Carmela looks to a luxurious house on the
Jersey shore to ease her heartache.
Former mistress Irina calls the Soprano home.
Johnny Sac asks Tony for help in eliminating a problem.
Episode 52 – Originally aired Dec 8, 2002
Written by Green & Burgess and David Chase
Directed by John Patterson
Edie Falco, James Gandolfini, David Chase, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess all won Emmys for their work on this episode, and John Patterson won a DGA Award for Outstanding Direction. “Whitecaps” ranked within the top 5 greatest Sopranos episodes on both Time and Entertainment Weekly’s lists, and was lauded by critics and viewers nationwide. I don’t like to give the episodes a fixed ranking, but it is quite possibly my favorite outing of the first 4 seasons.
But the hour was not universally loved. Some viewers didn’t find the sudden dissolution of the Soprano marriage to be believable. Others thought the episode was very manipulative, making a game of playing with our expectations and emotions. And “some people,” David Chase says on the DVD commentary track, “found it lacking because it didn’t have enough people get killed.” Many viewers and critics just didn’t like Season 4 in general—it had a very different shape from the first 3 seasons. They complained that:
- there were too many storylines that marched out to nowhere;
- the death of the biggest villain—Ralphie—came too early, in the ninth episode of the season (“Whoever Did This”);
- “Christopher,” appearing early in the season, is the weakest hour of the series. (I don’t share this opinion.)
Another factor that contributed to how Season 4 was perceived was that 2002 was the year that The Sopranos reached critical mass, and therefore Season 4 was the first season that many people actually watched in “real time” (as opposed to their “compressed” viewings of Seasons 1-3 on DVD; Season 4 is slower-paced and more languorous than the previous three seasons, and therefore watching it uncompressed, drawn out over a period of three months, might certainly have driven some viewers batty with frustration.
I haven’t been too concerned on this website with ranking episodes or giving them grades or stars or smiley faces or a thumbs up/thumbs down. I’ve tried to focus more on how the episodes function—how they do what they do. Regardless of how good or bad or loved or disappointing or manipulative “Whitecaps” may be, I think the episode is a brilliant showcase of technique.
The hour begins with a shot of Carmela in the foreground of Dr. Cusamano’s office, looking bleary-eyed and ill. (Kudos to Edie Falco for going sans make-up, something that many actresses refuse to do but Falco does throughout the series when the story calls for it.) Carmela’s emotional longings and moral struggles finally come into the foreground of the series. We can guess that her illness doesn’t exactly have a physical cause, but that it is a psychosomatic manifestation of her depression and heartache over Furio. This heartache is the major fault-line upon which SopranoWorld quakes in this hour.
But I think this first scene is also important because it sets up a major issue that hasn’t been much considered in most analyses of “Whitecaps”: ethnic identity and the American Dream. When Dr. Cusamano says “Score one for the Italians—you don’t have lupus,” he calls our attention to Carmela’s Italian ethnicity. The Sopranos has long been concerned with issues of Italian-Americanness, and Chase used the Cusamanos to pointedly highlight some of these issues in Season One’s “A Hit is a Hit.” (We remember Bruce Cusamano’s white meddigan friends treating Tony like a dancing bear at the golf course, and Jeannie Cusamano mocking Carmela’s Murano glass during a dinner party.) Issues about the American Dream, and the Soprano family’s attitude and access to this fabled Dream, play a subtle but significant role in the events of the hour.
The second scene of the episode has Johnny Sac in his backyard worrying about cash flow. He gripes about Ginny shopping at Nordstroms while his daughter’s student loan is in arrears. He loses his temper when he starts talking about the work stoppage at the Esplanade and how much money he’s losing. We remember that it was for this reason that Johnny gave Tony the OK to hit Carmine, and we’re now led to believe that mob politics and violence will be the primary story of the hour. These first two scenes are, respectively, about Tony’s family and his famiglia, and Chase cuts back-and-forth between these two storylines as the hour progresses. I generally try not to do too much summarizing of episodes in my write-ups, but in the case of “Whitecaps,” I think a recap of the entire hour is the best way to study Chase’s technique of alternating between the family/famiglia stories as a means to keep the viewer unbalanced and build up dramatic tension.
