Christopher’s drug problem spirals out of control.
War between NJ and NY is averted after
Phil Leotardo suffers a heart attack.
Episode 77 – Originally aired June 4, 2006
Written by David Chase, Matt Weiner and Terry Winter
Directed by Alan Taylor
Many viewers felt “Kaisha” to be the most disappointing episode of the series. They criticized the pace of the hour, which they found slow and sputtering even by Chasian standards. (On the DVD commentary track for this episode, David Chase mocks this particular criticism by facetiously describing The Sopranos as “the famous show where nothing happens.”) It’s surprising to me that so many viewers still didn’t know that they shouldn’t expect too many thrills or fireworks in a season finale. Of course, “Kaisha” is not technically a “season finale” but we still couldn’t help but see it as a finale of sorts when it first aired—especially because the hour begins with a dedication to John Patterson, who had directed all the previous season finales before he passed away in 2005. Sean Burns (sitting in for Matt Zoller Seitz at The Bada Bing Next Door blog) recognized that “that the bummer rhythms of this season have been a ploy by Chase to show the sad emptiness of these people’s lives,” but Sean was nevertheless disappointed with how Season 6 Part I reached its conclusion: “Not with a bang… not even a whimper… it was more like a wet fart.”
No consistent reader of this website should be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of “Kaisha.” (If I could love “Christopher,” then of course I can love this hour.) I think “Kaisha” works primarily for 3 reasons:
- The hour cleverly uses the memory of Adriana to “drive” the stories of both Carmela and Chris here (I put “drive” in quotes because their thoughts of Adriana actually lead Carm and Chris to dead-ends)
- I believe “Kaisha” may be one more piece in Chase’s complex, season-spanning investigation of the notion of identity
- The episode, probably more than any previous outing, shows us just how pervasive boredom and “the fuckin’ regularness of life” really are
War has been brewing between New Jersey and New York over the Vito-situation for weeks now, and the opening minutes of “Kaisha” lead us to believe that the big battle has finally arrived. Carlo Gervasi kicks Fat Dom’s frozen head (“a head full of snow,” sings Mick Jagger in the accompanying song) down a storm drain, and moments later Phil Leotardo’s illegal gambling den in Sheepshead Bay gets blown up. (Phil and his mistress/housekeeper get thrown back on their keisters in the explosion.) Lil Carmine tries to broker a peace agreement between Tony and Phil, but opens old wounds and makes things worse when he mentions the murder of Billy Leotardo. New York capo Butch DeConcini (played by Greg Antonacci in his first appearance on the series) wants blood, and he doesn’t much care which north Jersey mobster provides it. A visit from Agent Harris, warning Tony of impending danger, heightens our expectation of violence against the NJ famiglia. Chase uses the camera in such a way that we begin to feel that Christopher is most likely the guy that New York is targeting. But then an unexpected thing happens: Phil takes a heart attack (as Murmur puts it) and war is averted. Tony visits Phil in the hospital and—in a display of his empathy or his brilliant managerial skill, perhaps a little of both—lets down his guard to tell Phil something about his near-death experience (which is something Tony has never really spoken about to anyone outside of Melfi’s office). Phil—the same guy who was annoyed at Johnny Sac for crying at his own daughter’s wedding—has tears in his eyes as he shares a moment of vulnerability with Tony. “We can have it all, Phil—plenty for everybody,” Tony assures his frenemy.
My guess is that David Chase would take Sean Burns’ criticism as a compliment—he has always used his series to show that daily life is full of wet farts, a fact of life that most TV shows completely ignore. (It was in the second episode of this season that we watched Vito literally release a long wet fart into the Soprano couch.) This is the final episode of S.6 Part I, and it was already known that Part II would be a shortened season, and so right now would seem like a great time to ramp up the show’s tension and drama. But Chase confounds our expectations. After Phil’s heart attack, all the tension that has been building between NJ and NY gets diffused without a single drop of blood being spilled.
Of course, many viewers find such a sudden deflation of tension to be completely boring. In a 2008 debate for Project Narrative, Prof. Sean O’Sullivan noted that it is precisely this “boringness” that makes Chase’s show so unique, even groundbreaking, within the medium of television. He writes that all “television serials, unlike two-hour movies or even novels, can do much more than posit the existential or the boring; they can enact the existential.” But The Sopranos, he argues, is the first show to have truly attempted to do this. O’Sullivan continues:
…the boring is one of the most prominent aspects of The Sopranos’ most compelling mob story, not the represented battle between New Jersey and New York, but the battle of a medium at war with itself, a string of kneecappings and reprisals where the systems of television serials—the large cast, the interwoven threads, the A, B, and C stories of individual installments—clash repeatedly with aesthetic values that reject all such established patterns and purposes.
So: When Tony makes peace with Phil Leotardo in the hospital room now, effectively snuffing out the possibility of a mob war that could have functioned as a colossal cliffhanger in this Season Finale, it is not simply just another plot-point in the long-running narrative about the tensions between NJ and NY; it is an example of Chase breaking out of the “established patterns” that have ruled television for too long. O’Sullivan emphasizes his point by including a quote from David Chase himself (from a Variety article that I’m not able to track down now): “What interested us was not the mob hits but the boringness in-between.”
Adding to the “boringness in-between” now is the fact that several characters are slipping back into their old and boring familiar roles after having made some earlier progress at transcending their baser selves. Tony was a surprisingly faithful husband throughout this season—he even put the kibosh on a sexual opportunity with Julianna Skiff in episode 6.08, when he stopped her from unbuttoning his Canali shirt. But now he is back in full poon-hound mode, making multiple runs at the beautiful young realtor. Julianna has only icy responses to Tony’s advances. After showing him a property that he is interested in, she coldly tells him to “just stick it in the lockbox” as she hands him the key and walks away. (It feels like she hid a pun somewhere in that line.)
Carmela is slipping back into familiar ways too. She recently had a transcendent experience while in Paris, one that could have perhaps helped her transform her life into something more honest and genuine instead of continuing to be the ugly Faustian compromise that it has been for so long. Over the years Carmela has mastered the art of shielding herself from ugly or inconvenient truths, but there is some hope now that the dream she had in the last episode would motivate her to at least search for the truth about Adriana:
“Someone needs to tell her she’s dead,” a gendarme told Carm in the dream. Carmela wants to hire a P.I. to investigate Ade’s disappearance after making a visit to Liz LaCerva who lays in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Her daughter’s disappearance has taken a noticeable toll on mother LaCerva—she had a sassy Jersey-style back when Adriana was still around, then looked frumpy after Ade went missing, and now we see her is in a hospital gown with wrist restraints:
Tony can ill-afford to have his wife snooping around for information about Adriana, so he gets Silvio to lean on the building inspector and get Carmela’s work-stop order lifted. Carmela tosses aside the Private Eye’s business card, thrilled to get back to work again. It’s back to Business As Usual for Carmela Soprano.
Christpher is going back to B.A.U. too—he’s slipping off the sobriety wagon in a serious way. Alan Sepinwall at The Star-Ledger expressed his distaste at having to watch this storyline yet again, a distaste that many viewers shared:
Last night was mostly another installment of the Christopher Moltisanti Scag Junkie Hour. We get it already: Drug addicts are among the most boring people on the planet. We got it when Christopher shot up through the Italy trip. We got it when he was high at Livia’s wake. We got it when he sat on Cosette. New punchline, please.
Sepinwall makes a valid point—we’ve been down this road several times already. But I think the important point to note is that Christopher’s relapse may be occurring now specifically because of his heartache and guilt over Adriana. Adriana haunts this entire hour. Carmela shoves Ade’s skeleton back into the closet as soon as she is able to resume work on her spec-house, but Christopher has more difficulty escaping the memory of the dead woman. Chris got himself clean at the end of Season 4, and (as far as we know) was able to stay clean all the way until the end of Season 5, when he snorted a little heroin after Ade’s murder in “Long Term Parking.” His next major relapse only occurs when he and Tony rehash Adriana’s death in 6.09 “The Ride.” Though Chris learned that he is going to become a father and subsequently married his girlfriend Kelli in “The Ride,” he wasn’t able to keep from using; thoughts of domestic happiness and domestic responsibility were not enough to keep Chris straight.
