Paulie returns home from an Ohio prison. Adriana pursues marriage as a legal strategy. Tony conspires with
community leaders to defraud a Federal agency.
EPISODE 46 - ORIGINALLY AIRED OCT 27, 2002 WRITTEN BY TERRY WINTER AND NICK SANTORA STORY BY CHASE, GREEN & BURGESS DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON
In the previous episode, “Everybody Hurts,” the show seemed to be dealing with everyone’s depression – everyone except for Adriana, that is. Other than a momentary appearance right at the beginning of the hour, she was absent from the last episode. Her depression, however, is dealt with in this hour. The episode title comes from a symptom of depression: vegging out on the couch and watching too much television. Adriana has been showing this symptom for a while now. Two episodes ago, she listlessly sat in front of the TV watching a “Body by Jake” infomercial. (Whatever happened to that guy?) The one time that we saw her in the last episode, she absentmindedly stared at a program about the Egyptian pyramids. In the present episode, she looks at The A-Team. (What non-depressed adult could sit through an hour of that show today?) She also watches an episode of the short-lived Steven Bochco drama Murder One. A character on the show mentions the so-called “marital privilege,” by which a spouse cannot be compelled to testify against her partner. This gets the wheel in Adriana’s pretty little head spinning.
But Adriana’s idea to quickly get married to Christopher looks like a no-go once he learns that she may be barren. To her suggestion that they could adopt a child, Chris shouts, “Yeah, that’s great! Some kid with chinky eyes called ‘Moltisanti!'” Actually, we did sort of see this in episode 2.01 “Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office…”:
Chris angrily knocks things over and storms out of the house. He turns to his colleagues for advice. Tony and Silvio think that a marriage between Chris and Ade would be a good thing. Paulie disagrees: “If ya ask me, marriage and ‘our thing’ don’t jibe.” (But Paulie may have some regrets about never getting married or having children; earlier in the hour, he got emotional listening to the song Sinatra wrote for his daughter, “Nancy with the Laughing Face.”) Chris tells them, “I gotta think about it.” (→Cut to him passed out in his car after injecting heroin; shooting up scag is Christopher’s way of “thinking about it.”) He comes back home to Adriana and consents to getting married.
It is when she is trying out wedding dresses that Adriana learns that “marital privilege” may just be a myth. It turns out that her friend saw an episode of Murder She Wrote in which a wife did have to testify against her husband. The composition of this scene may look familiar to us:
We saw Janus-faced Janice get doubled in a mirror while wearing a wedding dress back in episode 2.12. Adriana gets doubled now, and this imagery itself can be read in double ways. First, the image points to her double-life as an FBI informant (the pressure of which is driving her to rush into marriage). And second, the double-image of her may signify that she is of two minds regarding marriage to Christopher. Adriana loves him but he is a man who has physically assaulted her in the past, and who now calls her “damaged goods” upon learning that she may be barren. Furthermore, he had to get high on junk before he could find the courage to propose to her. If marriage can’t prevent her from testifying against Chris, as her friend believes, then is this marriage really going to be the best thing for Adriana?
An attorney confirms her friend’s claim that marriage wouldn’t necessarily protect her. And the bridal shower confirms Adriana’s disenchantment with the whole marriage idea. She looks nauseous upon receiving a Cuisinart at her bridal shower. Perhaps she is not yet ready for the banality and domesticity of married life. If so, this may be the most significant thing that she has in common with her fiancé, who has always had difficulty accepting “the fucking regularness of life.”
Although the episode title refers to Adriana’s story, the major plot of the hour concerns the mob’s new housing scam. It’s a straightforward story, but more brilliantly constructed than most viewers recognize. Disclosure: I’ve been aching to do the write-up on this episode for months (actually years, ever since the days when Sopranos Autopsy was just a twinkle in my eye) because of an observation that I haven’t yet seen anyone else make; the housing-scam storyline contains a fairly obscure allusion that nobody as far as I can tell has ever bothered to look up. The allusion opens up our understanding of the episode like a revelation. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Ever since learning that her cousin Brian Cammarata received a brand new suit from Patsy Parisi, Carmela has suspected that Tony is trying to pull her cousin into his circle. Now, Tony has invited Brian to Paulie’s “Welcome Home” party. Brian is not quite “one of the guys” – he makes a mob faux pas by comparing Paulie’s return from prison to a return from college. But he makes himself comfortable anyway, doing body shots off a stripper and waking up—pantless—the next morning on the Bing stage. Tony and Ralph take him to breakfast where he explains the details of the housing swindle to them.
