Bobby Baccalieri gains a house after almost losing an eye.
Vito leaves Johnny Cakes without even saying goodbye.
Episode 75 – Originally aired May 14, 2006
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Steve Shill
“Moe n’ Joe” is an entertaining episode, presenting the stories of several characters over the course of an hour: John and Ginny Sacrimoni, Vito and Jim, Janice and Bobby, Carmela and Tony, and even landscaper Sal Vitro. More significantly, the hour deftly revisits and reemphasizes several ideas/themes that Chase has been exploring over the last couple of episodes. Plus it’s got a great episode title; “Moe n’ Joe” is one of the most clever titles of the series, and I’ll dig into its various meanings throughout this write-up.
Some viewers were growing weary of the gay mobster storyline because they felt it wasn’t really going anywhere. Well, it begins to go somewhere here — this episode marks the beginning of the end for Vito Spatafore. According to some reports, it was Joe Gannascoli (who plays Vito) who originally suggested the idea of incorporating a homosexual mobster into the narrative. The episode title “Moe n’ Joe” may refer to the “gay mobster storyline” in multiple ways:
- The titular “Joe” could allude to Joe Gannascoli, who played “Vito” (and who suggested this storyline)
- “Joe” is a common nickname for “John” (as in Johnny Cakes)
- “Joe” is a common nickname for “John” (as in John Costelloe, who played Johnny Cakes)
- Some viewers have thought of “Moe” to be a shortened form of “homo”
- Bobby Bacala tells his son, “Check out the Moe n’ Joe action,” a line that may callback the hot “action” between Vito and Jim
Vito’s story in this hour picks up on certain ideas and themes which have made up the backbone of recent episodes. Boredom was the primary theme of the previous hour “The Ride.” And just a couple of episodes ago in “Luxury Lounge,” the main concern was how many Americans—whether West coast Hollywood elites or East coast mafia thugs—want to live an easy life full of luxury and expensive goodies. The current episode is founded upon these ideas of boredom and luxury: Vito is bored in Dartford and misses his life of luxury in New Jersey. He doodles away his time at the library. He tries to find a good casino where he can get some action. He attempts to get the local guys to stay up late with him for fun and games. Life in Dartford simply doesn’t have the same pace—or heart-thumping danger—that Vito is used to having back home.
But Vito’s relationship with Jim hasn’t started boring him yet, they grow more and more intimate through this episode. I know many viewers became thoroughly bored with the storyline as it was presented this hour, but I think that much of their antipathy is a reaction to the gag-me-with-a-spoon cheesiness of the men’s romance. In a particularly cheesy sequence, Vito cooks for Jimbo (while Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” plays in the background), Vito says “I love you Johnny Cakes” and then the two men nuzzle like characters in a Disney cartoon. In bed, Jim sweetly caresses Vito’s face, then turns him over for better access to his backside. Chase’s cut here to the imagery of a toy train entering a dark tunnel is an obviously sexual reference, an editing idea he may have picked up from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest:
(Chase’s naughty edit leads me to recall Richie Aprile’s line in episode 2.08, after Paulie tells him to build a wheelchair ramp for Beansie Gaeta: “I’ll build a ramp up to your ass, drive a Lionel up in there.” [Coincidentally, it was Vito Spatafore who Richie ultimately sent to build Beansie’s ramp.])
The syrupy scenes and cornball dialogue between Vito and Jimbo is, I believe, Chase’s attempt to evoke a sense of the idyllic in their relationship. I don’t think Chase fully succeeds, and that may just be because his natural talent is in portraying life realistically rather than idealistically. I argued previously that the Dartford scenes had a conscientiously idyllic, fairytale quality to them and we now see what the benefit (in terms of drama) was of coating these scenes in sugar: dramatic tension is created as Vito’s romance in Dartford remains honey-sweet but the rest of his life in Dartford turns dull and stagnant. Vito feels torn as the urge to stay and the urge to leave both pull at him.
