Marco Polo (5.08)

Tony gets invited to Hugh’s 75th birthday party.  Blundetto puts himself square in the middle
of the feud going on in New York. 

EPISODE 60 - ORIGINALLY AIRED APRIL 25, 2004
WRITTEN BY MICHAEL IMPERIOLI
DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON

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Viewer opinion was divided over this hour, although it was not as polarized as it was for previous episode “In Camelot.”  Many viewers wanted David Chase to focus more on the power struggle going on in New York between Johnny Sac and Lil Carmine, and they were happy to find that “Marco Polo” turned back towards that storyline – at least to some degree.  The hour begins with a radio call sign (“New York’s only classic rock station, Q104.3”), immediately establishing that we are in NY now.  (Chase likes to use radio IDs to establish location, he also did it a couple of episodes ago in “Where’s Johnny?”)  Lil Carmine has moved to New York, moving from Miami to a recently purchased waterfront estate up in West Hempstead.  He must be feeling very confident that he will come out on top of the NY power crisis if he is willing to spend so much money on such a luxurious property.  But Johnny Sac has something to say about this: he sends his guys to scuttle Carmine’s yacht which is docked behind the house.

Confident that he’s gonna come out on top, Johnny Sac makes a pretty big purchase himself – a brand new Maserati.  Johnny takes his buddy Tony out for a drive in the new sports car.  Poor Sal Vitro watches them from the yard, and we might note that he favors his left arm when moving his landscaping equipment.  (It was his right arm that was broken by Feech LaManna.)

Phil Leotardo is another New York mobster to get featured in this episode.  Tony is obligated to help Phil get his Lincoln repaired, so he sends him to Angie Bonpensiero’s body shop.  Tony takes a cold-hearted enjoyment in hearing how Philly tries to chisel Angie, probably because he is still bitter about how her husband Pussy betrayed him.  The fact that Angie is a good friend of his scorned wife Carmela combined with the fact that Angie hit him up for money last year don’t exactly serve to warm the cockles of his heart towards her either.

But this episode is only marginally about New York mobsters.  The great bulk of this hour is devoted to Tony’s domestic issues.  Carm comes over to Tony’s place and politely dis-invites him to her father’s surprise birthday party, figuring that his presence at the party would be awkward given their separation.  Tony accepts her decision graciously, pretending that he had decided not to attend anyway.  There is, however, still a lot of anger between them.  By the time Carmela leaves, the two are screaming at each other.

A cynical move by Corrado, interestingly, changes the course of Tony and Carmela’s relationship.  Bitter about a multitude of things—his house arrest, not being invited to Hugh’s party, a confusing Italian film (La Dolce Vita), and the generally poor state of his affairs—Corrado makes a cynical phone call to Hugh and ruins the surprise.  Old-timer Hugh has some old-timey notions about “the man of the house” – he refuses to attend his own party if man-of-the-house Tony is not there.  And so begins a sequence of events that brings Tony and Carmela together by the end of the hour.

Hugh’s party is the primary reason why “Marco Polo” is one of my favorite episodes of the series.  David Chase does a wondrous job conjuring up the atmosphere of a pool party and backyard barbecue.  I almost had a sense of deja vu watching it, it felt so familiar.   We feel the tone of the party shift over the course of the day (as often happens at parties): it starts out somewhat stiff but becomes more and more boisterous as the guests loosen up, then drifts through dusk like a wistful dream, and finally distills into something clear, quiet and cozy under the light of the moon.

I’ve argued in my last few write-ups that Season 5 seems to be revisiting earlier themes and ideas but in a more mature and subtle way.  Notions of Italian pride (as well as Italian self-hatred) are investigated throughout the series, and “Marco Polo” continues the investigation.  I’m not well-versed in the “Northern Italian vs. Southern Italian” dynamic that informs this episode, but it clearly plays into the “high-culture vs. low culture” tensions that crop up at Hugh’s party.  Carmela’s mother Mary is obviously embarrassed as Tony arrives at the party singing an Italian parody and twirling Italian sausages.  Tony makes a comment to Dr. Fegoli that is worthy of Homer Simpson: “So you’re a doctor like Kissinger’s a doctor” – and follows this up with a dumb (but funny) joke about Dr. Fegoli’s meeting four popes.  Snooty Fegoli does not seem very impressed by his host.  Tony excuses himself, saying “I’d love to stay and chat but I’ve got a fire to start” and Chase cuts to a shot of the fired-up grill.  (Tony’s line could also be taken more metaphorically – it seems to foreshadow the “fire” he rekindles in Carmela.)  Tony’s grill almost has a supernatural aura on the series, it is so loaded with history and meaning.  We first saw Tony cooking on it for AJ’s birthday party all the way back in the Pilot episode (and in that initial hour we saw the grill flare-up as Tony fainted after seeing the ducks fly out of the swimming pool).  The grill has appeared in several episodes since, perhaps most notably in this season’s opener “Two Tonys,” when its dormant condition indicated to us that Tony is no longer living here at the house.  Its present condition—burning hot and loaded with meat—unmistakably signifies that Tony is home again (at least for today).

