Rewatching The Sopranos

S1 / E7: Down Neck

Part of why The Sopranos has aged so well is how it incorporates and comments on psychiatry and therapy. The Sopranos started just before the turn of the century, an interesting point in how wider culture treated these issues; the stigma was just beginning to break, but it was well before it became so ingrained that byproducts like therapyspeak emerged in the wider culture.

This episode largely revolves around Tony reminiscing on his upbringing in therapy. Sparked by issues with AJ in school, he recalls defining incidents about his parents; including watching his father brutally beat a debtor and his mother threatening to stab him at age 9. Through this, Tony begins to understand how his upbringing shaped him, and maybe even gains a better understanding of himself, but it ultimately functions as a way for him to blame his own path in life, and AJ’s own dim prospects, as a foregone conclusion based on their genes, and more than anything, it allows Tony to completely avoid responsibility when it comes to his failings as a parent and human being. Therapy is ostensibly not only a way for us to understand ourselves, but also as a way to improve and grow, but Tony instead uses that understanding to justify not improving or growing.

I can’t think of any other show, even now, that explores psychiatry in such a nuanced way; shows like Ted Lasso, the worst thing to exist ever, offers plenty of bland cheerleading for therapy and self-improvement, but offers little to no exploration of what therapy and self-improvement actually entails, and doesn’t have any insight on what happens when it intersects with our very worst, most narcissistic impulses. In the case of Tony Soprano, it largely feeds the impulses that chain him to a life that has brought him plenty of material comforts, but is clearly eating away at his soul.

In many ways, this episode is ground zero for a lot of the show’s central themes, and this episode does a great job introducing them. It doesn’t intertwine the two plots involving Tony’s past and AJ’s misbehavior perfectly, but this episode is really where we get a hint of that psychological depth the show really nails later on.

8/10

Jesus coming out of the tomb on Easter Sunday

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S1 / E8: The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti

While 46 Long provided a brief if excellent showcase for Paulie, this is the first episode to really hone in on someone outside the Soprano household, and that honor goes to Christopher.

In the annals of TV, Christopher is a rare bird; a character who can act equally well as both comic relief and a figure of genuine pathos, sometimes both at the same time. While this episode largely showcases the former (everyone remembers the screenplay, but him buying a desktop computer as a wedding gift is such an underrated gag) there’s shades of that deep melancholy that would seep in much later here, and the best scenes here mix the two very nicely; namely his conversation with Paulie, another great showcase for Tony Sirico (just look at the way he stares at Christopher while he’s explaining the concept of an arc, priceless) and the drive he takes with Tony, where his clumsy attempt at articulating his feelings is simultaneously hilarious and oddly moving all at once; between his stupidity and bravado, there’s just no way for him to understand his own misery, and Imperioli gets that across so well here.

The subplot involving Melfi and her family is a mixed bag. It’s implied throughout the show that there’s an allure to treating Tony for Melfi, because it allows her to get a lurid glimpse into a world most of us only hear about in fiction, one that exists entirely outside her middle class comfort zone, and she gets to do it in a way that doesn’t implicate her morally, or at least she’d like to believe it doesn’t. All that really kicks off here, but most of these scenes are devoted to characters, namely her ex-husband and son, who never become even remotely consequential, so it ends up largely feeling like filler despite some mildly interesting insights into the cultural differences between the various strands of the Italian-American community, but even that gets explored in a more interesting way in just a few episodes’ time with Tony and Dr. Cusamano.

7/10

S1 / E9: Boca


This is a strange episode; in some ways it feels pretty daring, especially for the time, and in other ways it very much feels like it’s from 1999. Overall, it’s a mixed bag.

The main plot surrounds Meadow’s soccer coach, whose sexual relationship with a student is outed. At the time, this was maybe a pretty daring thing for a TV show to cover, but now, plots involving this stuff pops up all the time on your average basic network crime shows, and the Sopranos’ treatment of the subject isn’t all that more interesting than those, with the minor exception of Tony mulling whether or not to get revenge on the Coach, but even then, this theme is revisited in an episode a few seasons away involving Melfi, and it does a much better job at putting you in the shoes of someone grappling with the morality of revenge; here it’s largely boiled down to a brief, if admittedly well-done montage sequence.

The rest of the episode revolves around Junior and his gossiping mistress, who lets slip that he’s fond of going down south. This does result in some pretty funny scenes with Carmela and Tony, (south of the bordeeeeeeeer… down Mexico waaaaaay) and the ending is one of the series’ best bits of slapstick, but it feels odd next to the main plot, and it doesn’t really say much about Junior except that he’s thin-skinned and insecure, as if we couldn’t tell that from the Pilot.

This isn’t a bad episode, and there’s a handful of great little moments (the parents acting more childish than the players at their kids’ soccer game, Paulie trying to bribe the coach with the TV) but it’s ultimately fairly mediocre, and like a lot of other episodes in this season, it covers territory that the show would revisit later on with far richer results.

5/10

S1 / E10: A Hit Is A Hit

Woof.

I came into this episode expecting to defend it somewhat; despite it’s reputation as one of, if not the worst, episode of the entire show, I didn’t remember it being all that bad. But it really is: A Hit is A Hit feels like the kind of episode you usually get well into a show’s twilight years, at the point where it’s still being kept on the air by the suits well past it’s prime, long after it’s best actors and writers left for greener pastures. Even compared to the other shaky episodes of Season 1, it’s pretty painful.

The main plot, easily the worst in the show’s history, revolves around Christopher’s dealings with gangsta rapper Massive Genius, which has to be the worst fake stage name I’ve ever heard, like I couldn’t even come up with something worse if I tried. It sounds the product of a guy in his fifties, maybe a writer on a fledgling HBO show, trying to remember the name of the guy who sang Gangsta’s Paradise. Christopher and Adriana spend the episode trying to get some butt rock band (whose songs are mildly funny pastiches of awful, mopey bands like Creed who were the shit around then) co-signed by Massive, and it’s just plain boring, and the situation that arises involving Massive and Hesh, while promising at first, turns out to be even more tedious, and it’s conclusion makes me roll my eyes on every viewing. Literally the only good thing to come from this plot is Christopher hitting that guy with the guitar.

The subplot, or at least what I remembered of it, is why I came into this preparing to defend it. Tony’s nouveau riche status compared to his neighbors is such a potentially rich vein of material, but it’s largely wasted here. The episode feels like it’s gearing up to expound on an interesting idea (that the prosperity of the Cusamano’s and their peers, as well as that of upper class America as a whole, is just as much the product of graft and bribery as Tony’s wealth is) but instead of articulating that point in an interesting, nuanced way, it’s done so clumsily here and never really gets explored beyond a handful of brief, bad scenes written by an AI who hasn’t gotten the subtext patch yet. The scene where Tony is cajoled into putting on what basically amounts to a pantomime show about the Mafia for Cusamano and his friends however, is great, and feels like the only time this episode really what hits what it’s aiming for, and as with a lot of Melfi scenes, it feels like an veiled critique of the audience, like David Chase may as well be pointing at Cusamano and then at the camera here with a disgusted look on his face.

It’s usually either this episode or Season 4’s Christopher* that gets pegged as the show’s worst episode, but this one takes the cake honestly. It’s not completely without merit, but it’s maybe the show’s only episode I’d call flat out bad.

*which, spoiler alert, I don’t think it’s THAT bad honestly.

4/10