Tony and Carmela are still separated. The patio of the Soprano home once again hosts some
New Jersey wildlife (but it’s not a family of cute little ducks this time).
EPISODE 53 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 7, 2004 WRITTEN BY DAVID CHASE AND TERRY WINTER DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
Season 5 holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s the “greatest” of the Sopranos’ seasons, I only know that it is my favorite. Like previous seasons, it broke many TV conventions, and even broke several of The Sopranos’ own conventions. For example, David Chase runs over a Season Opener convention when he has Meadow run over the Star-Ledger with her Mustang (instead of having Tony come out to the driveway to pick up the newspaper). Season 5 is experimental, even downright weird at times. (“The Test Dream” surpasses, in sheer TV weirdness, anything that David Lynch did on Twin Peaks.) But in some ways, Season 5 is more conventional than previous seasons, building up tension—and our emotions—in a fairly traditional manner before finally walloping us with the power-combination of “Long Term Parking” and “All Due Respect.”
Perhaps the most significant thing about Season 5 for me is the way that Chase amplifies and fine-tunes his use of connectivity. The myriad connections that are made within and throughout these episodes give SopranoWorld substance, make the place feel very real to us. “Two Tonys” sets the tone immediately. It is chock-full of allusions, references and connections to all sorts of things that are familiar to us: Little House on the Prairie, Fred Astaire, a Clint Eastwood flick, a Nick Nolte flick, the Bowery Boys, Earl Scheib, Dr. Phil… There are plenty of references and connections to previous Sopranos episodes as well, most notably in the opening sequence of the episode. Those of us who are long-standing viewers understand the significance of the images that open “Two Tonys.”
The hour begins with a montage of these familiar objects from outside the Soprano house (accompanied by “Heaven Only Knows” by my beloved Emmylou Harris). But the objects look different from how they’ve looked in previous episodes. The seasoned Sopranos viewer can quickly understand what a newbie cannot: the dormant grill, the covered pool and the newspaper laying in the driveway all signify that Tony has not moved back home since last season’s finale.
Time has passed and life has gone on in SopranoWorld. Janice’s search for her missing wedding ring tells us that she and Bobby have gotten married. (And her rummaging through the garbage basket for the lost ring perhaps tells us even more about the state of their relationship.) Carmela is not present at Janice’s Sunday dinner and, tellingly, she doesn’t even send a dish. Carm is trying to move on without Tony Soprano.
Tony is trying to continue his life without Carmela. He is still seeing Valentina, although she is not someone who can replace Carm. (Valentina has nothing more than goomar-status — Tony is obviously lying to her when he says he has to leave to receive an overseas call [an excuse he probably picked up when he heard Alan Sapinsly say it to Dr. Kim so many months ago]). When Prince of Tides comes on Val’s TV, it reminds Tony of someone who can perhaps replace Carmela: Jennifer Melfi. Tony watches enrapt as he finds parallels between the movie and his own life. (When Valentina is impressed by Barbra Steisand’s fingernails, we might remember that it was Val’s acrylic fingernail that triggered much drama in last season’s “Mergers & Acquisitions.”) Prince of Tides’ cheesy dialogue and swollen score are a hilarious counterpoint to the Sopranos’ typically austere and understated teleplay.
Dr. Melfi receives flowers and detergent from Tony, her “Prince of Tide.” When Tony calls her, she declines his offer for a date. We are later privy to a sex dream, and are surprised to learn that it is the doctor who is dreaming of making love to Tony. Tony resorts to subterfuge to continue his pursuit, scheduling an appointment to see her. Melfi guesses that Tony’s attraction to her is related to a desire to resume therapy after the collapse of his marriage. (She is probably right. We remember that although Tony quit therapy in 4.11, he tried to contact Dr. Melfi as his marriage was breaking apart in 4.13. He called her office but stayed mute when she answered the phone.) Face-to-face with him now, Dr. Melfi again rejects Tony’s romantic offer. (The resolve she displays in maintaining her discipline despite being attracted to him, as her dream attests, recalls the time she resolutely said “No” to him in the final moment of “Employee of the Month.”)
Tony isn’t getting any love at home either. Although a good amount of time has passed (I would guess about a year, although it has been 15 months since “Whitecaps” aired), there is obviously still a lot of bitterness and anger between him and Carm. AJ is being an asshole (to quote his mother) which is not making things run any smoother either. On top of that, there is another issue that is bringing tension to the Soprano domicile; when Tony arrives at the house, Carmela is on the phone with NJ Fish and Game after a black bear has just made its second visit:
Many viewers see the bear as a symbol of Tony. Indeed, Tony’s black clothing here may strengthen his metaphoric association to the black bear. (And Carmela’s pink outfit may make her seem like a delicate damsel in need of protection.) Such a reading would give us one way to understand the episode title: the bear is the second Tony. But if we make such a rigid one-to-one connection (bear = Tony), our understanding of the imagery becomes constricted. It is far more rewarding to maintain an open, ambiguous reading of the symbols and images that Chase presents to us. AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff recognizes the ambiguity of the bear: “The bear is Tony, sure, but he’s also the absence of Tony, all of the bad things that could lurk in the corners now that Tony’s not at home to ‘protect’ Carmela and A.J.”
