10 Finales That Dropped the Ball – Joker Op-Ed

Sometimes a show just can’t keep the quality up to the end. A lot of the times shows go downhill for a while after they start running low on ideas, and sometimes they just won’t give up and die with dignity. However, even if the writing is on the wall and you’re given a year to plan to go out, you can still screw it all up with a bad ending. 

For this entry, I am going to make two caveats:

  1. The episode has to be intended as a finale. That means either it’s clear the production team knew the show was over, or didn’t have reason to believe it was going to keep going. So cliffhangers don’t count unless they were made AFTER the show was cancelled. Additionally, if an episode was meant to be the finale, but the network aired it out of order, only the intended finale counts. 
  2. If the show was rebooted later, the original finale still counts. 

Also, The Sopranos is not going to be on here, because I have a long-running theory that makes me like that finale, and I refuse to debate it right now. If I’m wrong, then… well, it sucks. 

But I’m not wrong and the ending is fine.

RUNNER UP: Of Course He’s Dead (Two and a Half Men) 

The Show: Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) is a jingle writer who lives a hedonistic lifestyle. His brother, Alan (Jon Cryer), and nephew Jake (Angus T. Jones) move in after Alan’s wife leaves him. Eventually, after Charlie dies, his house is bought by billionaire Walden Schmidt (Ashton Kutcher), who lets Alan and Jake stay. Eventually Jake leaves and Charlie’s unknown biological daughter Jenny (Amber Tamblyn) moves in. 

I don’t want to assemble cast photos, so I’m just using this one.

The Finale: Alan receives a letter from a lawyer saying that Charlie has millions in unclaimed royalties, but can’t find Charlie’s death certificate. It turns out that Charlie is actually alive, having been kept prisoner by his crazy stalker Rose (Melanie Lynskey), after she caught him in bed with a goat. Alan, Jake, and Walden start to receive threats and the police tell them that they caught Charlie, but it’s actually Christian Slater. Charlie approaches the house, but a piano he ordered crushes him. The camera then shows creator Chuck Lorre, who says “winning!” then is crushed by a second piano.

It’s Meta, but not in a good way.

This doesn’t make the list because this show had pretty much lost all of its quality when Charlie Sheen left. The writers never figured out what to do with Walden or Jenny, constantly shifting their characters, and it just kind of limped on for four years. Ensemble casts exist on relationships and when you can’t keep characters consistent, then the relationships can’t be consistent. However, dedicating your finale to throwing a tantrum at Charlie Sheen over him being a d*ck doesn’t really age well, particularly since it’s been revealed that Sheen’s behavior was related to him being diagnosed HIV positive. While the viewers would have understood what was happening at the time, I think anyone that watches this in a decade (if anyone does) probably won’t get what the hell happened and it’ll just seem like a waste of time.

10) These are the Voyages… (Star Trek: Enterprise)

The Show: This show takes place before any previous Star Trek series, in the 22nd century, aboard the spaceship Enterprise, the first vessel capable of real, effective interstellar exploration by humanity. The crew includes Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), Science Officer T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), Chief Engineer Trip Tucker (Connor Trinneer), Tactical Officer Reed (Dominic Keating), Communications Officer Sato (Linda Park), Helmsman Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery), and Medical Officer Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley). 

The uniforms somehow are better and worse than other shows.

The Finale: Taking place in the 24th Century, Star Trek: The Next Generation characters William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) are looking for guidance on an issue (the TNG Episode “The Pegasus”) and decide to review the decommissioning of the first Enterprise. They interact at points with the Enterprise crew, who are holograms here. Captain Archer is set to give a speech, but gets sidetracked trying to rescue the kidnapped daughter of an ambassador.  The kidnappers board the ship and Trip Tucker dies saving Captain Archer. Archer makes his speech and Riker figures out what he’s going to do. The last shot is a montage of Star Trek footage and Captains Kirk, Picard, and Archer giving the “where no man has gone before” speech.

Congrats to Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis for making the best and worst lists.