Vito needs to get a job in order to earn some income and keep himself occupied. He has a background in construction, though I’m guessing most of his construction experience over the last few years has consisted of simply sitting around a building site in a lawn chair with his mob buddies (as we saw in last season’s “Unidentified Black Males”). After a life of leisure in the mafia, Vito is no longer suited for honest blue-collar work. I think this a crucially important point, and one that is underscored by the episode title. When Bobby Bacala tells his son, “Check out the Moe n’ Joe action,” he is referring to the Lionel figures performing their blue-collar labor:
Vito does not have the work ethic, follow-through or taste for physical labor which were highly prized values of the American middle class at one time. Although David Chase hasn’t highlighted it very much, a long-running theme of The Sopranos has been the antagonism that exists between the Mafia and the working class. This mirrors an antagonism that exists in the real world. Neil Davenport, in a 2006 article (“The Sopranos: Still the greatest show on earth”) writes of the series that:
The parasitical and hostile relationship the Mafia has with the working masses was a common theme. Indeed, it’s worth remembering how the Mafia have long been virulent anti-communists and anti-trade unionists, with a history of providing strike-breaking muscle for employers.
Indeed, we saw the New Jersey mobsters provide strike-breaking muscle for Masserone Construction in Season Two’s “Do Not Resuscitate.” (In a truly despicable arrangement, Tony contrived with Rev. James to initiate the labor strike, then sent his thugs in to rough up the striking workers. Rev. James acknowledged to Tony that “my protesters would kill me if they knew I was lining my pockets with their blood,” but he accepted Tony’s payoff nevertheless.)
Jim ‘Johnny Cakes’ Witowski is an admirable blue-collar guy: a hard-working, fire-fighting, Harley-riding short-order cook. Though Vito may be above Jim on the socio-economic scale, Vito doesn’t have Jim’s admirable blue-collar industriousness or stick-to-it-tiveness. Vito leaves his working class lover and his own working class job in this episode because the lure of “the life” in the mafia is just too strong for him to resist. Chase emphasizes this point through the juxtaposition of scenes: first, Vito is frustrated by the slow progress of his workday, unleashing an obscenity (hilariously) in disappointment that it is not even 10 a.m. yet; and then in the next scene, we—along with Jim—realize that Vito has ditched Dartford.
When he wakes up alone in bed, Jim assumes that Vito is in the bathroom. But then it dawns on him that perhaps Vito has bailed. He looks out the window and notices that Vito’s car is gone:
I think the image of that empty patch of ground in Jim’s driveway is a powerful image; that empty patch—that nothingness which now pervades the space recently occupied by Vito’s car—underscores that Vito found nothing in Dartford strong enough to keep him from returning to New Jersey. Chase led viewers to believe that Vito had a shot at everything in this town: a chance to start over and live an authentic life in an accepting community alongside someone who loved him — but that was not enough to keep Vito here. I have no doubt that Vito Spatafore genuinely misses his wife and children—he tells Jim, “I miss home so bad, my heart’s a fucking lump”—but it is ultimately the lure of easy money, luxury and power that compels Vito back to north Jersey. I think that the close-shot of Vito’s Oris just before we learn that Vito has bolted from Dartford highlights this point. The significance of this particular brand may be that it links to the Oris watches that were so prominently featured in “Luxury Lounge ” a few episodes back:
It’s possible that the tightly-framed shot of Vito’s Oris now is meant to callback the obscene, opulent practice of setting up Luxury Lounges for Hollywood stars (a practice that Moltisanti unapologetically tried to ingratiate himself into). TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz might argue that the close-up of Vito’s Oris now is yet another example of product placement on the series, another example of “how the Sopranos gang has found a way to sell out while seeming to be above that sort of thing.” But I am more inclined to think that the close-up of Vito’s watch could be a continuation of a symbolic complex of watch-imagery from “Luxury Lounge.” We might remember that in addition to the Oris pieces, that episode featured close-up shots of other watches as well:
Christopher presented the watch on the left—which he probably robbed off of Lauren Bacall—to Tony, and one of the Italian hitmen showed off the watch on the right which he purchased during his spare time (i.e. when he wasn’t whacking Rusty Millio). The close-up of Vito’s Oris now in conjunction with these earlier close-ups emphasize how prevalent the desire for luxury and opulence are in SopranoWorld.
