Tony Blundetto enters and then exits
a business partnership with Sungyon Kim,
while Carmela enters and then exits
a romantic relationship with Robert Wegler.
Episode 58 – Originally aired April 11, 2004
Written by Matthew Wiener
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
This episode is often considered one of the minor outings of the season, perhaps rightfully so in comparison to some of the powerhouse episodes that stock Season 5. But it is still an interesting, thought-provoking episode. I am particularly interested in the subtle investigation into the relationship between ethnicity, culture and the American Dream that runs the length of the hour.
Despite all the references this season to Madame Bovary, this hour gets its title directly from another Flaubert novel. Prof. Maurice Yacowar notes that Tony Blundetto is something like the protagonist of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, “a provincial antihero trying to rise through the contradictions and hypocrisies of a troubled, tumultuous times.” One question that this episode explores is how will antihero Blundetto make his rise—through legitimate or non-legitimate means?
Sopranos viewers are not rubes, we’ve all been on the merry-go-round before, and so we all knew that it was only a matter of time before Blundetto would struggle with his decision to go straight. Although this is a fairly conventional crime storyline (“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”), Chase puts a unique twist on it—the storyline plays out within the context of various approaches to the American Dream. These approaches differ in large part because of differences in cultural (i.e. ethnic) values.
Sungyon Kim’s laundry truck gets stolen from Blundetto while he is making his rounds. (Greg Kihn’s “Breakup Song” playing over the truck radio perhaps prefigures Blundetto’s later breakup with his boss Kim.) Kim was never eager to hire Blundetto, he only did it because he needs to keep Tony Soprano happy for the sake of his business—“If not for him, I show you the fucking window,” he tells Blundetto. It’s a curious threat: is Kim actually threatening to toss Tony B out a window? Or is the Korean immigrant simply botching an American idiomatic expression (“I’ll show you the door”)?
Kim later has a change-of-heart about Blundetto. He is impressed by Tony B’s aspirations, it reminds him of the Asian-American work ethic. He suggests that they go into business together. Kim certainly has selfish reasons for partnering up, but it is this sort of mutually beneficial selfishness that makes capitalism work. Tony’s massage business could replace Kim’s underperforming travel agency, and it would also give his rudderless daughter something to do. (We later see that although the daughter lacks a rudder, she is put together rather nicely from bow to stern.) “You, me, my daughter—we make the big success journey,” Kim predicts.
But of course, things don’t work out so simply in SopranoWorld. When a bag of money gets tossed out of a car right in front of Blundetto, his effort to go straight takes a detour. Some viewers were not happy that such an event—which will surely have catastrophic consequences for Tony B—could happen so randomly here, because this is a TV series that normally places a high premium on plausibility. A bag full o’ money just felt too implausible. But sometimes Fate intervenes in the most unexpected ways. On the DVD commentary track, director Peter Bogdanovich says that he shot the money getting tossed out of the car from a very high angle in order to acknowledge the momentous hand of fate in Blundetto’s storyline:
Girlfriend Gwen suggests that Blundetto invest the windfall in the new business. Tony B knows that her advice is solid, but the lure of fancy clothes and gambling with the guys is just too strong. As Blundetto sledgehammers a partition at the new business location, it seems to foreshadow how he will destroy the good opportunity that he has been given:
Some viewers had a problem with how quickly Blundetto slips off the straight-and-narrow path. They may have a point: Blundetto is gung-ho about legitimate entrepreneurship at the beginning of the hour, but by the end of the hour he has walked back into the clutches of the mob. Although we have seen evidence of Blundetto’s dissatisfaction previously, such as in episode 5.04 when he enviously peered at the large Soprano house, it is still somewhat surprising that his fall should occur so quickly now.
For Blundetto, going straight is just too difficult when he has got an alternative way of making a living. He was born into the mob, it is a part of his natural environment. For Sungyon Kim, starting and building up small businesses may be a part of his natural environment. Kim may very well have benefited from the traditional moneylending clubs, or kye, ubiquitously found in Korean-American communities. Both the Italian mafia and Korean kye-funded entrepreneurship are, ultimately, unique ethno-cultural means of making “the big success journey.”
