Pie-O-My suffers a gruesome fate. So does Ralphie Cifaretto. After getting rid of Ralph’s body, Tony goes to
the Bing where he sees a picture of Tracee.
EPISODE 48 - ORIGINALLY AIRED NOV 10, 2002 WRITTEN BY ROBIN 'GUILTY' GREEN & MITCH 'NOT GUILTY' BURGESS DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
“Whoever Did This” is one of the gems of the series. It has a little bit of everything that we’ve come to love (and some have come to hate) about The Sopranos. Humor, action, subtlety, violence, connectivity, silence – it’s all here. It is also this episode that really draws the battle lines in the war between certainty and ambiguity that so many Sopranos fans get pulled into; some viewers insist that Ralph is guilty of killing Pie-O-My, while others think the evidence is ambiguous at best. (Any consistent reader of this website should already be able to guess which way I lean.)
I think the episode title is the first clue that Chase’s universe is ruled by ambiguity – there are several instances in this hour in which characters (or we viewers) wonder exactly who it was that caused or carried out some particular event. The episode title is invoked, directly or indirectly, in each of the major stories of the hour:
- Ralph wonders who squealed to Johnny Sac about his Ginny-joke
- Ralph wonders if his son’s accident was just a random event, or an act of vengeance by God
- The guys wonder who made the prank call to Nucci
- We wonder if Ralph set fire to the horse stables
- We wonder if Corrado’s confusion is simply an act, or if the news media loosened some dormant dementia when they inadvertently knocked him down the courthouse steps
I’ll take a look at all of these questions in turn.
Ralph and his crew wonder who revealed his fat-joke to John Sacrimoni. He guesses—correctly—that Lil Paulie told Paulie, who must have then forwarded it to John. (We know Ralph has guessed correctly because Chase showed us these events onscreen earlier in the season.) To get revenge, Ralph makes a horrendous (but hilarious) prank call to Nucci. Ralph has always been a despicable character, and has even been compared to the Devil himself throughout the series:
(In episode 3.06, Ralph is purposefully placed, according to Professor Franco Ricci, in front of “a painting that is a splatter of color, a swirl of emotions and turbulence that reflects his demoniacal character”; in 4.02, Janice is reading The Origin of Satan when she’s hit by Ralph’s toe-clippings; and Ralph sits before a New Jersey Devils bumper sticker in 4.06. Additionally, he himself says “I’m Satan to this kid” in reference to Jackie Jr’s dislike of him in 3.03.)
Episode writers Green & Burgess recorded a commentary track for this hour. They say that it was very important to the show that they “rehabilitated” Ralph before they killed him. When Ralph’s son Justin suffers a gruesome, disabling accident, Ralph decides he must turn over a new leaf and become a better person. This is another example of how The Sopranos traffics in ambiguity: as demonic as Ralph can be, Chase wants to make it difficult for the viewer to see him as completely bad or evil. SopranoWorld is gray, not black-and-white. There have also been other instances on the series in which we were exposed to the brighter dimensions of some very dark characters just before they met their demise, perhaps most memorably Det. Vin Makazian in Season One. In episode 1.11, we saw Makazian taking a shower—almost as though it were a spiritual ablution—before later commiting suicide. Similarly, Ralph is also bathing when Chase begins the process of rehabilitating his character:
Housekeeper Inez shouts and bangs at the bathroom door, but Ralph is not alarmed at first – he has seen her get histrionic over petty things before. But Ralph grows anxious when he hears Inez shout his son’s name. Justin has been wounded by an arrow flung down from the heavens. (It was his friend that shot the arrow into the air, but God’s role—if He had a role—in directing the arrow towards Justin’s artery is a significant question of the episode.) The boy is rushed to the hospital where he lays in critical condition.
