“All Happy Families…” (season 5, episode 4; originally aired March 28, 2004)
In which Tony deals with dissension both at home and at work
Tony Soprano is learning. On a show that’s, ostensibly, about people who can never change, Tony has learned his lesson about unstable elements within his organization. When Feech LaManna starts acting up, he has Silvio contrive a way to get Feech sent back to prison. Tony asks if he’s learned nothing from Richie, and we may fill in Ralphie ourselves. This is just another situation waiting to boil over, and when he thinks back to the time when he told a terrible joke about a “Boring 747” and remembers Feech wasn’t laughing, that’s it. Earlier, he seemed to be hearing Carmela’s words about how he doesn’t have friends, he has flunkies, as he watched his friends laugh at his joke in slow motion. But now, it seems like he was just identifying the odd man out, the one who has to be separated to prevent the virus from spreading. Feech is gone, and Tony has learned.
But at the same time, he’s unsure how to navigate the other treacherous situation he finds himself in. How’s he supposed to act in the wake of his separation from Carmela? Neither of the two is quite sure how to behave around each other, and they spend much of the hour pitifully defending each other in between arguments that bubble away under the surface. In particular, neither is sure how to deal with their kids, particularly A.J., whose anger at Carmela over what’s happened between his parents (in addition to all of his normal adolescent anger at his mother) keeps driving him to make her feel alone and completely unloved. She’s got a giant house, but at the end of the episode, after she sends A.J. off to live with his father—who, in a nice touch, is hanging out with some friends in Tony B. and Artie—she’s alone with only her memories.
There’s some pretty silly stuff in the Carmela half of “All Happy Families… ,” particularly that scene where she remembers A.J. riding his Big Wheel down the steep driveway and most likely out into the street. It’s obvious that the show is trying to depict her feelings about his aging and her own feelings of abandonment in that big house, but the whole thing seems almost like a car commercial about how kids grow up so fast. Similarly, as much as I like David Strathairn, he doesn’t make the best first impression here as A.J.’s guidance counselor, a smarmy man who recommends Madame Bovary to Carmela because he obviously thinks she’ll see a lot in common with a woman who goes crazy because of her husband. (The show, as always, is taking the piss out of intellectuals, but it’s rarely subtle about doing this, and it certainly isn’t here.)
But the overall effect of watching this woman sit in her house and worry about things because that’s all she has left to do is haunting. The Sopranos character she reminds me most of in these sequences is, of all people, Livia, someone who’s stuck all by herself and has nothing better to do but drive herself insane thinking about all of the things that could go wrong and how under-appreciated she is. Carmela’s nowhere near that bad, but she’s definitely not at her best here. My favorite part of this storyline is when A.J. briefly slips off the radar after going into the city for a Mudvayne concert. (There’s a “Hey, it’s 2004” alert right there.) Carmela thinks her worst fears are A.J. being injured or dead and lying in a gutter somewhere. But her real worst fears are that both of her kids ignore her phone calls—first to A.J.’s cell, then to Meadow’s phone, then to the phone of the hotel room where A.J. is staying against her wishes—and the only person who picks up, the only person who still cares, even if it’s only because he has to, is Tony.
Families are falling apart all over this episode—befitting the Anna Karenina quote that gives it its name. Where the Soprano family’s attempts to figure out how to navigate this new situation are of the sort that most of us are familiar with from our own lives, the New York mob family is caught in a similar situation, though it’s one that, ideally, most of us will never be confronted with. In the episode’s opening section, Johnny Sack’s goons, under the direction of Phil, burst into the house of Lorraine. Soon enough, she’s crawling away from them on the floor, as one pulls out a gun and shoots her. It’s the first blood drawn in the New York civil war, and Little Carmine is irate.
What’s interesting is how much The Sopranos chooses to background this information. It’s all there, if you want to hang on to some sort of mob plot. But it’s not especially important to the episode as a whole. Maybe it’s setting us up for a season-long plot that’s only starting to become clear. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just one of those things this show sometimes does, where we’re being set up for anticlimax. As a show in its fifth season, The Sopranos has to work harder to surprise us, since we know most of its tricks already. To that end, it seems to have bifurcated itself. The mob stuff—which frustrated fans by seemingly disappearing in season four—has mostly been shunted off to the New York side plot for now. The stuff in New Jersey, the stuff with the characters we’re most familiar with, is more of the probing psychological character stories that marked much of seasons three and four. The show finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too.
The show is also using our own knowledge against us. Take Feech. When we first meet him and see how he pushes Tony and the crew’s buttons, it really does seem like we’re being set up for another Richie or Ralphie arc. Instead, Tony immediately realizes what’s happening and nips it in the bud. The show is signaling us that we’re not going to be seeing a new agitator come in every season and get Tony’s goat before he gets bumped off. Instead, Tony’s going to find swift ways to deal with the problem elements in his operation, and he’s going to do so in ways that don’t involve bloodshed, if he can. The Sopranos repeated plot elements fairly often, but it’s trying to suggest that we shouldn’t take the structure of a season for granted. By sending Feech off to prison again, the writers are offering up the hint that we just might be in uncharted territory.
