Mergers & Acquisitions (4.08)

Carmela longs for Furio while he is away in Italy.  Tony hooks up with Valentina La Paz.  Paulie’s mother Nucci has
difficulty fitting into the social scene at Green Grove Retirement Home.

EPISODE 47 - ORIGINALLY AIRED NOV 3, 2002
WRITTEN BY LARRY KONNER
STORY BY CHASE, GREEN, BURGESS AND WINTER
DIRECTED BY DANIEL ATTIAS

___________________________________

The Sopranos does not adhere to the conventional structures of television storytelling.  A storyline can come and go in unconventional ways.  Take Carmela’s arc, for example.  All season long, Carmela’s worries about Tony’s philandering, her family’s financial instability, and her growing fondness for Furio have occasionally come to the surface of the narrative, only to quickly submerge again, glimpsed for a moment like the humps of some SopranoWorld Loch Ness monster before Chase turns our focus to other issues: Adriana’s FBI problems, Johnny Sac’s oversensitivity about his obese wife, ethnic tensions in “Christopher,” financial exploitation of social ills in “Watching Too Much Television.”  Now, two-thirds of the way into Season 4, Carmela’s storyline begins to really come in out of the wings.  But it still doesn’t take center stage.  (We’ll have to wait until the Season Finale for that.)

In the opening scene of the hour, Carmela makes Furio a comforting cup of coffee.  He has to go back to Italy to attend to his sick father.  She is truly infatuated with him, everything reminds her of Furio while he is gone, even chef Mario Batali’s ponytail.  In the shower, she hums the tune that she and Furio had danced to at his housewarming party in “The Weight” (and which echoed in her head as Tony climbed on top of her later in that episode).

While Carmela’s fantasy lover has gone to Italy, Tony acquires a new real lover.  Valentina La Paz catches Tony’s eye the first time he sees her at the horse stables.  He tries to stay away from Valentina at first.  But boredom drives him to her.  Tony is bored because he trying to be more “hands-off” in his business affairs, delegating greater responsibility to Chris and Silvio.  The appearance of his attorney Neil Mink here (who asks Tony “How’s the life of leisure?” on the golf course) is no accident: it was Mink that had instructed Tony to scale back his direct involvement in mob business back in episode 2.11 “House Arrest,” which led Tony to become so profoundly bored that he felt depressed and trapped within his own house:

House Arrest Redux Sopranos Autopsy

Tony may have delegated responsibilities to his men, but he restlessly still tries to micromanage them.  Even new material acquisitions cannot rid him of his restlessness.  He is momentarily excited by his new, state-of-the-art entertainment center but it eventually puts him to sleep.  Bored, he stares out of a car window and sits like a lump at the mall.  He listlessly munches on popcorn while watching The Fugitive, which can’t capture his interest.  (In “House Arrest,” he complained to Melfi that the film Se7en couldn’t hold his interest – it was just one more in the “series of distraction till you die.”)  Tony sighs and mopes throughout the early part of the episode, not able to get excited about anything.

Bored

After one final sigh, Tony decides to call Valentina.  It should come as no surprise that they end up in a hotel room together.  (I love how Tony refers to the hotel proprietors as “hicks,” and when he opens the room window, you can hear—very faintly—a cow mooing.  We never get an exterior shot of the hotel, but these little details establish its rural location.  [Not that the hotel’s location is important – it’s simply another example of the profound attention to detail found throughout the series.])  But Tony doesn’t have any long-term plans for Valentina – at least not at first.  The idea of carrying on with a woman who is with Ralph is more repulsive to him than finding out in the previous episode that Ron Zellman is now his wiener-cousin.  Valentina tries to explain to Tony that she and Ralph don’t have actual sex, but engage in other forms of sexplay instead.  Tony cannot understand why Ralph doesn’t have “penissary contact with her Volvo.”  He asks Silvio for his opinion on their colleague:

Tony:  Lemme ask you a question.  You think Ralph is a little weird about women?
Sil:  I don’t know, Ton’.  I mean, he beat one to death for… uh, I forget, what was it again?

