Season One, Episode One — “The Sopranos”
By Brandy Dykhuizen. Before our weekends were punctuated with murderous monarchs playing chess with each other’s heads (and occasionally banding together to rail against dragons and snow zombies), Tony Soprano ushered in the close of the Lord’s Day from atop his mighty throne. In House Soprano, garbage and fraud drive the currency, and no amount of laundering can clean the blood from Tony’s delightfully Nineties-lookin’ suits. At the very beginning of The Sopranos, we find a man tunneling and turnpiking his way across a Clinton-bleached landscape, past the pizzerias, factories and markets that dot his territory, to a leisurely ride up the hill, safely returned to his castle.
But, consciously or not, Tony’s starting to realize his castle is also his clink, and this great kingdom his father erected and bequeathed to him now has him feeling a little tight around the collar. The Sopranos’ pilot episode dives straight into metaphor and characterization more beautifully than any show that preceded it: with those infamous ducks, David Chase sets Tony up as a man who has some serious existential worries bombing about his brain. Things must be slow, as most mobsters probably don’t have a lot of time to linger poolside pondering their place in life when business is booming.
In what could have easily become an irritating conceit, using a visit to a shrink to spoon-feed Tony’s anxiety metaphor to the audience, Chase implements this device to drive home the real point of the series – even after some intense reflection and digging, you’ll never find the answers on the first try. Dr. Melfi may slowly lead Tony to the conclusion that the ducks’ flight symbolizes his anxiety over losing his family. But that’s a little too easy for a show known for inventing an entire new spectrum of grey. Tony’s short-circuiting is indicative of one of The Sopranos’ darker messages – there is no American Dream anymore. The only way to build your own castle these days is by kicking down the saps who are going by the books. As Tony is beginning to realize, freedom is a thing of the past. And you know what they say about pulling you back in. Just when you thought you were out…
WHAT WORKED: The brass tacks approach to characterization would seem heavy-handed in other ensemble casts, but we meet the Sopranos and cohort in their many hats right off the bat. Immediately hammering out daunting portrayals is exactly what you’d expect from a show whose title somehow includes the image a handgun, but luckily the writers employ it as a bit of a bait-and-switch, setting up the drama to cultivate your interest so they can proceed to the bigger questions. Wasting no time establishing hierarchies and foibles allows for a smoother and quicker transition into the allegories and tropes that amassed such a devoted audience.
WHAT DIDN’T: Hindsight is 20/20, and the scenes shared between Tony and Dr. Melfi absolutely lay the foundation for the show and give it a needed push outside the realm of “just another mafia series.” That being said, the pilot does skirt some thin ice in terms of spending too much time on the couch. Perhaps a little extra time in exposition is necessary for the show to prove it’s capable of brains as well as brawn, but you also gotta give the people what they want as often as they want it, especially in a debut episode.
Livia: “All I know is, daughters take better care of their mothers than sons.” Tony: “And I bought CDs for a broken record!”
“I thought the only sausages they made were Italian and Jimmy Dean.” – Chrissy.
Tony: “Work isn’t as fulfilling as it used to be… because of Rico.” Dr. Melfi: “Is he your brother?” Tony: “No, the RICO Statutes.” – Tony
“Somebody donated their kneecaps for these tickets!” – Charmaine Bucco.
BEST MOMENT: Tony’s description of his dream, when he finally opens up and begins to trust Dr. Melfi without feeling entirely silly, is brilliant. It seemed like they made a lot of progress in a pretty small amount of time, for the big guy to be able to open up like that. But it’s a scene that resonates and sets the stage for the truly terrifying character in this series: Ma. Tony dreams of a screwdriver in his belly button, and when he finally gets that thing out, essentially cutting the umbilical cord, his penis falls off. Livia Soprano has her son by the balls, has his manhood under her control, and he knows it. What comes across as one of the sillier scenes in the pilot, and even as a breakthrough for Tony, actually serves to underscore how much power and sadism poor old frail Ma possesses.
EPISODE’S MVP: Livia Soprano. Nancy Marchand’s portrayal of the boss’ mom is staggeringly perfect. She knows exactly how to reach through Tony’s and Jun’s ribs to yank out their hearts. When they try to empathize with her loneliness or brag about how they think they’ve pulled one over on the other, Ma knows when to play it cool. She also knows how play it tough, and knows when to play it just a tad pathetic, which is something the other characters never quite figure out. There’s always just a little sympathy for the devil. But when they burn you, the only person you can blame is yourself.
– There are so many beautifully hilarious segues in this episode. Tony scoffing at Dr. Melfi prescribing him drugs (“Here comes the Prozac!”), leading directly into a shot of the Bada Bing strippers; Charmaine refusing to accept the cruise tickets on the basis that someone “donated their kneecaps for [them],” immediately before a shot of Alex on crutches; Tony affirming that “it’s a beautiful day – what could be bad?”, cutting to Livia’s dour mug on her way to see him. The Sopranos loves to point out that life is just one big joke on you.
– We love Artie Bucco and feel terrible about what Silvio did to his restaurant, but the tongue-in-cheek frame of fire and brimstone spitting out of The Vesuvius is just one of a million examples of why this show is the best.
– The generational angst in this family is intense. Jun and Liv can’t believe how their children could be so disrespectful and don’t pander to their wishes. Meadow and her friends are spoiled brats who can’t believe their parents aren’t showering them with even more attention, while Chrissy whines like a little girl about not being thanked for whacking Emil. There is certainly a commentary here from Mr. Chase about which set of peers actually has the work ethic to get shit done.
– It would be remiss not to mention the 100% gratuitous scene in which people get whacked between cuts to pictures of Sinatra, Martin and Robinson looking on in approval. As well done as the cinematography and timing was, you just can’t help but roll your eyes at that sort of thing at this point.
– Jukebox Hero: “No More I Love You’s” by Annie Lennox, “I Wonder Why” by Dion & The Belmonts, “Lumina” by Joan Osborne.
8.5 out of 10
Next: “46 Long”, soon.