Vito runs from Dartford because he is already growing tired of being just another “regular Joe” there. He runs back toward la famiglia, where he believes he can be something more than a regular Joe. We’ve seen this type of thinking throughout the series, most notably in episode 5.12 “Long Term Parking,” when Christopher had to choose between Adriana and la famiglia. He seemed to be poised, at one point, to side with Adriana. But a gas station epiphany reminded him that he would lose a certain lifestyle, not to mention many luxury items including his beloved Hummer H2, if he betrayed the mob. Like Christopher before him, Vito chooses to return to la famiglia because he is unwilling to deal with “the fuckin’ regularness of life” outside the Mafia.
Vito may believe that he can return to the mob on his own terms (and Sinatra’s “My Way” playing on his car radio seems to underscore this) but his return will not be easy. He runs into his first obstacle—literally—soon after leaving Dartford: Vito crashes into the back of a Jeep Wagoneer. The New Englander who owns the Jeep is unwilling to accept cash for the damage, he wants to get the insurance company and police involved. So Vito decides to install a new window in the back of the unfortunate man’s head. We’ve seen Vito shoot someone from behind before: this is how he killed Jackie Aprile in episode 3.13. The New Englander falls face-first into the snow, just as Jackie did. By echoing the earlier imagery, Chase emphasizes that Vito Spatafore is already returning to Business As Usual:
Several episodes ago, Chase made use of the New Hampshire state motto (Live Free or Die) to starkly lay out Vito’s options: either live free or die. We understand that by running from New Hampshire back to New Jersey now, Vito is setting himself up to die. By leaving Dartford, Vito has turned his back on his best chance to live in freedom and liberty. He returns to north Jersey, the place that “liberty” has turned her back on — this is the view from Liberty State Park in Jersey City:
Many of the Mafiosi back home, such as Carlo and Paulie, will have hesitations—to say the least—about welcoming Vito back into the fold. But the biggest obstacle to Vito’s return is Phil Leotardo, who has a family connection to Vito in addition to a famiglia connection. I think the episode title may cleverly serve to reiterate the role of Phil as a mortal threat to Vito, because it was Frank Vincent (“Phil Leotardo”) who made a reference to a “Moe and Joe” in the 1989 film Do the Right Thing.
In the next episode, we will see that Phil seems to want—at least for a moment—to ‘do the right thing’ and give Vito a pass. But this is SopranoWorld — did any of us ever believe that the gay mobster storyline would have a happy ending?
Chase’s censure of the mob’s attitude toward blue-collar work is also reflected in Sal Vitro’s story here. Sal is a blue-collar guy who has long-suffered at the yoke of the mob. He tries very early in the episode to escape his indentured servitude, only to have Tony respond, “You’re a selfish prick, Sal.” Silvio mockingly calls him “the lawnmower man.” Even Carmela is critical of the poor guy, describing him as “such a mope” when he replies less-than-enthusiastically to her greeting. Her clueless comment comes just as we see Vitro diligently laboring (without pay) in the freezing cold, ironically framed between Carm’s fur coat and Carm’s Porsche Cayenne:
There is a pronounced difference in the life of Carmela Soprano and and the life of Sal Vitro. She has set up a very comfortable life for herself with very little hard work, while Vitro labors very hard with little to show for it. Carmela is working on a project, but she wants it done the easy way. Progress on her spec-house has come to a standstill because it has not passed inspection, so—rather than fix the violations—she tries to utilize her husband’s muscle, asking if Silvio leaned hard enough on the guy at the building department. Tony is not eager for work on the spec-house to continue because it would leave less time for Carmela to devote to her household/motherly duties: shopping, cooking and listening to Meadow’s complaints. (The funniest sequence of the hour may be when the beeping microwave beckons Tony to come get his warm meal, but he knows he must make an effort to listen to his daughter whine about her crumbling relationship with Finn before he can eat.) Carmela is callously clueless in her attitude toward Sal Vitro, and criminally complicit in her attempt to muscle the building inspector. But I don’t want to pick on Carmela too much for her failings here. After all, we all share her failings to some degree…
The Sopranos has been criticizing various aspects of American society since its Pilot episode, but it seems to me that Chase’s critique of us has become more pointed in Season 6. In his review of this episode, Todd VanDerWerff writes that…
…that critique of America as a whole has grown incredibly damning in “Moe N’ Joe.” This isn’t one of the series’ very best episodes, but it’s one that leaves a bruise, and the more you look at it, the more obvious it is that it implicates each and every one of us. Nobody really tries to understand those around us who are hurting, tries to figure out what’s going on inside of their heads. Nobody alive always does the right thing instead of the easy thing. Being a human is all too often about finding comfortable spots and then settling into them for the long haul, regardless of whom that leaves out in the cold.