Domestic life with Kelli is not able to inspire Chris to walk the line now either. Very early in this hour, we see that Kelli is building her nest, telling Chris about the Benjamin Moore paint and the Disney-themed border she wants to use in the baby’s room. Kelli is undoubtedly a great girl, but she’s no Adriana, a fact that gets highlighted when she says outright, in this early scene, that “I’m not Adriana.” (She is referring to the fact that she has a fertile womb, unlike barren Adriana, but Chris—and the viewer—may take the line to mean that she just doesn’t have Adriana’s spunk and spark.) Kelli is nice and kind and healthy and attractive, but there is nothing extraordinary about her—she is just so regular, with regular hair and regular clothes and regular manners. And we’ve known since episode 1.08 “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” how easily Christopher gets bored by “regularness.”
Julianna Skiff is more up to Christopher’s speed. Through a flashback scene, we learn that Christopher ran into Julianna at an AA meeting, and we also learn that it was Tony’s rejection of her back in 6.08 that got Julianna drinking again. We already knew that it was Tony that got Chris drinking again in 6.09 (after he shamed Chris into having some of the wine they jacked from The Vipers, before rehashing Adriana’s last day on earth). So, although Chris and Julianna may not be aware of it, it was Tony Soprano that knocked them both off the wagon. They are aware, however, that there is an immediate, overpowering attraction between them. They can’t even wait to get home to start smashing, going at it in a parking lot outside a diner.
I think it is notable that Christopher, as far as I can remember, never carried on a serious affair behind Adriana’s back. True, he did sleep with the “D-girl” Amy Safir in Season 2, and he has intermittently cavorted with various prostitutes and strippers. And he did try to initiate a threesome once with undercover agent Danielle—but that wasn’t behind Adriana’s back, that was right in front of Ade. In the five seasons that we saw Chris and Adriana together, he never kept a regular side-piece for himself. It’s a different story now. He and Kelli haven’t been together for even one full season but he is already finding himself falling physically and emotionally for another woman.
But Julianna is no Adriana either (despite a syllabic similarity in the latter part of their names), and perhaps this point gets highlighted when Chris pulls himself up to Julianna’s backside and she responds, “I’m not a parking spot.” We might associate “parking spot” with Adriana ever since we saw Chris abandon Ade’s Thunderbird in an airport parking spot last season:
Christopher’s substance abuse now, I think, is in large part a symptom of his depression over Adriana’s murder. It may be worth noting that this episode contains a clip from Vikram Jayanti’s documentary Lincoln, a film that argues that Abraham Lincoln’s well-documented depression actually served to help him during his Presidency. If you turn up the volume, you can hear the narrator of the documentary say that “For some people, depression is a form of forced introversion” out of which resilience, strength and empathy can arise:
But Christopher is not one of these people. His depression and heartache doesn’t lead him to introversion or introspection—it just turns him into a junkie.
There is a scene here with Chris and Julianna that seemed kind of weird to me when the episode first aired. The two gaze at each other with long, serious looks as they debate whether or not to use Valerian tea to treat Julianna’s cough, and then the scene strangely fades to black:
I understood that Chris and Julianna were taking the decision to use Valerian seriously, because the stuff contains a form of opiate. But I didn’t quite understand Chase’s decision to use the fade-to-black, a transitional device very rarely employed on The Sopranos. Upon rewatch, however, the fade-to-black feels more justified—it adds more gravity to this scene, a scene which portends some very bad things to come. Chris underestimates the Valerian when he tells Julianna, “Worst-case scenario, it might help you sleep.” But the scenario that actually develops is far worse: Chris and Julianna’s drug use is out of control by the end of the hour. Christopher will be clean in later episodes, but his ongoing battle with chemical dependency will ultimately lead to his removal from la famiglia.