Of course, the bulk of Blundetto’s dissatisfaction comes out of the fact that going straight is a difficult thing to do. But a couple of moments in this episode hint that at least some of Blundetto’s frustration arises from a realization that he has joined up with the “wrong” ethnic/subcultural group. He mocks Kim’s Korean accent (“Wes Cauwell, Wes Cauwell”) before attacking him. And Kim fights back with a Korean tae kwon-do technique. Blundetto’s partnership with the Korean immigrant was just not meant to be; Tony B was a fish out of water here—and Chase drives the point home visually:
Tony Soprano intuitively understands that this is why Blundetto approaches him at the end of the hour, and he assures his cousin, “It’s hard doing business with strangers.” Blundetto has now aligned himself with the “right” subcultural group—he has returned to the family, to la famiglia.
The episode makes a noticeable parallel between Blundetto and Carmela. Both are trying to put distance between themselves and Tony Soprano (and everything he represents) but both find it rough-going. Carmela, in a sense, goes in the opposite direction of Blundetto: while Blundetto sought legitimacy with the help of a Korean who is “more” ethnic than Tony Soprano (recently immigrated, speaking with a thick accent, etc), Carmela tries to find her way with someone “less” ethnic than Tony Soprano. Robert Wegler is part of the mainstream establishment, he is so far removed from his own ethnicity that we would have a difficult time accurately guessing his ancestry. He is an intellectual and an academic, something that recent immigrants rarely ever become—they are often too busy putting a roof over their heads and learning to fit into their new society to ever pursue more scholarly goals. Wegler’s observation, “Education should never stop, it enriches all aspects of life,” is something that many recently arrived, less established immigrants can hardly afford to believe. Many immigrants see education as nothing more than an investment, something that needs to pay off later in cash. Any noble ideas about the ability of education to enrich life, they insist, is just a crock of bullshit. (As the son of immigrants, I know firsthand how suspiciously the newly-immigrated tend to view the “enrichment” that can come from a liberal arts education.) Carmela has been trying to continue her education and enrich herself; in the previous hour, we saw her learning how to draw still-life. (Philistine Tony, puzzled by her new pursuit, munched into an apple from the arrangement and asked, “Why do you do it?”) When Wegler tries to discuss literature with her now, Carmela recognizes that she is not yet as enriched as she would like to be—she is a fish out of water here. Still, their mutual attraction is strong, and so perhaps Carm and Wegler can have a happy, storybook romance. Amor vincit omnia—Love conquers all, right?
Again, things never work out so simply in SopranoWorld. Carmela knows, as do we, that Tony will not hesitate to break Wegler’s legs if he finds out about their burgeoning relationship. Wegler, however, doesn’t seem to believe it, and through a well-placed edit, our laughter at his naivete coincides with the laughter of guests at a dinner party:
Despite any fears Carmela may have, she and Wegler make love. (The fact that Edie Falco’s first nude scene of the series occurs with Wegler emphasizes the significance of this new relationship—Carmela is really trying to move on without Tony.) Afterwards, Wegler gives a postcoital summary of the love story of Heloise and Abelard, including poor Abelard’s eventual castration. “It’s timeless,” Wegler says (but we hope for his sake that it’s not timely). Carmela sneaks home, trying not to wake AJ (who has moved back into the house). Her eyes zero in on a photo of her mobster husband, and she makes the decision to sleep with a gun under the pillow. Not coincidentally, the photo that spooks Carmela is the same one that AJ stared at after finding out that his father is a mobster in the Season 1 episode “Meadowlands.” Carmela wonders, just as AJ did so many years ago, just what type of behavior Tony Soprano is capable of:
The morning after another date with Wegler, we find Carmela in her kitchen in a state of total infatuation. She dreamily stares out the window and listens to Bobby Vinton’s “Over the Mountain” while skinning a cucumber. Tony shows up, and his sudden arrival, when coupled with the earlier reference to the castrated Abelard, might lead us to consider the skinned cucumber as a castration-symbol. Dangerously, Wegler chooses this precise moment to call Carmela. As he talks to her on the phone, we see that he is reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (the novel’s popularity was in full resurgence at the time because the film adaptation had come out a year earlier):
The titles of both Vinton’s song and Frazier’s novel point to that mountain-like obstacle that stands between Wegler and Carmela—Tony Soprano. Wegler’s plan for their evening is very evocative, almost poetic: “I made reservations at that crab place down by the shore. Dinner and a little night-swimming.” In contrast, there is nothing evocative or poetic about Tony’s day-swimming; after asking Carmela what that “fag” Wegler wanted, he tears off his clothes and cannonballs into the pool.
