Tony and Christopher set up the hit on Mr. Millio.
Vito flees from New Jersey when things start to get too hot for him.
Episode 71 – Originally aired April 16, 2006
Written by David Chase, Terry Winter, Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess
Directed by Tim Van Patten
The title of this hour, borrowed from the state motto of New Hampshire, reflects a fundamental American ethos. We have long believed that life is not worth living if it is not steeped in freedom. As early as 1775, Patrick Henry bellowed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” (in a passionate speech that is widely credited for pulling Virginia troops into the Revolutionary War). The episode title most obviously refers to Vito Spatafore, who must literally make the choice outlined by the title: live freely as a gay man or die at the hands of the mob. But the idea of freedom and independence is important to other characters in SopranoWorld as well. In this hour alone, we see how Tony, Angie Bonpensiero and Carmela all approach the idea of independence. I’ll take a look at each of these characters before getting to Vito’s story.
I argued in the previous write-up that the closing scene of last week’s episode—which featured the song “Every Day of the Week” coupled with a shot of Tony puking into the toilet bowl—signaled that Tony was getting back into the “regularness” of his daily life. The opening scene of “Live Free or Die” continues in the same vein, showing Tony’s return back to regular life with all of its banal annoyances. Tony tries to enjoy his Yachting magazine while he sits in his robe out by the pool, but the rattle of the AC unit annoys him.
Tony is settling back into his old life, a life that has its share of frustrations and dull moments. We can note an interesting comparison between Tony and Vito Spatafore at this point in their lives: they are both in a state of transition. Tony is trying to transition back into his old life, while recent events are ousting Vito out of his old life. A matching cut underscores this similarity between Vito and Tony. At the beginning of this hour, Vito has not yet quit his life as a mobster—he is “hiding” out at his beach house with his goomar. As Vito tries to figure out his next step, Chase cuts to Tony easing back into his familiar life at Satriale’s:
Take a look at that edit again. It doesn’t seem like much of a matching cut at first glance, but there is actually a strong graphic match there. The composition of the two frames are almost identical: Tony and Vito inhabit the same spot on the screen (albeit with Vito on this side of the windows and Tony on the other side of the plate-glass window); the placement of some of the props and vertical elements echo each other, with the primary vertical features lining up perfectly; and both frames are split into lighter and darker areas by an implied horizontal line.
Like Vito, Tony wants to live with a certain amount of freedom. He wants to be free of small nuisances (like the rattling AC unit) and be free to bring his newfound enlightenment into his life. But he cannot escape the humdrum banality of life. We can hear the bitterness of this truth in Tony’s complaint to Dr. Melfi:
You can talk about every day being a gift and stopping to smell the roses, but regular life has got a way of picking away at it. Your house, the shit you own—it drags you down. Your kids, what they want. One bad idea after another. Just trying to work a cell phone menu is enough to make you scream.
Tony desperately wants to hold onto the idea that he will value and cherish each and every day. But that just ain’t gonna happen for him. As is the case in the real world, “the fuckin’ regularness of life” is the most pervasive, dominant element in the world that David Chase has created.
Angie Bonpensiero revealed her independent streak back in Season 2, when she spoke of divorcing her husband Big Pussy. She struggled financially for a while after Pussy’s disappearance (i.e. death), and tried to get welfare payments from Tony and took a job at a grocery store. But she is solidly on her own two feet now. The auto body repair shop is doing well enough for her to buy herself a ‘Vette and even to “invest” a little money with Benny Fazio and Patsy Parisi. When Carmela agreed to reconcile with Tony last year, she believed that she would be able to forge a level of autonomy and independence for herself as Angie has done now. But things are not working out quite like Carmela had planned. This difference between Angie and Carmela is highlighted through wardrobe: at lunch, Carmela wears a lacy, effeminate dress while Angie has on a masculine leather jacket:
Angie’s man lays at the bottom of the sea and so she has had to become, in a sense, “the man of the house,” taking charge of her affairs and her life. Carmela, on the other hand, is slipping back into the role of the subservient mob wife. She had hoped that building and selling a spec-house would give her some measure of self-sufficiency and independence, but that dream seems to be in tatters:
Tony keeps forgetting to lean on the building inspector that ordered the work stoppage on the house. Moreover, Hugh has picked through some of the construction materials like a vulture. Carm is furious at her father for undermining the project. She gives him an earful, then races off in her Porsche. The birds on Hugh’s roof, perhaps alarmed by the tension, fly off in a hurry too.
As compelling as Tony, Angie and Carmela’s struggles for freedom and autonomy are, they are minor compared to the struggle that Vito faces. Chris and Murmur rush back to the Bing to break the news they got from Sal Iacuzzo’s cousin: Vito was sighted at a gay bar. (It’s quite ironic that it is at the Bada Bing where the guys learn of Vito’s homosexuality, because this is a space that has been constructed strictly in service of heteronormative masculine desires and fantasies. The mobsters come here to look at tits, but now end up having to think about Vito’s dick.) In the back room of the Bing, we see a variety of responses to the news. Patsy Parisi is fairly open-minded, but his own sexuality gets questioned because of his tolerance. Tony refrains from voicing any judgment. Paulie is extremely unsympathetic. And Carlo is even less so: “If it was up to me, I’d drag Vito behind my fucking car right now.” (Carlo is probably trying to make a reference to Matthew Shepard but is mixing him up with James Byrd. Shepard was a gay man who died after being severely beaten up in October 1998, whereas Byrd, a black man, had been dragged to death by white supremacists four months earlier. The two grotesque events are linked in the American consciousness because they occurred just a few months apart; in 2009, President Obama signed the “Mathew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act” into law.) The guys’ harsh attitude towards Vito exists even before Finn comes into Satriale’s and confirms Vito’s homosexuality. After Finn reveals that Vito was “catching, not pitching,” fugeddaboudit, most of the guys squash any lingering tolerance they may have felt for Vito’s sexual preference.
But Tony is more broad-minded than one might expect him to be. In Melfi’s office, he toes the party line at first, saying that he agrees with Senator Rick “Sanitorium” that legitimizing gay sex puts us on a slippery slope to bestiality. (Soon after the Senator made this ugly comment, Dan Savage waged a pretty successful campaign to GoogleBomb the search term “Santorum.”) But Tony’s more libertarian attitude eventually surfaces. He doesn’t actually have much of a moral objection to Vito’s lifestyle choices, Tony has just been performing the role of someone who objects because that is what is expected of him. (I love that the writers have Tony saying that “the lesbian thing” [The L Word], which appeared on rival channel Showtime, is “not bad.”) Again, David Chase complicates our understanding of his mobster. Yes, Tony is a murderer, philanderer, predatory moneylender and all-around thug. But he manages to be more compassionate and less bigoted toward gays than many politicians, including two-time Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Melfi suggests that Tony’s open-mindedness may be a part of his “new outlook” after surviving the gunshot. Though Tony’s outlook may be growing more progressive, it is very important to him that his own heterosexuality not be called into question: he tells Dr. Melfi, “My incarceration was very short-term so I never had any need for any anal…ya’ know.”
Benny and two other goombahs go to Vito’s house by the shore to bring him in for further questioning. As they talk to Vito in front of the house, we can hear the rumbling of thunder. At first I thought that the sound effect was too heavy-handed, Chase was trying too hard to signify “there’s a dark storm brewing on Vito’s horizon.” But then I noticed that the sky in the scene was indeed quite gray. The scene was shot on-location and it was probably just a fitting coincidence that they had some inclement weather that day. I was relieved to see the pouring rain in a later scene, when Chris is assigning the Rusty Millio hit to associate Corky Caporale as they sit in the car. Those earlier sounds of thunder were not quite as ham-fisted as I had thought.
Vito knows he is in danger and high-tails it out of north Jersey. He escapes to Dartford, New Hampshire. At a diner here, Vito meets short-order cook Jim Witowski, who makes quite an impression on him. Jim also makes quite an impression on the viewer due to the scene’s staging and camerawork. We are not able to get very close look at Jim until the final moment of the scene, when the camera pulls in close just as he turns and presents his johnnycakes to Vito:
The nicely-wrought staging sets up their relationship—and makes it inevitable that Vito’s nickname for Jim should be Johnny Cakes. Here is a ruggedly handsome and romantically interested cook in a warm and idyllic town—it looks like everything is coming up roses for Vito. This looks like a place where he can settle down and start over. But many viewers found Dartford too unrealistic; it felt too much like some sort of Progressive Paradise. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz described the setting as “Norman Rockwell country”—that is, if Norman Rockwell’s small towns had been gay-friendly. Todd VanDerWerff thinks that the episode ultimately succeeds, but he criticizes the far-fetched nature of Dartford:
Vito has wandered into some sort of utopia, a place of utter tolerance that will let him be himself and live openly and proudly as a gay man. On its face, it’s a goofy notion. Not necessarily that there would be a small town that would be welcoming to gay people—especially in New England—but that Vito would keep seeing all of the ways that this place seems to be made for him. It’s like he’s having his own coma dream, but he gets to go to Heaven for some reason, and whoever’s directing the dream keeps showing him in increasing detail just how welcome he would be here.
When this episode first aired, I also felt that Chase was laying it on a bit thick. Dartford just seemed too much like the wet-dream of some starry-eyed liberal. It just didn’t feel real. But then I noticed something in the final credits that hinted that perhaps Dartford is supposed to be seen as a sort of fairytale land: the proprietress of the Bed & Breakfast where Vito finds refuge from the dark rainy night is named “Betty Wolf.” Wearing a red poncho, Vito shows up at Wolf’s cottage in a scene that plays like some bizarro retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.
We remember that there was also a reference to another classic fairytale in the previous episode:
Paulie: His fuckin’ coach turned into a pumpkin, hehe.
Phil: But even Cinderella didn’t cry.
These guys have such an oafish, regressive conception of masculinity that they were unwilling to excuse Johnny Sac even for crying during the turmoil that ended his daughter’s wedding. It is a very idealized, 1950s view of masculinity that these conservative men have. Chase seemed to reference Cinderella in the previous hour to point out the fairytale idealism of certain aspects of conservative thinking. And now he seems to reference Little Red Riding Hood to call attention to the fairytale idealism of certain aspects of liberal thinking. Liberals fantasize of an America that can hold on to its rural, small-town values while embracing very cosmopolitan progressive principles. Dartford seems to fit the bill—but it is just too sickly-sweet to be believable. With characteristic skepticism, Chase seems to assert over the last couple of episodes that neither the manly, patriarchal world of conservative idealism nor the nurturing, generous world of liberal idealism are truly plausible—they are only fairytales. The real world exists somewhere between these ideological fantasies.
Ideological clashes are occurring at the Soprano home, now that Ivy Leaguer Meadow is developing an almost stereotypical liberal conscience while the rest of her family remains steeped in conservative orthodoxy. (Was anyone surprised to learn here that Carmela voted for George W. Bush?) Mead brings up a couple of the Left’s favorite criticisms of the period (while wearing a “Powered By Tofu” T-shirt, of course): Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina (“black people clinging to logs”) and his legally dubious suspension of habeus corpus protections. (It has been 12 years since this episode first came out so maybe I need to provide some context. Congress approved the President’s suspension of habeus corpus a few months after this episode aired through The Military Commissions Act of 2006, leaving many Americans even further troubled by the Federal government’s questionable actions towards those it had termed “enemy combatants,” including those “enemies” who were American citizens.) I think Meadow is largely correct when she complains that Mr. Bush was using 9/11 “to erode our Constitutional protections.” (The Supreme Court agreed in 2008, finding a key provision of the Military Commissions Act regarding habeus corpus to be in violation of the Constitution.) All this stuff about “habeus corpus” that Meadow brings up is not just rhetorical filler; it ties into the issues of freedom and liberty that lay at the heart of this hour, and which the episode title refers to. Around the time that this episode was first seen, our politicians were not only rejecting the rights and freedoms of homosexuals, they were also designating certain American citizens as “enemy combatants” in an effort to deny them their guaranteed Constitutional rights. The very notion of what it is that we mean when we use the terms “freedom” and “liberty” and even “American citizen” was being hotly debated, both inside courtrooms and out, at the time that “Live Free or Die” originally aired.
In 2006, the country was also still divided over the question of whether homosexuality was something that occurred “naturally” within human beings. Many churches and organizations were providing so-called conversion therapy to help gays “revert” back to what they considered to be a natural state. In the final scene of the episode, Vito wanders into an antiques shop where he picks out the most valuable piece in the store. When the shopkeeper tells him he is “a natural,” we understand that Chase has loaded a double-meaning into the phrase: not only does Vito have a naturally discerning eye for antiques, but his homosexuality is a natural part of who he is. The fact that Vito seemed completely unmoved by two alluring females earlier in the episode underscored that his natural attraction is to men:
His thick-booty goomar and his Lolita-like babysitter exemplify a wide spectrum of feminine physical attributes: dark-skinned vs. light-skinned, voluptuous vs. skinny, older vs. younger. But Vito is more interested in an entirely different spectrum: Dudes.
The song “4th of July” (by X, one of the most under-appreciated American bands of the last 40 years) starts up and takes us through the credits. As John Doe and Exene Cervenka harmonize through that gorgeous chorus, we recognize that the song links our national Independence Day (and our national ideals of freedom and liberty) with Vito’s potential independence. Vito has a chance to be “reborn,” to live openly and freely in a supportive and nurturing community. Will he make the most of the opportunity that he has found?
Fuck no, of course not. This is SopranoWorld—he’ll screw things up for himself before the end of the season.
