Lorraine Colluzzo and Feech LaManna exit the series. A.J. becomes
too much of a handful for Carmela so she sends him to live with his father.
EPISODE 56 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 28, 2004 WRITTEN BY TONI KALEM DIRECTED BY RODRIGO GARCIA
Perhaps no TV series in history put as much thought into episode titles as The Sopranos did. The title here is pulled from the first line of Tolstoy’s masterpiece Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The unhappy families in this hour include Tony Soprano’s domestic clan as well as the New Jersey and New York mob famiglias.
Lorraine Colluzzo and her partner Jason become casualties in the NY power struggle. They are killed by Joey Peeps and Billy Leotardo for not accepting Johnny Sac as the legitimate capo di famiglia. Lorraine is gunned down as she exits the shower, buck naked with breasts swinging:
Rusty Millio wants to whack Johnny Sac in return, and he is sure there won’t be much blowback if they do: “…the guys on the street in Brooklyn and Queens, they’ll welcome us as fuckin’ heroes. It’ll be easy.” I can’t be sure that Chase is using this line here to allude to the American invasion of Iraq, but Millio’s line does sound an awful lot like a propaganda point that the Bush administration was belching out a year earlier during the run-up to the Iraq War — Cheney and others insisted that U.S. troops would be embraced as heroes by the Iraqi people. (And the fact that the very next line of dialogue is Christopher saying “It’s a declaration of war by Johnny” may strengthen the allusion to the Iraq war.)
Closer to home, Feech is becoming a real headache for Tony. Tony gives Feech his old card game back, where he hears about the wedding of Dr. Fried’s daughter. Feech hits the wedding reception, stealing the wealthy guests’ luxury cars. Tony is angry at Feech not only for targeting his friend’s wedding, but also for sending the stolen cars to one of Johnny Sac’s guys. And on top of that, Feech didn’t kick up a share to Tony until he was asked about it. Tony has been down this rocky road with insolent underlings before and decides he has to nip his problems with Feech in the bud. We fully expect Feech to end up dead, like previous problematic guys Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto. But Season 5 is all about breaking Sopranos’ conventions. Tony tricks Feech into hiding stolen TVs in his garage, and then sends Supervisor Curran from the parole board do a surprise site inspection. (This particular stratagem was perhaps planted in Tony’s brain when he had earlier heard Feech say, regarding Blundetto, “The last time his parole officer made an unannounced visit, he gave him a massage.”) Feech tries to direct Curran away from the stolen TVs in his garage with a joke about weapons of mass destruction. (When this hour originally aired in 2004, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Bush administration had lied about Iraqi WMD as a way to justify an invasion, so Feech’s joke becomes the episode’s second reference to the administration’s bullshit propaganda that led us into the Iraq War.) Feech’s short run back in SopranoLand meets an ignoble end:
TV and film gangsters often go out in a hail of bullets, but on The Sopranos, the fuckin’ regularness of life rules — as you’re being sent to the Big House, there is nothing more banal than having your last glimpses of the outside world be of mundane New Jersey suburbs and strip malls. (Chase has employed the “put on a bus” trope before – Janice was sent out west on a bus at the end of Season 2, but—unlike Feech—returned early the following season.) Silvio compliments Tony for getting rid of Feech in a way that will sit well with the other guys. But Tony didn’t choose this strategy to win brownie points – he did it because it was the smart business decision. Feech hadn’t committed any egregious violations of the mob’s rules yet, at least nothing that would warrant a whacking – he was basically just being an asshole. Tony figured that SopranoLand would just function better with this particular asshole back in prison. Many viewers saw Tony’s move as evidence of his growth as a Boss, and perhaps even his growth as a person, but I think the manner of Feech’s exit has more to do with David Chase’s arching intentions for Season 5 – he is breaking conventions and confounding viewer expectations. Chase knocks off two of the “Class of ’04” in this hour, yet their departures couldn’t be more different: Lorraine Colluzzo goes out in a way that is perfectly tailored for “hits-and-tits” viewers, but Feech LaManna exits in a way that is surprisingly mundane.
The better part of the hour is devoted to chronicling the discontent of Tony Soprano and various member of his family. The episode’s first shot is of a bored AJ racing up and down the driveway in his mother’s car. On the other side of the house, Blundetto looks at Tony’s large home with envy, realizing that his time in prison has cost him dearly. Tony Soprano is getting flustered by the frustrations of daily life; he fumes that he can’t find his power drill, and moments later he begins to have a panic attack while discussing Blundetto with Carmela.