Janice gives Tony a more thorough assessment of Ralph.  For $3000, she spills the beans on her former lover: “He bottoms from the top.”  She divulges his masochistic tendencies, his enjoyment of the strap-on.  When she assures Tony that “plain old fucking” doesn’t excite Ralph, it paves the way for Tony to take Valentina as his new goomar.

I think it is notable that Miss Reyjkavic makes her third appearance of the season in this hour, as she and Tony have dinner with the other men and their goomars.  Although she and Tony have obviously been carrying on some sort of relationship, she seems to not have achieved goomar status.  She has gotten very little screentime or dialogue.  We never even learn her real name.  Part of her marginal status in Tony’s life may stem from her occupation as a stewardess – she simply is not around New Jersey for very long stretches before she has to leave.  But another reason why she may be little more than a random fling for Tony might be because she is too Nordic.  We know from past history that Tony prefers his goomars to be dark beauties, like something out of a “Goyim” portrait (as he described Gloria Trillo).  Valentina certainly fits the bill.  Tony gets a sense of her Latin heritage early on, when he hears Ralph call her “my Chiquita banana.”  Valentina does have a resemblance to the Chiquita banana-girl, both the company icon and the Portuguese beauty Carmen Miranda:

Carmen Miranda Sopranos Autopsy

Irina, Tony’s Russian mistress, was not Latin but she had the requisite dark hair and dark eyes.  Perhaps more importantly, she had the dark attitude—like mother Livia—that Tony is continuously drawn to.  Perhaps this is the reason why Tony doesn’t forge a significant relationship with Miss Reyjkavic – she may be too emotionally centered and stable for his (subconscious) tastes.  Valentina not only has dark physical features, but her neediness and emotionality are also hinted at here.

Carmela finds Valentina’s acrylic nail in Tony’s clothing.  She has largely come to accept Tony’s philandering, but to have such glaring evidence of it thrust into her face at this time—when she is already beset by money worries and Furio’s departure—is more than she can endure.  Frustrated, she hurls her nighttime reading material against the wall.  The Mists of Avalon is a famously feminist retelling of the King Arthur legends.  The novel tells the stories of the strong, influential women behind the fabled men.  But the Arthurian mythology is only that – mythology.  By tossing the book, Carmela signals her readiness to get real.  She goes down to the storage container where she knows Tony has hidden cash.  As she tries to smash the lock open with a shovel, we understand that she is really trying to unlock her own sense of empowerment and self-determination.  She is trying to gain access to a part of life that the Mob’s strict gender roles have barred her from. 

Her first attempt at accessing the money is unsuccessful.  It is only later, when Tony is in the shower humming Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” that Carmela is able to grab his keys to go down to unlock the container.  We might note that her “betrayal” of Tony as he showers is a parallel of the earlier scene in which Tony “betrayed” Carmela as she showered, when he broke his wedding day promise to never douse her with cold water:

Carm betrayed

PARALLEL TO:

tony betrayed Sopranos Autopsy

Carmela swipes about $50,000.  She is no spring chicken, she knows how to invest the money without raising IRS eyebrows.  We might note that the brokerages on her checklist have very real sounding names:

brokerages Sopranos Autopsy

As authentic as the names seem, the writers may be having a bit of fun.  “Charles Schneer” was the name of a Hollywood film producer.  And “Bloom Roth” may be a reference to the contentious marriage of actress Claire Bloom and literary giant Philip Roth.  After their divorce, Bloom skewered Roth in a tell-all memoir, and he countered (reportedly) by basing the destructive wife in his novel I Married a Communist on her.

The final scene of the hour tautly pulls Carmela and Tony’s stories together.  It is a memorable scene but I’m not going to clip the entire thing.  I just want to excerpt the first minute in order to highlight how cleverly staging and the camera are used to reinforce the subtext of the scene.


After finding the fingernail that Carmela has planted amidst his things, Tony comes down into Carm’s domain – the kitchen.  Clearly, something is amiss – and perhaps his unexpected hankering for decaf now reflects the strangeness of the situation he finds himself in.  As Carmela goes into the kitchen to brew a cup, the camera shifts to capture the shifting power dynamic between husband and wife.  (Maurice Yacowar notes that the episode is framed by Carm’s coffee: in the first scene, she gave Furio a comforting cup with extra cream and sugar; in the final scene, she prepares a wimpy cup of decaf for Tony.)  Tony steps out of the kitchen, maintaining the physical and emotional distance that has been present between them all season long.  Carmela and Tony tiptoe around the topic foremost on their minds – his new merger with Valentina and her new acquisition of cash.  Their mutual silence becomes, as the song goes, “another brick in the wall” between them.