Grills Sopranos

Soprano grill

Most of us have been expecting Carmela to reunite with Tony at some point this season.  Although Carmela and Tony don’t fully reconcile now, they do take a major step towards reconciliation. Right from the beginning of the hour, Chase builds a path that inevitably leads to Carm and Tony’s romantic interlude in the swimming pool:

  1. Hugh has been Mr. Fix-it lately, acting as a pseudo-man-of-the-house in Tony’s absence.  When he falls off the roof, it signals that he is getting too old to play this role.  (And AJ playing the drums as his grandpa falls underscores that he is just a kid, a teenage boy going through the obligatory “drums” phase; he can’t replace Tony as Carmela’s man of the house either.)
  2. Hugh finds out about the surprise party from Corrado, and insists that Tony must be present.
  3. The presence of pompous, condescending Fegoli—who slights the beautiful Beretta that Tony gives to Hugh—at the party serves to highlight Tony’s contrasting lack of pretention, a trait that endears him to Carmela.  (We may remember that Carmela’s own unpretentiousness was one of the things Wegler found so attractive about her in “Sentimental Education.”)
  4. Carmela’s mother Mary isn’t impressed by Tony’s lack of pretention, she finds him completely boorish in comparison to the more cultured Dr. Fegoli.  Carm is outraged that her mother could act so uppity and this strengthens Carm’s feelings of solidarity with her husband.
  5. Carmela watches Tony horse around with Meadow and recognizes what a warm and loving man he can be.

Father and daughter Soprano

And voila, just like that, the stage is set for a rendezvous in the swimming pool.  This pool scene reminded many viewers of Jaws, as Chase used underwater and handheld cameras to shoot the action.  Tony Soprano can aptly be compared to a dangerous shark.  But Carmela doesn’t think of Tony as some sort of menacing shark here; she offers only half-hearted resistance to his pursuit before surrendering herself.  Prof. Maurice Yacowar writes that “the underwater shots imply that both of their subconscious impulses take control.”  While it may very well be true that the pool setting is meant to underscore Carmela and Tony’s subconscious desires, I’m more interested in how the imagery plays in our subconscious.  Chase has led his viewers to equate the Soprano swimming pool with notions of home and family right from the Pilot episode.  Pool imagery has appeared at various key moments when the security and tranquility of the Soprano family was threatened (such as when troublemaker Janice was first introduced to us in Season 2).  And just as it was with the shot of the grill (another object associated with home and family), the shot of the covered swimming pool in the early moments of the Season 5 opener signaled to us that Tony and Carmela’s relationship was dormant:

Pools Sopranos

Tony and Carm still have a few episodes to go (and a couple of hiccups along the way) before their marriage and household are fully reassembled, but it is very fitting that the first steps take place here in their backyard swimming pool.

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FOOD, FAITH & FIREARMS
Food, faith and firearms intertwine with each other in a variety of ways as this episode progresses…

Food & Faith
The presence of the food-loving priest Phil Intintola at Hugh’s party supplies a subtle link between food and faith.  A more obvious connection between food and faith is provided by Hugh’s birthday cake, decorated with the logo of the Knights of Columbus (the world’s largest Catholic fraternity).

Hugh DeAngelis birthday cake

Faith & Firearms
Chase possibly makes a connection between faith and firearms through the use of the word “jubilee.”  (I don’t want to make too much out of this because I don’t think it is strongly warranted, but I’ll throw it out there anyway.)  We hear the word mentioned twice in the exchange between Corrado and Hugh:

Corrado: I wanted to be at your jubilee—
Hugh: Jubilee?
Corrado: But the federal government says I can’t leave the house.

Later, at the party, Tony gives Hugh a Beretta Giubileo (which happens to be the Italian word for “Jubilee”).  Now, as many good Catholics know, “Jubilee years” are those particular periods, proclaimed by the Pope, in which remissions and indulgences for sins are set to occur.  (I’m not a good Catholic, so don’t ask me what this means exactly.)  The most recent Jubilee year occurred not long—relatively speaking—before this episode aired: Pope John Paul II set the year 2000 to be the Great Jubilee.  The possible relevance of the Catholic concept of Jubilee to “Marco Polo” might be that it is in this episode that Carmela gives Tony an indulgence – she begins to forgive his sins.  I know that this is a bit of a reach; I don’t necessarily believe that the mentions of both “jubilee” and “Giubileo” are meant to evoke the Catholic notion of Jubilee.  But it’s interesting to think that this may have been somewhere in the back of David Chase’s mind.