Tony surprises Carmela with a trip to Whitecaps, a house that is for sale on the Jersey shore. The realtor’s name, “Virginia Lupo,” recalls the lupus—and the good fortune of being Italian—that Cusamano mentioned earlier. Tony tries to sell the idea of a beach house to Carmela: “When we were piss-poor, this was the biggest caviar wish we could come up with. Kind of reminds you of the Kennedy compound, don’t it?” The Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port is far more than a geographical place, it is a mythological territory within the American imagination. It is the ground of our American Camelot. We know that Tony has bought into the mythology of the Kennedy family because we remember from the Pilot episode that he has one of JFK’s hats in his possession. Tony looks at Whitecaps too with a mythologizing eye. A waterfront property would be the pinnacle of his American Dream, as it seems to be for the neighbor:
Alan Sapinsly stands before the American flag as he paints the picturesque landscape. Like Alan, “Tony has his own little Ralph Lauren fantasies,” says David Chase. (I’m gonna keep coming back to Chase’s commentary track throughout this write-up.) Owning Whitecaps would certainly prove that Tony has come a long way from Bloomfield Avenue (“Guinea gulch”) where he grew up. But there is a catch: technically, the beach house has already been sold.
Back at the Soprano home, AJ excitedly exclaims “Un-fuckin-believable!” to learn that his dad wants to buy a house down on the shore. Carmela tries to discipline his foul language:
Carm: You’re fined $3 for the F-word.
AJ: I heard dad say ‘mother-F’ when I was coming down the stairs.
Carm: He’s fined too. We’re gonna make this policy work.
AJ: It’s too late.
AJ is right, it is too late and Carmela knows it. The camera captures her wistful recognition that it is indeed too late to bring some semblance of discipline into this home. And too late to have any real shot at getting Whitecaps. (And too late to ever gain the happiness that she dreamt of having with Furio.)
But in the middle of the night, Carmela decides she must salvage some happiness for herself. Using her own version of gangster-speak, she tells Tony—without saying it outright—that she must have Whitecaps. She tells Tony that “more is lost by indecision than by wrong decision.” She is ostensibly referring to the beach house, but we know that she must also be regretting her indecision about Furio. We can now fully recognize how brilliant “Eloise” (4.12) was in setting up this season finale. In the previous episode, we saw how deeply diminished Carmela felt her life had become (especially because of that incredible camera dolly) after Furio bolted. Owning a house on the water, with expansive views out to the horizon, could certainly be a way to counteract her sense of diminishment. We also perceived in the preceding episode that Carmela was flustered by Meadow’s roommates. All-American Colin and Old-money, Royal-blood Alex may have access to the American Dream in a way that Carmela may not believe herself to have. As Martha Nochimson points out in Dying to Belong, the gangster-genre is undergirded by the gangster’s desire to assimilate into the larger culture and rid himself of immigrant anxieties. What is true of the gangster is also true of the gangster’s wife. Acquiring Whitecaps may be Carmela’s attempt to put herself on equal footing with those whom she sees as privileged by birth.
Meanwhile, Chris Moltisanti has gotten out of rehab and has returned to work. Chris drives Tony to meet Johnny Sac at Office Max, where the two men roam the aisles discussing Carmine’s assassination. Tony clues Chris in on the planned whacking. After Christopher suggests a couple of black guys to be the triggermen, Tony tells him to “make sure” that the New Jersey famiglia’s role in the hit is never allowed to surface.