Word has apparently gotten around SopranoWorld about a black bear creeping around the Soprano home. At Corrado’s house, Tony feels emasculated as the men sit around the table discussing the bear – he hears an insinuation that he is not living up to his manly responsibility to protect his family. Tony sends his goombahs to keep watch over his wife and child. Benny Fazio arrives and asks Carmela to pull out the assault rifle for him. We saw Carm grab a rifle from the dining room closet in the Pilot, but now we see that the closet is also stocked with a grenade(!) The series once again makes a striking connection between Food & Firearms as the housewife and the thug discuss their dinner plans for the evening:
A second, and more obvious, reading of the episode title is that there are two sides to Tony. When he first showed up at Melfi’s office, dapper and dressed to impress, Tony said, “There’s two Tony Sopranos. You’ve never seen the other one. That’s the one I wanna show to you.” When he comes back to the office later, Tony does just that – although not in the way he had hoped. After Melfi makes some criticisms that cut a little too close to the bone, Tony explodes at her: “Fuck you! You’re a fuckin’ cunt!”
Dr. Glen Gabbard, in both The Psychology of The Sopranos and at Slate.com, has written quite a bit about Tony’s “vertical split,” the idea that there is a division within his personality, creating two side-by-side sectors that coexist but do not integrate. One side is able to love and be compassionate, while the other is characterized by sadism and cruelty – in other words, there are “two Tonys.” I would have liked to read what Gabbard and his cohorts at Slate.com thought about this episode, but Slate revamped their online Sopranos forum for Season 5, replacing Dr. Gabbard and his colleagues with journalist/mob expert Jerry Capeci and columnist Jeffrey Goldberg.
But in truth, I never quite bought into the whole “vertical split” idea anyway. It is a little too neat, too cut-and-dry for my taste. Psychiatry, because of its therapeutic obligations, must provide answers and diagnoses – and is therefore more restricted than Art is in accepting ambiguities. As an artist, David Chase doesn’t have to present Tony Soprano as a man with neatly sectored divisions within himself – it’s ok for Tony to be a jumbled mess of contradictions and complexities (as all of us are). As Tony drives away from Melfi’s office, he seems to realize that he crassly overreacted to her rejection. He can’t go back and apologize to Dr. Melfi right now, but he can do another good thing: head home and relieve Benny of night watch. As Tony settles into his lookout, the phallic cigar and rifle emphasize his powerful masculinity:
There’s a ton of ambiguity in this final sequence. Is the bear a genuine threat or is it just a creature curious about this suburban neighborhood? Does Tony represent the bear or does he represent the courageous defender against the bear? Does Tony’s decency ultimately outweigh his meanness? Will Carmela eventually take Tony back? Should Carmela take him back? And if so, under what conditions? Heaven only knows. As “Heaven Only Knows” starts up to take us through the credits (oh my sweet Emmylou!), we recognize yet again that Chase has never been one to give us neat, easy answers.
Season 5 introduces a rogue’s gallery of new faces into the mix, as several mobsters are being released from prison this year. Mob expert “Manny Safier” (played by freshman writer Matthew Weiner) appears on a news program to discuss this “Class of ’04.” The newcomers include Tony Blundetto, Angelo Garepe, Feech LaManna and Phil Leotardo. Learning about these soon-to-be-released goons, we are led to believe that Season 5 will finally give precedence to la famiglia storylines over the domestic issues that have largely been dominating for a while now.
This is certainly what the new guys at the Slate.com forum seemed to believe. In a post written just after this episode aired, “The Sopranos Goes Back to its Mafia Roots,” Jeff Goldberg says “…it’s clear that David Chase is bringing mob intrigue back front-and-center…” It is true that there is more of a focus on the mob storylines this season, and some of the new blood that stock Season 5 are just that – “blood” that gets spilled, bodies that add to the body count. But I feel that the domestic storylines always remain front-and-center. Even the character of “Tony Blundetto,” arguably the most significant mobster added to this year’s roster, is played more for his domestic connection to Tony Soprano and for his efforts to become a non-mobster. (We don’t meet Blundetto in person here, but the mention of him on the news gives us a third way of reading the episode title: he is the second Tony.)