Food & Firearms
Blundetto is not satisfied with the way his stolen airbag gig is going – he wants more money, more responsibility and more respect.  He shows up at the Bing and airs his grievances to Tony.  (Nota bena: The Faces’ “Bad ‘n’ Ruin” is playing in the background as he makes his complaint.)  Tony tries to slow his cousin down, he tells Blundetto, “Just eat what’s on your plate right now.”

But what is on his plate is not very appetizing or very filling.  He meets NY wiseguys Rusty Millio and Angelo Garepe at a restaurant (of course) where they offer him something more appetizing and substantial: Blundetto can make a nice payday if he whacks “a friend of a friend, not a friend of ours” in Johnny Sac’s crew.  It’s all part of the power struggle going on in New York, but this particular whacking is specifically meant to be payback for Lorraine Colluzzo’s murder.  Blundetto declines out of deference to Tony Soprano’s wishes that his famiglia not get involved in New York affairs, but he does agree to give some more thought to their offer.

Blundetto’s dissatisfactions get stoked at Hugh’s birthday party.  He resents being treated like a “slave,” feels envious of Soprano’s wealth, and is heartbroken over his disconnection from daughter Kelli.  If it had been Tony Uncle Johnny that got locked up instead up Tony Uncle Al, perhaps their current situations would be completely flip-flopped.  (Todd VanDerWerff notes that if The Sopranos was science-fiction, Blundetto could function as the alternate-universe version of Soprano, and the name “Tony B” would be the perfect sci-fi designation for the alt-universe variant of Tony Soprano.)  Bitter Blundetto irreverently videotapes Tony’s big belly and Carmela’s bent-over butt.  He wistfully gazes at Meadow, probably wondering what has happened to his own daughter.  As Tony clowns with Mead, Blundetto is again reminded that he has lost his own little girl:

Father and daughter Soprano

It is an interesting and highly loaded moment: Carmela watches this moment between father and daughter and it pulls her toward Tony, but Blundetto watches and it pushes him away from Tony – the pain he feels over losing Kelli is one more thing that pushes him to ignore Tony’s wishes to stay out of New York affairs.

After Blundetto recognizes how deprived his twin sons Justin and Jason have been, especially in comparison to crown prince AJ Soprano, he thinks about taking Rusty and Angelo up on their offer.  There is a short scene, filled with food imagery, in which we see Blundetto make his decision to commit violence:


Blundetto’s mother eats breakfast while watching Julia Child tenderize a piece of meat.  The sound of the food being pounded almost seems to echo the pounding that must be going on in Blundetto’s head.  Just as chef Julia stops her pounding, Blundetto reaches his decision.  He calls the New York guys and tells them “I’m in.”  This means that Joey Peeps is going down.

Joey Peeps has sampled some of the merchandise at the cathouse where he has come to pick up a payment.  We catch a glimpse, very fittingly, of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on the far wall behind hooker Heather.  And as manager Muzz barks orders to another prostitute, we see a print behind him which also comments on the lives of these women:

Marco Polo whorehouse

Rewatching these episodes now, it’s very clear in my head exactly who is on Lil Carmine’s side and who is with John Sacrimoni.  But during the original run, I was in a bit of a muddle keeping all the characters straight.  Chase does provide a bit of dialogue here, though, which helps us to recognize which faction Mr. Peeps is part of:

Joey Peeps:  (receiving a payment from Muzz) Thanks.  Phil will be very happy.
Muzz:  Send him and John my best.

By killing Joey Peeps at the bidding of Lil Carmine, Blundetto is essentially seating himself at the opposite end of the table from Tony.  (Although Tony tries to be neutral, he is clearly closer to Johnny Sac than he is to Lil Carmine, a fact that we were reminded of as the two buddies went zooming around in Johnny’s new Maserati earlier.)  After blasting his victims, Blundetto’s foot gets run over by Joey’s car and he has to limp away.  (Poor demoiselle Heather – she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There is a nasty irony to her death: Joey Peeps was targeted in retaliation for the murder of a woman, Lorraine Colluzzo, and now Blundetto has himself killed a woman carrying out this assignment.)