Tony brings Chris to Whitecaps, where the young man immediately takes off his shirt and starts sunning himself, despite the fact that Tony has absolutely no claim to ownership—at least not yet. This changes very quickly. When Tony offers cash and a short escrow for the house, Alan Sapinsly calls the previous buyer and bullies him out of the sale. We never meet Dr. Kim, the previous buyer, in person but we can guess that he is Asian. His ethnicity may play into the twists of this episode. Sapinsly’s decision to renege on his obligation to the Kims in favor of the Sopranos is primarily money-driven, of course, but the race-issue may also have contributed. The Kims are quite possibly newer-money than the nouveau-riche Sopranos; the Asians may fit less into Sapinsly’s yuppified, Ralph Lauren conception of American wealth than even the Italian mobster clan. To continue Dr. Cusamano’s earlier thought, score another one for the Italians.
Virginia Lupo calls with the good news that all obstacles for the sale have been cleared, and the whole family visits Whitecaps. Even cynical AJ is impressed. Tony and Carm share an idyllic moment along the water’s edge in each other’s arms. But we shouldn’t expect the story to continue with such serenity. After all, the titular term “whitecaps” refers to the white streaks and foam that appear in rough, turbulent waters.
Chase now pivots away from the family story to the famiglia story. Chris meets with the two black men to give the down payment for the hit. This scene adds to the long-running commentary the series has made on the intersection between Faith and Firearms. Credenzo Curtis name-drops God (“Praise the Lord for sobriety”) and sports some major Jesus-bling as the men discuss the upcoming murder:
So the hit has been put in motion, and we figure that this will be the generator of the hour’s climax. But Chase performs a bait-and-switch here, immediately pivoting back to the domestic storyline. Irina, with a bottle of her beloved Stoli in hand, calls the Soprano home and delivers what TVtropes.org calls a wham line to Carmela: “I used to fuck your husband.” Carmela is stunned and gingerly places the phone back in its cradle. When Irina makes a second call, moments later, Carmela gets over her shellshock and turns into an angry tigress, protecting her home and family, even mentioning her access to guns.
When Tony gets home, he drives over some of his belongings which Carmela has tossed out the window. (Apparently the golf clubs getting crushed beneath Tony’s truck was Denise Chase’s idea. Professor Susann Cokal calls the sequence “an excellent image of self-castration.”) After a tense and physical showdown, Carmela kicks Tony out of the house. Some viewers don’t find it believable that Carmela would toss her husband out so suddenly now; after all, she’s known for years about his goomars. I think the most obvious explanation for her behavior is that Irina calls at a time when Carm is already overwhelmed by the sudden disappearance of Furio—learning about Svetlana now simply pushes her over the edge. David Chase recognizes the problem of believability, and supplies the writers’ explanation: broadly speaking, Seasons 1, 2 and 3 were respectively about Tony as a son, a brother and a father. But Season 4 was about his marriage. After 4 years of showing Carmela’s passivity, “we just had to do this,” says Chase.
I think this episode’s concerns about the American Dream also come into play now. Carmela has remained passive about her husband’s philandering for decades because marriage to him is the path that she has chosen to reach success, comfort and assimilation. To find out that he is fucking a disabled Russian now, when she is already on the precipice of despair over Furio, is more than Carmela can handle. She asks Tony, with genuine wonder, “What does she have that I don’t have?” To Carmela, Svetlana is just a one-legged immigrant. But Tony knows, as do we (particularly after we saw her reject Tony in “The Strong, Silent Type”) that Svetlana is in fact an industrious, resilient, self-sufficient woman. Unlike Carmela, Svetlana chases the American Dream the hard way—she earns it. This difference between Carmela and Svetlana is emphasized through the juxtaposition of this scene with the next. Chase cuts from Carmela crying and hyperventilating to the sequence where Tony runs into Svetlana, cool and collected and self-possessed as usual:
Svetlana fills Tony in on the backstory behind Irina’s call—and it adds a vicious irony to the narrative. After caretaker Branca got into a tiff with her employer Svetlana over withholding FICA and federal taxes, Branca vengefully gossiped about Svetlana and Tony to Irina—who then made the phone call to the Soprano house in a drunken, jealous stupor. This backstory supplies the answer to Carmela’s earlier question; it shows exactly what Svetlana has that Carmela doesn’t have: Integrity. Carm has made a deal with the devil, marrying a man who spends much of his life hiding his income from the IRS. (Income, by the way, that Carmela has filched in the past to invest in $9900 chunks that do not have to be reported to the government). But honest Svetlana is not willing to fudge on federal taxes, and this is what spurs Branca to rat out her fling with Tony to Irina. Tony and Carmela have been able so far to avoid the IRS and the FBI, but they cannot escape the writers’ sense of irony.