This is the episode that earned Joe Pantoliano an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. Just in the hospital scene alone, we can see that he fully deserved to win. He truly brings out the complexities of “Ralph Cifaretto.” Ralph is desolate and pained and hopeful and seething with anger all at once. He explodes at his ex-wife’s husband. Tony has to practically throttle Ralph against the wall—a gesture that will get echoed later in the hour—to make him calm down:
Ralph has been a demonic character throughout the series, and Green & Burgess have a bit of fun evoking our sympathy for this devilish man – they incorporate lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” into the episode’s dialogue:
- Ralph says “Please allow me to introduce myself” to Justin’s surgeon
- Ralph says “Pleased to meet you” to Father Phil
- Father Phil asks Ralph, “Were you there when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain?”
Ralph feels like a hypocrite turning to Father Phil now, but the priest assures him, “God understands. That’s why at times like these, He’s the only one we can turn to.” Outraged at the injustice of such a horrific accident occurring to his innocent son, Ralph snarls back, “God?!” Ralph believes that Justin’s accident is some sort of cosmic vengeance for his own misdeeds. In fact, it does seem that God may doling out vengeance – and doling it out with a heavy heaping of irony when we consider Ralph’s misdeed early in the episode: his prank phone call. During the call, Ralph told Nucci her son had to be rushed to the emergency room, only to have to rush his own son to the E.R. later. He also asked Nucci for her insurance information – and later tells Tony that his own insurance may not cover all the treatment that Justin will need. (Perhaps God is angry at Ralph for pinning a wacky sexual practice—gerbiling—on Paulie during the prank call, when it is actually Ralph himself that has some rather odd sexual proclivities.)
Father Phil cannot explain why Justin is suffering, he can only tell Ralph that “it’s a great mystery why things happen as they do.” But he is certain that the Lord is not punishing Justin as payback for Ralph’s misdeeds: “God has a plan for all of us…God is merciful. He doesn’t punish people.” With these contradictory statements, Father Phil demonstrates that he—like all of us—unconsciously switches from mystical ambiguity (“It’s a great mystery”) to certainty (“He doesn’t punish people”) depending on which viewpoint will best serve his prejudices and beliefs at a given moment.
Ralph’s curiosity about why such tragedy occurs is as old as the human race. The theological problem of evil and suffering has been directly addressed on The Sopranos before. As he sat beside cancer-stricken Jackie in episode 1.04, Tony wondered, “What type of God…?” And he will ask the same question again in Melfi’s office next week. Regardless of how many times this question is asked, in SopranoWorld or in the real world, we never get a satisfying answer. In his essay “‘Funny about God and Fate and shit like that’: The Imminent Unexpected in The Sopranos,” Robert Piluso writes…
As in life, when watching The Sopranos, we often do not know why things happen, or when they will, or if God’s plan is at work, or if chaos reigns in a godless void. Rather than expect Chase to eventually serve his Mafiosi their just desserts, we wait for death. For misfortune. For disaster. Nothing is sacred. No one is safe. Chase presides over his universe as an anti-god…
Although Father Phil is trite and defensive at times during their conversation, he does provide Ralph with words of hope and comfort. Ralph seems to make a legitimate effort to become a reformed man – but it doesn’t happen immediately. He still smacks people around during his collections, and provides Tony with a fat stack of ill-gotten cash. Our feelings for Ralph are conflicted through the episode. Paulie, on the other hand, has no conflicting feelings – he loathes Ralph and describes him as a “piece of shit.” Paulie is convinced—without any real evidence—that it was Ralph that made the prank call to his mother. Paulie’s guess is correct, but it is only that – an educated guess. Paulie was not privy, like the viewer was, to the scene in which Ralph made the prank call. Christopher and Tony remind him that he doesn’t know for sure that Ralph is guilty, but Paulie nevertheless wants to whack him. Tony lays down the law: Paulie is not to lay a finger on Ralph.
Tony is in bed with Ralph’s ex-girlfriend Valentina when he gets the call from horse-trainer Lois about Pie-O-My’s death. (Some viewers see this as a clue by David Chase that Ralph killed Pie as payback against Tony for dating his ex-girlfriend.) At the burned-out horse stables, Lois cites a blown-out light bulb as evidence for the fire being accidental. But Tony seems to regard the light socket with suspicion. He seems to already be suspecting arson. (Tony knows something about arson – we might remember that he orchestrated one in the Pilot episode.) Lois mentions the high insurance value of the dead animals. Tony realizes that he and Ralph recently took out a valuable insurance policy on the horse, and surely remembers Ralph’s earlier complaint about Justin’s steep hospital bill. It is certainly within Wreck-It Ralph’s temperament to commit such an atrocity. The pieces are all starting to fit in Tony’s mind.
