“You know what they say – ‘Revenge is like serving cold cuts.'”
EPISODE 62 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MAY 9, 2004 WRITTEN BY GREEN AND BURGESS DIRECTED BY MIKE FIGGIS
The Sopranos can be faulted for sometimes making its points a little too relentlessly, and I think “Cold Cuts” is guilty of this. I feel like the script (or was it the direction?) almost turns James Gandolfini into a dancing bear – Tony’s rages here are so sudden and overwhelming that they feel a bit gimmicky to me. But it’s nevertheless a fine hour, examining how those emotions that rise out of the darker side of human nature—rage, anger and jealousy—affect various SopranoWorld characters. These emotions have been essential ingredients throughout the series, but “Cold Cuts” investigates them in a more pointed and revealing way. These dark emotions also serve to amplify tensions as we enter the endgame of the season. For example, Johnny Sac’s fury over the murder of Joey Peeps heightens the tension between the NJ and NY famiglias. And Christopher’s jealousy over rising star Blundetto sets up some tense questions. Will Christopher’s jealousy, perhaps still inflamed from the imagined blowjob in 5.05, spill over into violence against his cousin(s)? And will Adriana reveal her collusion with the FBI when Chris tells her how dissatisfied he is with the mob?
Janice’s rage erupts at stepdaughter Sophia’s soccer game. She throws a couple of good punches at an overenthusiastic soccer-mom. Tony’s anger grows as he watches the story on the evening news. Psychologist Bela Kakuk (whose name I suspected for a long time to be some kind of clever anagram) says during a TV interview, “Psychologists are finding that certain individuals are particularly prone to rage. Almost any frustration, inconvenience or perceived inconsideration will set them off.” Chase cuts to a shot of Tony that confirms Kakuk’s words:
Tony rushes over to Janice’s house in a rage and warns Bobby to get his wife under control. Bobby tells Janice that he likes “the spitfire-type” but nevertheless insists that she must make a change if their marriage is to continue. We’ve known Janice to be two-faced ever since she entered SopranoWorld as “Parvati” in Season 2, and the mirror in which we now see her make excuses for her behavior reflects her Janus-face:
She tells Bobby that the reason she is so combative is because, “at my house, it was dog-eat-dog.” The dog-eat-dog mentality pervades la famiglia as well. Paulie has sometimes felt threatened by up-and-coming Chris, and Chris is now in turn envious of Blundetto’s ascent within the family (and of all the dough Blundetto rakes in running the Bloomfield Avenue casino). Christopher’s belief that Tony was closer to Blundetto than himself when they were all youngsters gives his jealousy even more bite. Old grievances die hard.
Tony is enraged to come back to the house and find that Carmela has emptied the pool. The Soprano swimming pool is an object loaded with long-running associations to home and family (see my previous write-up for a run-down) and so we can symbolically read Carmela’s emptying of the pool as an attempt to distance herself from Tony and prevent the reunification of their household. She is trying to escape Fate, which seems to perpetually push her and Tony together. A low camera-angle from within the drained pool gives this scene some menace, but we know—as does Carm—that Tony is not going to physically hurt her here.
Janice joins an anger management group, and comes very close to lashing out at a black woman during one of their sessions (in an exchange that one of the class participants, like us, finds “fuckin’ priceless”). But we later see that Janice actually is learning to govern her emotions and behavior. Tony mocks her newfound coping skills, calling her “Mahatma Gandhi.” Of course, Tony feels threatened by her personal growth because it reflects poorly on himself: if Janice—who was spawned by Johnny Boy and Livia just as he was—can develop as a person, then why can’t he? Tony tries to be happy for his sister, but as he sits in the kitchen, the intensifying sounds of a police siren and a yapping dog underscore his intensifying frustration:
The barking dog also recalls Janice’s earlier excuse to Bobby – “at my house, it was dog-eat-dog.” Janice is learning to transcend the damage inflicted on her as a child in Livia’s house, but Tony is not. The main reason I included this video clip, however, is to highlight the edit: the magnified sounds of the siren and the dog seem to build towards some momentous explosion, but Chase instead cuts to a slow-panning shot of the quiet, pastoral countryside. Paying attention to the edit helps us understand why the pastoral scenes at Uncle Pat’s farm in this episode are so powerfully evocative: the peaceful scenes at the upstate farm are made doubly serene in juxtaposition to the scenes of rage and frustration back in mob-land. The farm is a bucolic retreat, where you can sit in the breeze and play lazy games of pinochle while the gentle sounds of crickets, birdsong and rustling leaves waft through the air. Just try not to think too much about the bloody secrets that lay in the dark earth beneath you. The men have come to the farm to move the remains of Emil Kolar, Christopher’s first murder victim. (We saw Chris and Georgie move the body previously in episode 1.08.) The remains of the Johnson brothers, God rest their souls whoever they are, must also be redistributed to another location.
