Paulie and Feech have a disagreement over lawn maintenance contracts. A lost and confused Corrado is escorted
home by the police after being found in Newark.
EPISODE 55 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 21, 2004 WRITTEN BY MICHAEL CALEO DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON
Initially, it might seem that “Where’s Johnny?” is continuing the trend of the first two episodes of the season, directing our focus to mob concerns rather than Tony’s domestic issues. Tony’s nuclear family is so off the radar right now that Carmela—in a Sopranos’ first—doesn’t appear even once in the hour. (Meadow is not here either, while AJ makes only a tiny appearance.) Tony’s is getting plenty of agita, however, from his extended family. In the first scene of the hour, cousin Blundetto comes in to the Bing to pick up dirty linens. Tony calls him “Mr. Clean” in a reference to his new job at the drycleaners, but it also reflects Blundetto’s desire to stay out of the mob, to stay clean. As the two men discuss the night that Blundetto got arrested, it becomes clearer that Tony is suffering from some deep guilt about his cousin’s lengthy prison sentence.
Blundetto is in a class of his own – no one else from the “Class of ’04″ is making even the smallest effort to stay clean. Feech LaManna, for example, is getting his hands dirty as quickly as possible. He brings grotesque violence to a leafy suburban street, bashing and beating landscaper Sal Vitro in an effort to muscle him out of the neighborhood. Feech seems to be this season’s obligatory rabble-rouser, following in the footsteps of Richie Aprile and Ralphie Cifaretto from previous seasons. He is a hothead, exploding at Paulie who tries to defend Vitro. Paulie escalates the violence, putting the hurt on Gary LaManna as he tries to reclaim the neighborhood for Sal Vitro. Of course, Paulie is a much better advocate for himself than he is for Mr. Vitro: he maneuvers to get a few points off of Vitro’s profits, and he keeps half of the $1000 that Tony awards to Vitro. And by demanding 10% from Gary LaManna on all his earnings, Paulie is actually working against Sal Vitro’s interests. (Paulie is making out like a champ – perhaps he really is learning something from that “Sun Tizzu” audiobook.) It’s funny how much of the action surrounding Chase’s mobsters don’t involve big-time criminal activities, like high stakes gambling or prostitution, as we find in most gangster films. SopranoLand concerns are often far more mundane affairs, like garbage routes and landscaping contracts.
As tense as the situation is becoming between New Jersey mobsters Feech and Paulie, the situation in New York is even more jumpy. One significant way that Season 5 intensifies dramatic tension is by exposing us to the stuff that’s going on across the Hudson River. In one New York scene, Chase uses several NY signifiers to let us know that we’re not in Jersey anymore: a Brooklyn street-scape, a New York radio station ID, a bar owner reading the New York Post. The power vacuum in the NY mob has put everyone on edge. Phil Leotardo tries to persuade Lorraine Calluzzo, with the aid of a handgun and a phonebook, to kick up to Johnny Sac instead of Lil Carmine. Lorraine and Angelo Garepe seek counsel from Tony and Corrado. Tony gives sage advice, recommending a triumvirate power-sharing setup. (Corrado has little to add to the conversation other than a comment about Tony’s failure as a varsity athlete.) Angelo Garepe understands that the ascension crisis in the NY family means that “There’s a lotta potential for bloodshed.” This almost seems to be a meta-comment on what to expect in Season 5, and is sure to get all those “hits-and-tits” viewers grinning from ear-to-ear with anticipation.
Tony meets Johnny Sac in front Shea Stadium (which has since been demolished, but was once an instantly recognizable signifier of New York). Back in Season 3, we had seen John become unreasonable and lose his temper over Ralph’s Ginny-joke, but now he loses his cool over actual mob issues – he is infuriated by the triumvirate power-sharing idea. (Tony smoothly passes the idea off as Angelo’s suggestion.) Something about the way this scene is shot reminds me of another New York story: The Great Gatsby. The blue background behind John and the red and yellow ferris wheel behind Tony and the blurred bokeh lights all manage to evoke, for me, the famous cover art of Fitgerald’s novel:
I don’t think the scene is intentionally meant to evoke Gatsby, but the novel is set only about 10 miles to the northeast from where Tony and John now stand. (Many scholars believe Fitzgerald’s East Egg and West Egg to be modeled on Sands Point and Kings Point, NY.) I think a comparison between The Great Gatsby and The Sopranos can be aptly made: The Sopranos is arguably The Great American Novel of the 21st century much as Gatsby was the Great American Novel of the 20th century. Of course, The Sopranos is actually a TV series, not a novel. But perhaps the paradigm has shifted over the last several decades such that the Great American Novel should no longer be sought in literature, but on television. Outspoken novelist Norman Mailer said this very thing in an interview for Tampa Bay Times on February 1, 2004, about 7 weeks before this episode aired:
Tamba Bay Times: In The Spooky Art, you said a communication of human experience, of the deepest and most unrecoverable kind, must yet take place if we are to survive. Do you still have hopes that the Great American Novel can be written?