Although Tony, Carmela and Chris relapse into their old ways in this hour, we see a completely new side to AJ. It seems that the “tough love” that Tony displayed to his son in the previous episode (smashing his windshield and forcing him to take a job at a construction site) is having a good effect. AJ is taking his new job seriously, and he is also embarking on a mature relationship with Blanca Selgado. A moment after Blanca says “This man is so lame” about the 40-year old virgin that they watch on TV, AJ must prove that he is not “so lame” when some young guys start playing music a little too loudly downstairs. AJ convinces the guys to move by giving them his Gary Fisher bike. In this way, he passes the test and is rewarded handsomely by Blanca. AJ is behaving with more integrity and courage than we’ve come to expect from him. When Blanca mentions his W-2 form, it underscores that he has got a legitimate income—unlike his dad, whose W-2 from Barone Sanitation is pure bullshit. AJ is further contrasted with his dad when he shows his pride at buying Blanca some jewelry without the “discount” that Tony could get for him. Alas, this new leaf that AJ has turned over will fade over time. He too will relapse into Business As Usual, and then continue to deteriorate spiritually and psychologically. (And Chase will use Abraham Lincoln as a foil to the depressed AJ later just as he seems to use Abraham Lincoln as a foil to depressed Christopher now—there will be multiple references to Lincoln in “The Second Coming,” the episode in which AJ’s depression pushes him over the edge.)
The ending of this hour seems a bit warm and fuzzy as the Sopranos clan all gather together for Christmas. (All except for Meadow, who is on the west coast with Finn. We’ve known since Season One’s “College” that if anyone could distance themselves from the family, it would be Mead.) The warm, idyllic tone that closes Season 6A feels more pronounced in retrospect after the ambiguous finish of 6B; it is debatable whether 6B had a peaceful ending or not, but 6A definitely had a tranquil close. Though “Kaisha” originally aired in June, it still felt a bit like one of those “Christmas episodes” that you find on other TV shows.
But upon closer inspection, we notice that there are tensions simmering below the surface of the peaceful façade. Tony and Carmela have concerns that AJ’s girlfriend is a bit older than him, and perhaps some anxiety over her ethnicity as well as the fact that she has a child. Tony also seems to be harboring a grudge against Chris because of his relationship with Julianna (though Tony doesn’t admit this; he only bitches at Chris for hogging all the ice.) On the DVD commentary, Chase bristles at the notion that there is a sweet, Christmas-card type of ending to the hour: “How you can look at this scene and say things are happy, I have no idea.”
I think that the clips of Casablanca which we see playing on the Soprano television underline that things are not as good as they seem to be, neither in SopranoWorld nor in the real world. In one of the clips, there is an altercation at Rick Blaine’s bar. Rick interrupts the fight, saying “I don’t like disturbances in my place. Either lay off politics or get out.” Of course, anyone who has seen the film knows that Rick’s bar (and Rick’s life) becomes filled with disturbances as he gets pulled into the politics of the time. Chase too gets pulled into the politics of his time. This season of The Sopranos touched upon several hot-button political issues: the Iraq War, the competence of the Bush administration, the War on Terror, gay rights, the politicization of religion, conspicuous consumerism and the excesses of capitalism. About one second after we hear Rick say “lay off the politics or get out,” Carmela’s father walks into the room and is astounded by the large bounty of boxes beneath the Christmas tree: “Jesus, that’s a lot of presents! You sure you got enough?” On the DVD commentary, Chase suggests that “the pile of presents that goes halfway up the tree” is a uniquely American phenomenon that speaks to our materialism and obsession with owning stuff.