Some viewers saw the introduction of these new characters as evidence that The Sopranos was “jumping the shark,” desperately trying to find some way to inject new storylines into the series. But Season 5 does not display the desperation or loss of creativity that we associate with jumping the shark. Chase may have certainly added the new mobsters as a way to both change the dynamics and diversify the stories of The Sopranos. This is an expected and acceptable convention in a TV series. What is unexpected is the way that Chase transforms and plays with this convention. Over the course of the season, we will see a creative and supple and often surprising handling of the new characters. I will try to chart their arcs as we move through these 13 episodes.
Another mobster that shows up on the scene here, though we’ve been introduced to him before, is Little Carmine. Boss Carmine suffers a stroke while having lunch at the golf course, and his son’s arrival in New York will turn the transition of power in the NY famiglia into a thorny issue.
But this hour is not all about Little Carmine and Feech and the new guys; the old guys still bring their share of agita to the narrative. Paulie and Chris have long had a contentious relationship, particularly after their misadventures in the Pine Barrens (an event that each of them have different recollections of in this hour). An argument between the two men over a restaurant bill in Atlantic City almost boils over into violence. Luckily for them, a waiter’s epileptic seizure turns them away from killing each other. (Not so lucky for the waiter, though. His is the first onscreen death of Season 5. Part of the great power—and great tragedy—of this season comes from the number of civilians, like the waiter, who get victimized by the mob.)
Complexity accrues on each season of The Sopranos, and this even seems to be true for the DVD graphics. The animation of the Season 5 DVD menu is a masterpiece of intricate editing and graphic design. Although the menu options become functional within seconds, it’s worth a minute of our time to just sit back and watch the entire animation play out:
The dynamic vertical transitions and color bars and “perforated” circle elements seem to be a graphic confirmation of the significance of connectivity to the series, connecting one “scene” to the next and vibrantly leading our eyes from one character to the next. We are elegantly reintroduced to the characters (note how two-faced Janice and double-life Adriana both appear in mirrors) but no major plot points get divulged. And look at the detailing of that final beat: Tony’s cigar smoke wafts up to reveal the circle elements that were unseen but present all along, like the unseen atoms that shape and connect and give substance to everything that we know of in the universe.
While I’m on the subject of graphics, the Annie Liebovitz-shot poster for Season 5 is one hell of an eyecatcher. Some viewers originally claimed that it was based on Theodore Gericault’s oil painting, The Raft of the Medusa. But then someone figured out that it is most probably a reworking of Delacroix’ 1822 oil, The Barque of Dante:
Delacroix’ work—depicting a trip along the River Styx—does seem to better fit the dark themes and tones of Season 5. (I’ll come back to Annie Liebovitz’s photograph at the end of the season, in my write-up for “All Due Respect.”)
Fans had to wait a grueling fifteen months after the masterful “Whitecaps” for Season 5 to finally begin. According the L.A. Times article “Family Hour Returns” (Feb 15, 2004), one reason for the long hiatus was that HBO needed some time to program their new shows Carnivale and K-Street. The other reason was…
…Chase’s aversion to the rigidity of traditional network scheduling concerns. Audiences want their television shows to show up at similar times every year, and that’s just another thing he doesn’t like about television. “I don’t know why a TV series has to come out at the same time every year,” Chase says.
Producer/Director Henry Bronchtein added that the long break “recharges everyone’s batteries, so that is creatively good.” David Chase spends much of the downtime making elaborate charts of plot points and character arcs, and how it all interacts and connects. So, Chase is willing to break even scheduling conventions if it serves his artistic goals. While many viewers grumbled about the long wait, I think Season 5 probably benefitted from the extended hiatus.
Season 5 was originally never even meant to be. HBO had only contracted with David Chase for four seasons, and he had hinted several times that there would not be a fifth. But as he told Stanford Magazine in Oct 2002, “HBO really wanted it badly. And I began to feel, really, that these characters have more to say, that there’s more stuff to explore.” (In the same interview, he says that there will absolutely not be a sixth season. Thank God he changed his mind about that – although he did make us wait an insane 21 months after “All Due Respect” for Season 6 to finally begin.)
- Adriana doesn’t get much screentime in this hour at all, but when she does, she is wheedling Chris for information about where he’s going, who’s going to be there… The crucible that Adriana finds herself in, between the mob and the FBI, is one the major elements that makes this season so compelling.
- Jerry Capeci, one of the new contributors at the Slate.com forum, was asked to audition for the role of the mob expert that appears on TV here. But Matthew Weiner got the part. (More on Weiner in the write-up for “Rat Pack,” the first episode he gets credit for writing.)
- Another writer to get a cameo here—possibly—is Robin Green. There is some debate over whether the woman in Melfi’s group is actually her. (It’s a non-speaking part, so she wouldn’t be in the credits.)