Tony sends Dr. Melfi a basket of bath products, ostensibly to kindle a romance, but he is more than likely reaching out to her because of a subconscious need to start therapy again. (Melfi discusses the latent symbolic meanings of the bath products in her therapist’s office. Hilariously, obtuse Elliot can’t help but quote the vile c-word that Tony yelled at her a coupla episodes back.) Tony may be Mr. Mob Boss but his troubles with work and family are not very different from those of most men. An edit (which was scripted, says director Rodrigo Garcia on the DVD commentary track) overtly makes the link between Tony and that lovable everyman, Ralph Kramden:
One thing that Ralph Kramden wasn’t troubled by was bratty kids and their growing pains. AJ is having difficulty adjusting to his parents separation, and is really pushing his mother’s buttons (while taking advantage of his father’s absence in the house). Carmela tries to gain brownie points with her son by allowing him to go to a Mudvayne concert in Manhattan with his friends, as long as he spends the night at Meadow’s place afterwards. But AJ ditches the plan, staying with his friends at a hotel instead. After a wild night out, he finally arrives home sans eyebrows. Carmela chases him up the staircase, where she falls and bangs her knee. We know by now that staircases are places of cruelty and callousness in SopranoWorld.
We recognize in AJ a callousness that we’ve also seen in his aunt Janice and grandmother Livia. He looks like some kind of monster here, with those Sharpie eyebrows, coldly walking away from his injured mother. Carmela can’t take his attitude anymore so she sends him to live with Tony.
There is something that I’ve wondered about for years – I’m probably making too much of it but let me throw it out there anyway: When Carmela called Meadow to find out where AJ is, we saw that the movie Frida was playing on Mead’s TV. This is weird because Frida had not yet come out on DVD when this scene was shot. Director Garcia says that Chase was able to get Frida despite the fact it was not yet released and inserted it here, knowing that it would be available by the time this episode aired (and thus would not violate verisimilitude). But it made me wonder: why would Chase go to such efforts to include a snippet from Frida? Is there something in the snippet that we should be paying attention to? In my clip below, I’ve also included the relevant excerpt from the film itself. (I also made sure to capture a bit of Carmela in the bathtub listening to the song “La Petite Mer” because it’s something I will come back to later.)
Perhaps what is relevant about the Frida clip is that it informs us that Frida and her husband are living in separate houses just as Carmela and Tony are now doing. And now that AJ has moved from living with one parent to living with the other, maybe he can be recognized as the “bridge,” as Frida says, between the two houses. Or not, I don’t know.
With her husband and her son out of the house, Carmela is free to pursue a possible romance. She meets Robert Wegler at a generic Italian eatery, ostensibly to discuss AJ’s problems at school, but we recognize that there is a strong mutual attraction between the two. The title of this episode was our first clue that Carmela is about to embark on a passionate affair – in the celebrated Russian novel, Anna Karenina gets embroiled in an affair while still married. But it is a celebrated French novel that the intellectual Wegler suggests as reading material to Carmela. He must be hoping that Carmela will, like Madame Bovary, embark on an affair (with him) to combat her “bourgeois loneliness and emptiness.”
Wegler tells Carmela that he married his wife for the same reason that she married a mobster: “some notion of escaping the quotidian.” The desire to escape the “fuckin’ regularness of life,” as Moltisanti once described it, is one of the defining themes of The Sopranos. It is not surprising at all that this should be such a prevalent idea on the show, considering that it is such a prevailing idea in American life. From his interviews, we can gather that David Chase believes that our consumerist habits—ceaselessly buying and selling and spending and squandering—is part of our attempt to stave off the enervating effects of daily life. Prof. Maurice Yacowar suggests that all the various brand names that get mentioned in this episode reflect the American belief that we can escape the quotidian just by owing all the “right” stuff: Mercedes SL, Buick Regal, Canali suits, Dr. Hauschka bath products, Nissan Xterra, Phillips TVs…
The desire to escape (escape his parents, boredom, banality) is what stimulates AJ to race up and down the driveway in his mother’s car in the opening scene of the hour. Like many teenagers, he is pacing in his cage, he wants to get out. The final sequence of the episode recalls the opening sequence, as Carmela has a flashback of AJ as a child racing down the driveway on his Big Wheel. Chase seems to perform some kind of sorcery in this closing scene, waving his magic wand over this final bit to create a finish that always manages puts a lump in my throat. Of course, there is no actual witchcraft here, only solid, thoughtful craftsmanship:
Note the elements of this well-crafted closing scene: Carmela pulls up the driveway in her Mercedes wagon, a visual callback of the episode’s opening sequence; a series of quick edits convey the heightening danger as young AJ speeds away on his Big Wheel; Edie Falco puts a note of desperation into Carmela’s voice as she screams for her son; Carmela walks into the house, which is shot to look more compressed and empty than it has ever looked before; and then Thierry Robin’s “La Petite Mer” [“The Little Sea”] takes us into the credits. Robin’s Spanish guitar directly evokes the “two houses” scene from Frida, against which it was heard earlier. When it played before, the song’s title seemed clever – Carmela’s bathtub was “the little sea.” But as it plays now over episode’s closing shot, the track takes on a more solemn tone – Carmela seems trapped (like Madame Bovary) in a sea of “bourgeois loneliness and emptiness.”