So, this is not by any means a traditional Christmas episode like you might find on another TV series. There is just too much criticism here of the Soprano Way of Life, and even of the American Way of Life. In the final dialogue of the hour, Blanca says “You have a gorgeous home,” and Carmela responds “Thank you. We do.” But we know that this house, and all the happiness and comfort it contains, has been paid for with blood. In her book Dying to Belong, Martha Nochimson sees through the counterfeit pose of the final imagery:
In a shot composed like a Hallmark Christmas card, Tony and Carmela are shown in a golden light, surrounded by friends and family…But it is the lie that is emphasized by the family gathering, which is ironically pictured in a long shot, framed by two half-walls that are symmetrically placed at either side of the entrance to the living room. It is as though all these people enjoying the bounty of Tony’s mob-wealth are caught between the jaws of an elegantly appointed vise.
As the camera pulls out, the two columns and half-walls do seem to compress all the family members into a smaller and smaller area within the frame, underscoring the idea that SopranoWorld is becoming a type of vise that is continuously constricting its characters:
In the upcoming, final season of the series, internal and external pressures will squeeze several of these men and women up to—and in some cases, beyond—their breaking points.
In addition to that “Valerian tea” scene I mentioned earlier, there is another scene in this hour that I found pretty weird: Chase takes footage of Chris and Julianna chasing the dragon—smoking heroin—and superimposes it on top of imagery of them at a movie theater, and all of it is scored to the theme music from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. (David Chase does give an explanation for some of the weirdness: he wanted an additional scene of Chris and Julianna’s drug use but production had already closed for the season, so he was forced to piece together some earlier bits of footage to come up with the scene.) What stands out for me in this scene is the music. We never actually see a clip from Vertigo, but we recognize Bernard Hermann’s famous score from the film. Chase could have used any piece of music here—so why use the Vertigo score? Chase has been exploring the notion of identity all season long, and the reference to Vertigo perhaps adds to this season-spanning concern. In the film, Kim Novak plays a character with multiple identities: she plays “Judy Barton,” who is pretending to be “Madeleine Elster,” who might be possessed by the spirit of “Carlotta Valdes” (whose portrait hangs at the local museum):
Hitchcock stacks identities one on top of the other in his film. Earlier this season, David Chase stacked identities in somewhat the same way that Hitchcock did in Vertigo: he superimposed “legitimate businessman Tony” and “Kevin Finnerty” on top of “Tony Soprano.” In addition to the Vertigo reference, I think another way that Chase plays with identity in “Kaisha” is by making a mind-twisting game of the various names that appear in the hour…
In Act II of Romeo and Juliet, young Juliet asks:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Well, it turns out there is quite a lot in a name—Juliet and her star-crossed lover end up dead because one has the last name “Montague” and the other has the last name “Capulet.” I think there may be quite a lot loaded into the various names that appear in this episode too, beginning with the name that forms the episode title. “Kaisha” obviously is not a real person, it is just a pseudonym that Christopher has made up in order to hide the identity of his new mistress. (This is not the first time a Sopranos episode has been named after a figure that doesn’t really exist—Season One’s “Isabella” was named after a woman that Tony hallucinated.) The mind-twists really begin when we realize that the made-up name ‘Kaisha’ refers to the character “Julianna” who is played by a real-life ‘Julianna’ (Julianna Margulies, who some viewers believed—incorrectly—was the real-life daughter of David Margulies [who plays Tony’s lawyer “Neil Mink”] because they share a last name.) Now, there is indeed a “Kaisha” that exists in SopranoWorld, but the viewer never meets her: Credenzo Curtis mentioned her just before he was shot to death in “Whitecaps.” It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Christopher knows this Kaisha, especially considering that Chris and Credenzo seemed very familiar with each other when they met in “Whitecaps.” So: Chris may be thinking of a “real” SopranoWorld character to come up with the “fake” name for his real SopranoWorld girlfriend who actually shares her own name in the real world. (Still with me?) We know by now that David Chase loves to use Christopher’s storylines to play meta-level games in which actual real-life persons cross back-and-forth through the barrier between SopranoWorld and the real world, resulting in a mash-up of their fictional and non-fictional identities. Janeane Garofalo and Ben Kingsley (among others) provided obvious examples of this playful meta-manipulation in episodes like “D-Girl” and “Luxury Lounge.” The interconnection between Kaisha/”Kaisha”/”Julianna Skiff”/Julianna Margulies provides a more subtle example of Chase’s meta-game now.
