Gossip spreads like wildfire after Tony and
Adriana get into a car accident, causing
Christopher to fly off the handle.
Episode 57 – Originally aired April 4, 2004
Written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess
Directed by Allen Coulter
“Irregular Around the Margins” is one of the most loved episodes of the series, it’s a high-octane hour that burns with intensity. Most viewers, including myself, admire it despite the fact that it should not work, at least not on paper: at first blush, it seems strange that a mutual attraction between Tony and Adriana could pop up so suddenly, and that events could so quickly spiral out of control that Tony and Chris almost kill each other. And yet, the episode not only works, it sings. Part of the reason why this is such a fine episode is because writers Green and Burgess excel (as always) in expressing the complicated, dynamic relationships between characters in a way that is, above all else, believable. Part of the reason is also that all the actors are in top form, I don’t think anyone hits a sour note at any point in the hour.
The sudden attraction between Tony and Ade may also feel believable because we see it sprout within the context of the larger story. Tony has been separated from his wife for over a year, and perhaps it is his desire for a Carmela-replacement that drives him toward Adriana, just as it drove him toward Dr. Melfi earlier in the season. (Valentina La Paz could never replace Carmela. Valentina appeared for a moment in the Season Opener but hasn’t been seen since; she is just a fling for Tony, not someone that he believes he can rebuild his life with.) Adriana may be drawn to protective, fatherly Tony because she is in a precarious, vulnerable spot between the FBI and the mob—and Christopher is not exactly the most sensitive or supportive boyfriend. (Maybe we should also take into consideration James Gandolfini’s natural charisma which he was able to draw upon here. He was, after all, voted Class Flirt at Park Ridge High School in 1979.)
Chase also employs subtle techniques to get us to buy into the seemingly unlikely storyline. Within the first minute of the hour, Adriana is compared to daughter Meadow through a matching gesture:
Tony kisses Ade just as he kissed his daughter moments earlier. This reminds us that there is a significant bond between the two, Tony does not think of Adriana simply as some distant relation that he sees only at Thanksgiving. The two are also connected though their physical ailments: Tony has a cancerous growth on his forehead while Adriana is suffering from IBS. Chase places their visits to their respective doctors in adjacent scenes:
Chase’s camera catches each character on their backs while their doctors attend to them. Both doctors’ offices share a color palette of light blues and greys, making an additional subtle link between Tony and Adriana. Although Tony does not tell Carmela about his squamous-cell carcinoma, he does not hesitate to tell Adriana. He is sympathetic towards Adriana when she shares her medical condition with him, embarrassing as it is. Christopher, on the other hand, is dismissive and sarcastic when she updates him on her ailments.
Chris cannot understand why the doctor wants to prescribe Prozac for her diarrhea. Of course, Adriana cannot tell him the real reason why her stomach and her soul are so upset: she’s an FBI informant. The mirror in the bathroom reflects Adriana’s doubled, split persona as she tries to express her anguish to Chris without revealing too much:
Chris’ insensitivity probably pushes Adriana towards Tony. At the Crazy Horse, a game of darts leads Tony and Ade toward a romantic moment, but the arrival of Phil Leotardo and Joey Peeps interrupts them.
Tony visits Melfi for the first time this season as a patient—he probably recognizes that he can’t get make his way through his newfound attraction to Adriana without some help. He tells Dr. Melfi that it was his self-control that prevented him from acting on his desire, but we know that Phil and Joey’s inopportune arrival had a lot to do with it. Tony understands that pursuing a relationship with Adriana would be taboo and disastrous for everyone around them (and themselves). He seems ready to take the good advice that Melfi gives him: be worthy of the respect that Adriana has for him.
Back at the Crazy Horse, Ade is looking insanely hot in a short tube skirt. We don’t know exactly what Tony’s intentions are when he offers her a ride, or exactly what she is thinking when she suggests a cocaine-run. Perhaps Tony really was ready to exercise some self-restraint, but we know one of the side effects—or main effect—of coke is to loosen inhibitions. We’ll never know what would have happened if they did score the coke, because Tony flips his Escalade trying to avoid a raccoon in the road before they ever get to the dealer.
Christopher returns from his business trip in North Carolina suspicious of his fiancée. He yells at her as he drives her home from the hospital: “You know how this looks?! Don’t talk to me, you shut your mouth!” Chase cuts from Chris’ question to a shot of the Leg Show poster at the Bing:
Chris has good reason to worry about “how this looks”—everyone will sexualize the story of Tony and Adriana’s late-night ride just as surely as Leg Show magazine sexualizes the women on its pages. Tony tries to convince Chris that nothing happened but Chris ain’t buying it. And neither is anyone else. An efficient and hilarious sequence of “telephone-gossip” segues into a scene of the guys sitting around a table at Satriale’s, playing cards and joking about Adriana. Chris walks into the room, gets enraged by their laughter and then throws a sandwich at Vito. (This is a big no-no, because not only is Vito a captain now, but because food is religion in SopranoWorld—making a projectile out of a hoagie is tantamount to sacrilege.)