Tony spends the night at Whitecaps. Alan Sapinsly insists that Tony can’t stay there (liability issues) but gives him some excellent divorce advice (pollute the attorneys). With a marital separation and eventual divorce looming, Tony decides that he cannot buy the place and asks for his $200k deposit back. But Sapinsly won’t let him off the hook so easily: “You and your wife could be back together in a month, leaving A.S. here fucked in the ass.” At first we think that his referring to himself in the third-person is just another one of his smug douchebag affectations, but then we realize that it calls attention to the fact that his initials are the same as our “hero” Anthony Soprano. Lawyer A.S. and gangster A.S. are spiritual clones, each one holding the arrogant belief that the rules don’t apply to himself. Tony reneges on his deal with Alan now just as Alan reneged on his deal with Dr. Kim. (Tony had said in 1.07 “Down Neck” that perhaps he would have become a patio furniture salesman in a different life, but I think he could have become one of those asshole lawyers like Alan Sapinsly.) Alan’s wife Trish warns him that Tony is a mobster. But this doesn’t intimidate Alan, it’s not his first dealing with the Mafia: “I dealt with them on that Neapolitan copyright thing with Enya.” Hmm, it’s an interesting line. Alan may have chosen the Italian Sopranos over the Asian Kims to be his neighbors, but he represented that most white of artists—Irish/Celtic Enya—against the darker-skinned “Nabolidan” Italians in a legal matter. Score one against the Italians this time.
Johnny Sac calls Tony with the news that Carmine has had a change of heart. They meet at a park to hammer out a compromise on the HUD profits. But Johnny is not happy. He still wants the hit to happen. David Chase can switch Carmine’s assassination on-again off-again multiple times only because this is an extra-long episode. Clocking in at 75 minutes, “Whitecaps” is actually the longest episode of the series. Chase now switches back to the domestic story.
In the backroom of the Bing, Paulie takes Tony’s side over Carmela’s a bit too enthusiastically, raising Tony’s suspicions about his loyalty. It is at this point that Alan Sapinsly calls to discuss the deposit. If anybody still hasn’t figured out that Alan Sapinsly is Anthony Soprano’s yuppie-doppelganger, Chase now drops an obvious clue: as the two men speak to each other on the phone, we see that they both have the identical photo of heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano behind them:
Alan may work in a corner office downtown while T operates out of a dingy backroom, but they are both essentially the same—selfish, arrogant thugs. Tony behaves like a thug not only in his business affairs but in his personal affairs as well. Heavyweight Tony muscles his way back into the Soprano home over featherweight Carmela’s protests. He moves into the converted entertainment room, reconverting it into a long-term residence for himself. AJ comes in and tries to bunk with dad, but Tony thinks that Carmela might not appreciate such a living arrangement:
Tony: You can come here and watch TV with me, but you can’t stay here.
Tony: (Giving him cash) Here, go buy her one of those CDs she likes and some flowers. Tell her you’re sorry, that you’ll try to be more considerate.
When AJ cussed earlier in the episode, Carmela tried to fine him $3.00. But when he cusses now, Tony actually hands him money. It is this flouting of rules, this lack of discipline and rectitude that Tony has demonstrated his entire life that Carmela can no longer endure. This is why Tony now finds himself sleeping on an air mattress in the detached room rather than with Carmela in their bedroom.