The songs selected to close out the episodes are always inspired choices, but some viewers found The Faces’ “Bad ‘n’ Ruin” to be too perfect, landing a little too squarely on the button.  It may lack subtlety, but what I find so interesting is how Chase uses the song to evoke subtle, almost subconscious associations in the minds of his viewers.  A first-time viewer might not consciously recognize that we first heard this song earlier at the Bing just as Tony was denying Blundetto’s request for greater opportunities, and that this denial must certainly have contributed to Blundetto’s decision to murder Peeps – a murder which Chase now scores with the song.  Like a hypnotist snapping his fingers, Chase uses his imagery (grill or swimming pool, for example) and his musical selections (like “Bad ‘n’ Ruin”) to summon previously planted thoughts, ideas and emotions into the consciousness of his enraptured viewers.

FUCKIN’ REGULARNESS
Not all viewers, however, are so enraptured by The Sopranos.  Superstar defense attorney Gerald Shargel (who has defended several mobsters including John Gotti) sat in on the Slate.com forum the week that this episode originally aired.  In a piece titled “Has The Sopranos become boring?” he lays out his argument why “Marco Polo” and the two episodes that preceded it were “just plain boring”:

I thought that Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George would be at Hugo’s barbeque birthday party, because, man, that was a story about nothing. Nothing happened and there was no plot. Now I know why reality television is so popular. If you rolled the cameras into a barbeque at my house this summer, I promise there would be a better story line. Seriously, the success of The Sopranos was due to the plot – great and memorable stories, like the killing in the frozen woods. Now it is mostly character-driven, as in the As the World Turns genre.

I think Shargel’s complaint stems from a deep-seated longing that all of us share: the desire to live our lives on a less tedious plane than the one that our daily life actually unfolds on.  We want excitement.  Characters on The Sopranos certainly share this desire.  Lil Carmine’s new mansion, Johnny’s new Maserati, Hugh’s excitement over his new Beretta, Mary’s aspirations to be a “cultured” Italian, Carmela’s seduction by her exciting alpha-male husband, Blundetto’s attempt to move up in the world, his twins’ desire for fancier toys – they all reflect a wish to escape the fuckin’ regularness of life.  Many television viewers, understandably, tune in to their favorites shows hoping that the programs can—at least for an hour or so—transport them into a new and exciting dimension.  These viewers could certainly get disheartened when they bump up against a fact about The Sopranos: Chase’s series does not give us escapism, but instead demands its opposite – engagementWe are required to expend effort if we want to fully appreciate The Sopranos.

In some sense, Mr. Shargel doesn’t go far enough in his criticism, because The Sopranos is sometimes even less plot-driven than the reality shows and soap operas that he compares it to.  Reality TV and soaps resort to all sorts of tricks to generate plot and action, but Chase is not willing to sacrifice verisimilitude by using tricks or gimmicks – even if that means forsaking constant plot-generation and forward-action.  (As is the case with our real lives in the real world, the lives of characters in SopranoWorld are not constantly shaken by shocking twists-and-turns; The Sopranos could accurately be renamed As The World ACTUALLY Turns.)  Reality shows and soaps may have tricks and gimmicks, but what they don’t have is the quality writing, acting, casting, directing, set design, sound design, music, photography, film editing, story editing, costuming, lighting, location shooting, night shooting, overall high production value and artistic excellence of The Sopranos.  But yeah, Shargel, other than that, you’ve got a point.

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CLEVER CUTS
“Marco Polo” is filled with intelligent juxtapositions and transitions but one in particular caught my eye:

Edie Falco butt

There’s obviously a visual pun here – Chase cuts from Carmela “mooning” the camera to a shot of the full moon.  The visual, almost crass, joke demonstrates once again that although The Sopranos is a high-caliber work, it always manages to be playful, funny, and self-deprecating.  It is—in a word—unpretentious.  Carmela is drawn back to Tony for his lack of pretention, and we are drawn to the series for the same reason.

MARCO POLO
Growing up in Miami, where everyone has easy access to a swimming pool, playing “Marco Polo” was an essential part of my childhood.  The game of Marco Polo in the Soprano pool has an essential role in Carmela’s storyline this hour.  She initially resists joining the game after Tony and AJ toss her into the water, but when she eventually calls out “Marco,” we understand that she has caved, she has acquiesced.  The expression on her face says, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”  From this point on, it becomes inevitable that she will acquiesce to a full reconciliation with her husband.

VIRGINIA MAYO
As he is being stuffed into the car, a drunk Hugh sees Carmela holding his new Beretta and calls her “Virginia Mayo.”  He is surely associating gun-holding Carmela with Mayo because the actress famously played a gangster’s moll in the 1949 film White Heat, opposite tough guy James Cagney.  It is a telling reference – with this episode, Carmela begins the process of becoming a gangster’s woman again.