In their essay “What Has Carmela Ever Done For Feminism?” Janet McCabe and Kim Akass note that in “Amour Fou” last season, Carmela and her friends had discussed the way that Hillary Clinton responded to Bill’s cheating:

Gabriella:  She took all that negative shit he gave her and spun it into gold.  You gotta give her credit.
Carmela:  Well, that’s true, isn’t it?  She a role model for all of us.

Carmela almost literally tries to spin Tony’s philandering into gold now, taking from the pile of money he has hidden away.  Carmela certainly doesn’t consider herself a feminist the way Hillary Clinton might, and even tells Rosalie as much in this episode: “Women are supposed to be partners nowadays.  I’m no feminist, I’m not saying 50-50, but geez.”  I agree with McCabe and Akass that “maybe Carmela is more of a feminist than she thinks.”  She asserts herself by filching Tony’s cash.  She hits Tony right where it hurts him the most – in his money bin.  She knows that in SopranoWorld, it is money, more than anything else, that talks.

Hear Carmela roar.

___________________________________

SETTING THE STAGE
“Mergers & Acquisitions” is a great episode in its own right, but it’s also great in how it sets the stage for the next episode, “Whoever Did This,” which is one of the jewels of The Sopranos.  One way that it does this is by quietly resurrecting our memories of Tracee from “University.”  Although Tracee is not mentioned by name in the present hour, there are two references that evoke her:

  1. After Valentina tricks Ralph into stepping in a pile of horseshit, Tony tells her, “It can be risky trusting him to have a sense of humor.”  He’s referring to Ralph’s pummeling of Tracee after she made some funny jokes about him.
  2. And, of course, Silvio is referring to her when he mentions the woman that Ralph beat to death.

Tracee’s name is never mentioned by name in “Whoever Did This” either, but her memory undergirds the hour.  Another important way that “Mergers & Acquisitions” sets up the next episode is by increasing Tony’s distrust of Ralph Cifaretto.  Tony learns, from Valentina and Janice, of Ralph’s perverse sex habits here.  Brian Gibson, in his essay “‘Black Guys My Ass’: Uncovering the Queerness of Racism in The Sopranos,” writes…

Ralph’s private sexual submission to women, exemplified by his queer gender-switching when he has Janice screw him from behind with a strap-on dildo (“Christopher”), makes him seem an impotent, passive liar to Tony and a traitor who, like the rat Pussy, is hiding his false male loyalty beneath an exaggerated hard-guy image.

Ralph’s masculinity—the most important characteristic that a mob soldier should have—is called into question.  Perhaps Jackie Jr was right when he described Ralphie last season as a “secret fag.”  (This episode explores definitions and limitations of gender.  Tony is vexed by Carmela breaking out of the gender constraints placed on her by mob culture, and even more vexed by Ralph’s deviation from the traditional sex roles of his gender.)

A third way this episode sets up events of the events of “Whoever Did This” is through straight-up foreshadowing.  Tony gives the horse portraitist a photograph but asks if he can change the composition of the painting: “But what about this deadbeat…can you leave me in and just crop him out?”

deadbeat Ralph Cifaretto

Tony will himself crop Ralph out of the picture, so to speak, in the next episode.

___________________________________

GREEN GROVE (AND HIGH SCHOOL) REVISITED
I love Paulie’s storyline here.  He provides some comic relief in an hour that delves into some serious issues between Tony and Carmela.  Because of Tony Sirico’s bad back, we haven’t seen too much of Paulie this season – but he appears in classic form here.  There really isn’t another character quite like Paulie Walnuts in American television.  His grotesque immaturity is in full display now.  (We learn in this episode that he dropped out of school in ninth grade, and perhaps that helps explain his arrested development.)   When Nucci has difficulty befriending old acquaintances Cookie Cirillo and Minn Matrone, and fitting into social life at Green Grove in general, the director explains to Paulie that a high school mentality exists among the residents of the retirement center.  Little does the director realize that Paulie himself is a man with a high school mentality.  He delivers veiled threats to Cookie’s son (a former pizza-faced classmate of his, now a high school principal).  When that proves ineffective, he—like a high school bully—sends his goons after the man.