A & E
I despised the edited-for-time version of the series that ran on the A&E network, but I did happen to catch the beginning of this particular episode one day. Something about it immediately felt off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then I realized what it was: they trimmed out the entire opening scene, where Tony gets annoyed by the clackety AC condenser while he is trying to relax out by the pool. If A&E chopped it because they figured it doesn’t really add anything in terms of narrative, they would have been right to do so—it doesn’t advance the plot at all in any way. And yet… That opening scene establishes the dominant theme of “Live Free or Die”: Tony, like everyone else, wants to be free of everything that inconveniences or diminishes him. I argued earlier in this write-up that the opening scene was continuing in the same vein as the ending of the previous episode: Tony is settling back into “the fuckin’ regularness” of his life. (And my first graphic up top makes the point pictorially.) Anyone watching the A&E hash-up would miss that very important thematic introduction. Perhaps more regrettably, they would miss the mythological images that open the hour: the trees, the wind, the Soprano patio. Chase’s imagery gains its allegorical heft primarily through repetition, and the resulting mythology is at the heart of the show. By slicing these images out, A&E cut out a piece of The Sopranos’ heart. I know I’m griping about nothing now, because anyone nowadays can watch full, uncut episodes of the series online. I shouldn’t really be criticizing A&E, I should be aiming my criticism more at anyone who watches the show without their full, undivided attention. Turn your phone off, close the door and settle in, because every single scene counts in The Sopranos.
FAREWELL GREEN AND BURGESS
This is the last Sopranos episode that the writing team of Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess got credit for. There were various rumors as to why the pair left the show, but Variety magazine reported at the time that their departure was “amicable” and that they were moving on to develop their own projects. I think they worked fantastically well with David Chase (with whom they had previously collaborated on Almost Grown and Northern Exposure), and I feel their overall contribution to The Sopranos is second only to that of Chase himself.
- The guys are worried that Vito’s sudden weight loss may be the result of a deadly disease. Tony tries to ease their concern: “Nobody’s got AIDS! And I don’t wanna hear that word in here again!” Tony still wasn’t woke, he was still stigmatizing AIDS as late as 2006.
- Dartford seems like a typical libertarian New Hampshire settlement, but the Dartford scenes were actually shot in the New Jersey town of Boonton. The name “Dartford” may be a portmanteau of NH’s only Ivy League university, Dartmouth, and NH’s state capitol, Concord.
- Thank you Dr. Melfi! I was happy to hear Melfi ask Tony why he is complaining about money woes because he has always led everyone to believe that he is quite wealthy. I had been wondering about Tony’s complaints for awhile too. It is never made abundantly clear whether Tony has legitimate money problems or if he is just excessively worrying about it (as many of us tend to do).
- A photo at the Spatafore home reveals that before Vito played the role of Little Red Riding Hood(lum), he starred as Robin Hood(lum).
- Accommodation: Carmela wonders if Marie Spatafore knew of her husband’s homosexuality and accommodated it through “some sort of arrangement.” The great irony is that Carm’s own marriage exists through an arrangement: Tony supports her efforts to build a spec-house while she turns a blind eye to his various misdeeds.
- Accommodation: Tony is worried that the Muslim men from the previous episode may have terror ties, but Chris figures that they are not very devout because one of them owns a dog. Some devout Muslims do believe that dogs shouldn’t be kept as pets, but I think Chris is just trying to accommodate the men because they have such a profitable business arrangement.
- Like many young social justice warriors, Meadow has a great sensitivity to the plight of minorities and the exploitation of others, but she can be quite clueless about herself. When Finn’s criticisms touch a nerve, she uses her Columbia University vocabulary to put a halt to the conversation (“This is untenable”) and marches out of the room.
- “Coffee” forms a link throughout the hour: Finn only wants coffee for breakfast, Tony ends the “terrorism” conversation with Chris by going to get coffee, Vito orders some at the diner, Marie offers some to Silvio, the woman at Narcotics Anonymous used coffee as part of her morning ritual of addictions…
- “Murmur” never becomes more than a minor character in SopranoWorld but actor Lenny Venito makes the most of his time onscreen, with perfect line readings and physical gestures.
- A study was done in late-2006 or 2007 (I’m not able to track it down now) that found that the biggest story journalists regretted not giving enough coverage to in 2006 was the Federal government’s attempts to deny the right of habeus corpus to certain individuals. Habeus corpus rights date back to at least the Magna Carta (and in fact may have originated several hundred years earlier). The jurist A.V. Dicey once described the British Habeus Corpus Acts as “worth a hundred constitutional articles guaranteeing individual liberty.” The multiple references to habeus corpus in “Live Free or Die,” as well as the “gay mobster” storyline, seem to be part of David Chase’s increasing effort to be a cultural eyewitness.
- Georgianne Walken, the Sopranos’ casting director extraordinaire (and wife of Christopher), has a cameo in this episode:
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