At the farm, Blundetto demonstrates once again that he is top-management material. He is able to adroitly smooth Christopher’s ruffled feathers and reestablish their friendship. But at a restaurant, Chris gets ruffled again. The two Tonys are in top form, beboppin’ and scattin’, making a word-game out of the litany of playful put-downs that they aim at Chris. Through a series of puns, the Tonys reduce Christopher’s Hummer (that vehicle which embodied “tough guy” masculinity, at least in some circles back in those days) to a blowjob joke. And they mock his sobriety, his unwillingness to share a drink with them. Chris lashes back—clumsily—at Tony S (“That joke he made was about you, the zeppole content”) and at Tony B (“I could’ve called you Ichabod Crane”). Unsurprisingly, all of this happens at a restaurant – ill feelings and angry acts are often found in the context of food on The Sopranos. (In earlier episodes, for example, there was Chris launching a sandwich at Vito in the backroom of the pork store, or Tony causing Phil to crash into the back of a Boar’s Head delivery truck). The episode title, “Cold Cuts,” highlights this long-running connection between food, resentment and revenge.
The next morning, Chris skips hunting with his cousins in order to head back home early. As he kisses Uncle Pat goodbye, the old man calls him “tough guy.” Chase makes an ironic cut here:
Chris wants to be a tough guy in his tough-guy Hummer, but he can barely keep from crying, his eyes are full of tears. His anger at his cousins has transmuted into sadness. It is true what Dr. Melfi says: “Depression is rage turned inwards.” Melfi’s words to Tony in her office strongly echo Bela Kakuk’s earlier sentiments. She notes that Tony thinks he is “above all of it, certainly above any inconvenience or annoyance. And if things don’t go your way, instead of being merely disappointed or inconvenienced, you blow.”
It’s not just minor inconveniences and annoyances that agitate Tony, there are big issues as well. At the time that this episode aired—about two-and-a-half years after 9/11—much of the country still felt a muted but ever-present fear that another terror attack was imminent, and that fear particularly throbbed in the NY/NJ area. NYC is my hometown and I have many friends and relatives up there, and for years after 9/11 I felt a persistent unease that it was only a matter of time before the city would be hit again. At Pat’s farm, Tony is so upset by a TV program outlining the poor security at the ports that he has nightmares. The stakes are especially high for Tony because he has a daughter living in target-rich Manhattan. He is still feeling anxious about Al-Qaeda when he leaves the farm and returns to the Bada Bing. As a mobster, Tony is pleased that the security at the ports is so paltry because it is a windfall for his illegal imports business, but as an American, he is outraged. Paulie makes a sympathetic excuse for the Bush government’s inaction: “…the administration is busy handing out non-competitive building contracts to their friends. Hell, we can relate to that.” (This line is arguably Chase’s strongest criticism of George “Dubya” Bush this season, comparing his administration to a gang of mafia thugs.) Poor Georgie (the bartender, not Dubya) wants to contribute to the conversation and makes one of those commonplace comments—“Ya gotta live for today”—that people make all the time. But the comment rubs Tony the wrong way. Tony brutally unloads his anger on the long-suffering man. (It was in the second episode of the series that we first saw Georgie take a beating, and we most recently saw him get beat-down in Season Four’s “Christopher.”) After learning that he will suffer from some permanent hearing loss, Georgie decides to quit the Bing. When Tony learns of the damage to Georgie’s hearing, an expression of genuine remorse passes across his face.
Despite whatever compassion or remorse Tony Soprano is capable of feeling, we see in the final scene of the hour just what a miserable prick he can be. He cruelly baits Janice during dinner, playing on the guilt she feels over her troubled son Harpo. Tony utterly smashes any sense of self-control and tranquility that Janice had built up over the last few days. Armed with a fork, she chases Tony around the dinner table. Tony saunters out of her house while she weeps and curses, smugly satisfied with himself. He has proven that Janice is no better than him despite her recent successes. Chase pumps The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Anybody Else” over these final moments of the hour and then through the credits. Chase’s decision to use the live version of the song is truly clever. In an interview with Martha Nochimson, Chase notes the irony generated by the live version: Ray Davies calls out to the crowd, “What are you?” and 3000 people yell back en masse, “I’m not like anybody else!” This irony—thousands of fans each declare that they are totally unique, but that very declaration proves that they’re not—echoes the irony of the final scene: Tony believes himself to be above the rules that other people must adhere to, but when he abandons certain rules of restraint and decency in order to shit on his sister, he proves that he is in no way above the multitude.
Many viewers, justifiably, found Tony to be particularly petty and despicable in this hour. It is horrible how he undermines both Janice’s attempt at anger management and Christopher’s attempt at sobriety. And Tony’s bashing of Georgie would be abhorrent even if it wasn’t over such a trivial comment. However, I believe that all these characters are victims of themselves more than they are of Tony Soprano. Janice abandons anger management too easily, she doesn’t build on the progress that she had made before Tony baited her. Chris eventually abandons sobriety with disastrous consequences for himself. And perennial punching-bag Georgie should have quit the strip club years ago. (I guess he’s been sticking around for the “fringe benefits.” Although he says he is leaving now, we will see Georgie working at the Bing again late in Season 6.) Tony can be an awful man – yes, this is true enough. But the greater truth of SopranoWorld is that its inhabitants cannot, or will not, muster the discipline and courage needed to break out of the self-limiting, self-destructive patterns in their lives. We can’t lay all the blame at Tony’s feet.