Another name-related meta-manipulation that occurs in this hour comes via the movie script that Christopher is developing. We learn here that the main character of Cleaver is named “Michael” —which of course recalls Christopher’s real-world name, Michael Imperioli. (It was a few episodes back in “The Ride” that Chrissie heard the name “Michael” while watching Saw II, and perhaps he drew some inspiration from that.) The film name “Cleaver” also gets connected to the real-world when Julianna points out that people may associate it with the famous character played by Jerry Mathers. (Note the complicated mashup of “worlds” that Julianna is suggesting could occur: people in SopranoWorld would be associating CleaverWorld with a BeaverWorld character played by the real-world Jerry Mathers.)
I think that Chase may also be playing an identity-game of sorts with “Blanca,” the name of AJ’s new girlfriend. Although the word blanca means white in Spanish, Blanca doesn’t exactly seem to be a white Caucasian. (Not that I think that ethnicity or race can be precisely defined; I only mean that it might be difficult to guess her ethnicity just by looking at her. Tony and Carm even wonder here about her nationality, guessing that she may be Dominican or Puerto Rican…) We get a sort of inverted, black-and-white symmetry when we compare Blanca’s name to “Kaisha,” the pseudonym that Chris uses for his mistress: Julianna’s personal identity is hidden behind the “black” name “Kaisha,” while the details of Blanca’s ethnic identity and nationality remain elusive despite having a name that means “white.”
All this stuff about names may be an unwarranted digression, I may be reaching at things that aren’t really there. But I think it is nevertheless undeniable that Chase has been very interested in exploring the concept of “identity” this season. Several characters in season 6 have had various types of identity issues. Tony found himself saddled with the identity of Kevin Finnerty while in a coma-dream. Paulie suffered an identity crisis of sorts after finding out that his mother is actually not his mother; he told Tony, “Not only is my ma not my ma, who the fuck knows who this ‘Russ’ bastard is. The worst thing, I’m not who I am.” In “Luxury Lounge,” Artie seriously questioned his life-defining decision to become a chef and restaurateur. In a later episode, soon-to-be father Christopher got married and tried to redefine himself as a sober “family man.” Carmela went through a crise d’identite in Paris, but now she is back on track in her attempt to forge a new identity for herself beyond just “mob-wife” as a more independent woman and property developer.
But Chase’s most compelling investigation into the question of identity this season, in my opinion, concerned Vito Spatafore. Vito had several personas this season: weight-loss hero, closeted Mafioso, gay man in Dartford, prodigal mobster back in NJ, and faux CIA agent in his explanation to his kids. (He also seemed to momentarily take on the role of Little Red Riding Hood at one point midseason.) Even the actor playing “Vito” has had multiple identities; Joe Gannascoli first appeared as bakery customer “Gino” in episode 1.08 before assuming the role of “Vito” in Season 2. I think it is very notable that Chase changed the character’s name to from “Gino” to “Vito,” because that latter name recalls the ultimate arch-gangster of American art: Vito Corleone. Like his namesake in The Godfather, Vito Spatafore was a loving family-man with a natural instinct for business who could also be a wily manipulator and a stone-cold killer—in short, he had all the makings of a varsity wiseguy. Despite possessing all the proper characteristics, Spatafore could not truly fit the traditional definition of a gangster because of his sexual orientation.
Many viewers took issue with the gay-mobster storyline, partly because certain aspects of the story didn’t feel quite believable. Perhaps Chase’s decision to switch Gannascoli’s character from “Gino” to “Vito” tanked the character’s believability right from the get-go. But I think the Gino/Vito switch is really interesting because it underscores that “identity” is, in some sense, a fiction.
