This is the second episode of the Sopranos on this list, so hopefully all of you who follow this checked the show out already. Tell me in the comments if you did. Here’s the gist, for the rest of you:
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a capo, and eventually the boss, of the DiMeo crime family. At the beginning of the series, he suffers an anxiety attack. He then starts therapy with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Throughout the series, they maintain a professional, and sometimes closer, relationship, despite the fact that while Dr. Melfi is humane and dedicated to rationality, Tony tends to have people killed, and his emotions vary wildly throughout different sessions for reasons that sometimes confuse even the audience. Their sessions usually focus on how Tony balances his relationships with his family and his relationships with “the family.”
While the first episode was focused more on Tony Soprano’s professional life, this one is more about the personal, and Tony himself. Tony’s immediate family, including his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and kids, Anthony Jr. and Meadow (Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler), often form the emotional conflicts in the show that usually mirror something in the A-plot. He is portrayed often as a loving father, though his inability to be open about his criminal activities often drives a wedge between him and his children. Like most mobsters, he cheats on his wife frequently, which, combined with his profession and her Catholicism, is a constant strain on their marriage. Probably his most interesting relationship is with his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), who is a monster on par with her namesake from I, Claudius. Sadly, she’s not in this episode, but suffice it to say that it’s completely believable that she’s the source of most of the psychological problems of a murderous gangster.
Tony takes Meadow to tour colleges. On the way, she directly asks him if he’s in the Mafia. He denies it at first, but then slowly admits more and more, even if he never actually says “I kill people and have people killed.” Later, in response to his honestly, Meadow admits that she and her friends had been on Amphetamines for several weeks so that she could deal with the stress of getting into college. Tony gets angry over this, but later relents. He admits that he’s proud of his daughter for going to college.
While stopped at a gas station, Tony spots a former Mob Rat in Witness Protection named Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi). Despite Meadow being with him, Tony follows Fabian to his hometown. Tony, however, doesn’t realize that Fabian also apparently spotted him. Tony tries to find someone to come kill Fabian, but no one is available. Fearing Fabian’s flight, Tony resolves to kill Fabian the next day by himself while Meadow is touring a college. Meanwhile, Fabian tracks Tony back to his hotel and attempts to kill him, but is stopped by the presence of an elderly couple.
Meanwhile, Carmela, who stayed behind for the tours due to the flu, is visited by her priest, Father Phil (Paul Schulze). Phil comes over for some of Carmela’s home cooking, which then becomes wine and old movies. Carmela and Phil show signs of a strong mutual attraction, and, later, Carmela confesses to Phil about the problems with her marriage after she discovers that Tony had lied to her by saying Dr. Melfi was a man. Phil then gives her a late-night communion… which is only not made into a euphemism because Phil becomes physically ill right before they kiss. He ends up passing out and nothing happens.
The next day, Tony drops Meadow off and then goes to Fabian’s business. Fabian, wary, comes out with a gun, but Tony ambushes him and garrotes him. Fabian begs for his life, telling Tony that he didn’t shoot him in front of his daughter the previous night, but Tony pulls tighter, the cords he’s using to choke Fabian digging deeper and deeper into his hands. Finally, Fabian dies.
Tony picks Meadow up. However, when she notices his hands are bleeding, Tony concocts an obviously fake story, which upsets Meadow, who thought they had reached a new level of honesty. After taking her to Bowdoin college, he reads a quote by Bowdoin Alumnus Nathaniel Hawthorne, which reads:
“No man can wear one face to himself an another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”
Full credit to James Gandolfini for the shot of Tony contemplating the message, ending with him looking down in what appears to be weariness. It’s only about 10 seconds long, but he manages to weigh it all wordlessly. Tony returns home with Meadow, only to find that his wife spent a night with the Priest. While Carmela, truth-ish-ly, says that nothing happened, Tony starts to accuse her, only for Carmela to tell him that she now knows that Tony lied about Dr. Melfi’s gender. Tony tries to explain himself, but the episode ends with him on the defensive for his lies.
Like many of the episodes on this list, this episode embodies the whole of the show. Hell, it pulls a quote from Hawthorne just to summarize Tony’s entire plight. When Tony and Meadow are honest earlier in the story, while Tony gets angry at Meadow, ultimately, both of them are visibly relieved after their confessions. This is mirrored by the Catholic confession which Carmela undergoes, which appears to heal her to the point that she forgets she had the flu at the beginning. However, all of them hide themselves back behind their masks of obfuscation by the end of the episode. Tony is lying again, Meadow is concealing her actions, and Carmela isn’t telling the whole truth about her feelings towards Tony or Father Phil.
All of these characters, like most people, have a persona which they present to the public that isn’t a complete representation of their feelings and thoughts. Some even have multiple public personas based on the audience. At the end of the day, there is always a conflict between these public personas and a person’s true self. In Tony, the huge divide between all of his personas and himself creates the stress attacks that necessitate his self-discovery which forms the basis of the show.
The shot of Tony reading the quote is the ultimate revelation: He no longer knows who he is. His personas have so overtaken the different aspects of his life that he is unable to tell if he really is the mobster who strangles a man to death in cold blood, the father who wants to make sure that his children get everything he never had, the husband who cares for his wife’s well-being, or the guy who cheats on her frequently. It seems that he wants to be all of them, but that’s just not possible for him. Each demands something that another requires sacrificing. While Dr. Melfi would point out many times that trying to just ignore this fact is what really is harming Tony, this episode makes a point of having Tony face it directly, and shows the audience that even he knows it’s breaking him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it.
While the quote from Hawthorne is pretty self-contained in its application towards Tony, though the original quote has “for any considerable period” in it, it’s important to realize where the quote comes from: “The Minister in the Maze” from The Scarlet Letter.
The chapter is about the Reverend Dimmesdale resolving to finally end the conflict between his public persona as a man of the cloth and his private persona as the father of Hester Prynne’s child who escaped the punishment that was leveled upon Hester. It’s characterized as giving the Reverend, who previously had been wearied and beaten by the internal conflict, a new surge of energy. Unlike the Reverend, though, Tony doesn’t pick a side, and he remains weary. He tries to be honest with his daughter, and he realizes how much it relieves him to do so, but he builds the walls back up between his lives at the end of the episode by lying again to Meadow about killing Fabian. Would it have been better to tell his daughter that he’s a murderer? Well, probably not, it would likely have ended their relationship. Would it have been better to let Fabian go when he begged for his life? Well, that would likely have resulted in him looking weak to the Mafia and being killed. Tony’s desire to be both a father and a capo put him in a no-win scenario, and he’s not sure which one he really is anymore. So, he puts on a smiling face for his daughter and a grim scowl for his associates and enemies.
Other reviews of this episode call it a “Stand-alone” episode, much like “Pine Barrens,” the other Sopranos entry on my list, but I would disagree. Tony’s entire character for the rest of the series is defined by this episode. It’s impossible to explain what happens past this episode without referring back to it, in terms of Tony’s character arc. This episode crystallizes the conflict within Tony, and also shows why it must continue. Moreover, by referencing The Scarlet Letter, it points out that Tony’s internal conflict is found within almost everyone, and always has been. His is only to a greater extent than most. It makes Tony Soprano both relatable and also outlandish within the same episode and the same actions. Hawthorne would probably be impressed.
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NEXT – 5: I, Claudius
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