High school revisited Sopranos Autopsy

WHO WILL WEAR THE CROWN?
The songs that close out each episode of The Sopranos are always inspired choices, but Delaney & Bonnie’s “When This Battle is Over” deserves special mention.  It manages to pertain to all three of the major stories of the hour.  Coming just after Tony and Carmela have their (non)confrontation in the kitchen, the song obviously underscores the power struggle occurring within the Soprano household (and picks up on the idea of the power behind King Arthur’s crown found in Carmela’s The Mists of Avalon):

When this battle is over
Who will wear the crown?
Will it be you?
Will it be me?

The song also recalls Ralph’s story.  Tony learns that Ralphie doesn’t wear the king’s crown in his sexual relationships – he’s more of a queen.  Finally, the song plays off of Paulie’s story here.  When Principal Cirillo (with arm in plaster cast) and his wife inform mother Cookie that she must either be nicer to Paulie’s mom or be moved to another residence, she is outraged.  She says, “This is Green Grove.  Here the senior citizen is King and Queen.”  Cookie may want to believe that she is a Queen, but in reality it is the mob—specifically Paulie—that holds power.  It is Paulie that wears the crown.

___________________________________

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

  • Tony’s power is being threatened from multiple directions, although he barely recognizes it.  Carmela is challenging Tony’s authority on the domestic front while Furio’s uncle advises Furio to kill the Boss if he really wants to be with the Boss’ wife.  Meanwhile, Chris is sinking deeper into addiction, seeming less and less fit to be Tony’s Chief Operating Officer.
  • Nucci tries to nuzzle up to Cookie by buying her a greeting card, telling Paulie that “I cared enough, and I sent the very best.”  We see over and over again how characters retransmit, often without any sense of irony or self-awareness, the advertising slogans and jingles that have infiltrated their thoughts.  These slogans are the cultural equivalents of the hamburger wrappers (in Furio’s complaint to his uncle) that surround the San Gennaro cathedral: they litter our cultural landscape, and sully what is most holy – our thoughts and speech.

15 responses to “Mergers & Acquisitions (4.08)

  1. The comparison to House Arrest is most apt. The two are companion or sister episodes in a way, both being largely about boredom. Johnny Cakes, Kaisha and Chasing It also perhaps could be said to follow this trend. House Arrest is the only one of these that’d rank highly on a list of my favorite episodes, yet I still find myself re-watching all of them often more than the very greatest episodes. There’s something fascinating and enjoyable about just kind of relaxing for an hour in the Sopranos world. Maybe that’s why I rate Seasons 3 and 4 as the best (besides 6): they eschew plot machinations in favor of day-in-the-life mini-movies. I almost feel Season 5, great as it is, is a bit too fast-paced and plot-focused, as if trying to compensate for the viewer-alienating languor of Season 4. But languor is practically the show’s default mode, even at its plottiest, and if that wasn’t clear to people by Funhouse it should’ve been made sparkling clear by the final nine episodes — how remarkably character-driven and unconventionally uninterested in moving forward Big Narratives they are. Soprano Home Movies, Stage 5, Remember When and Chasing It are pretty much all character pieces, with only Stage 5 really moving much plot forward; even Walk Like a Man with all its incredible momentum is basically just focused on Chris and AJ’s psychology. Kennedy and Heidi is a game-changing episode but even that only has hints of the NY-NJ conflict, and it’s really only in The Second Coming with Coco’s affront and especially The Blue Comet that we actually get real plot momentum. Pretty amazing if you think about it, just how wonderfully unorthodox Chase’s storytelling sensibilities were, for such a pop-culture giant of a show. But I digress…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, and I think that the languor you speak of is reflection of what lies at the core of the show – The Sopranos was constantly digressing and meandering away from those Big Narratives, often choosing to focus instead on “the fucking regularness of life.” I love Season 5, however, in part because it is so “plotty” – with Carmela and Adriana and Tony Blundetto’s forward-driving narratives in S.5, Chase proved that he could do “conventional TV” better than any conventional TV show could. In an odd way, it is precisely Season 5’s conventionality that makes it so different from all the other seasons.