The scene at the stables closes with a shot of Pie-O-My’s companion, the goat. Historically, since at least the Middle Ages, the goat has been associated with Satan. If that is what Chase is signifying with this shot, then it becomes one more association between the Devil and Ralph – and points to his guilt in killing Pie.
It is difficult to tell whether Tony is already convinced of Ralph’s guilt before reaching the Cifaretto house, or only becomes convinced of it after arriving there. As Tony questions Ralph in his kitchen, Chase inserts a couple of beguiling shots, almost from Tony’s POV, of Ralph’s hands. Are these the hands that destroyed Tony’s beloved horse, or are they simply hands that are cooking up some breakfast? I’ll admit that when this episode originally aired, I was sure that Ralph was to blame for the fire. It was so obvious to me, in fact, that I didn’t recognize his guilt was even up for question. It was only the next day, as fans and the media buzzed—“Did he or didn’t he?”—that I realized the issue might not be so cut-and-dry. A quick second viewing that evening confirmed that there is simply not enough evidence to find Ralph guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. (And now, after watching the series in its entirety a number of times, and coming to believe that ambiguity is the central thesis of The Sopranos, I feel confident that “uncertainty” is the whole point of the scene in Ralph’s kitchen.)
In a 2007 Vanity Fair article, “An American Family,” Peter Biskind recounts that “Chase wouldn’t tell Pantoliano if Ralphie had set the fire or not. Pantoliano decided to play the scene as if he hadn’t, as if he were innocent.” On the commentary track, Green & Burgess confirm that this is how Joey Pants decided to play the scene. As for the writers themselves: Green believes that Ralphie is guilty of the crime, while Burgess says he always felt Ralph is not guilty (although he is coming around to his partner’s way of thinking). The fact that there are such differing interpretations of Ralph’s behavior even among those involved in the production of the episode points to an important fact: in film and television, and particularly in The Sopranos, it is in the editing room where the final product is ultimately fashioned. Regardless of how the actor acted it, or the writers wrote it, or the director directed it, Chase and his editors ultimately stitched the episode together in such a way that we cannot say that Ralph is guilty with any reasonable certainty.
Of course, we shouldn’t expect Tony to be reasonable when it comes to his cherished horse. When Ralph insists that it was a stroke of luck, and nothing more, that killed Pie-O-My, Tony skeptically responds, “It’s funny about God and fate and shit like that.” Tony thinks it can’t be a coincidence that the horse would die just after he and Ralph took out an insurance policy on it. He convinces himself that Ralph committed arson. And this leads to the second way that we can read the ambiguous shot of the goat which closed the scene at the stables; the goat may represent not Ralph the Devil, but Ralph the Scapegoat. The third book of the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus, recounts the story of the goat that was heaped with the sins of the people and then sent into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
Regardless of whether Ralph is in fact guilty of arson or just the scapegoat for an unfortunate accident, Tony wreaks his vengeance. There hasn’t been much violence so far in Season 4. Dectective Haydu was killed in the season opener. After that, Death made only glancing appearances: Tony learns of Gloria Trillo’s suicide; Karen Baccalieri dies in a car accident; Furio’s father dies of cancer. The “hits-and-tits” crowd have been sitting on their hands all season long, waiting for some action. It finally comes now – big time. The fight between Tony and Ralph is a brutal scene, full of sound and fury. A violent man meets a violent end at the hands of another violent man. Tony had drawn a line in the sand, telling Paulie he must not cross it when it comes to Ralph – but then he gives in to rage and kills Ralph himself. As he bashes the life out of Ralph, Tony growls a line that could refer to either Pie-O-My or Tracee the stripper: “She was a beautiful innocent creature, what did she ever do to you?” The tensions between the two men had not abated since Ralph brutally killed the young girl in “University.” Alan Sepinwall of The Star-Ledger calls this episode “the unspoken sequel” of that previous hour. And as many have noted, Ralph’s “Joisey” pronunciation of “whore” and “horse” sound so similar as to conflate Tracee and Pie-O-My even further.