Tony and Ralph enlist the help of Assemblyman Ron Zellman and his friend Maurice Tibbett to make the scam work. While at the sauna, Tony and Maurice realize they were practically neighbors as kids – prompting Ralph to give a new spin to the old “there goes the neighborhood” joke. The three white men laugh but Maurice doesn’t. This scene gives us a hint that notions about racism, neighborhood, and community will be crucially important components of this episode.
The four men talk about the Newark riots of 1967. As budding idealists in 1967, Maurice was working for a food co-op and Ron was interning at the state legislature. Tony would have been a young boy. (We may remember the reference to the riots and the devastation on Springfield Avenue that was made during a flashback scene in episode 1.07 “Down Neck.”) The causes of the riots were manifold, but they were essentially driven by a sense of disenfranchisement among Newark’s African-Americans. Poverty, unemployment, and exclusion from the city power structure all played a role. It was a violent week. The National Guard were called in. Twenty-six people died, and over 700 were injured with more than 1000 arrested.
As the men get dressed in the locker room, we see that Tony has a good relationship with his collaborators. Maurice nods and smiles at him almost like he’s a soul-brother because Tony knows a little bit about the Chi-lites and the history of soul music. And Tony is more magnanimous and warm than we would have expected him to be upon learning about Ron’s relationship with former goomar Irina.
Their scam is put into action. Dr. Fried fronts for the mob and purchases four rundown houses. Maurice, armed with a letter of reference from Assemblyman Zellman and a phony appraisal from Tony’s appraiser, secures a massive loan from Housing and Urban Development to buy the houses from the doctor. The left–handed check-marks and signatures from the HUD employee and Dr. Fried underscore that this whole thing just ain’t right:
THE HOUSING CRISIS
No, I’m not referring to the housing bubble which led to the crash of 2008. David Chase is often prescient on the show, and there are indeed moments in this hour that seem to foretell the 2008 recession and mortgage crisis (such as when Tony says that his house is worth three times what he paid for it; and the bad loan HUD gives to Maurice is no worse than the real-life subprime loans and unregulated CDOs that precipitated the recession). Chase is prescient, but not that prescient. No, I’m talking about a different kind of housing crisis:
The houses that the mob use for the scam are houses that have gone derelict. At least one of them is a crackhouse. Sad to say, there are neighborhoods like this in every major American city. Such urban blight is often the result of inadequate social support systems, a failed and discriminatory war on drugs, underfunded schools in minority neighborhoods, poor city planning and disastrous low-income housing schemes. This particular area of Newark may very well be suffering from some of the long-term, devastating effects of the ’67 riots: “white flight” and a decreasing amount of investment in businesses and infrastructure by both the public and private sectors. Racism and racial dynamics certainly have much to do with urban decay in America, but I think it’s often a green issue more than a black and white one: Money talks in the United States, and poor folks simply don’t have the necessary “vocabulary” to be heard. Many blighted neighborhoods would be robust and vibrant if we genuinely valued having a sense of community, but we simply don’t place value in having truly healthy communities, at least not as much as we do in making an easy buck.
Our devalued sense of community is apparent in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods as well. Ron Zellman lives in a development of bland cookie-cutter homes – gray, generic boxes all lined up in rows. His is a typical suburban neighborhood: homogenous, stratified, segregated. This is not a place of connection and camaraderie. Neighbors can’t even walk to one another’s homes without risk of being run over – notice the lack of sidewalks. There are no stoops or porches to facilitate conversations among neighbors, no stores within walking distance. Ron would have to travel by car, insulated from contact with others, just to buy a gallon of milk.
Tony’s house is a grander, bigger box than Ron’s, with more expensive furnishings, but it too has a very generic, flavorless quality (especially with its bland nouveau-riche interior). Though more upscale than Ron’s suburban tract, the Sopranos’ neighborhood does not foster a deep sense of community either. It suffers all the alienating ills of suburbia. The Soprano house sits in a cul-de-sac, literally a dead-end as far as community circulation and connection are concerned.