      Like

  2. On at least a couple of occasions, I’ve watched the scene where Tony pours the glass of cold water on Carmela while she’s showering, and I get the false impression that he’s doing that to Valentina. Excellent juxtaposition there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is my favorite scene of the episode. It seems both Carmela and Tony, each in their own way, desperately desire returning to a past where they shared a young love. But they fail to escape their present, too much luggage holding them back. And find themselves in a deadlock of mutes, culminating in the kitchen scene.
      I find both Edie Falco’s and James Gandolfini’s acting spot on here. How they express the hope of maybe finding some of the old sparkles back, then being disappointed in the harsh present. How would the episode, and the entire show, have turned should Tony simply have hugged Carmela here?

      Liked by 1 person

    • When Tony pours the water on Carmella over the top edge of the shower cubicle and she comes out wrapped in a robe, indignant, the fact her hair is plastered to the sides of her face, rather than the elaborate middle-aged lady beauty salon style she usually has, makes her look much younger to me. More casual. It’s like a flash back to when Tony and Carm were young, and both were less predictable, referenced by Carm to their honeymoon, when Tony last pulled that stunt. The sadness for me is that Tony is testing whether Carm can be young again, like Valentina with her practical jokes, and she’s telling him no, she can’t. Life has to be serious at their age.

      Liked by 2 people

    • When Tony is in the shower, and Carmella looks in furtively,
      I thought for a moment she was going to repay Tony by
      playing the cold water trick on him! But that would have
      been a different show. She goes to the bird feeder instead.
      BTW, this also reminded me of the episode in Mad Men
      when Don’s wife finally gains access to his locked drawer.

      Like

  3. I believe you misintrepreted what Paulie said when speaking to that principal. Paulie told the principal that it looked like his face cleared up and then Paulie said “see, ninth was my last” (inferring that 9th grade was the last year he had bad skin- NOT that he dropped out of school in 9th grade).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I disagree. When Paulie says 9th was his last he is referring to why he didn’t know the other guy’s skin had cleared in the 10th. You can tell this puts an awkward strain on the moment between the two men.. one being a literal representative of education, the other a drop out.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Shit. On second thought, you and Ron were probably right, ha. Either way, when is Ron going to finish the autopsies? Season 5 still needs to be finished and season 6 was also supposed to be done by now! Ron needs to get either a no-show or a no-work job so he can concentrate on this site.

        Like

  4. Two pretty major parallels with Ralph’s masochism (great article though, as usual OP) are Tony with the mob and Carmela with Tony. Tony is trying not to be in control of his family; however, he can’t resist micromanaging Chris and Silvio. Also, Carmela is keeping up the appearance of being subversive to Tony, while secretly empowering herself behind his back (again, almost literally; in his back yard. (Maybe I’m over interpreting here.)). Both examples of ‘bottoming from the top’, in my opinion. I see it rather as a central theme. Where Paulie’s story fits into this? Maybe through the ‘normal’ mother/son-relationship and the establishing of Paulie as the bully, not the bullied. So he’s the exact opposite.

    Fantastic episode, yet again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. the interaction with Adrianna and Ralphie. Ade tells him ” my mom told me you can tell everything about a man by the way he treats women”. Well what does that have to say about Christopher lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One thing that seems strange to me about Ralphie is that he must have had
    ‘conventional’ sex at least once with Tracee if the baby she carried was his.
    But why?

    He never connected with Janice or Valentina’s ‘Volvo’s’. What about
    Rosalie’s? We see the ‘frustrated goomar & wife’ again in Vito’s story later on, but in
    Ralphie’s case what was different about Tracee? Maybe it wasn’t
    different, and Tracee’s taunting of him at the end was related to his
    preference for being the bottom, leading him to kill the story – literally. But at
    least once she must have convinced him to do it the regular way, as did his
    ex-wife.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wiener cousins where I come from is stronger than family.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s