I don’t know if Chase and the writers had planned to link Tracee and the horse when “University” aired last season. If they hadn’t, then it really is quite a coincidence that there were so many horse references in “University”:
Tony joked with another stripper about a horse just as Tracee walked into the frame:
Silvio referred to Tracee as a “thoroughbred” (and—this may be a stretch—her “chompers” are comparable to horse teeth):
Additionally, Caitlyn—Meadow’s maladjusted, distressed roommate who was compared to Tracee at various points in the episode—said that she is going to a horse farm to regain some balance in her troubled life.
Perhaps no Sopranos episode moves through as many tone- and tempo-shifts as does “Whoever Did This.” The hour begins with quite a bit of humor, particularly at the expense of poor Corrado (who takes a tumble down the courthouse steps), then shifts to the dark pathos of Justin’s accident and Pie-O-My’s death. After the brutally violent fight between Tony and Ralph, the episode creeps down to a petty pace in its second half. It almost becomes a procedural, as Tony and Chris give a D.I.Y. lesson in how to dispose of a body. They separate Ralphie’s head and hands from his torso. (Ralph was in the bathtub when he first heard the news that put him—potentially—on a road to reformation; it is in this same bathtub that his corpse later spends its last moments on Earth in one piece.)
Stephen Peacock, in his essay “Silence and The Sopranos,” analyzes the overpowering silence that characterizes the second half-hour as Tony and Chris dispose of Ralph. (Tony and Chris almost go completely mute, but our interest is nevertheless held powerfully to the screen.) Peacock finds something Dickensian in the way the sounds of chains and a bowling ball punctuate the quiet. (The spooky sound of chains chimed in some of Dickens’ more haunting scenes, such as the appearance of Marley’s chainbound ghost in A Christmas Carol.) Other viewers have found the chilling back-half of the episode to be Poe-like. (Something about Tony lumbering up the stairs with chains evokes for me the “The Cask of Amontillado,” with its dungeon and chains.) Strangely enough, it was in an episode whose title alluded to Poe—“The Telltale Moozadell”—that we earlier saw a bowling ball roll down a staircase:
Tony and Chris fling Ralph’s body off a cliff and bury his extremities at Mikey Palmice’s father’s farm. The duo come back to the Bada Bing to relax and get cleaned up. When Tony wakes up, Chris has already left the strip joint. Tony peers at himself in the mirror. As you all know by now, I love mirror shots:
This mirror shot underscores Tony’s double-sided personality as we have seen it this hour. On the one hand, Tony is a sympathetic colleague, a lover of animals, a good manager of men (adroitly calming hot-headed Paulie down), and a loving father (tenderly roughhousing with his beloved son). On the other hand, he is a rule-breaking, self-indulgent murderer that often cares more about animals than he does human beings. His attention is diverted by a picture of Tracee (fully-clothed, unlike the girls in all the other photographs), the beautiful, vulnerable creature that Ralph Cifaretto undeniably, unquestionably destroyed.
Tony turns away from the photo of Tracee and walks out of the dressing room. He pauses before the Bing stage, completely empty – except for a spotlight that shines down upon it. As he stops and stares, he may be thinking of Tracee, who once strut her hour upon this stage but was later wiped off the face of the earth. I think it may be enormously significant that that previous hour, “University,” opened with a shot of an overhead spotlight and then panned down to the same empty stage that Tony now looks at. Here is a clip that combines footage of the empty stage from both episodes:
The overhead spotlight, in both “University” and “Whoever Did This,” literally highlights nothing – or more accurately, nothingness. The empty stage embodies the philosophy of nothingness that threatens to overwhelm characters throughout the series. For me, the imagery of the empty stage recalls Macbeth’s famous soliloquy, which also contains some stage imagery:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Livia’s “It’s all a big nothing” speech to her grandson in “D-Girl” was a contemporary version of this Shakespearean soliloquy. By demonstrating that our certainties are often actually uncertainties, and challenging Father Phil’s idea that all events are made meaningful through God’s loving grace, “Whoever Did This” bleakly suggests that Livia’s philosophy of nothingness is the ultimate truth. The empty stage is a powerful symbol of this dark philosophy. It may seem like I’m making much ado about nothing, ascribing way too much metaphorical importance to a shabby stage in a north Jersey strip joint. But this same stage will significantly be the location of Paulie’s otherworldly vision in Season 6. And this stage will be recalled again in the memorable Series Finale. (And Johnny Sac will directly quote from the above Macbeth passage four episodes from now.)