Virginia Mayo1

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ADDITIONAL NOTES:

  • We haven’t seen AJ’s girlfriend Devin all season long, but she appears now in this hour.  (Perhaps the character’s absence was due to actress Jessica Dunphy’s concurrent commitment at the time—no joke—to As The World Turns.)
  • We haven’t seen much of Meadow’s boyfriend Finn very much either but his appearance here reintroduces him prior to next week’s Finn-heavy “Unidentified Black Males.”
  • Marco Polo: the episode title recalls the famed Venetian explorer, perhaps accenting the “Northern vs. Southern” undertow in this hour.  Venice (birthplace of Marco Polo) is about as far north as you can get in Italy, while Sicily (birthplace of the La Cosa Nostra) is about as far south.
  • Many viewers have wondered about the presence of a man whimpering in the hospital waiting room.  I think it’s probably just an added touch of realism.  If I had to venture a guess about any larger significance, I’d say Chase may have included it as a way to further push Carm towards Tony.  Like Dr. Fegoli, the groaning man may serve as a foil to Tony; it’s hard to imagine tough-guy Tony whining (especially in public) as this young man does, no matter how much pain he was in.
  • Michael Imperioli wrote this episode but I don’t remember Moltisanti having a single line here.

 

8 responses to “Marco Polo (5.08)

  1. This has been one of my favorite episodes since it originally aired, and I agree that it did a wonderful job of capturing the type of large summer backyard BBQ parties I remember from growing up in the Northeast. I have to disagree with Mr. Shargel’s opinion that this episode could be considered ‘boring.’ One detail I always enjoyed is the style of the shots through Tony B’s camcorder. I found them to be very reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been looking forward to your take on this episode for a long time. Suffice to say it did not disappoint. For a supposedly “boring” episode, there is so much going on here, which you have expertly detailed. Excellent work, as always.
    I can’t wait until you get to “All Due Respect” and the masterful Season 6. The Season 5 finale up through “Made In America” is my favorite stretch of episodes–even the Vito storyline, which I know some fans wish would have been condensed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ottimo lavoro, come sempre, Ron.
    Questo episodio è fondamentale nella struttura narrativa de I Soprano. È l’omicidio di Joe Peeps a innescare le terribili ritorsioni che condurrano alla faida dell’ultima stagione. Questo è un fatto importantissimo, in quanto la vendetta dell’underboss (almeno, in quel momento) Phil Leotardo su Angelo Garepe delinea il contraccolpo finale di Tony B.: egli ucciderà Bill Leotardo e dovrà darsi alla macchia, questa è la vera ragione della guerra tra New York e New Jersey, Phil Leotardo e Tony Soprano. Ovviamente, il precedente sarebbe l’uccisione di Lorraine Calluzzo, ma è altrettanto ovvio che poteva essere “pareggiata” in ben altro modo.
    Grande episodio!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dude Manbrough

    One of my favorite “understated” Sopranos episodes. I love Tony B’s slow burn over what might have been and Carm’s mom’s slow burn over what she wishes was. They both resent Tony and his “lifestyle” and they both took measures based on that resentment that backfired. Mary apologizing to her snooty friends and expressing embarrassment re: Tony sends her daughter right back into his arms and, well, you know what happens with Tony B.’s bad decision.
    Amazing how Tony B.’s natural ineptitude (getting his foot run over) ends up triggering a sequence of events that resonates throughout the rest of the series. It’s also interesting how petty both Tony B and Mary are, as Tony had up to that point helped his cousin out as best as he could and had played host to Mary and Hugh many times in the past. Then he has Tony B get all pissy about being asked to help (after ditching his twin sons there earlier in the day, mind you) and has his mother-in-law’s snooty friend dump all over his heartfelt gift to Hugh. It was in such harsh contrast to how downright “warm and convivial” Tony was as the host. I always enjoyed his relationship with Hugh and how genuine it seemed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. great write-up Ron. I’ve been thinking about this episode recently and i wondered if anyone else saw how Tony and Hugh’s relationship resembled an affectionate surrogate father-son relationship. i think in many ways Hugh is the stable father figure that Tony never had, contrasting heavily with the selfish narcissist that Johnny Soprano is shown to be, particularly in this season. I think if tony did have a yearning for a stable father figure however it would be a very subconscious desire and not something he would have complete awareness of. If not saying it outright I think it must at least be chases’ intention to have us think about this as he has placed this milestone birthday party in a season that is particularly laced with ideas of father figures both good and bad.

    Liked by 1 person

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