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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.