While it is troubling enough to think that Tony and Carmela typify contemporary Americans, it is almost horrifying to think that we may even hold Tony and Carmela up as models to emulate. In his essay “Wonderbread and Stugots,” Anthony Rotundo writes of Tony that…
…the meaning of his life and his manhood has an ironic ‘Americanness.’ He and the mobsters who came before him showed a stunningly American impatience with the slow, arduous paths of upward mobility. Tony’s cunning, wit, energy, nerve, initiative and extraordinary understanding of the markets he serves make him in many ways a model entrepreneur.
The lack of respect that the mobsters (and their wives) show for blue-collar workers and blue-collar lifestyles may be a reflection of this “American impatience with the slow, arduous paths of upward mobility.” Their disgust with traditional blue-collar values is camouflaged by the tones of admiration with which they speak of such values. In the book Tony Sopranos’ America, authors Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh suggest that Tony is proud that his family is from Guinea Gulch, a blue-collar section of Newark, but equally proud that they are no longer in Guinea Gulch. They also note that Tony shows a kind of blue-collar pride and enjoyment in knowing how to work the backhoe when burying Ralph Cifaretto (or more accurately, what’s left of Ralph Cifaretto). He brings each of his kids to the old church built by his grandpa where he can show them physical evidence of traditional working class values, and he even dreams of himself as a stonemason just as his grandfather was. Furthermore, we may remember that in “From Where to Eternity” (2.09), Tony went on a rant against the JP Morgans of the world, identifying himself with the poor masses of people who perpetually get screwed by large corporations (while conveniently ignoring the fact that no one screws people over the way that he himself does). Tony’s conception of the class struggle—as well as his own place within it—is conflicted, even hypocritical. In the very first scene of this hour, Sal Vitro asks Tony to be relieved of his (unfair) responsibilities at Johnny Sac’s house, but Tony not only refuses, he condescends to Vitro. Booker and Daraiseh continue, “Tony’s respect for the craftsmanship of his grandfather’s generation is part of a generalized nostalgia; it is oriented toward an idealized vision of the past, while Vitro works in the debased here-and-now.”
As a culture, we often display a similar generalized nostalgia and sentimentality for the working class. This episode aired about two years after President Bush, to the surprise of many, was reelected to a second term. A poll very famously revealed that many people voted for him not because they thought he was a good president but because he was the guy that they would rather have a beer with as opposed to his rival John Kerry. Though Bush was born in an upscale part of Connecticut with a silver spoon in his mouth and never developed a reputation for being much of a hard worker, he was nevertheless able to convince much of rural America that he was one of them. The blue jeans, the “aw shucks” demeanor, the outdoor chores on his ranch-style property in Texas — they all had the intended effect on voters.
We learn here that it is actually Bush’s vice-president that Tony truly admires. “Dick Cheney for President — of the fuckin universe,” Tony gushes after intimating that he landed some sweet business deal in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (My guess is that Tony got a piece of some federal no-bid construction contract.) Tony may see in Cheney a kindred spirit. After all, Tony’s organization profits at the point of a gun much like Cheney’s old outfit Halliburton profited at the point of a missile. Despite this admiration, Tony does throw some shade at the Bush Administration when Sal Vitro tries once again to get out of his responsibilities at Johnny Sac’s place (a “contract” that he certainly did not ever bid on):
Sal: Now that Mr. Sacrimoni is guilty, do you think I could maybe take him off my route?