This would probably be higher up if I had ever really liked Enterprise, but it remains the worst Star Trek series in my opinion. The only episodes I really liked were the ones set in the Mirror Universe where humans were the bad guys, because those seemed original and compelling, but most of the series just felt like recycled old ideas with skimpier outfits. What a waste of a Bakula. However, this has to go down as one of the worst finales because it’s a finale that doesn’t even really feature the characters of the show. Instead, the episode takes place during a different series and everyone from Enterprise appears only by hologram. Moreover, the events in the hologram take place six years after the rest of the series without a compelling reason for doing so and one of the main characters is killed as an afterthought. This episode was so bad that I don’t think I’ve seen a list of the worst Star Trek properties that didn’t include it, often at number one. It was so bad that it ended 18 consecutive years of Star Trek being on the air. When you can tank an entire franchise for a while, you earn this spot.

9) Remember the Monsters? (Dexter)

The Show: Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a serial killer who targets other serial killers. He uses skills taught to him by his adopted father (James Remar) to avoid detection and eliminate the monsters who evade the law. He spends most of the series hiding it from his sister, Debra (Jennifer Carpenter), only for her to find out what he does in season 7. Also, she’s in love with him despite them being raised as siblings, so… that’s a thing. Look, there’s a reason I tell people to stop watching after season 5. 

And that reason is not just the marketing.

The Finale: Dexter is planning on fleeing the country. Debra gets shot by serial killer Oliver Saxon (Darri Ingolfsson) while a hurricane prevents Dexter’s flight. Dexter leaves his son Harrison with his girlfriend Hannah and heads to the hospital where he is told Debra will recover. Saxon is captured and Debra tells Dexter to live a happy life, but then suffers a clot and goes into a coma. Dexter then kills Saxon in police custody and pulls Debra off life support. He takes her body and drops it into the ocean as he drives into the hurricane. Later, he’s seen working as a lumberjack in Oregon.

Yes, the famously unrecognizable “serial killer with a beard.”

I have to admit I’ve softened towards this over the years, because for a long time I considered it the worst finale ever. It’s dropped down the list for two reasons: 1) Jennifer Carpenter’s performance as Debra is actually so good it almost single-handedly makes this episode okay. 2) Other shows since (mostly Breaking Bad) have convinced me that giving a bad person a happy ending isn’t inherently bad. However, I still think it’s a terrible ending to this show. A big part of why is that it missed the tone of the rest of the series, having a somber and sincere quality that the rest of the show never had. That might have worked for a finale, except that all of the sincerity felt crammed in and manufactured, rather than developing naturally. The characters are told that Debra is going to be okay, but their last conversation is still them saying goodbye in a last-rites kind of way. Then she dies anyway, making the previous recovery nothing but a device to keep the audience off-guard, particularly since the clot happens off-screen apropos of nothing. Oh, and as she’s dying, she tells him she loves him, which means… she might have been okay if he had left her on the machines? So, Dexter killed her, but it’s not really given as much weight as it should. Oh, and then the ending is that he’s abandoned his son and girlfriend (who he could find and join) to go be a lumberjack and somehow survived a hurricane, which was just such a cop-out. Also, can someone from Miami Metro get fired for being just the worst investigators on Earth? For what was briefly one of my favorite shows, the mighty fell hard.

8) Into That Good Night (Roseanne)

The Show: Roseanne (the show) focused on the lives of the Conner family: Roseanne (Roseanne Barr), her husband Dan (John Goodman), Roseanne’s sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and Dan and Roseanne’s kids Becky (Lecy Goranson/Sarah Chalke), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), D.J. (Michael Fishman), and Baby Jerry (Cole and Morgan Roberts). They’re a working-class family in the 80s and 90s living in Illinois, and possibly one of the most realistic ones ever put on television.

Still more attractive than the average person, but not as much as most shows.