On a related note, I recently discovered that there are four Usonion homes in New Jersey built by the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright began thinking about his “Usonian” houses during the Great Depression when many middle-class Americans were finding themselves in diminished living conditions. The Usonian residences were meant to be relatively inexpensive but still express the ideals of American democracy that were so important to Wright: individuality, vitality, openness. There is nothing generic about a Wright building; even these modest Usonion homes are full of character and texture, and built specifically for their sites:
The Usonian ideal was perhaps too utopian to ever be broadly accepted, although there is actually a Usonian community, designed with Wright’s help, in New York, located just 45 miles away from the blighted Newark neighborhood that Tony is now plundering. Tony brings AJ into the old neighborhood where he grew up and tries to impart lessons about civic and ethnic pride, and cites the old grand church as an example of what pride and community investment can accomplish. (He brought Meadow to the same church to impart a similar lesson to her in the Pilot episode.) Tony voices boilerplate conservative ideology – with hard work and discipline, anyone can raise themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is much truth to this idea, but Tony (like many on the Right) goes too far in dogmatically embracing the idea as a certainty. He makes the logical error that many uber free-market conservatives make: If hard work = success, then a lack of success must have been caused by a lack of hard work. They don’t give due consideration to all the other complex factors that can impede success. Tony’s greed is one such factor – but he is self-blind to his own culpability in the collapse of this neighborhood and its people. (And he also chooses not to see that his own way of making a living does not manifest those values of hard work and discipline that he so emphatically preaches to AJ.)
The idea that exploitation of the urban environment is more of a green (money) issue than a black-and-white (racial) one is most clearly expressed at the bank where Maurice buys the properties from Dr. Fried. The black man and white man join hands here, in front of a mural that ironically reflects the “can-do” attitude of American capitalism:
With its idealized figures in a stylized landscape, the mural looks a bit like those Soviet propaganda pieces that once exalted the virtues of Communism:
The last 100 years have proven that the Communist creed is unworkable; “From Each According To Ability, To Each According To Need” may be a noble sentiment in one sense, but it is morally objectionable in another. Regardless of its moral content, the creed—at least as it was practiced by the Soviets—has proven to be impractical. Similarly, the mantra that has (unfortunately) become the unofficial credo of contemporary Capitalism will also fail in the long run: “From Each According to Gullibility, To Each According To Greed.”
The crack addicts need to be rousted from the property before Tony can send his guys in to salvage the copper pipes along with anything else that would maximize his profits. Zellman is unwilling to pull any strings to do it, so he passes the buck to Maurice, suggesting that Maurice utilize some of the gang-bangers that his organization provides support to. Maurice hates the idea of using force to clear out the properties: “Nobody said anything about violence. We renounced it, remember? When Eldridge went into the codpiece business.”
It’s almost a throwaway reference (and I haven’t seen any Sopranos commentary that has investigated the allusion) but it deepens our understanding of the episode. Maurice is referring to the “Cleaver Sleeve” codpiece pants that Eldridge Cleaver designed in the 1970s.
Cleaver’s pants exaggerate the idea of black virility and strength. As a leader of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, Eldridge Cleaver was committed to empowering African-Americans, very often in ways that mainstream America found very threatening. In his book Soul on Ice, Cleaver confesses his own disturbing method of empowering himself as a young man: he was a serial rapist. First he raped black women “for practice,” and then he raped white women. He writes:
Rape was an insurrectionary act. It delighted me that I was defying and trampling upon the white man’s law, upon his system of values, and that I was defiling his woman – and this point, I believe, was the most satisfying to me because I was very resentful over the historical fact of how the white man has used the black woman. I felt I was getting revenge.
Cleaver’s lifestory is a strange and surprising one. He was an angry and violent young man, who rose to power by articulating the anger and dissatisfaction that many others also felt. He contributed an important viewpoint to the civil rights movement. In the ensuing years, he bounced around different countries, different religions, different ideologies, even supporting Ronald Reagan for President (who would begin the process of turning the War on Drugs into the new Jim Crow). By the time he made his Cleaver Sleeve pants, he was no longer a significant contributor to the American dialogue on race. While the pants may have been an attempt to exalt black power and virility, they are in reality little more than a gauche, ridiculous joke.
Not wanting Tony to take $7000 out of his cut of the profits, Maurice sends his gangbangers in. Angelo (the black man who had earlier threatened Tony on the street) pulls out his gun to protect his family as gunfire erupts around them. The young bangers get control of Angelo’s gun, and fire a bullet which ricochets into his crotch, dropping him to the floor in agony:
Like the bullet, the actions of greedy men ricochet in unforeseen ways. In a vicious irony, Maurice had earlier made a reference to pants which glorified the black penis, but his decision to send the gangbangers in have now destroyed a black penis: Angelo takes a bullet to the cock. To add to the cruel irony, Dr. Ira Fried, who acted as the mob’s front in the first stage of the fraud, is a urologist. (We saw his commercial for penile enhancement back in episode 3.13.) The urologist is part of a scam that has not enhanced this young man’s virility but has instead wrecked it. Like millions of African-American men, Angelo is driven to his knees by the selfishness of others, both black and white. The 1960s hope of racial justice and equality has been crushed by greed and lingering racism. The American ideal of a democracy made vibrant by unique, enfranchised individuals each engaged within his thriving community is nothing more than a utopian fantasy.