Christopher is losing control of himself. He returns home and smacks Adriana around and physically drags her out of the apartment. Chase cuts from this brutal scene to a brutal UFC fight that AJ watches at his dad’s place:
Blundetto comes to Tony’s place to warn him that Chris has gone over the edge, he’s become a threat to Tony. (After delivering this warning, Blundetto steps away to use the bathroom; even amidst the heightening drama and danger, the fuckin’ regularness of life is ever-present on The Sopranos. I can’t think of another TV show in which characters having to take a piss is so routinely depicted.)
Chris comes to the Bing and empties his clip into Tony’s Suburban. He storms into the strip joint, looking to do more damage but gets restrained by Super Bowl champ (and New Jerseyite) Tony Siragusa. The previous episode featured a bevy of famous faces, including another NFL guy, Lawrence Taylor. Now we can add “Goose” to the list:
Siragusa is obviously not playing himself, he is playing soldier “Frankie Cortese.” While Frankie restrains Chris, club manager Silvio gets control of the situation, reassuring the Bing patrons that everything is okay. Thank God he had his trusty bullhorn nearby.
(Seeing Silvio now makes me realize that I could include Stevie Van Zandt into the list of famous faces. Van Zandt is no acting genius, but he inhabits the role of Silvio so naturally that we almost forget that he was primarily known for being a musician before The Sopranos came along. Chase gives us clever reminders of Van Zandt’s musical accomplishments, however, lest we completely forget: earlier in the episode, at the Crazy Horse office, Tony hears the song “Come For Me” and asks Adriana which band is playing on stage and she replies, “It’s called The Lost Boys. Sil’s been raggin’ on me all week for me to play them here. Their manager or somebody owes him money.” In case you missed the joke, the Lost Boys is Steven Van Zandt’s garage band.)
Tony and his guys take Christopher to a dark, isolated field, perhaps out in the Meadowlands. Chris is unrepentant and Tony feels he has no choice but to put a bullet in his head. It is a scene of great power, but also of great ambiguity. An ambiguous comment by Paulie can be read as an attempt to defend Chris, but it can also be read as an attempt to get Chris into more trouble with the Boss. It is also unsure whether Tony would actually have pulled the trigger if Blundetto didn’t intervene. Some viewers have suggested that the whole thing was a set-up to try to scare Chris straight, similar to how Corrado’s henchmen gave Chris a scare in episode 1.03:
I personally think that Tony would have killed Moltisanti—his instinct for self-preservation is too strong to allow Chris to harbor a murderous grudge against him. Lucky for Chris, Blundetto was there to diffuse the situation. We’re really beginning to see Blundetto’s intelligence. With the just the right amount of menace (“Any gunshot wounds or broken kneecaps?”), Blundetto is able to get the hesitant doctor to meet with them, and then Blundetto is able to elicit information from the doctor that points to Tony and Adriana’s innocence. But the truth about that night doesn’t satisfy Chris, because he knows that gossip this juicy takes on a life of its own (which can overshadow the actual truth).
Tony tries to convince Carmela that nothing happened with Adriana. As Tony makes his case, Edie Falco is able to convey (primarily with just her facial expressions) an array of Carmela’s emotions: astonishment, amusement, outrage and finally the bitterness of having to accept that this man who she is so eager to despise is actually telling the truth here.
Ever the intelligent manager, Tony understands that the best way to manage the gossip swirling around them is by pulling the family together. When Tony, Carmela, Chris and Adriana (along with Blundetto and his mother) come together for dinner at Vesuvio, they take the wind out of the sails of all the rumor-mongers around them. Vito strolls over to greet the party, and offers his hand to Christopher. (Food is often at the center of events on the series; a hurled sandwich almost led to violence between the two men, now they make their peace at a restaurant.) Things are beginning to return to normal. In the closing shot of the hour, Tony looks admiringly at his wife who was able to put her anger aside and do what was best for the family. An aria from Puccini’s opera La Rondine starts up and continues through the credits. Soprano Luba Organasova’s powerful voice ends the episode with grace and beauty. As is often the case with the tracks that close out an episode, this aria might be making multiple comments. La Rondine, the opera in which the aria appears, translates to The Swallow. The opera tells the story of a woman who, like a swallow, flies home to Paris after having a passionate fling on the French Riviera—something like how Adriana returns to Chris after developing feelings for Tony. But Chase may also be having a bit of fun with the song selection. He may have chosen a piece from The Swallow because Chris, Ade, Tony and Carmela have all had to “swallow” their anger and embarrassment to make this public appearance together. Or perhaps, a bit more crassly, The Swallow may be a punning reference to The Blowjob that precipitated the high drama of the hour (despite the fact that it never actually occurred).
The sexual pun is classic Sopranos. After giving us an hour that powerfully investigates how loneliness, vulnerability, jealousy and outrage can cause complicated shifts in personal relationships, all within the context of larger societal perceptions and taboos, Chase closes the episode with a dick joke. We’ve seen Chase get playful about oral sex before. Season One’s “Boca” contained multiple subtle and not-so-subtle references to cunnilingus (including that ingenious episode title). “Irregular Around the Margins” has multiple references to fellatio, including one that I think most viewers have missed: a painting of a mouth hangs behind Tony and Adriana at the Crazy Horse as their attraction to each other begins to heat up. It’s not the first time that a painting of a body part has remarked upon the events at the Crazy Horse—in 4.02, Adriana and undercover agent Danielle talked in front of two paintings of eyes which underscored how the FBI has their “eyes” on the mob:
IRREGULAR AROUND THE MARGINS
The episode title obviously refers to the irregular growth that Tony has on his forehead, but it can also be read in other ways. A romantic relationship between Tony and Adriana would be seen as highly irregular, it would exist in the margins of decency and propriety. Also, it may be valid to say that Tony and Adriana are each currently in the margins of their normal lives right now: Tony finds himself in an uncertain stage between being married and being divorced; Adriana is in an unsettling space between the FBI and the mob.
The title may also be calling attention to a defining characteristic of The Sopranos. The series is characterized by how often it navigates away from its “main” plots to go poke around in the stories that are in the margin. “Irregular Around the Margins” is an almost textbook example of this tendency. Todd VanDerWerff is correct to say that “though it features a bunch of recurring plotlines,” this hour is basically a stand-alone episode. The main thrust of “Irregular”—Adriana and Tony’s flirtation, and its immediate aftermath—is not connected to anything that came before it, and it will not be an issue going forward. (Although, for the sake of accuracy, I must note that the issue is revisited in Season 6, when Christopher produces a film that features an affair between a mobster’s girlfriend and his boss.) David Chase has long understood that we shouldn’t only focus on what is at the center of the canvas; there are a lot of interesting things happening along the margins as well.
Chase redirects our focus from the main storylines of Season 5 to the peripheral story of this episode simply by making a small tweak to the relationship between Tony and Adriana. Basically, that’s it. That’s all it takes. Dana Polan, in his standout book The Sopranos, makes note of how this episode maximizes…
…the potential for stories to be generated from new and unexpected interactions among the set of basic characters…there can always be new ways for them to interrelate…The episode shakes up a set of fixed connections, generates new story and suspense from that, and then basically terminates the new plot line to return to business as usual…
“Irregular” may indeed be seen as a stand-alone episode, but that doesn’t mean it actually stands alone—it exists within the larger context of the series. Some of the events of this hour strike us as ironic when we see them in the context of previous episodes:
- Christopher is outraged to think that Tony, his relative, could have a relationship with Adriana, his fiancée, but Chris himself screwed his cousin Greg’s fiancée in “D-Girl” (2.07).
- Tony tries to deflect Carmela’s anger by criticizing her relationship with Furio, but her non-romance with Furio was arguably even more chaste than Tony’s non-romance with Adriana.
- Tony is in no position to demean Furio. Furio exercised true self-control, choosing to vacate the country rather than have an affair with Carmela. Tony, on the other hand, probably might not have exercised such self-control; he most probably didn’t kiss Adriana only because they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
- The Sopranos began making topical political commentary in Season 5. The previous episode made references to the Bush administration’s bunk propaganda during the run-up to the Iraq War. Now, we see that Chris has bought into George Bush’s bluster: “We’re gonna mop the floor with the whole fuckin’ world, the whole world is gonna be under our control.”
- Maurice Yacowar notes that when Adriana tells her doctor, “I’m so scared I’m gonna have an accident” regarding her loose bowels, it actually foreshadows the car accident she has with Tony. I think that when Tony ribs Meadow in the opening scene about all the dings she has put on her car, this also ironically presages the major dings he will later put on his Escalade. (We might remember that we saw Meadow’s dinged-up Mustang in the first minutes of Season 5, as she drove over the Star-Ledger laying in the driveway.)
- Yacowar also notes the way “#2” threads its way through the hour: clutching her stomach in the car, Adriana insists that agent Robin pull over because she has to go “number two”; Tony tells Melfi that he’s grooming Chris to be his “number two”; Tony starts off his meeting with Chris at the Bada Bing by asking him to throw away a stick that he’s used to scrape dog shit (AKA doggie #2) off the bottom of his shoe. Additionally, we might remember that when Corrado’s goons scared Chris in episode 1.03, an incident that gets recalled here (see picture above), Chris shits his pants and Adriana later asks him if he went “number two.”