Mailer: The Great American Novel is no longer writable…You can’t cover all of America now. It’s too detailed…People didn’t get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of the expanse of the novel.
A contemporary audience may find that television is a more viable medium than literature in its ability to be both detailed and expansive simultaneously, in large part due to the very nature of a successful TV series – hours and hours of material spread out over a period of years. In the same interview, Mailer cites The Sopranos as a prime example of this new paradigm, a work that can “loop into a good many aspects of American culture.” I am more optimistic than Mailer in believing that the literary world can still produce the Great American Novel. But I also genuinely believe that from 1999 to 2007, the period in which the series originally ran, there was no work created in the United States—in any medium—that more powerfully communicated the experience of being American, and even the experience of being human, than The Sopranos.
Arguably, one of the most significant characteristics of being American is our carelessness. This is certainly a prevailing theme in Gatsby:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
You could almost replace “Tom and Daisy” with “Paulie and Feech” or any other two characters from SopranoWorld and the sentence would still ring true. In this episode, Sal Vitro begins his tenure as an unfortunate victim of SopranoWorld carelessness. His job is to literally care for the turf, but his ability to do so is compromised when he gets caught in the middle of a turf war between Paulie and Feech. And after Chris fucks things up with his big-mouth in the New York negotiations, Tony comps Johnny Sac by sending Sal Vitro to work in his massive yard. (This is no small task – we might remember that at Johnny Sac’s housewarming party, in “Employee of the Month” (3.04), Silvio remarked how expensive the landscaping and lawn upkeep must be.)
Despite all the emphasis so far this season on mob issues, the beating heart of The Sopranos has always been domestic concerns. There are already a host of family issues that are popping up: Bobby, who is now Tony’s brother-in-law, is sick of buying stool softener for Uncle Junior – he wants a chance to earn; Janice is a dysfunctional wife and mother, much like Livia was; and Bobby Jr. has started wetting the bed again. (I probably would too if Janice became my evil stepmother all of a sudden.)
Most troublesome for Tony, though, is Corrado’s increasing dementia. We’ve had hints of his deterioration since “Whoever Did This” (4.09), and it’s getting more obvious this year. The Sopranos occasionally plays Corrado’s senility for laughs, and the most hilarious example is when he mistakes Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David and Jeff Garlin for himself and Bobby Bacala. As some viewers have noted, Chase cuts from this scene to the Bada Bing, where Bobby is wearing a shirt just like the one that was at the center so much hilarity in another Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, “Chet’s Shirt”:
In his confusion, Corrado goes to the old neighborhood in search of his brother Johnny (or perhaps some other Johnny). Some faint spark of memory leads him to a church where young kids are being instructed in the art of fundraising. This scene once again makes a connection between Food and Faith, as boxes of candy sit before the cross:
The men conducting this meeting are far more concerned with sales strategies and profit margins than they are with the confused senior citizen that stumbles into the building – they turn Corrado away most ungraciously. Corrado continues his quixotic quest on foot after forgetting where he parked his car. He gets further befuddled by a hooker’s come-on, and eventually has to be brought home by a couple of policemen.
Tony doesn’t give a rat’s ass about his uncle’s strange trip to Newark, he’s still smarting over Uncle Jun’s comments about his limitations as an athlete. (We’ve known since the Pilot episode that this is a criticism that really bugs Tony.) Janice and Bobby try to share their concerns about Corrado’s mental health with Tony, but long-held frustrations and bitterness rear up and wreck the conversation. Tony baits Janice with a blowjob reference. (This is not the first or last time he refers to her oral habits.) A fight ensues and Artie Bucco takes an elbow to the eye:
There’s no shortage of civilians that get hurt in SopranoWorld, particularly this season, whether its Artie Bucco in the middle of a familial spat, or landscapers trying to ply their trade, or an an Atlantic City waiter trying to get a fair tip on an $1184 bill.
After learning from a doctor that Corrado’s behavior might be caused by mini-strokes, Tony gets over his anger toward his uncle. We’ve seen Tony forgive his uncle before. In 2.02, Tony came to assist Uncle Junior after he slipped in the bathtub – and this was not long after Uncle Jun tried to have him killed.