A murmer of Ron Zellman’s old idealism seems to still throb within him. When he goes to the Bada Bing to pick up his share of the profits from the skunk-deal, a part of him feels that he should be punished for his misdeeds. Be careful what you wish for, Ron. We caught a glimpse of Tony’s discomfort regarding Ron Zellman’s relationship with Irina when he visited his home earlier – Tony glared at Irina’s heels, devilishly sexy amidst the dull décor of Zellman’s house:
Although not as emasculating as taking a bullet to the penis, Tony feels emasculated that Ron has replaced him in Irina’s bed. When the Chi-lites’ “Oh Girl” comes over Tony’s car radio, it triggers his thoughts of Ron & Irina. Tony had been buckling his belt in the locker room while this song played and Zellman first told him about Irina; now Tony unbuckles his belt to punish and emasculate Zellman:
In The Psychology of The Sopranos, psychotherapist Glen Gabbard diagnoses Tony as having a “vertical split,” in which two contrasting parts of his personality remain distinct from one another. On one side of the split, Tony is cold and callous almost to the point of being sociopathic. But there is also clearly a side of Tony that is loving, generous and empathetic. Dr. Gabbard, in the online Slate forum, says this episode provides a prime demonstration of the vertical split. Tony is magnanimous and understanding about Ron and Irina’s relationship early in the hour, only to become cruel and callous about it by the end. One of the most memorable examples of Tony’s “vertical split” will be seen a couple of episodes from now, in “Whoever Did This,” when Tony feels an enormous amount of sympathy for a horse — but for Ralph Cifaretto? Eh, not so much.
Upset by how he has been treated by the New Jersey famiglia lately, Paulie has been cozying up to New Yorker Johnny Sac. When they meet at a New York restaurant now, the Brooklyn Bridge spans behind them, visually echoing the bridge (mural) that spanned behind everyone at the bank meeting:
The rhyming imagery metaphorically connects the bankers with the Mafia criminals. Just as the mobsters want to conduct their business away from the prying eyes of the government, American bankers want to conduct their business with as little governmental interference as possible. This episode originally aired during a period when our Federal government had a particularly “hands off” attitude towards Wall Street and the banking industry. Even our top banker, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, was guided by an ideology of deregulation. (He later admitted that this ideology may have contributed to the subprime mortgage and credit crisis in the latter part of the decade.)
When the mobsters are not busy hiding from the Federal government, they are busy taking advantage of it; it is a Federal department—Housing and Urban Development—that Tony Soprano scams now. From time to time, Tony will criticize the “moochers” who benefit from tax-funded subsidies and handouts, but he has no qualms about blatantly looting the government himself.
I don’t believe that Chase is primarily criticizing the Right or the Left in this hour. While we may find something disagreeable in Tony’s small-minded conservatism or in Maurice Tibbetts’ do-gooder progressivism, Chase is targeting not their politics but their hypocrisy. The men understand that it takes more than physical materials or material wealth to build and maintain healthy communities, but their actions don’t reflect this understanding. Tony’s hypocrisy is highlighted through his conversation with AJ in front of the church that their forefathers built. Tony tries to impress upon AJ why the old church still endures, but the dimwitted young man just doesn’t get it:
Tony: That church is still standing. You know why?
AJ: The bricks?
AJ doesn’t understand Tony’s point that it takes more than bricks-and-mortar to make a building stand. Buildings endure when members of the community feel a sense of pride and responsibility and emotional investment. It’s not just about “the bricks.” But Tony himself takes a very narrow, “bricks-and-mortar” view of the mob’s newly-purchased houses in the black neighborhood (a neighborhood that cannot be very far from the Down Neck section of Newark where he himself grew up). Tony sees these building purely in material terms, stripping them clean like a vulture before flipping them for a tidy profit in a crooked double-deal. This neighborhood is one of those places that always gets double-dealed. While socio-political frustrations were simmering and erupting locally in Newark during the 1960s, the ideologies of Communism and Capitalism were clashing against each other in a global Cold War. The Cold War eventually ended and Capitalism, deservedly, emerged as the victor. But the triumph of Capitalism has not served the city of Newark as well as some may have hoped it would – Newark is still as fucked as it ever was.
- Cousin Brian is not happy that the HUD scam fleeces the American taxpayer, but he happily accepts the $15,000 Patek that Tony rewards him with for the idea. (Carmela seems to recognize that something fishy is going on, despite Brian’s claim that he just came by to pick up a power drill. He never returns the drill – Tony will search for it in a Season 5 episode.)