This episode makes a point of depicting just how much Carmela has loosened her grip on her once-rigid religious beliefs. Chase reintroduces the character of ‘Father Phil’ into the narrative now in order to emphasize how Carm’s beliefs have changed. Over lunch, Father Phil (probably guided more by sexual jealousy than by priestly obligation) reminds Carmela that embarking on a relationship with Wegler would be a sin. When Carmela counters his argument with a difficult theological question, Phil tries to duck the issue behind a waiter’s peppermill:
Later, when Carmela tries to get more counsel in the confession booth, Phil shows a total lack of sensitivity to her plight. Director Bogdanovich notes that the composition of the scene underscores that Carmela is entrapped by Catholic doctrine:
But actually Carmela is not so trapped, because she is no longer a slave to Catholic dogma as she once was. Just before he jumps into the swimming pool, Tony asks Carmela about her belief that homosexuals will go to hell, and she replies, “That was a long time ago.” Carmela’s religious views are becoming more progressive.
She certainly has developed a more progressive view of the marriage vow. As Wegler runs his hands over her body, we see that she still wears the great symbol of her Catholic faith, but the meaning of that crucifix is no longer as orthodox for her as it once was. This is quite a change from the strict faith represented by the crucifix she wore in “Second Opinion” (3.07). When Dr. Krakower advised Carmela in that episode to take what was left of her children and flee from Tony Soprano, she tried to hide behind Catholic dogma, insisting that it would be a sin to break her marriage vow to Tony:
We recognized at the time that Carm had selfish, materialistic reasons for not heeding Dr. Krakower’s advice. But we also understood that she had maternal reasons for staying with Tony—after visiting Krakower, she secured a $50,000 donation from her husband for Columbia University, which she believed would enhance Meadow’s college experience. Now, Carmela is again driven by a maternal concern, but this time for her other child. She is very worried that AJ might not matriculate, which would put him at risk of turning into another mob goombah. I don’t believe that Carmela is consciously trying to manipulate Wegler when she goads him to “muscle” AJ’s English teacher Mr. Fiske or when she asks him to put in a good word for AJ at Union College. We know that Carmela is fully capable of muscling someone who has access to a college’s Admissions Department: she barely concealed her threat to Georgetown graduate Joan (Jeannie Cusamano’s sister) in “Full Leather Jacket” (2.08). But any manipulation that Carmela engages in now, I believe, is subconsciously generated. Nevertheless, Wegler is totally justified in feeling that he is being maneuvered. Their conversation remains civil until Carmela asks him a question:
Carm: How could asking someone you’re with for help be “using” them? That’s what people do.
Wegler: (looks shocked that she could say such a thing)
It is at this moment that the cultural divide between them is most palpable. Carmela is largely correct—asking for help is what people do, but it tends to be people that are needy or marginalized or part of a minority culture that are more likely to ask for the type of help that Carmela seeks. People like Mr. Wegler, who have fully integrated, fully assimilated and found success within mainstream “establishment” American culture, find such a notion to be less acceptable—if not downright shocking. (Again, I’m basing this partly on personal experience. I know many Asian-Americans who would not have hesitated to ask for all sorts of help and favors and financial loans 30 years ago, but to do so now, after they’ve become more integrated and assimilated into an American society that values self-sufficiency over altruism, would leave a bad taste in their mouth.) For a brief period, it seemed that Carmela—by dating an intellectual, taking up new artistic pursuits, and adopting a more progressive religious perspective—would gain entry into a cultural space quite different from the one that she has always lived in. But when the new cultural space proves too alien for her, she—like Blundetto—abandons it and reactivates her mob membership: “You better watch your step,” she threatens as she leaves Wegler’s home.