Each one of us has stretched the truth about ourselves on a job application or presented some neatly edited version of ourselves on social media. We’ve all at least once hidden some facet of our personality depending on the situation that we were in or the people that we were with. We have all, in other words, played “identity games.” The issue of identity is of fundamental importance to us in the real world, and I think that’s why Chase gives such importance to it in SopranoWorld. Chase has shown great artistic dexterity this season, negotiating various planes of reality simultaneously—the real, the fictional, and the meta-fictional—in service of his identity-games. We’ve seen a few of his characters struggle to figure out who they genuinely are and how to live in accordance with what they believe and care about. We’ve seen some of them get lost in the charade as they try to manage the multiple truths and fictions about themselves. We’ve seen some characters make an effort to reinvent or reshape themselves, only to be derailed by some fateful event or by their own inner conflicts. Perhaps it is identity, more than anything else, that ultimately becomes the inescapable vise that traps and constricts them…
Early in the episode, Christopher explains that he doesn’t bring his new mistress around because she is black. (He is, of course, trying to keep her true identity a secret.) Tony concurs that it’s a good idea that she doesn’t come around, because she would feel the unspoken racism of some of the guys in their crew. Interestingly (but probably just coincidentally), Chase cuts from this conversation about a black woman—who turns out to actually be a white woman—to a shot of a referee in black-and-white stripes:
Christopher tries to keep the ruse going later in the hour, telling T that he’s going to buy his girlfriend a Luther Vandross box set. Tony seems to have suspicions, so Chris finally fesses up that he is actually seeing Julianna. Tony tries to play it cool and casually dismisses the situation, but we see later that he is clearly angry about it. In next season’s premiere episode, Tony will curtly hang up the phone on Chris, and I wonder if it’s because he has been continuing to nurse this same anger. (The whole thing reminds me a little bit of episode 4.07 when Ron Zellman told Tony that he was dating Irina; Tony took the news charitably at first, but ended up giving poor Ron a whipping by the end of the hour.)
I’m writing this particular autopsy in January of 2019, just as the world is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Sopranos’ 1999 premiere. Over the last several weeks, many newspaper articles, magazine pieces, television interviews and social events (like episode screenings at the Paley Center and panel discussions at the IFC Center) have all reconfirmed what hardcore fans already know: among TV shows, The Sopranos is the Greatest Of All Time.
Of course, objectively speaking, there are a few other shows that should also be considered for GOAT designation. One of them was created by the co-writer of “Kaisha,” Matthew Weiner. As I mentioned in my 5.02 write-up, Weiner put Mad Men on hold so that he could come work for David Chase. In an interview conducted by Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, Weiner explained that with Mad Men, he tried to create a show that viewers would watch mindfully:
What I’m trying to do when I draw them in is say, put down your checkbook, turn off the phone, watch it on TiVo when you know the kids won’t be around. And really let yourself go into this world, but take it seriously.
While I personally wouldn’t put Mad Men quite on par with The Sopranos, I do think there was something incomparably brilliant in how Weiner was able to produce such a great series for basic cable. AMC Network put all sorts of requirements and restrictions on Weiner, limits that Chase never had to worry about at HBO. Having to work within such limitations but still being able to create something as phenomenal as Mad Men is proof of Matt Weiner’s genius.
Any discussion of The Greatest has to also include The Wire. As I mentioned in a previous write-up, The Wire and The Sopranos are two very different beasts (with two very different showrunners) and therefore not really amenable to a straight-up comparison. David Simon seems to have an activist’s inclinations, whereas David Chase’s primary impulse is artistic. Although Chase certainly can be counted as one of this nation’s greatest socio-cultural eyewitnesses, touching upon several social issues and social ills over the course of his series—class politics, consumerism, the rise of corporatism, and the erosion of constitutional protections among them—his series does not bear witness in quite the direct and focused way that Simon’s series does.
