Tony has trouble dealing with the truth about his father’s mistress; JT Dolan must face the truth about his addictions;
and Corrado can’t handle the truth about his house arrest.
EPISODE 59 - ORIGINALLY AIRED APRIL 18, 2004 WRITTEN BY TERRY WINTER DIRECTED BY STEVE 'MISTER SHHH' BUSCEMI
It has always surprised me how divisive “In Camelot” is. Many viewers found it too slow, too marginal, too creepy (potentially sparking a romance between Tony and a senior citizen), or too much of a retread (JT Dolan seems like a reincarnation of Davey Scatino from Season 2). I’m not in this camp. From the moment it first aired, I thought this episode was outstanding. “In Camelot” is a big part of the reason why Season 5 of The Sopranos left such a deep impression on me.
As I mentioned in my previous write-up, Season 5 seems to be revisiting earlier themes and ideas but in more subtle and mature ways. The Sopranos has routinely looked at the belief systems and mythologies that its characters live by. (It was arguably “Commendatori” [2.04] that did so most obviously.) An exploration of personal myths (and how such myths are made) is now the central concern of “In Camelot.”
This central concern is immediately signaled by the episode title. The legends of Camelot have been around for centuries, floating through the years in a haze of magic, mystery and romance. One month after JFK was killed, the term “Camelot” began to be associated with the Kennedy White House and the early 1960s. (I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination. I once snuck away from a family visit in Austin to go lurk around Dealey Plaza for a couple of days, and my interest was reignited upon its 50th anniversary in 2013.) But time has proven that neither Kennedy nor his administration, as admirable as they were, can live up to the legend of Camelot. That bubble has burst.
One of Tony’s bubbles gets burst in the opening scene of the hour: he learns that his childhood dog Tippy had been euthanized, not moved out to a farm to live out his days in the countryside as he was told. Tony’s usual cynicism does not extend to his concern for animals, whether it be for his dog Tippy or Adriana’s dog Cosette or Ralph’s horse Pie-O-My. There is plenty to be cynical about, however, because sadness accrues in SopranoWorld — moments after finding out the truth about his beloved dog, Tony receives news that Aunt Concetta has died. While at her funeral, Tony expresses a desire to visit his father’s grave. But we might note that he says nothing about visiting his mother. Even in death, Livia is a monster to him.
He meets Fran Felstein, his father’s goomar, at his parents’ gravesite. Despite her liver spots and bad hearing, Fran is an attractive woman. Tony recognizes that there is something enticing about Fran as he later accompanies her to the Chicamagua midget-racetrack. Her glamour grows when Corrado describes her loveliness as a young woman, and continues to grow when Fran tells Tony a story about hooking up with Pres. Kennedy. Fran’s sensational tale locates her squarely within our greatest cultural myth: the American Camelot. Tony would undoubtedly be impressed by her JFK anecdote, because he has been charmed by the Kennedy mystique for a long time now — we first saw his JFK hat in the Pilot episode, and we remember how he compared the Whitecaps beach-house to the Kennedy compound in the Season 4 finale. And the fact that Jackie Gleason, who Tony is a big fan of, appears in Fran’s story only adds to her magical aura.
Dr. Melfi recognizes Tony’s potential attraction to the older woman. Tony denies he has romantic feelings for her but a later scene gives him away: he seems to grow weary while making love to Valentina, but gets reenergized when he sees a William Wegman print on her wall.
The Wegman photo might very well remind Tony of Fran for multiple reasons:
- The dog in the picture could evoke Tippy who was neither euthanized nor taken to a farm but given to Fran
- The Weimaraner is wearing a fur coat which might recall the fact that Fran worked at the fur department at Bamberger’s
- The Weimaraner’s fur coat might also recall the sable coat that Fran wore in her story about JFK
On his commentary track, director Steve Buscemi notes that he did not shoot this sex scene. It was originally shot for the season opener, but Chase decided to use it in this episode with a shot of the Wegman print inserted. By placing the sex scene here along with the Wegman image, Chase underscores the possibility that Tony is sexually attracted to Fran.
THE PARTY’S OVER (Part One)
The problem with myths is that they often don’t hold together, they sometimes come apart before our very eyes. Fran’s golden luster is first tarnished by Hesh (whose opinion Tony has always respected): “Something about her always rubbed me the wrong way.” Over the course of the hour, it becomes clear that Fran is selfish and vain, even by SopranoWorld standards. She is incapable of understanding Uncle Zio’s lifelong commitment to Aunt Concetta. She is careless with money. She may even be highly manipulative. There is a real possibility that Fran knowingly manipulated Tony for her piece of the Chicamagua racetrack. (I think that her running into Tony at the cemetery was just a coincidence, but mentioning the racetrack to him—just when its sale is imminent—may not have been.) And she is horribly insulting to Tony’s mother, commenting that Livia was dressed “like a refugee” one New Year’s Eve.
Tony’s illusions of Fran completely shatter when she dons JFK’s hat and does her best “Marilyn Monroe.” Jeff Goldberg at Slate.com describes this episode as “the purest distillation of the Sopranos ethos: to relentlessly invert the most sacred principle of TV writing, which is ‘Do Not Discomfit the Viewer.'” To call this scene “discomfiting” would be an understatement. Actress Polly Bergen deserves immense credit, she nails her thankless role perfectly. (In fact, I think she turns in the greatest guest performance of the series.) She practically looks into the camera as she performs the routine (apparently producer Harry Bronchtein’s idea), making us squirm in our seats:
When “In Camelot” first aired, it had been almost 40 years since Marilyn sang the sultry song to JFK at his birthday bash. That party ended a long time ago. Marilyn and JFK have been dead for decades. They had the privilege of dying young and beautiful, with legends intact, while Fran had to settle for the blessed curse of living into old age.
David Chase never really humanized the character of “Livia Soprano,” perhaps because Nancy Marchand died before he had a chance to. As a result, Livia has been little more than a caricature. The memory of her lurks through SopranoWorld like some mythical evil beast. But that myth takes a blow now. My heart went out to Livia when Fran made the crack about her looking like a refugee. And in Tony’s later flashback in Melfi’s office, our sympathies completely align with Livia as she gets maltreated and lied to by both her son and her husband. The flashback also manages to evoke some sympathy from Tony towards his mother — but only momentarily. “Fuck her,” he growls in the end, holding his tears back. Writer Terry Winter sat in at the Slate online forum the week this episode aired, and explained that just as Tony “begins to empathize with his mother, he pulls back, choosing to hide in the safety of the fiction that his mom was pure evil and his dad’s goomar was ‘like a princess.'”
The Bada Bing is a place where women are seen not as they actually are but rather with a veneer of male fantasy applied over them. Fittingly, it is here that Tony re-sexualizes Fran, reestablishes her mythic status. In the episode’s final scene, Tony greatly embellishes Fran’s mystique and her relationship to JFK. As he puffs and exhales his cigar smoke, it seems to highlight that he is blowing smoke up his buddies’ asses — the guys all fall for Tony’s mythological fable of Fran (with the possible exception of Blundetto who seems to hear his bullshit-alarm going off). The scratching and buzzing noises of Linkin Park’s “Session” reflect the cacophony of conflicting truths and fictions as they clash against one another. Tony knows that the idol that he is placing back on the high mantel is a false one. The sham puts a bitter taste in his mouth, but he washes the bitterness down with a double-shot of whiskey. We remember that Jackie Gleason was one of the characters that appeared earlier in Fran’s sensational anecdote, and so when the theme from The Jackie Gleason Show, “Melancholy Serenade,” pushes the Linkin Park song out of the way to close out the hour, it suggests that the fiction of Fran Felstein as the beautiful, mid-century, Kennedy-era seductress has triumphed over the truth about her:
“In Camelot” shows us the way that our fictions shape our lives, and it doubles its effectiveness by lifting up the curtain to reveal how the episode itself is a fiction. Several episodes this season have utilized famous faces to blur the line between fiction and reality, and this episode does the same by featuring performances from two famous people:
Part of the reason why the fabling of Fran works here is because actress Polly Bergen has quite a fabled past herself. As a young woman, Bergen glamorously rubbed elbows with Sinatra and Gleason and John Kennedy. She hosted her own variety show on NBC in 1957, which had a theme song (“The Party’s Over”) that was as well-known to the American public as the Jackie Gleason theme was at the time. Her actor-residue rubs off on to the character that she plays here with great effect.
But it is really the presence of Tim Daly that heightens our awareness of the episode as a work of fiction. Daly had been mentioned in “University” (3.06) by entertainment lawyer/Noah’s father Len Tannenbaum who was meeting with producer Dick Wolf in that episode. Now, Daly is playing TV writer “JT Dolan” who is hoping to get a spot on Dick Wolf’s staff. Even the character’s name deconstructs the fiction: “JT Dolan” is a play on the actor’s full name: James Timothy Daly. Some viewers might also recognize Tim Daly as the star of David Chase’s earlier TV series Almost Grown, a show that explored many of the themes that later appeared on The Sopranos.
Lots of little references to the world of television complicate this episode’s fiction. A partial listing of references include Corbin Bernsen, Rene Balcer, Cannon, Law & Order, That’s Life (“fake guinea-fest”), Meet the Press, Nash Bridges, and The Practice (which is not mentioned by name but its main actors Dylan McDermott and “Nicholson’s girlfriend” Lara Flynn Boyle are).
THE PARTY’S OVER (Part Two)
Many viewers dismissed the story of JT Dolan as it appears here as a retread of Davey Scatino’s storyline in Season 2. At first blush, this is an understandable response. The empty shelves in JT’s apartment (who has had to sell all his belongings to pay off Chris) echo the empty shelves of Davey’s bust-out sporting goods store. And JT has to surrender his car to Chris much like Davey had to give one of his cars to creditor Tony.
But the relevance of JT’s story here is that it continues this episode’s exploration of the false myths that can (mis)guide us. JT has a romanticized conception of himself as “Joe Hollywood” (as the poker dealer calls him). He tells his Narcotics Anonymous group about his party lifestyle in L.A., complete with a BMW and an actress girlfriend. “Drugs, alcohol, that shit practically comes with the Writers Guild card,” he says. He gets clean and sober in a rehab program in Pennsylvania, and comes back home to New Jersey. He is able to stay away from doing blow or junk, but it doesn’t take long for him to fall into the gambling hole. He says to Chris, “I was never into games of chance but there’s something about that excitement that is… I don’t know.” He does know but he’s not willing to admit it to himself: the excitement parallels the high he can get from narcotics. JT believes that he can still be “Joe Hollywood.” But he actually can’t — that party’s over. He thinks that his $57,000 debt is no big deal, “it’s like a month’s salary” if he gets the staff job with Dick Wolf. (Which he doesn’t.) He believes his Emmy must be worth a lot at the pawnshop. (It’s not.) He believes that he is exempt from mob violence. (He’s not. Chris smashes a Dr. Strangelove picture frame over his head before beating the crap out of him.)
Christopher also lives in a fiction, in the false belief that he can be JT’s friend, supporter and loan shark simultaneously. After triggering JT’s nosedive into ruin, Chris spouts—totally without irony—neat little aphorisms and bits of advice to the ravaged writer. Chris is as helpful to JT as a safety-net made out of cement. The imagery of the two men sitting before the bare entertainment center in JT’s apartment makes a powerful statement:
JT sits broken and battered, stripped of his dignity and his belongings. He is not the first person whose wealth and well-being have been ransacked by the mafia. But he is the first person from Hollywood (that mythical and myth-making place) on the series that we have seen get so plundered. JT may have been Joe Hollywood once but he’s just another schmuck in north Jersey now.
THE PARTY’S OVER (Part Three)
Corrado’s storyline here revisits his storyline in “House Arrest” (2.11) — his confinement at home is driving him batty. But Corrado figures out that he can attend funerals as a way to get out of the house. He begins to think of the wakes and funeral receptions as parties, trying to get the waiter to whip out a guitar at one and relishing the spicy chicken at another. But that party ends – it doesn’t take long for Corrado to get dejected by the fiction that he is engaging in. His words in Dr. Winer’s office express a deep depression:
“I’m trapped. What’s the goddamn point? Goddamn house arrest. My life is only death. I’m living in a grave. I beat prison – and for what? I have no children. Would someone please explain this to me?”
The memory of Livia colors this episode from top to bottom, and Corrado’s monologue here sounds a lot like Livia’s “It’s all a big nothing” speech to her grandson in “D-Girl.” We might hope that characters such as Tony, JT Dolan and Corrado would know not to invest in empty myths, would know that doing so is investing in a philosophy of nothingness much like the one that emotionally bankrupted Livia. But this is SopranoWorld — any such hope we might have for these characters is bound to be wasted.
CLEVER CUTS and CONNECTIVITY
Every episode of The Sopranos contains clever edits between scenes, and “In Camelot” is no exception. There are several that deserve mention, but some of the more noticeable cuts here include:
Corrado might expect his singing to garner applause but it only irks the other funeral guests; CUT TO a support group who does applaud for JT:
JT wants to talk about taking a moral inventory; CUT TO the place where Tony comes closest to ever taking such an inventory of his life – Melfi’s office:
Director Buscemi credits editor Bill Stich for finding a pair of matching gestures within the footage on which to cut:
Another matching gesture that Stich discovered:
I believe that connectivity plays a very important role in The Sopranos, and the clever edits demonstrate how much thought is put into stitching and connecting one scene to the next. “In Camelot” also makes connections to previous episodes, reiterating or reshaping some of the ideas found in outings such as “Bust Out” and “House Arrest.” As Season 5 ventures further into dark territory, Chase uses such connectivity to counteract the increasing disintegration and splintering that marks SopranoWorld. It’s very possible that The Sopranos might have become too depressing a show for many viewers’ tastes if it didn’t have all these connections and allusions that we are able to engage with and revel in.
FOOD AND FIREARMS
Johnny Sac rules that Phil Leotardo must pay Tony about $40,000 from the sale of the Chigamagua racetrack. But Phil is not happy about having to pay, and tries to duck away from Tony. Images of food and violence often go hand-in-hand in the series, and one of the more unrecognized examples is Phil getting roughed up by Tony after crashing his Lincoln into, of all things, the back of a Boar’s Head provisions truck:
Perhaps another thing worth noting in this scene: The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” is playing on Tony’s radio as he chases Phil down. Phil is called “the Shah of Iran” more than once on the series, because of his resemblance to Shah Pahlavi, and the song seems to underscore this Middle-Eastern reference. Is it too much to say that Tony chases Phil down and rocks his casbah here?
THE MYTH OF OEDIPUS
Like many viewers, I felt some discomfort watching Fran vamp and sing to Tony, but my discomfort itself made me uncomfortable — was it evidence of some sort of ageism? Or even some sexism? I wondered if I subconsciously believed that it’s always vulgar for older people, especially older women, to display their sexuality. Would this hour have made me cringe as much if the situation was reversed, if the romantic subtext referred to a man of Fran’s age and a woman of Tony’s age?
Ultimately, though, I think my response was due less to age/gender biases and due more to how Chase shaped the episode — he shaped it in a way that makes us uncomfortable, which underlines the lengths that we all (including Tony) will go to, even breaking and remaking our mythologies if necessary, in order to escape that which makes us uncomfortable. Thinking about mythologies also got me thinking about the Greek myth of Oedipus. Chase surely knows he is increasing our discomfort by having Tony lust a little bit for Johnny Boy’s goomar, as there would be something almost Oedipal about Tony slapping uglies now with his dad’s girlfriend. Tony’s attraction toward Fran, even if slight, seems to further emphasize something we’ve known about him for some time now: although he married a woman who is very loving, warm and giving, Tony’s side attractions tend to be women who are more like his mother — selfish, cold, uncaring. Though it takes him some time, Tony eventually recognizes that Fran shares many of Livia’s characteristics. Perhaps he finally re-mythologizes Fran into a “princess” again to avoid facing the uncomfortable fact that he subconsciously seems to always want a woman in his life that mimics his monstrous mother.
- I love how much attention Chase pays to small details. During the cemetery scene, for example, we see that Tony has to blot the perspiration off his forehead and his collar is damp with sweat. On other shows, characters might be able to spend time outdoors in formal clothes and remain sweat-free, but not here on The Sopranos.
- JT mentions that he met Christopher in Pennsylvania. He must be referring to Eleuthera House, the rehab center in Pennsylvania that Chris checked into in “The Strong, Silent Type” (4.10).
- We first saw Dr. Winer in “Where’s Johnny” (5.03) when he approached Tony at the golf course with information about Corrado’s TIAs (mini-strokes). Chase sparks our memory of him by having his first line of this episode be “It could have been another TIA.”
- Another myth that Corrado lives by: Corrado believes that Fran never knew how deeply in love he was with her, telling Tony that he suffered in silence — but Fran actually knew all along, and even thought of him as some kind of creepy stalker.
- Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” is fittingly playing in the background while Fran shows off her new $600 Bottega Venetas.
- Buscemi and Winter team up behind the camera for this episode just as they did for “Pine Barrens.” I’m guessing that it was on this series that they developed the relationship that would later serve them so well on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
- On the commentary track, Buscemi gives much credit to the production team, including Phil Abraham (for his blocking and photography) and production designer Bob Shaw (for nailing how Fran’s apartment should look). He also compliments David Chase for crafting such a tight episode; Buscemi’s first cut clocked in at about 80 minutes but Chase cut it down to about 50.
- The David Chase/Tim Daly venture Almost Grown was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling. (Is this really a thing or is Internet playing a joke on me?)
- Since I mentioned Dealey Plaza and the JFK assassination earlier, maybe I should add this to the record: I think that the best available evidence points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone gunman. But we may never know the truth about that day with 100% certainty. (Unless, of course, Master of Sopranos decides to break down the Zapruder film and solve the mystery for us. Perhaps “Members Only guy” was there behind the grassy knoll…)