“Do Not Resuscitate” had a relatively happy ending, with Tony carrying Uncle Junior while Ella Fitzgerald’s cheerful “Goodbye My Love” carried us into the credits. The reconciliation—and music—that close out “Where’s Johnny?” is more ambiguous, less upbeat; there is no happy ending here. Mitch Coodley’s “Earth, Wind, Water” is a sparse, elemental track, and it has an Eastern flavor that recalls the music that backed Paulie’s Sun Tzu audiobook. The Sun Tzu recording itself recalled the earlier Tony Robbins infomercial – both are essentially forms of self-help. I don’t necessarily think that Chase is making a conscientious link between Coodley’s song and Sun Tzu and Tony Robbins, but I’ve compiled the three scenes in which they appear in order to illustrate a point:
Tony Robbins is a self-help guru. Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese general whose writings have been co-opted by the self-help industry and the corporate world. Both Robbins and the co-opted Sun Tzu provide us with easy-to-follow instructions for success and clear answers to our questions. (For example, “There are 5 essentials for victory,” Paulie’s audiobook assures us.) David Chase, in contrast, never provides us easy recipes for success or clear answers to all of our questions – nor all the questions of his characters. In the final moments of the hour, Tony asks his uncle, “Don’t you love me?” Director John Patterson racks focus, pulling our attention from Tony to Corrado who has real difficulty answering the question. But we don’t know why it’s difficult for him. Is it because he really doesn’t love his nephew? Or is he unable to formulate an answer due to his increasing dementia? Or is he simply not in the mood to get into such a touchy subject right now? The self-help industry is built upon easy solutions, but art—good art, deep art, the type that Norman Mailer once said must exist if we are to survive as a species—often does not give us answers, but only helps us to articulate the questions that need to be asked. The Sopranos routinely poses difficult questions, and just as routinely leaves us to search for the answers on our own.
WHERE’S JOHNNY? (TITLE SIGNIFICANCE)
The episode title obviously references disoriented Corrado’s search for his (dead) brother Johnny Boy (although it can also refer to Johnny’s Sac’s uncertain place in the New York food chain). I think it’s interesting that this is the second time that Chase has generated an episode title by replacing the word “Here” with the word “Where” in a well-known phrase from popular culture, and by doing so, turns the well-known phrase into something more ambiguous and uncertain than it originally was. The first time was for episode 2.09; the title “From Where to Eternity” underscored that we cannot know just where it was that Chris Moltisanti went during his coma: was it hell, purgatory, or just a dream? In the current episode, the title transforms Ed McMahon’s well-known catchphrase into a similar existential query: where is Johnny Boy Soprano now? Heaven? Hell? Perhaps purgatory? Maybe he’s nowhere. Or perhaps he’s everywhere. Nobody really knows.
THE AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE
The series became more overt in exploring issues of patriotism and consumerism after 9/11. Sometimes the issues were touched upon with just a quick insertion of certain images. One scene this hour, for example, is introduced with a quick shot of the American flag behind Christopher’s Hummer which looms massively in the foreground:
The image of the American flag is not in itself noteworthy; after all, displays of patriotism skyrocketed around the country after Sept. 11 and our subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The juxtaposition of the giant Hummer against the patriotic flag creates a notably ironic image, however, because the terror attacks and the subsequent wars might never have occurred if we weren’t so addicted to our gas-guzzling toys and consumerist ways. I’m not trying to “blame the victim” here; there is no cultural behavior that could ever justify such a horrific attack. But as the series continues, Chase does increasingly investigate the link between American social norms and the constant threat of terror that we live under. This quick image of the flag and Hummer here is one example of how The Sopranos, in Norman Mailer’s words, can “loop into a good many aspects of American culture.”
The series has always been characterized by clever editing from scene to scene. While there are probably several excellent examples in this hour, there were two that immediately jumped out at me.
Tony finally approaches Artie to repair their relationship, and then—almost in passing—offers him a discount on his linen cleaning. Artie wonders if this was the real reason behind their reconciliation. CUT TO: Bob Villa talking about a restored façade. It’s as though Tony’s effort at reconciliation was nothing more than a façade to get some cleaning business for Blundetto. (No one on The Sopranos can make me laugh like Artie does, with his little facial expressions.)
Tony yells at Chris that the best thing for business is to “keep your ears open and you mouth shut.” CUT TO: Adriana who is definitely NOT keeping her mouth shut to the FBI. (Definitely not the best thing for business.)
- When Corrado goes missing, Bobby Bacala calls Bobbi Sanfilipo in his effort to locate him. Ms. Sanfilipo, of course, is the woman whose face received a pie (and whose pie received a face) in Season One’s “Boca.”
- The American Way of Life: Our society is awash in advertising, and this is reflected on The Sopranos. In this hour, commercials for cleaning products and Tony Robbins are shown quite conspicuously, but oftentimes on this series, the commercials play inconspicuously in the background. They’re just a part of the white noise of daily life.