Tony: What the fuck did you just say Sal?
Sal: I don’t know.
Silvio: The fuckin lawnmower man just said John was guilty, T.
Tony: He pled guilty, Sal. Okay? With this government, no fuckin’ trial. Maybe they stuck tasers on his balls and beat him mercilessly with a rubber hose. Ya ever think of that?
Sal: No, but of course it makes sense.
The irony, obviously, is that Tony criticizes the federal government’s torture techniques which get carried out without judicial oversight while he himself administers a violent organization that completely disregards the rule of law. Tony’s criticism is disingenuous and self-serving.
As Americans, we don’t care too much when white-collar workers exhibit a heartless cunning or recklessness in their ambitious pursuit of the American Dream. We don’t even raise much of a holler when CEOs, bankers and managers are merely slapped on the wrist for serious criminal behavior. We keep on electing politicians that give the white-collar criminal class a pass. It is usually these same politicos that care less and less—despite what they may say on the campaign stump—that our blue-collared brethren are finding it ever-harder to find the most basic level of comfort and security even after a lifetime of honest work. We have normalized the massive gulf that exists between the have-nots and the have-a-lots. The callousness that Tony and Carmela display toward the common working man in SopranoWorld is not unique to them; it reflects an ideological callousness that we have institutionalized and codified within larger American society.
“ACTS OF JANICE”
Tony is being harangued by all the women in his life: Carmela wants his help with the spec-house, Meadow seeks his shoulder to cry on, and Janice…well, Janice always has a gripe with Tony but she is especially bitchy in this hour. Tony tells Dr. Melfi that his sister doesn’t commit acts of kindness, only “acts of Janice.” Tony has had a lifelong resentment towards his sister and now he is beginning to take it out on her husband. He has virtually no sympathy, only criticism, for Bobby when he almost loses an eye during a collection: “That fuckin’ part of Newark, even the cops don’t go there no more.” (It is true that Newark had a historically bad crime rate at the time this episode aired, but Tony isn’t thinking of crime statistics — he’s just taking a shit on his brother-in-law.) However, Tony seems to become more sympathetic after a visit to Bobby’s house, where he sees broken furniture, a son mouthing off, and a wife that is completely domineering. Sad-sack Bobby can’t even afford the NFL package on cable. Tony knows he has been treating the Baccalieris poorly but he comes up with a way to make it up to them: he is able to get them a deep discount on the Sacrimoni house by exploiting Johnny Sac’s weakened positioned in prison.
Poor John Sacrimoni. The icy, red-headed prosecutor has a strong case against the New York boss and is not giving him much leeway at all. It doesn’t help any that John’s goofy “lord of the lenses” brother-in-law, Anthony Infante, really isn’t cut out to be his go-between with the outside world. (His last name means “infant” in Italian and there is something childlike about him.) Infante stinks at gangster-speak, although I do think “the coffee with the chicory” was pretty clever — he is obviously referring to the businessman from New Orleans because chicory is commonly added to coffee in NOLA. (Interestingly, John asks Tony to keep his business deal in New Orleans a secret from Phil Leotardo, much like Phil asked Tony to keep the vitamin-truck score a secret from John in the previous episode.) Backed into a corner, Johnny Sac takes the plea deal and performs the hated allocution. And then he agrees to sell his house to Bobby and Janice for 50% of its asking price.
The sale of the house ties into the overarching theme of the hour: Janice and Bobby acquire a larger, more luxurious house not by earning it, not through hard work, but through Tony’s manipulations. Janice has always had a taste for get-cash-quick schemes, whether it be selling her mother’s house or claiming fraudulent government benefits or trying to break into Christian music, and now she has landed a quick and easy score for herself and her husband. Janice and Bobby here embody what Rotundi called the “American impatience with the slow, arduous paths of upward mobility.” Janice doesn’t even have the patience to wait for Ginny Sac to move out of the house before bringing in her interior decorator, who discusses rug options while Ginny quietly listens in the adjacent room.