JUST WHEN I THOUGHT I WAS OUT…
Exhibit “A” of “characters who will not break out of self-limiting patterns” is Carmela Soprano. She makes an effort to find a good local divorce attorney, but when that proves to be too difficult, she doesn’t redouble her efforts. Instead, she makes only a symbolic attempt to keep Tony out of her life: she drains the swimming pool. Like so many characters in SopranoWorld, Carmela gets derailed when her attempt to improve her life hits a hiccup. (They could learn a thing or two from Uncle Pat, who refused to give up or commit suicide while suffering from hiccup after hiccup—literally—for a year.) Immediately after a chance encounter with Mr. Wegler, Carmela voices a thought that is lurking in her subconscious: she will return to Tony. Just when she thought she was out, she pulls herself back in.
Her quick little scene with Wegler here has drawn much attention because of the way that it was edited. The scene ends with a number of gimmicks: slo-mo, freeze-frame and then a wipe-cut. Someone (I don’t know if it was David Chase or the editor or director Mike Figgis) makes a total ham-n-cheese sandwich of the scene:
There is no doubt that this is a moment pregnant with consequence for Carmela. But The Sopranos doesn’t normally highlight its important moments with so many bells-and-whistles. On the DVD commentary track, Figgis says over the scene, “That’s a really interesting transition, and it wasn’t the way I’d expected the scene to look at the end,” leading me to believe that he isn’t the primary culprit. On the other hand, each of the other directors who recorded DVD commentaries for this season—Garcia, Bogdanovich and Buscemi—all mentioned how straightforward and invisible the editing of The Sopranos is, but I don’t recall Figgis saying anything like this. Perhaps he never noticed how straightforward and invisible the editing of The Sopranos usually is. Perhaps he was just trying to do something new and different here. Figgis is a gutsy filmmaker, he is willing to take chances and push the envelope. His film Timecode, for example, projects four unedited streams onto four quadrants of the screen simultaneously for the duration of the movie. (But not all experiments go well. Someone with the handle “TweeterFlix” gives a devastating synopsis of Timecode on YouTube: “Figgis divides up the screen to tell 4 stories at the same time. They’re all boring.”)
I’m not trying to pick on Mike Figgis though, I think he did a phenomenal job here. “Cold Cuts” focuses on a subject that had been mostly unexplored on The Sopranos but one that is crucial to understanding the mobster mentality: the relationship between anger and revenge. The hour also deftly performs the role that an “episode #10” should traditionally perform: escalate tensions as we enter the final stage of the season. (Of course, Chase does seem to veer away—at first blush, anyway—from some of these escalating tensions in the next episode, the wild-and-woolly “Test Dream.”) I feel that the second half of Season 5 gives us the strongest run of episodes in the entire series, and “Cold Cuts” easily pulls its weight in this run.
While Tony’s baiting of Janice at the end of the hour is indefensible, he does bring up a valid point: Janice was a pretty horrible mother to Harpo, and her deficiencies as a parent probably did contribute to the difficult life that he’s had. We learn here that he was named after the Phoebe Snow song “Harpo’s Blues,” not after the clownish Marx brother as I had always assumed. It’s easy to imagine Harpo going through life being bullied or dismissed because of his clownish name. Janice arguably hobbled her son right from birth by christening him “Harpo.” And things just seem to have gotten worse from there. Though we never meet Harpo, we can assume from the fact that he goes by the name “Hal” now that he is not very proud of his birthname. And we can assume from the fact that he has been homeless that he has suffered terribly in his life. Janice is severely lacking in the mothering department, and her son has had to pay a price for it. The parallel here is that Janice’s own mother was severely ill-equipped to be a mom, and her children, including Janice, were forced to pay a price for it.
The parallel is overtly made in this hour: Valerie Palmer-Mehta notes in her essay, “Disciplining the Masculine,” that Janice lunges for Tony with a fork here, calling to mind the flashback in “Down Neck” (1.07) in which we saw Livia yell at young Tony, “I could stick this fork in your eye!” Almost everyone in SopranoWorld is stuck in self-defeating patterns of behavior, patterns that often pass from one generation to the next…
- Chris and Adriana are looking at wedding cakes, they’re going forward with their wedding – which makes his betrayal and her fate all the more heartbreaking two episodes from now.
- If the attractive woman that comes down Tony’s staircase looks familiar, it’s because we saw her in 5.05. She was sort of cold towards Tony at the dermatologist’s office, but apparently she has warmed up to him: