“The truth will out” – we learn the real reason why Tony was a no-show the day Blundetto got arrested;
and we get a major revelation about Vito Spatafore.
EPISODE 61 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MAY 2, 2004 WRITTEN BY TERENCE WINTER AND MATTHEW WEINER DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
This is the first episode that Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner get credit for working on together, and the hour benefits from their considerable talents. “U.B.M.” has three plotlines, which is not in itself uncommon, but what is rare is that all three are stories are quite important, none can be considered the minor plotline. The story of Tony and Carmela’s relationship runs parallel—and sometimes perpendicular—to the story of Meadow and Finn’s relationship, while the issues surrounding Tony Blundetto get more and more complicated as the hour progresses.
Blundetto was spotted a couple of blocks away from where Joseph Peparelli (aka Joey Peeps) was killed. He denies having anything to do with the murder, but Tony Soprano understands that Blundetto is just giving him “plausible deniability.” Johnny Sac is infuriated by the murder of Peeps (and the ridiculous mistake on his headstone must only add to John’s outrage). It’s sort of hard to believe that Johnny Sac could be so infuriated, especially considering that Peeps wasn’t a made man and also because viewers had never previously been made aware that a strong relationship between Sac and Peeps existed. But we have seen John Sacrimoni become irrationally angry before – Ralph Cifaretto pushed John’s berserk-button with his Ginny-joke last season.
Angelo Garepe has some regrets about hitting Joey Peeps, and says so to his colleagues. Some viewers thought that this scene—where Lil Carmine and his guys debate how to deal with Johnny Sac—was a jab against George Bush and his administration’s decision to invade Iraq. There are quite a few elements that add plausibility to this observation:
- Lil Carmine is wearing jeans and big ol’ belt buckle, looking a bit like the cowboy that George W. often pretended to be
- Lil Carmine’s dismissive comment about the United Nations mirrors the Bush administration’s gung-ho, unilateral attitude regarding the Iraq invasion
- Blood-thirsty Rusty mentions his quadruple bypass, connecting him to hawk Dick Cheney (who had suffered 4 heart attacks by the time this episode aired)
- Lil Carmine refers to the troubles that his father had with Johnny Sac, which may remind us that both father Bush and son Bush had major conflicts with Saddam Hussein
- Lil Carmine’s final comment bypasses the rules of grammar and logic to finally land in a place of complete absurdity, much like the idiotspeak we enjoyed for 8 years from you-know-who
As is the case for so many scenes on The Sopranos, it is easy to become convinced that a particular interpretation is the “correct” one. In truth, there isn’t enough evidence to say with certainty that Chase was mocking the Bush administration with this scene. Nevertheless, I can easily imagine Lil Carmine uttering some of George W’s unforgettable gems, like “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream” or “They misunderestimated me.” And conversely, I can imagine George W mouthing some of Lil Carmine’s greatest hits, like “You’re at the precipice of an enormous crossroad.”
(I’m not gratuitously picking on the former President here. Like many Americans now stuck in the lunacy and perpetual mendacities of the Trump administration, I look back at the Bush years with a kind of nostalgia. I’ll admit I even feel a certain warmth toward lighthearted, easy-going George W. The criticisms of the Bush administration that we find in Seasons 5 and 6 of The Sopranos were part of Chase’s increasing effort to provide eyewitness testimony of those years.)
Carmela has warm feelings toward Tony at the beginning of this hour. She tenderly describes to Gabriella Dante how sweet Tony was after Hugh’s birthday party. But her feelings turn sour when Tony doesn’t come in to the house when dropping AJ off. Tony is taking it for granted that his relationship with Carmela is on the mend. He tells Melfi that he didn’t stick around that morning after making love to Carmela, and when the doctor tries to question him on the wisdom of this decision, he interrupts her to take a telephone call.
Carmela is eager to proceed with the divorce but she can’t find an attorney that hasn’t been polluted by Tony. (Tony probably took the advice that Alan Sapinsly gave him last year: meet with all the good local divorce lawyers before Carmela does.) Without a good attorney, Carmela cannot secure a comfortable future for herself – and Tony knows it. He growls at Carmela, “You’re entitled to shit.“
Meadow and Finn’s relationship is also in a bad spot. Their dissatisfactions with each other and their uncertainty about the future and their steaming hot apartment all contribute to an almost formulaic depiction of the old trope, “the struggling young lovers.” Finn thinks about scrapping dental school to become a professional photographer – someone once complimented his photos for being “solidly unsentimental.” For the time being though, he can work at the construction job that Tony gets for him.
Finn functions as a viewer-surrogate perhaps like no other character on the series ever has. He is a true outsider to the world of the mob, a Navy brat born in Japan and raised in the Azores. As outsiders ourselves, we might feel an affinity with the young man. Additionally, there is a generic quality to Finn DeTrolio, particularly in comparison to Mead’s previous boyfriends Jackie and Noah, that makes it easier for viewers of all stripes to identify with him. He is compared to both Shaggy and Joe Perry in this hour, and—strangely—both comparisons work:
(I chuckled when Vito compared Finn to Joe Perry, but I laughed for a solid 10 minutes when Paulie called him “Shaggy.”) Finn has such a generic quality that he can accurately be compared to both a slacker with a Scooby-snack addiction and a genuine rock-n-roll badass.