Tony tosses and turns on the air mattress, sensing that something is not quite right about Johnny Sac’s request to kill Carmine. He telephones Chris and tells him to call off the hit—and “make sure” that no one can ever know that this whacking was ever considered. Chris understands that the only way to “make sure” the secret deal with Johnny Sac never comes to light is by killing the hitmen. In the mob’s vicious and racist calculus, the secrets of Italian men are worth more than the lives of black men. (Score another one for the Italians, I guess.) After Chris meets Credenzo Curtis and Stanley Johnson out in the Meadowlands, Benny and Petey fill them with bullets. Chase finally provides the “hits and tits” crowd the bloodshed they crave.
But the real “BANG!” is yet to come. Tony lounges in his swimming pool beneath the trees, relaxed and acting as though nothing is wrong. The tranquil water of the pool is a direct contrast to the roiling, tumultuous waters signified by the term whitecaps:
Carmela, who is caught in the roiling tumult of her emotions, looks at tranquil Tony with consternation and anger. She presses Tony to bring the theater seats inside, it’s not good for the lawn. In a Chinatown allusion, Tony says in mock Chinese accent, “Bad for grass.” (Chinatown starts out being about a water utility, but ends up being about dark family terrors; “Whitecaps” starts out being about a waterfront house, but ends up being about the darkness within the Soprano family.) Chase now presents us with one of the most intense domestic arguments ever seen on American TV, the true climax of the episode. Long running frustrations and grudges that have been simmering in the cauldron of their unhappy marriage finally boil over. Tony and Carmela would skin each other alive if they could. Carm vindictively plays her strongest card, revealing her months-long infatuation with Furio. Tony comes close to striking his wife, but drives his fist through the drywall instead. It is this searing scene that commentators surely have foremost in mind when they compare “Whitecaps” to Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, or Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? David Chase himself is disappointed that the scene is not as strong as it could be, humbly saying that “Arthur Miller would have done a better job,” but it is nevertheless a major reason why this Season Finale is so very memorable.
Tony’s yacht, the Stugots, arrives outside the Sapinsly’s home to blare out some Dean Martin, preventing Alan and Trish and their guests from enjoying their shark-fin soup. (We might remember that in 2.11 “House Arrest,” Dr. Melfi compared Tony’s need to keep busy, keep moving, to that of a shark. So: Alan tries to eat a soup that is made by finning sharks—a practice that often kills the creatures by causing them to become immobile—but he cannot immobilize shark Tony who has found a novel way to attack his prey.) “Fuckin’ goombah trash,” mutters Alan as the music clamors, fully revealing the racism and class-ism beneath his button-down, Brooks Brothers exterior.
Chase now wraps up the famiglia storyline. Tony meets Johnny Sac and tells him that he will not whack the NY Boss. Johnny is angered by the news, and quotes Macbeth to convey his frustration at working under Carmine: “Tomorrow I go into work—‘creeps on this petty pace.'” (David Chase acknowledges that it is unlikely that Johnny is well-read enough to quote Shakespeare at will, but says that he may have picked up the line from somewhere in popular culture. It’s a fitting allusion because Johnny Sac, like Macbeth, may want the boss killed in order to assume power for himself. Interestingly, Macbeth contains the earliest recorded use of the word “assassination,” further connecting Shakespeare’s tragedy to this episode’s on-again off-again plans for assassinating Carmine.) Johnny Sac’s bristling anger towards Tony leaves the possibility of mob warfare open for next season.
Chase now wraps up the domestic storyline. After the blowup with Carmela, Tony decides the best thing would be for him to move out. AJ and Meadow believe that their behavior had something to do with the breakup, as children often heartbreakingly do believe in such situations. As contentious as this marriage is, and as evil as Tony can be, we still feel saddened by the breakup of the Soprano family.