CLEVER CUTS and some NAUGHTY PUNS
Every episode of The Sopranos has its share of clever edits, but a pair of them really stood out for me in this hour. There was also a pair of naughty visual puns (of sorts) here that made me chuckle:
Vito tells the guys in Dartford that back where he is from, the night is just beginning. Chase cuts to New Jersey, where Bobby Bacala collects a payment from a bookie late at night and then gets robbed. The edit highlights the irony: Vito wants to leave Dartford with its boring—but safe—nights to go to Jersey with its very dangerous nights:
Kelli says that Chris won’t be attending dinner at the Soprano house because he has got an AA meeting. Chase cuts to Tony rotating the wine bottles in his basement; it was after robbing some of these bottles from The Vipers that Tony prodded Chris back on to a path of substance abuse:
A possible naughty pun, as Janice comes into Satriale’s demanding what happened to her “stuffed pork loin” just as Tony is looking through a porno magazine:
Another dirty pun? Silvio asks, “To what end?” just as we get a nice shot of Carmen Luvana’s rear end. The poster proclaims “Carmen’s first anal scene” — perhaps a callback to Vito Spatafore’s sex scene which we just saw two minutes earlier:
- Upon learning that Bobby might lose his eye, Carlo Gervasi makes a reference to the Hathaway clothing company. The Hathaway advertisements featuring a man in an eye-patch was one of Madison Avenue’s most enduring and memorable campaigns. So: the guys in SopranoLand see even Bobby’s painful injury through a commercial, consumeristic lens.
- Blind Spot. Paulie has started radiation after a cancer diagnosis but, in a hilariously self-blind statement, says he is being spared the embarrassment of having his hair fall out because “I must have done good things in my life.” (Knock on wood, because what would Paulie be without those silver wings?)
- Men that cry: 1) Johnny Sac has tears in his eyes as he does the allocution (but the courtroom sketch artist doesn’t convey this — I wonder if the mobsters of SopranoWorld would have felt more sympathetic or less sympathetic if they knew John was crying while confirming the existence of the Mafia); and 2) Vito’s cheeks are moist as he drives away from Jimbo.
- Little Details: One of the businessmen calls the waitress “chere,” another nod to their New Orleanian roots.
- I believe we can hear a snippet of “Born Again Savage” by Little Stevie and the Disciples of Soul over the speakers at the Bada Bing. The band featured big-name players Adam Clayton, Jason Bonham and of course Steve Van Zandt.
- We remember back in Season 3, Meadow whined in the kitchen, “God, is there nothing to eat in this house?!” (She flashbacked to this moment with a pang of guilt in “Whitecaps” after learning of her parents’ decision to split up.) Now, she again makes a crabby complaint about the lack of food in the kitchen: “I was looking forward to fresh blueberries this morning but mom hasn’t shopped.” (Oh poor you, Meadow.)
- The bookie that Bobby visits tells him, “Good week. Even with the fuckin’ Dolphins.” We know that in the previous episode the Miami Dolphins pulled off an upset win against the Philadelphia Eagles. On a related note, I forgot to mention an interesting connection regarding “dolphins” in the previous write-up. The previous episode referenced Miami’s football team and also featured Fred Neil’s song “The Dolphins.” Miami’s NFL team takes its name from the dolphins that reside just off the coast and Fred Neil was inspired by those same creatures while he lived in South Florida.
- Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock” over the final credits is a brilliant song choice. The song is about a group of blue-collar railroad workers, which specifically evokes the Moe-and-Joe figures in Bobby’s model train layout — and thus connects to this hour’s concerns about the working class.
- Rons (again, this is a note just for myself). Brad Zimmerman joins the cast as Johnny Sac’s lawyer ‘Ron Perse’; Jason Betts appears once again as the ‘Ron’ in Dartford; and building inspector ‘Ron Senkowski’ is mentioned by name.
- Brad Zimmerman plays the character of ‘Ron Perse’ in a very serious and straight-forward way, but in real life the actor is a pretty funny guy. He wrote and starred in the one-man play “My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy.”