Finn shows up at the construction site early one morning and inadvertently interrupts a romantic rendezvous:
Zoinks! I still get surprised by this moment, even after having seen the episode a half-dozen times. The Sopranos doesn’t do too many surprise twists (especially compared to a show like Breaking Bad, which seemed to toss out a twist before every commercial break), and so when Chase does give us one, it truly feels shocking.
We wonder what we would do in Finn’s situation. (I’m pretty sure I’d be on the first flight back to Mission Viejo or wherever the hell he’s from.) Finn is not sure if Vito wants to fuck him, or kill him, or fuck him and then kill him. The giant baseball bat in front of Yankee Stadium, underneath which Vito waits for Finn, symbolizes all of these possible fates – a bat can be a phallic symbol but it also makes for a good murder weapon:
The bat is a visual pun, and it is just one of several phallic references that stock this hour: Finn says he might want to go home until this thing with Vito “blows over”; the character of Felicia has a name that sounds a lot like “fellatio”; Finn and Meadow argue about a student of “oral” surgery; and Tony tells Finn outside a restaurant, “I didn’t mean to bite your head off.” (Oral sex has a recurring prominence in the series, and we know from previous episodes “Boca” and “Irregular Around the Margins” that Chase gets a kick out fellatio-related puns and jokes.)
We might also wonder how to proceed with Meadow if we were in Finn’s shoes. Despite her intelligence and education, she is living in a tangle of self-delusions. She criticizes Finn for talking about “the guys” as though they was an anthropology subject – and then proceeds to rationalize the mob precisely as though it were an anthropology subject. She belittles Finn’s belief that Vito is out to get him, either sexually or homicidally. I think that of all of Meadow’s self-deceptions here, there are two that we should particularly consider because of the irony that it generates:
- Her insistence that Jackie Jr. was shot by African-Americans
- Her argument that “Vito Spatafore is a married man, Finn. I seriously doubt he wants to kill you.”
These two misbeliefs combine to ironically undercut Meadow’s criticism that Finn is overreacting because it was Vito Spatafore, in fact, who put the additional hole in Jackie Jr’s head. Finn pulls out a suitcase and considers fleeing the situation, leaving his beautiful but annoying girlfriend behind. When Finn explains that pulling out the suitcase was part of his “process” and that there was “no abundant intentionality in it,” we see that Chase has tweaked the age-old formula: Finn and Meadow are “struggling young lovers – with Ivy League vocabularies.”
Self-deception runs rampant in SopranoWorld, Meadow is not the only one that suffers from it. Tony has buried deep within his psyche the truth about what happened the night Blundetto was arrested almost two decades ago. It takes Melfi’s professional expertise to draw the truth back to the surface. In a quietly intense scene, Tony explains why he has such feeling of guilt towards his cousin (and why his panic attacks come back when Blundetto is around). Tony has been lying to everyone for the last 17 years about why he was not there the night of the hijack; it was because of a panic attack sparked by Livia, not because he was jumped by some black men. (He has been saying he was jumped for his sneakers. Air Jordans came out in 1985, and I guess it was around that time that we started hearing reports of sneaker-related crime, which makes Tony’s excuse more credible.) The sequence of events that began on that fateful day would lead “Tony Uncle Johnny” to eventually become the wealthy and powerful head of the DiMeo/Soprano crime family, while “Tony Uncle Al” would spend 17 years in a federal pen learning how to make grill cheese sandwiches on the radiator. (In one of the most absurd ironies of the series, Blundetto is arrested and sent up the river for hijacking—of all things—Betamaxes. He served 17 long years in prison, but Betamax was almost completely supplanted by VHS in the consumer market by 1988 – just two frickin’ years after his arrest.) Dr. Melfi is excited by Tony’s breakthrough – she compares it to giving birth. But Tony thinks that taking a shit is the more apt analogy.
Carmela is living with a generous heaping of self-deception as well. She thinks that she can get away from Tony clean and simple, that the law will aid her as she seeks a divorce – as though she didn’t spend the last two decades enabling her criminal husband and colluding with their criminal colleagues. Carmela is unable to look Tony in the face as he calls her out on her hypocrisy:
You knew every step of the way exactly how it works. But you walk around that fuckin’ mansion in your $500 shoes and your diamond rings and you act like butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.
In the final scene of the hour, we see Carmela “walk around that fuckin’ mansion” wearing 3 glittering necklaces, an expensive watch, a couple of sparkling bracelets. As she takes off her costly earrings, Carmela receives a phone call from Meadow. She and Finn are getting married. As Carmela watches Tony lounge in the pool, she is overcome with mixed emotions: joy as she thinks of Meadow’s bright future ahead, and sorrow as she recognizes the shadows on her own horizon.
In a way, Felicia (she of the thong and tramp-stamp) has the key lines of this episode. She told Finn that living together with someone is not the same as being married…
…because you could just pack up and leave whenever the shit hits the fan. Talk to married people. That ring, believe it or not, has got this kind of, like, weird power.
Finn momentarily considered packing up and leaving, but—after literally “hitting the fan” (of his dying air conditioner)—he ultimately decides to put a ring on Meadow’s finger. Carmela tries to leave Tony but her wedding ring (not to mention all her other rings) have a weird power over her. As she looks out the window at Tony laying in the swimming pool, she recognizes her husband to be a sort of “lord of the Ring” – he has used his reputation and influence to make it very difficult for her to escape the commitment embodied by her wedding ring.
We might remember that all the way back in the Pilot episode, Carmela looked through a window to watch Tony cavort in the pool, just as she does here. This imagery has been repeated many times throughout the series. The swimming pool itself has become associated with notions of home and domesticity and family over the years. A sampling of pool imagery:
In the first episode, Tony associates the ducks that have roosted in his pool with his family:
The slithering pool vacuum underscores that the (relative) tranquility of the Soprano household is threatened by the arrival of lying,
chaotic, reptilian Janice early in Season 2:
In “Whitecaps,” Tony lounges in the pool after Carmela has kicked him out of the house, signifying that he will not easily relinquish his home or marriage:
Season 5 opens with shot of the covered pool, underscoring Tony’s absence from the domestic space:
The image of Tony barreling into the pool just moments after Carm has made a date with Wegler serves to reinforce his “ownership” of both her and the house:
It is in the pool that Tony makes a big step in reestablishing his dominant position in Carmela’s life and in the household after Hugh’s birthday party:
Carmela’s eyes tear up as, and perhaps the viewer’s does too, as she hears the news of Meadow’s engagement. The Sopranos is “solidly unsentimental” (just as Finn’s photographs are purported to be), but the closing moments of this hour have an almost mawkish tenderness to them. I’m usually turned-off by gushy endings but I think this episode, by being tight enough and crisp enough in its first 55 minutes, earns its mushy finish. Much of the sentimentality comes from Bobby Darin singing “If I Were A Carpenter” over the ending. Christopher mocked the song’s hokeyness as he sang it at a construction site in Season 4’s “No-Show,” but I think there is something quite earnest about this particular version of the song. (Matthew Greenwald at Allmusic.com wrote about this version that “Lyrically, the vulnerable, heart-rending stance that conveys his love fits Darin’s voice perfectly, making this one of the most honest records of its era.”) There is no shortage of brilliant song choices in The Sopranos. The use of Linkin Park’s “Session” two episodes back ranks way up there for me. But since “If I Were A Carpenter” is able to add to the real emotion of the final scene while cleverly evoking Finn’s new blue-collar job at the construction site and simultaneously acting as a criticism of the inauthenticity of Tony and Carmela’s marriage, it would probably get my vote for Most Perfect Song Selection of the entire series.
UNIDENTIFIED BLACK MALES
As all of us have figured out by now, the four sets of unidentified black males that “appear” in this episode are:
- The (fictional) black guys that Blundetto blames his limp on
- The (fictional) black guys who get blamed for busting Little Paulie’s head
- The (fictional) black guys that Meadow blames for Jackie Jr’s death
- The (fictional) black guys who kept Tony from appearing at the truck hijacking so many years ago
Characters in The Sopranos exploit certain stereotypes about African-Americans for reasons of expediency or self-deception. Tony works himself into a lather as he describes, in the most horribly derogatory way, the men that jumped him 17 years ago – but the men never even existed. Stereotypes and prejudices against black people are so strong in SopranoLand that crimes and culpability can be successfully shifted even on to imaginary African-Americans.
- Rewatching the series, I’m surprised how little screentime Adriana actually gets in Season 5. The way I remembered it, the FBI put the screws to Ade in practically every episode – but in actuality, several episodes go by without even touching that storyline, or just skimming lightly over it. I guess it doesn’t actually take much to keep the storyline alive and relevant. For example, in a very quick scene here, Adriana talks to Agent Robin over the phone while the painting behind her underscores that the FBI has its eyes on her. (Or it underscores how wide-eyed I got at the sight of that tiny miniskirt.)
- I think most people would not agree with my choice for Most Perfect Song Selection, as there are plenty of other viable candidates to choose from. An argument can be made that “Don’t Stop Believin'” is the greatest song selection of the series, if not the history of television. But Chase’s decision to use that Journey song in the final scene was so cerebral, so brilliantly calculated—and so discussed, analyzed and parodied in the ensuing years—that the song, for me, became deprived of much of the ineffable, inexplicable magic that Music is so able to conjure. Time, however, has a way of making a person nostalgic, and I’ve once again grown very fond of the song and of the way that David Chase used it on that Sunday night in the summer of 2007.