The Finale: In the 9th season of the show, the Conners win the lottery, suddenly becoming very wealthy, but Dan and Roseanne’s marriage has been on the rocks throughout the whole season, culminating in a revelation that he cheated on her. During the finale, after the family welcomes a new grandson from Darlene’s marriage, everyone is set to move on with their lives. Then, in the last 10 minutes of the show, Roseanne reveals to the audience that the entire show had just been a book she was writing. Dan was dead from a heart attack, Jackie was gay, and Darlene and Becky were, in fact, married to each-other’s husbands. No explanation is given for any of this except that Roseanne thought it was more interesting this way.

I’m not spending money to screenshot the last episode in good quality.

Roseanne had taken a massive dive in the last season due to destroying the thing that most people liked about the show, it’s blue-collar realism. The Conners were constantly screwed by normal problems that most sitcoms would just gloss over, like a malfunctioning fridge they can’t afford to replace or a light bill late fee that builds up. They lived the way that a lot of America lived. Once they were rich, that stuff all fell away and they stopped being relatable. That was bad enough, but to literally spend the last 10 minutes of the show revealing that everything in the show was fake, even within the reality of the show, was just icing on the crapcake. Roseanne is revealed to be a writer, a profession that stood completely against her character’s usual employment in various menial jobs. Dan’s dead, meaning that any of their drama in the last season was just Roseanne taking shots at her deceased husband. None of the relationships were real. What’s most astonishing is that all of this was just completely unnecessary. When they rebooted the show, they made the decision to just ignore all of this, which was smarter than anything in the finale.

7) Daybreak (Battlestar Galactica – 2004)

The Show: Humans lived on a set of planets known as the Twelve Colonies. The humans created the Cylons, a race of robots, that then rebelled. There was a peace accord, until the Cylons surprise attack and destroy most of humanity and the planets they populated. Only one military ship survives, the Battlestar Galactica, which sets off with the other ships to head to the thirteenth colony, Earth, while being pursued by Cylons. The survivors include Commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos), President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), pilot “Starbuck” Thrace (Katee Sackhoff), pilot “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Barber), and scientist Gaius Baltar (James Callis). There are also Cylon infiltrators known as numbers 6 and 8 (Tricia Helfer and Grace Park) 

Symbolism was a thing.

The Finale: Turns out the Cylons got to Earth first, but blew it up. As the group tries to figure out what to do now, the Cylons capture Hera, a human-Cylon hybrid, and are studying how they can reproduce. Admiral Adama orders a rescue. Gaius and Six join the mission, and it’s revealed that the two can see each other’s “inner visions.” It’s complicated to explain, but each one has a hallucination of the other that they talk to, and here it’s revealed that those are not just hallucinations. The rescue ends with an all-out battle that is ended by Gaius promising to give the Cylons back their lost resurrection ability in order to buy peace. He’s told that he sees Angels telling him that both sides are governed by God. However, this ends up failing. The fighting resumes and damage forces Adama to order the ship to jump to anywhere it can. Starbuck uses “All Along the Watchtower” to arrive at our Earth in the distant past. The survivors, and the surviving Cylons, spread out and interbreed with the hominids that populate the planet. Starbuck turns out to be an Angel and disappears. Bob Dylan is implied to be God.

Yes, because interbreeding is just that easy.

Okay, did you read the last four sentences of that summary? Yeah, that’s why this whole thing fell apart. The show, which had been a cold and depressing character study and a cautionary tale against the advances of human technology, ends on a happy note because of a literal deus ex machina. To be clear, this show was almost entirely sci-fi for most of its run, and the concept of having everything in the series designed as part of the ineffable plan by God seems to have been pulled out of nowhere. I once lauded the show Quantum Leap for dealing with cancellation by having an ending that said “God did it,” but that’s because that show’s continuity and logic had never made sense. This show had never even approached that level of metaphysics until the last four episodes hinted at it loosely. A lot of people liked the happy ending, but I will stare into the face of Bob Dylan and walk backwards into Hell proclaiming this to be a complete failure of screenwriting.

6) Project: ALF (ALF)

The Show: Gordon Shumway (Paul Fusco) is an Alien Life Form (ALF) from the destroyed planet Melmac. He follows a radio signal to the home of the Tanners: Willie (Max Wright), Kate (Anne Schedeen), Lynn (Andrea Elson), and Brian (Benji Gregory). The Tanners hide ALF from the Alien Task Force that seeks to hunt him down. 

How did this show work?

The Finale: In the last episode of the original show’s run, ALF is captured by the Alien Task Force. This picks up with ALF in custody under Colonel Milfoil (Martin Sheen) who is going to kill ALF. Two scientists help him escape, but after they are chased by Milfoil, they end up deciding to reveal ALF’s existence to the world. This ends up failing, but Milfoil is fired and ALF is declared an ambassador to Earth. 

They could afford Martin Sheen, but not a better poster.

The original finale of ALF can’t be on here because the show was cancelled unexpectedly and thus ended on a cliffhanger. That’s not the fault of any of the writers, particularly since the show was still in the top 40 at the time and had just had a spin-off last two seasons. Even the network later apologized to the crew, saying that they’d screwed up by cancelling it too early. However, since they were given over a year to come up with a way to end the series with this three-part episode (or TV movie), and had 5 years to think about it before that, this was truly disappointing. Except for ALF, none of the Tanners were present in this, and all we hear is that they went to Iceland. As such, a ton of plotlines, including the cliffhanger about ALF leaving the Tanners, were left unresolved. Moreover, this episode made it clear exactly how much of an a**hole ALF actually was, retroactively making the show less cute. It’s like if you ended the Muppet Show by having Kermit be revealed as a Soviet Spy. Honestly, the cliffhanger would have been a more dignified way to go out.

5) Chapter 73 (House of Cards)

The Show: Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a politician who constantly lies, cheats, steals and murders his way to becoming the President and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), becomes Vice President. He’s assisted by Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), his Chief of Staff who routinely does Frank’s dirty work. Frank typically narrates to the audience his true, cruel thoughts. 

Behind every man, there’s a woman who would do it better.

The Finale: In Season 6, Claire becomes President following Frank’s impeachment and subsequent getting killed off for being a rapist. Claire also takes over Frank’s role as narrator. Doug, who stood by Frank loyally, has now flipped to testify to all of Claire’s bad acts, but Claire pardons him to gain his silence. In the finale, Claire promises a new level of honesty to America, then creates a new fictional threat so that she can keep her position. Doug is sent in to kill her by some of her rivals, but after he admits he killed Frank, she ends up stabbing him to death and then suffocating him. She turns to the audience and says “No More Pain,” mirroring Frank killing a dog in the pilot. 

Yes, this seems like a thing the President could do and get away with.

This is mostly on here for how completely unnecessary this finale was. After Kevin Spacey was removed from the show for being a rapist, the show was completely justified in writing him out. Despite that, his character still basically dictated everything over the last season. Claire was constantly saying how she denounced his legacy, but she always kept it alive rather than tossing it to the ashcan of history where it belonged. This finale made it much, much worse, focusing on Frank’s last will, which cut Claire out, then revealing Doug to have killed Frank because Frank was hurting his own legacy, then having Claire stab Doug to death in the Oval Office and use one of Frank’s own lines, cementing her as now being essentially just Frank all over again. It essentially made Claire a secondary character in a season where she was supposed to be the lead. If you’re going to write a character out, write them out, don’t let their ghost loom over the entire series. 

4) The End (LOST)

The Show: A bunch of people survive a plane crash and end on an island. The island turned out to be filled with mysteries, ranging from a smoke monster that turns out to be the embodiment of evil, to a hatch that requires a code to keep being entered into it, to some polar bears. The show had too many cast members to really list here, with 14 star roles in the first season alone, but among the key ones in this episode are: Jack (Matthew Fox), Kate (Evangeline Lilly), Hurley (Jorge Garcia), Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and Locke/The Man In Black (Terry O’Quinn). It frequently has flashbacks, flashforwards, and flash-sideways. The last season has two parallel timelines, including a new one in which the crash never happened. 

So. Many. People.

The Finale: Some of the survivors head to the heart of the island, including Jack who has taken on the role of protector of the island. The Man in Black, who is trying to destroy the island, manages to unstop the source of the island’s power, but is killed by Kate. Jack then dies replacing the island’s light. In the alternate timeline, everyone suddenly remembers the island, meet up in a church, and then they are revealed to be dead. 