The line that separates SopranoWorld from the real world has always been fairly gossamer, and it becomes even thinner as the series progresses. One way that “All Happy Families…” reaches into the real world is with its dual references to Bush administration propaganda. Another way that this episode interlaces fiction and reality is through the inclusion of several famous faces:
- Franki Valli, who was referenced in earlier episodes, appears for the first time as NY mobster “Rusty Millio”
- Legendary Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor appears as himself
- Producer Bernie Brillstein, who—along with Brad Grey—formed the company that produces The Sopranos, plays himself
- Sopranos writer Terry Winter reprises his bit-part as Melfi’s patient “Tom Amberson”
- David Lee Roth is here as himself (we know he’s playing himself because he says, “I used to be able to write off condoms.”)
- Writer/philosopher Leon Wieseltier, who was awarded the $1 million Dan David Prize in 2013, plays “Stewart Silverman” (the guy who waited “a motherfucking year” for his Mercedes SL55)
- Porn star Gina Lynn appears at the Bing, playing either herself or just another stripper
So, the boundary between SopranoWorld and the real world gets further diluted by the fact that some of the famous people play themselves while others play a character (with Gina Lynn able to fit into either category). This type of playful meta-casting contributes to the sense that Tony Soprano and everyone else in the series is as real as you or me – and conversely, that you or I may be as fabricated a fiction as Tony Soprano.
Another Sopranos method of blurring the boundary is through the use of real-life media within the series. Every episode so far this season has featured onscreen snippets of real-world TV shows or films:
- The Prince of Tides caught Tony’s attention in 5.01
- Carmela’s film club watched Citizen Kane in 5.02
- 5.03 featured Curb Your Enthusiasm
- 5.04 includes a scripted cut to The Honeymooners and a small segment of Frida
I find the Honeymooners clip particularly interesting because it is part of a cluster of references to Jackie Gleason that we find in Season 5. I think the intent of the references is clear: we are meant to see Tony as a contemporary “Ralph Kramden,” an ordinary, workaday white American male – albeit with a criminal twist. I think an argument could be made that no American TV show has captured the ethos of The Honeymooners in the last 40 years like The Sopranos has, with the possible exception of The Flintstones. (Fred Flintstone was purported to have been modeled on Ralph Kramden, and Gleason said in a Playboy interview that he even thought about suing the producers of the cartoon for copyright infringement.) Tony Soprano, like Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone before him, is—for the most part—just a regular guy, a guy that most of us can relate to.
The producers of the contemporary cartoon Harvey Birdman recognize the comparable natures of Tony Soprano and Fred Flintstone in a clever pastiche:
Pretty clever. I only wish they had included next-door neighbor Betty Rubble as “Jeanne Cusamano.”
- AJ is testing boundaries and pushing limits, as he has been doing since he was a kid. In one scene here, AJ sets his face and challenges his dad’s insistence that he go finish his Spanish homework, but he finally relents. In episode 1.04, when Tony requested him to stop playing video games and go to bed, AJ gave his father a similar challenging look before relenting.
- Wikipedia notes that The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” plays in one scene at the Bada Bing, “an appropriate song for a topless bar” because the song also scored the infamous scene in Fast Times at Ridgmont High when Pheobe Cates takes her top off. But I think it is more fitting because of the name of the band – The Cars are heard when Dr. Fried comes to the Bing to enlist Tony’s help in recovering the stolen cars.
- Feech tells the story of young Tony and Jackie Aprile raiding his card game decades ago. In Season 3, Ralph told the story of this same event to Jackie Jr. and Dino, inspiring them to attempt a similar heist. Christopher sits rapt and amused by Feech’s story now, but he was not nearly so amused by Jackie’s attempted heist three years ago – he demanded (and got) Jackie’s blood.
- We see in this episode, as we’ve seen before, that Silvio can become a moody prick when he is losing at poker. His line here, “Fuck it, this hand’s from thalidomide,” became popular at poker tables around the country after this episode aired.
- Hilarious bit of sound editing: the tutor’s old rustbucket sputters and burps down the driveway as AJ admires his brand new Nissan SUV.
- This episode was written by Toni Kalem who played “Angie Bonpensiero” on the series (and who worked as a story editor on several episodes.) (And who played “Despie” in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Wanderers.)
- There were rumors when this episode first aired about Robert Loggia’s difficulties as an actor, ad-libbing and not taking direction well, and that that was the real reason the character of “Feech” was dispatched so quickly. David Chase has stated on the record that there is no truth to these rumors.
- Leon Wieseltier (who plays the dude with the Mercedes SL55) must have been delighted to have a guest spot on The Sopranos, he was a big fan of the series. In a 2007 piece for The New Republic, of which he is the literary editor, he gave great credit to Chase for doing what many others in the TV industry were never willing to do: “The Sopranos stands as a lasting chastisement of its medium, in that it accomplishes what American television most abhors: an improvement, by means of art, of the American sense of reality.”