But there is still one more scene left in the hour. David Chase says he didn’t want to end the season with Tony leaving home, tail between his legs, but rather with a display of Tony’s power. In the final scene, Alan and Trish Sapinsly step on to their patio, wine glasses in hand, ready to enjoy the evening. But the Stugots is still anchored there. This final scene underscores how complicated our relationship to Tony Soprano is. As horrendous as Tony can be, we are glad—and we perhaps even envy—that he is able to put a douchewad like Alan Sapinsly in his place. Dean Martin’s laid-back lounge act starts bellowing out of the Stugots’ speakers, forcing Sapinsly to retreat back into his house. He knows that Tony Soprano has gotten the better of him. (Score another one for the Italians!)
I focused pretty narrowly on the family/familia plotlines in this write-up, but there are other significant events that also take place in “Whitecaps.” Perhaps most notably, Corrado gets a mistrial, thanks to an intimidated juror. And Adriana is still meeting with the FBI, a storyline that gets intensified in the coming season.
Connections to previous episodes pile up in “Whitecaps,” there are multiple references to things we’ve seen or heard in earlier outings: Svetlana’s toast to Livia in “Proshai, Livushka”; Meadow’s complaint that there’s never any food in the house in “University”; Carmela’s condemnation of Tony just before he got an MRI in the “Pilot”; Tony’s beating of Ron Zellman with a belt in “Watching Too Much Television”; Valentina’s acrylic fingernail from “Mergers & Acquisitions”; drugstore magnate Dr. Stamfa, who we first heard of in “Second Opinion.” The mob’s hiring of two black hitmen in this hour also connects back to the outsourcing of assassination to two African-Americans in “Isabella.” This hour may also link forward to a Season 6 episode, as Credenzo Curtis mentions a “Kaisha” just before he is killed.
Connections are also made here to other works of art: Chinatown, Days of Wine and Roses (when Tony references Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick), The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” Macbeth, and those old Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movies.
Other connections are made within “Whitecaps” through various means such as editing, echoing imagery and dialogue. Prof. Maurice Yacowar notes that…
…Chase provides an aesthetic order, a surface of rhyming shots and phrases that suggest the possibility of coherence. He cuts from the trial’s Allen Charge (instructions to a hung jury) to Alan’s firm charge of the lost deposit. The real-estate agent ‘Virginia Lupo’ rhymes with the ‘lupus’ that Dr. Cusamano rejects as Carmela’s illness. Svetlana’s butting out with her cane parallels Adriana’s lovely legged butting at the FBI agent’s car.
One connection that stands out for me is the (possible) link made between trees and death. Just after Credenzo Curtis and Stanley Johnson are killed, Chase cuts to a shot of the overhead trees in Tony’s backyard:
Tree-imagery has been linked to death and depression in previous episodes, and will continue to be so linked in Seasons 5 and 6. (I’ll give a more complete run-down of these “tree” connections in a later write-up.)
- We can almost think of this hour as the breaking of contracts episode, as various contracts get broken: real estate contracts, the contract killing of Carmine, and even the marriage contract between Tony and Carmela is in danger of being broken. (We might remember that in this season’s opener, Carmela said “Everything comes to an end.” While many “Tony is killed” theorists cite this line as evidence for a whacking at Holsten’s Diner, at this point in the series the line seems to be pointing more to the end of the Soprano marriage.)
- Haha: Adriana informs her FBI handler that Ralph Cifaretto may be missing because he has drug problem and may have “hit bottom somewheres.” We chuckle because we know that Ralphie “hit bottom” when Chris and Tony tossed his corpse off a cliff a couple of episodes ago.
- Irina had a glass of vodka in her hand the last time she called the Soprano home too, back in “The Knight in White Satin Armor” (2.12).
- David Chase says that at the end of the episode, they purposefully cut-to-black just as Dean Martin says “My girl’s still here” as an ironic way to reference that Carmela is not “still here”—she’s out of Tony’s life. I think it’s interesting that the Dean Martin song segues into “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I, because this track also may also underscore Carmela’s separation from Tony. “I Have Dreamed” is a song about two star-crossed lovers, one of whom has just escaped the king’s harem; Carmela has now made an escape from King Tony and his harem of women. (The question of whether she can remain free will be a significant, central issue of Season 5.)