Even the question of Corrado’s dementia is left unresolved. Does he go to the neighbor’s house to ask for ice cream because he recognizes the Feds are watching him, or is it because he is genuinely disoriented? When his nurse escorts him back into his living room, Chase does not keep the camera on him long enough for the viewer to be able to say with certainty that “Corrado is confused” or, alternately, “Corrado is faking it.” Of course, we do recognize over the course of the series that Corrado is indeed slipping into dementia. But it’s left uncertain for now.
William Siska, who attended film school with David Chase in the early ’70s, traces the similarities between Chase’s television series and European cinema in his essay, “‘If all this is for nothing’: The Sopranos as Art Cinema.” Siska notes a parallel between Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna and “Whoever Did This” – they both feature dead horses.
Siska’s interpretation of the burned horse in Bergman’s film could, in some sense, apply to Pie-O-My’s death in this episode:
The burning of horses, which occurs after the suspect in earlier incidents of violence to animals has committed suicide, proves that evil haunts the landscape, and turns the act into a metaphor for a universal corrosion in existence itself.
Siska argues that the burned horses in Bergman’s film have a metaphorical dimension, and I think that Pie-O-My’s death here has a similar metaphorical significance – her death exemplifies the progressive darkening of the SopranoWorld landscape over time. With each passing season of the series, we watch the “universal corrosion” of its characters get worse and worse.
(Just for the record, though, let me add that Siska seems pretty convinced that Ralph did indeed set the fire. There may be a universal corrosion in SopranoWorld, but there is not necessarily a universal consensus about the events that unfold there.)
- Tony gives Chris a running commentary on his drug use, setting up the intervention of the next episode.
- It’s interesting that Corrado’s dementia may have been triggered by a fall down some steps, given the long history of shitty thing happening on steps and staircases in SopranoWorld. (See my 4.03 write-up for a documentation of incidents. Also see 6.02 for another connection between “tumbling down steps” and “dementia.”)
- Like many film geeks, I believe that editing is the most fundamental and important element of filmmaking. William Stich, A.C.E., gets credit for cutting this episode, and he can be praised (or blamed, I guess, depending on your point-of-view) for turning Joe Pantoliano’s straightforward performance in ‘the kitchen scene’ into something ambiguous. Veteran A.C.E. guys Sidney Wolinsky and Conrad Gonzalez round up the stellar team of Sopranos editors.
- “Whoever Did This” finally provides a showdown between Tony and Ralph. It had been brewing since Tracee was killed in 3.06 but was “formally” set-up in “He is Risen” (3.08), when Tony and Ralph confronted each other in a scene that evoked an old-timey Western, particularly through its use of the song “(Ghost)Riders in the Sky.” Tony defeats Ralph now, but unlike John Wayne or Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood after a showdown, Tony is not presented afterwards as some square-jawed conquering hero (as we shall further see in the next episode, “The Strong, Silent Type”).
- The old western mythology is also evoked by the track that closes “Whoever Did This.” It is Apollo 440’s cover of Ennio Morricone’s “The Man With the Harmonica” from the 1968 film Once Upon A Time in the West. Note how the song choice is absolutely brilliant: this episode features a showdown between contemporary Italian-American outlaws Ralph and Tony, and it ends with a contemporary version of a song that originally appeared in an Italian-made “spaghetti western” which also featured a showdown between American outlaws.