The Wire added a new slice of Baltimore into its narrative each season, from the drug dealers all the way up to the newspapers, and demonstrated the complex way that policies, people and bureaucracies interacted within and across these slices to essentially build the city up or tear the city down. During an interview of Simon years ago, newsman Dan Rather described the show as “Dickensian.” Simon found the Dickens comparison somewhat simplistic, saying that he felt the show to be more inspired by Balzac. (And then he threw a “ball sack” pun into the conversation, not wanting to sound like too much of an egghead I guess.) Simon does indeed use Baltimore much like Balzac used Paris: in each of their hands, The City becomes the canvas upon which to explore the complicated links between political and social and economic structures.
If The Wire is a Balzac novel, then The Sopranos is an Umberto Eco novel: postmodern, playful, intertextual, open to interpretation. In true postmodernist fashion, The Sopranos always remains conscious of itself as a work of fiction, pulling and pushing at the limits of its medium through games and tricks and structural daring. (This becomes even more apparent next season during the final nine episodes.) In my experience, I’ve found that postmodern playfulness can engage and energize us mentally, but sometimes does so at the expense of our emotional engagement. Not so with The Sopranos. I have always felt emotionally engaged by Chase’s show, and I think the main reason this occurs is because Chase places paramount importance on making his characters seem real. From the opening shot to the final shot, The Sopranos is, more than anything else, about its characters.
I love The Wire and I would have been thrilled to watch Simon add a new slice of Baltimore into his ever-expanding televisual kaleidoscope for another 10 seasons. But ultimately I feel that Simon’s show is more about institutions than it is about individuals, whereas Chase’s show is more about individuals than it is about anything else. And that’s the primary reason why I personally rank The Sopranos higher.
There might be a few other shows that are legitimate GOAT contenders, but I’m not going to get into it here because I think I’ve already gone too far beyond the usual scope of my write-ups. I do feel obliged, however, to mention The Singing Detective which is arguably the most astonishingly genius thing ever made for television. The six-part British miniseries, written by Dennis Potter, first appeared on BBC1 in 1986 and later made its way to PBS and cable networks in America. I’ve never seen a TV series that is, minute-for-minute and pound-for-pound, as powerful as The Singing Detective. But at only seven hours long, it simply can’t last 12 rounds in the ring against The Sopranos which maintains a high level of excellence over its full 86-hour running time.
The winner by decision and still the champ: The Sopranos!
- Postmodern self-awareness: Christopher makes a disparaging remark about the 50 Cent movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’. The movie was written by Terry Winter, a co-writer of this episode.
- Greg Antonacci, who makes his Sopranos debut as “Butchie” here, went on to perform great work on Terry Winter’s Boardwalk Empire.
- The reference to Jesse Ventura here functions as an age-marker and highlights the age difference between AJ and Blanca: AJ is too young to recognize the name whatsoever, while Blanca is old enough to know that he was a politician. Neither one of them is old enough to remember him as the wrestler, Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
- Lil Carmine!! We get a whole multitude of Carmine-isms during one sit-down here: “inclement negative implications,” “certain incidents have expired lately,” “for reasons I will discern in time.” There’s also his strange aphorism: “A pint of blood costs more than a gallon of gold.” He finally wrecks the entire meeting by dismissing Billy Leotardo’s murder as “whatever happened there…”
- Symmetrical dialogue: In the previous episode, Chris said “The balls on that prick” regarding Phil’s killing of Vito, while Albie now says “The balls on this prick” regarding Tony blowing up Phil’s wire-room in retaliation.
- The episode opens and closes with the Rolling Stones’ powerful and evocative “Moonlight Mile.” Yet again, a season-ender has been blessed with a perfect final song.
- When AJ falls asleep in front of the TV, Tony tosses food at him just like he did to narcoleptic Aaron Arkaway back in Season 3. (AJ must be falling asleep because he’s been waking up early to get to his construction job on time.)
- Recycling: We hear Tony recycle the ‘pig’ joke that Murmur said in the previous episode.
- Corrado is slipping further into dementia—he hints knowledge about a JFK assassination-conspiracy as he tries to explain why he shot Tony. In the Series Finale, deep in dementia, he will get Bobby Baccalieri confused with JFK’s brother Bobby Kennedy.