And the church is super Unitarian, just to hedge bets.

So, from the beginning of the show, a huge number of fans (myself included) were worried that the series would end with the revelation that everyone was actually dead all along. The creators and the writers all strongly denied that it was anything like that. Instead, it’s revealed that, in fact, the events of the island were real, but that the parallel timeline was actually a form of afterlife which is powered by the island, so… I felt like this was cheating. A ton of people were confused by it, a ton more were angered, and I don’t think anyone ever thought it was a perfect way to wrap up the series. The island is revealed to be the source of the light that exists inside of every living thing, but also what grants those things a second chance, represented here as an alternate world where everyone is a little bit closer to what they wanted to be. It’s not a paradise, it’s a purgatory, and then at the end apparently everyone moves on towards the actual afterlife, maybe. If that explanation sounds kind of boring or weird or confusing, then you know why this made this list. 

3) Last Forever (How I Met Your Mother)

The Show: In 2030, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor/Bob Saget) is narrating to his kids the story of how he met their mother (Cristin Milioti). It turns out to be a story involving Ted’s best friends from his 20s and 30s: Marshall Eriksen (Jason Segel) and his wife Lily (Alyson Hannigan), Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders), and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). 

These people are all in great shape despite living at a bar.

The Finale: After spending a season at the weekend of Barney and Robin’s wedding, we find out that Ted’s wife is the bass player in their wedding band. While she has met everyone from the group, she has not yet met Ted, until they share an umbrella that they both previously owned. It’s then revealed that the mother, Tracy McConnell, passed away in 2024. The kids reveal that the story was clearly about how Ted is still in love with Robin, and encourage him to get back together with her. The show ends with Ted and Robin smiling at each other.

This would have been an amazing last shot.

This one is really a tragedy on two different levels. The show had always prided itself on the fact that they had already filmed the ending when they started the second season, because that meant that the kids, who had since stopped being kids, would still be in the finale at the same age. Unfortunately, they were so dedicated to this that they stuck to it even after their own writing and character development had rendered it a bad idea. Ted and Robin ending up together was a really good idea for a long time, until we spent two seasons building up Barney’s and Robin’s relationship and then an entire season on their wedding itself, only to have the finale tell us they broke up like 15 minutes later for vague reasons. It also doesn’t help that Cristin Milioti was so much more amazing than expected, particularly in the episode dedicated to her history. Everything about her was so perfect for Ted that you wanted to see them happy together. This meant that when the writers stuck with the original ending, it broke up two relationships we were invested in. At the same time, they undid all of Barney’s character growth and instead ended with him learning to love by being a father. To Neil Patrick Harris’s credit, his performance was so good I almost bought it, but it’s still bad writing. The reason why this is so high is because multiple people apparently brought up that this was a bad idea and that they should ditch the original ending, but the show wanted its gimmick more than a solid conclusion. 

2) The Finale (Seinfeld)

The Show: It’s a show about nothing starring four friends: Jerry Seinfeld (himself), George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards). In general, the series is just about the kind of weird things that happen to the four of them and consists of them talking about it. All four are generally crappy people, but make up for it by being funny. It was created by Larry David and Seinfeld.

Later, everyone would deny hugging Michael Richards.

The Finale: Jerry and George have pitched a series to NBC that resembles Seinfeld called Jerry. The four decide to go to Paris to celebrate before moving to California to work on the show, but a problem on the flight forces them to land in Massachusetts. While they wait for the plane to be fixed, they see a man get carjacked and record it while mocking him. They’re then arrested by the police for violating the Good Samaritan statute by not helping. The four are then put on trial and a number of witnesses from throughout the series testify to their bad character. They are ultimately convicted and put in jail. 

Because Massachusetts doesn’t have bail, apparently.

This one is so high up because Seinfeld was one of the best shows on television and I remember being absolutely pissed off watching the finale. The build-up had been huge. Other shows, including Dharma and Greg, literally had episodes that were based on the assumption that this finale would be amazing. However, I think it completely failed. First off, the set-up was ridiculous. Having the characters get arrested due to an insane law and go to trial immediately was a weird decision. That’s not how laws, courts, or even civil rights work. The fact that the prosecutors are then allowed to parade a list of people as bad character witnesses is even weirder, because, again, not how that works. Also, if they had a duty to provide aid to the victim (they didn’t), they actually did, because they recorded the face of the carjacker on film. That’s more helpful than trying to fight him. Everything about this framing device was stupid. Second, they really just used it to do a glorified clip-show as the finale. That’s one of the weakest ways to handle any episode of television, typically reserved for when shows run out of money for an episode, as opposed to the finale of a top-rated show. Third, finally calling out how bad the characters were in such a stupid fashion basically mocked the audience for liking them. If you’re flipping the bird on the way out, you’ve messed up. While Larry David has defended it, Jerry Seinfeld has pretty much stated that they dropped the ball on this one. I concur.

1) The Iron Throne (Game of Thrones)

The Show: I cannot really summarize this. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are thrown into a massive war after the death of the king Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). This ends up massively affecting the Stark family, including Sansa (Sophie Turner), Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), and Arya (Maisie Williams). At the same time, an army of zombie warriors start to descend from the North to destroy the world. Also, the daughter of the previous king, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), hatched three dragons and uses them plus two separate armies to try to come back and retake the throne. Her nephew and lover is Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who is also the adopted brother of the Starks. A lot of people die and there’s a lot of nudity. Also, there’s Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who is amazing, and Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who suck.

There’s only one dragon left at this point, sadly.

The Finale: Daenerys has taken over King’s Landing and claimed the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. Unfortunately, even after the people surrendered, Daenerys kept attacking, destroying a ton of the property and killing hundreds or thousands of people for no reason. When confronted, she insists that she has “liberated” the town and that she now plans to “liberate” the rest of the world. After finally realizing that Daenerys will never stop until she has conquered the world in the name of forcing her version of utopia, and will kill anyone that doesn’t submit immediately. Jon kills her and is imprisoned by her troops. Ultimately, he is banished and Bran becomes king. 

“I wanted you to penetrate me, but not with a knife.”

I realize that this probably will not seem as bad years down the line and that the freshness of the wound is why this feels like the worst finale, but I will say that following: It’s impressive to get every character to the end of their arc and still feel terrible. Seriously, every character finishes in the position that they clearly were always going to have, ranging from Bran being the king to Daenerys being dead to Jon being banished, but at the end all of the ways they get there appear to be completely contrived or insane. Rather than having Daenerys’s madness be a result of her destiny as a Targaryen and a breaker of chains, it came off as being because Jon didn’t want to sleep with her after finding out they’re related. Rather than Bran being made king because of his abilities, he’s instead made king because “he has the best story,” despite Jon literally having resurrected from the dead and Arya having slain an undead king. Everyone gets to close their story in the right place, but it feels so forced that it undermines the rest of the series and its great plotting and character progression. Mostly, though, this whole thing felt completely unnecessary. HBO had the hottest show on the planet and had already stated they would basically give the showrunners carte blanche if they needed more episodes to come to a satisfying conclusion. Instead, the show rushed from the death of the Night King to the finale in only 3 episodes. This isn’t just dropping the ball, this is firing the ball straight down out of a cannon so hard that it currently resides in the molten core of the planet. 

If you disagree with any of these, let me know. If you have other episodes you think should have made it, put them in the comments or on my Facebook or Twitter. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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6) College (The Sopranos)

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:

SopranosCompositeTony 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.”

SopranosLivia
TV’s Worst Mother

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.

SUMMARY

SopranosCarTony 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.

SopranosFabianWhile 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.

SopranosCarmelaandFatherPhil.pngMeanwhile, 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.

SopranosChoking.png

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.”

SopranosTonyQuote.jpgFull 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.

END SUMMARY

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.

SopranosOdenkirk
Bob gets it.

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.