I sort of wanted to read Flaubert’s Sentimental Education before starting this write-up, but then I decided to just look up the novel on Wikipedia instead—and I came across an interesting quote in Wiki’s synopsis:
Other characters, such as Mr. Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power,” almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was Flaubert’s judgment of his times…
We get an interesting effect if we substitute some of the people named in the quote with the names of key Sopranos players:
Other characters, such as Tony Blundetto, are as capricious with business as Carmela is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power,” almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was David Chase’s judgment of his times…
Blundetto and Carmela are capricious, they don’t exercise the steadfast discipline that is necessary to make significant changes in one’s life. Carmela cries and groans to her father that she can never outrun the past that she has shared with her mobster husband. But this is not exactly true. Carmela Soprano and Tony Blundetto will not escape their pasts only because they are abandoning the paths of escape that they were on.
BUSINESS IS GOOD
Tony Soprano often benefits, both in his personal life and his business, from the misery and dissatisfaction of others. This is a fact of SopranoWorld that is proven once again in this episode. Tony wants Carmela and Blundetto by his side, and their sadness and dissatisfaction are now driving them towards him. The episode fades out on a shot of Tony looking smug and victorious as The Modern Jazz Quartet’s easygoing tune “Django” gives way to Etta James’ growling, rambunctious “The Blues is My Business (And Business is Good).” Carmela and Blundetto’s blues are leading them right back to Tony Soprano.
TURNING THE SCREWS
Chase is slowly turning the screw, beginning the process of bringing Carmela back together with her husband. We remember that in the previous episode, Carmela stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony after recognizing that he didn’t do the horrible thing he was rumored to do (i.e. fuck Adriana). Now, Carm is allowing herself to believe that she can never have a life with any other man. As the season progresses, more events will continue to bring the pair closer. Chase uses a slow hand to turn Carmela’s screw—she will not actually reconcile with Tony until the final quarter of Season 5. But Chase uses a power-drill to turn Blundetto’s screw—it only takes one episode for Tony B. to fall back in with Tony S. This great contrast in Carmela and Blundetto’s storylines highlights the masterful way that Chase is able to manipulate and modulate dramatic tensions in Season 5.
“KUPFERBERG” BEHIND THE CAMERA
It is easy to pick on Peter Bogdanovich’s character “Elliot Kupferberg” for being obtuse and goofy on the show, but Bogdanovich is nothing short of brilliant behind the camera. On the DVD commentary, he gives a detailed account of several of his directorial decisions for this episode. Regarding The Sopranos in general, he says that David Chase requires the series to “be brilliant at every moment” and that it is “the most important cultural event in America in the last 25 years…a major work of art.”
- I love how Hugh shortens his daughter’s name to “Mel” instead of “Carm” like everyone else. (The writers attentively assign this quirk to Hugh through the entire run of the series.)
- Some viewers were not quite convinced that Parole Supervisor Jimmy Curran, who sent Feech back to prison in “All Happy Families…,” was actually on the mob’s payroll, but Moltisanti confirms it here.
- Kim tells Blundetto that his daughter graduated in the top two-thirds of her class—which is just a nice way of saying she graduated in the bottom half.
- While speaking to Father Phil, Carmela mispronounces Heloise as “Eloise” which recalls episode 4.12 “Eloise”—which happens to be the episode in which the character of ‘Mr. Wegler’ was first mentioned.
- Fortunate Son: Rosalie is reminded of her dead son Jackie when she watches a warm moment between AJ and Carmela. The reference to Jackie complicates our perception of Carmela’ s behavior this hour: we are reminded that there is a very real possibility that AJ will get mixed up with the wrong crowd and end up dead like Jackie if Carm is not able to secure a more stable future for him. (The subtitles have Rosalie blaming “those Goddamn Chinks” for Jackie’s death, but I think the actual spoken line is “Goddamn jigs”—she still believes he was killed in the projects by African-Americans.)
- Season Four’s “Christopher” also dealt with in-group vs. out-group membership along ethnic/social/cultural lines, but in a way that was far more farcical than what we see in the present episode. “Sentimental Education” seems to be an example of how Season 5 episodes revisit themes and ideas from earlier episodes in a more comprehensive way. This characteristic of Season 5 is also apparent in the next outing, “In Camelot,” which greatly expands upon the notion of personal mythologies which Chase explored in previous episodes like “Commendatori.”
- We can add Sopranos writer Mitch Burgess to this season’s list of cameos. He appears as poker player “Iowa Burgess” here.