform the show nonetheless, right down to the opening credits (which the World Trade Center towers have been scrubbed from).
September 11 was certainly a fateful day, images from that day will never be scrubbed from our collective memory. It is quite reasonable to think that The Sopranos would reflect some of the malaise and pessimism and gnawing sense of threat that settled upon us after that day (especially considering that the show’s cast, crew, writers and producers lived and worked within the New York/D.C./Pennsylvania triangle demarcated by the events of 9/11). And yet…when the series picks up again after that fateful day, we see that things haven’t fallen apart, the center still holds. The world still turns as it always has. VanDerWerff continues:
…the overall sense one gets from this episode is that life has simply gone on…Hell, the episode ends with footage of a woman sipping coffee while “World Destruction” plays, as if this were the most action-packed thing in the show’s entire universe.
As shattering as 9/11 was, it was just one more event in lives of these characters. 9/11 doesn’t even get mentioned in this episode until the second half of the hour. (And when it is finally mentioned, it comes in an absurd and hilarious conversation about Quasimodo/Nostradamus/Notre Dame.) History professor Thomas Prasch writes that references to the terror attacks were “routinized” on the series in its final three seasons. The attacks of 9/11, as horrific as they were, become a part of the routine: they fit into “the fuckin’ regularness of life.”
The final shot seems to underscore this point. Clearly, we are meant to pay attention to the closing shot because—for the first time in the series—the final image is held on the screen as the end credits roll (as opposed to the usual black background behind the credits):
This final shot may evoke our thoughts of 9/11 because it is scored with Time Zone’s “World Destruction” which could trigger our memories of that cataclysmic day. But perhaps the close-up of the $20 bill also stimulates thoughts of 9/11 because it represents American currency which is such a dominant instrument in financial trade worldwide. We sometimes forget that the Twin Towers were part of New York’s World Trade Center complex, operated by the World Trade Centers Association. The WTCA has over 300 complexes and buildings in 91 countries, with each complex supporting and complementing the financial services of both private and government agencies. The US private sector and US government are powerful players in international trade, and this is one reason why America is so hated by Al-Qaeda. This episode’s final image of a $20 bill—a symbol of American financial power—may thus evoke 9/11, one of the most shocking and tragic days in world history. But we know by now that Chase is more fascinated by personal histories than by world history, by small-scale events, by the fuckin’ regularness of each individual life. We can be sure that very soon, Joanne Moltisanti will notice the $20 bill and remove it from the fridge (exposing the “One Day at a Time” sticker underneath). When she uses the cash to buy vodka or peanut butter or whatever, the $20 bill will lose all of its big metaphorical significance. In the final analysis, 9/11 is just one more day in the long sequence of days that make up life. Life continues in SopranoWorld (and the real world) as it always has – one day at a time.
The series seems to take on a darker tone from this episode forward, but Chase counters this nihilistic trend, it seems to me, by placing more emphasis on connectivity. “Connective tissue” has always been a hallmark of The Sopranos, but Chase ramps up its use from now on. Connections run rampant in this hour, some as thin as gossamer and barely noticed while others are glaringly obvious. There are connections to other Sopranos episodes; to things within this episode itself; to other works of art or media; and to things in the real world. Some examples:
- The first scene of the hour connects back to the Pilot episode – Tony hopes that the family of ducks has returned to his backyard.
- Tony watches Dean Martin sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” in the film Rio Bravo. The song will be heard again later this season in “Pie-O-My.” Another Dean Martin reference here: we learn Paulie got arrested as he was driving out to visit Martin’s birthplace in Steubenville.
- When Ralph mentions Rosalie’s depression, Janice says, “Ah Bartleby, ah humanity,” the final words of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener. (Bartleby too displays symptoms of clinical depression.)
- Adriana comes to borrow Carmela’s samovar, an item we saw last season in “Employee of the Month.”
- Assemblyman Zellman mentions the Down Neck section of Newark. “Down Neck,” of course, was the name of a Season 1 episode. In that episode, we watched Tony make an ice cream sundae, just as he does here.
- Immediately after Chris robs Barry Haydu’s $20 bill, Chase cuts to Carmela watching a news story that reports “the street where the robbery took place was littered with bills of all denominations.”
- Early in the episode, Tony is suspicious that the FBI are tailing him in a Chevy Caprice. Later, we see that it is a Chevy Caprice that Haydu drives.
- We learn that Dickie Moltisanti was killed in payback for breaking some guy’s eye socket. We may be reminded of this by the close-up of President Jackson’s eye that closes the episode.
- Georgie takes a beating at the Bada Bing again, just as he did in 1.02, 3.06 and 3.07.
- Connective tissue gone haywire: Bobby confusedly connects Quasimodo and Nostradamus and the hunchback of Notre Dame and the halfbacks and fullbacks of Notre Dame football. (Tony stares at Bobby, wondering if the decision to promote him was a wise one. But in Bobby’s defense, we all have certain clusters of information that uniquely confound us. My brain gets foggy whenever someone mentions Rasputin or Rumpelstiltskin – I always get the two of them mixed up.)
- Bobby is not the only one to mention Nostradamus; the lyrics of “World Destruction” make reference to him as well.
I am not claiming that these connections have some hidden narrative significance. (I certainly don’t mean to suggest, for example, that it was Lt. Haydu that was following Tony in his Chevy Caprice earlier.) I am claiming that the connections have a thematic significance. As The Sopranos takes a downturn towards bleakness, Chase will make use of connectivity to counter-balance the fracturing and dissolution that will increasingly characterize SopranoWorld.
“EVERYTHING COMES TO AN END”
The idea that the series is now on a bleak path is given most credence by Carmela’s line here, “Everything comes to an end.” Many “Tony is killed” theorists cite this specific line in their argument that Tony was whacked at Holstens. While it is certainly true that everything eventually comes to an end (and possibly true that Tony bites the dust at the diner), it is also true that things can continue for a long time before finally ending. A clip (heard but not seen) from the 1957 film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which plays on Corrado’s TV, confirms this: “…there’s no question about us surviving, we could go on here for years. And I mean years.”
- There is some meta-irony in Tony Sirico having to sit out part of Season 4 due to an aching back. It was Paulie, after all, who doubted that Big Pussy was genuinely suffering from back problems earlier in the series.
- Old School vs. New School: displeased old-schooler Carmine chastises new-schooler Tony, “John said he went to a cookout at your house…A don doesn’t wear shorts.”
- Will Arnett is here as Agent Ciccerone’s husband. Arnett in a non-comedic role?! Come on!
- This episode had the highest viewership of any Sopranos episode. With 13.4 million viewers, it won its timeslot that night, and had the sixth-highest ratings for the week. (A surprising feat considering that the vast majority of American households were not subscribing to HBO at the time.)