SopranosTheScarletLetterWhile 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.

PREVIOUS – 7: The Honeymooners

NEXT – 5: I, Claudius

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

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34) Pine Barrens (The Sopranos)

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Even the Poster looks like it gave up.

In 1997, National Lampoon released a movie called The Don’s Analyst, which was about what it would be like if a mob boss had to attend psychotherapy. Never mind the stupid title, it was a mediocre-at-best comedy. However, supposedly it was ripped off of a script written in 1995 by longtime TV producer David Chase, who wanted to make a movie about a Mob Boss who goes into therapy with his mother. Eventually, they decided to make it a TV series instead. The big difference was that it wasn’t a comedy. Sure, there were funny moments in the show, especially in this episode, but it wasn’t ever played strictly for laughs. It was a character-driven drama, despite the fact that its premise was immediately assumed to be a joke by others. To tell you how well it worked in comparison, nobody remembers The Don’s Analyst, while seasons of The Sopranos managed to get 12 million people to watch.

SopranosComposite
The Two Tonys

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 even confuse the audience. Their sessions usually focus on how Tony balances his relationships with his family and his relationships with “the family.”

The structure of the show is often described as being like a novel, with each episode forming another chapter feeding in to the overall arc of the season, and, ultimately, the show. However, there is a notable exception to that. An episode that is almost entirely independent of the larger arc. That episode, directed by none other than Steve Buscemi, is “Pine Barrens.”

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Mr. Pink?

SUMMARY

One thing that makes this episode different is that by far the most memorable plot was filled not by Tony or his family, but by two of Tony’s crew, Christopher and Paulie (Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico). The two characters have constantly clashed up until this point, with Christopher resenting Paulie because Paulie still outranks Chris even after Chris gets becomes a made man (if you don’t know that term, please watch Goodfellas). So, when the two of them get sent by Tony to do a routine collection from a Russian named Valery, the bad mood between them leads Chris to mock Valery until eventually a fight breaks out and Valery ends up on the floor with what appears to be a cracked windpipe. The two decide that, having already botched the collection, they should just tie Valery up, roll him in a carpet, drive him out to Pine Barrens, New Jersey, and dump him. In the middle of Winter. Because mobsters always have creative solutions.

PineBarrens.jpg
Pictured: “Outside of the box” thinking.

After driving out to Jersey, the two open the trunk to find that Valery has not only survived his injury, but has already freed himself. The two give him a shovel to dig his own grave, but Valery escapes, despite being shot in the head. Valery then manages to completely disappear in the snow, giving the two the slip, while the audience learns that Valery is actually former Soviet Special Forces. Paulie and Chris then get lost in the woods and end up staying in an abandoned van to avoid freezing to death. After a confrontation in the van, the two finally make peace.

SopranosVan

Tony finally comes out to save them as they wander through the wilderness, but they find that Valery has not only survived a night out in the snow, he stole Paulie’s car and escaped. The group gives up on finding Valery and heads home. Valery’s fate is left unrevealed, and the showrunners refuse to say any more about it, or his seeming immortality.

The B-plot of Tony dealing with a mistress who is even more emotionally disturbed than him is also great, and apparently involved Steve Buscemi having to throw a steak at James Gandolfini.

END SUMMARY

chicken
Pictured: Spetsnaz Survival Trainer

What makes this episode great, aside from the interesting plot point of an invincible Russian mobster completely defeating two mobsters, is that the fight between Paulie and Chris is completely understandable. Paulie sees Chris coming up in the ranks, and is threatened, even telling Chris he’s going to “pull rank on him,” to which Chris says the great line “F**k you, Paulie. Captain or no captain, right now, we’re just two a**holes lost in the woods.” Conversely, Chris sees Paulie as trying to punish him for being ambitious. Paulie even ends up telling Chris not to leave him behind. It’s every inter-generational fight expressed it in a superb and darkly comic way. In a show famous for its writing, the dialogue rarely, if ever, reached this level again.

PREVIOUS – 35: Alfred Hitchcock Presents

NEXT – 33: The Bob Newhart Show

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

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