The series is also digging back into the sorts of parallels between Tony’s home life and his mob life that it hasn’t done in a while. It’s often possible to make these parallels feel cheap and unearned, but The Sopranos doesn’t labor the point too much. It simply shows us Feech causing dissension in Tony’s crew, then A.J. causing dissension in his family (a dissension caused by the wider rift between his parents). Or it will show us the battles between Tony and Carmela in the same episode as the actual battle between Johnny and Little Carmine. This is TV Writing 101. Showing a connection between the “case of the week” (or “mob story of the week”) and your lead character’s personal life is the sort of thing nearly every show does. But on The Sopranos, those connections are rarely so obvious and cloying as to become annoying. They’re there for the audience to parse out, if the audience really wants to, or the whole thing can just be read as stories that really have nothing to do with each other, but for featuring the same characters.
Recently, the fourth season of Breaking Bad ended its run, and in that season, I was always struck by how much the hand of the main character, Walter White, was evident in what was happening, even when he wasn’t on screen, which happened quite a bit (particularly early in the season). There’s something similar at play in this season of The Sopranos, with Tony’s presence being felt almost as much in his absence as it would be with him still around his home. The best example of this just might be that giant gift basket sitting on Melfi’s couch when he wants to get back into her good graces. (I love his little “whatever happened to Gary Cooper” spiel being repeated here and how swiftly the guidance counselor shoots down what he’s saying.) Tony may not be in the immediate area, but he’s preceded by gifts and blood. Fortunately, Melfi gets the former, and even though she knows she shouldn’t take him back, the two are obviously about to begin their dance again. Melfi’s learned even less than Tony has over the course of this series.
But Tony’s desire for connection continues to get in the way of his fulfillment. When Carmela tells him that he doesn’t have friends, only flunkies, it clearly stings, and the rest of the episode is colored by that statement. The people who really care about Tony are also the people who wouldn’t hesitate to kick him when he was down. It’s telling that when he does have fun with friends, one of them is his son, and the other two are people who aren’t involved in the mob, at least at this point. Tony, Artie, and Tony B. have been pals since their younger days (Artie apparently nearly froze his fingers off at some lake party when they were younger), and that cuts through the bullshit. Every so often, Tony’s able to connect, but at work, he’s really only feared—the guy whose jokes always earn a laugh, no matter how unfunny they are.
The episode, then, spends a lot of time letting us know just how alone Carmela is. Carmela’s never been a character who’s terribly involved with the mob plots—you could make an argument that Meadow’s been more involved on the whole—but in this fifth season, she’s being given a chance to see just how little she’s developed her own life, which she gave away to her husband and kids. The scene between her and the guidance counselor could be one where he’s being subtly condescending to her, or it could be one where she’s legitimately trying to be a better person but slowly realizing just how much catching up she has to do. This scene is also notable for the moment where she broadly hints about her husband’s line of work and explains how important it is that A.J. get the hell away from New Jersey, where he might end up sucked into the life that’s hollowed out his father and so many men before him. (Where Meadow wanted to go to California for college and was told no, A.J. gets no guff from his parents about wanting to go to Arizona.) There are real stakes for Carmela in this episode, but they’re the sorts of stakes nobody else really cares about. And that leaves her to be the bad guy, constantly having to compete with the specter of a parent who’s not there and is, thus, better by default.
These absences cut straight through the heart of this season of The Sopranos. Any time there’s a vacuum, something’s going to rush in to fill that vacuum. In Carmela, it’s the creeping sense that she’s wasted her life. In Tony, it’s an ever more efficient drive toward making sure his operations run as smoothly as possible. In Feech, it’s a longing for a life that no longer exists, a life he won’t be able to get to ever again, most likely. And in New York, it’s a power vacuum that creates a struggle to stand alone at the top of the heap. The absences are plenty in this season, but they’re more than just people who are missing from their normal settings. They’re also tiny little holes that widen into much, much bigger gaps, gaps that threaten to swallow everybody whole.
- The show’s makeup team really did a good job of making it seem like A.J. was stuck to that carpet. That was some pretty horrifying stuff.
- Another change in Tony: Where once he tries to ply his son with a car, at the end of the episode, he’s sending his son up to do his Spanish homework, rather than watch baseball with the guys. He can shift when he needs to. He just rarely does.
- This episode was written by Toni Kalem, who played Angie Bonpensiero and was also an acclaimed independent film director for a while there. Who knew?
- If this episode is remembered for anything, it’s probably the long list of notable guest stars. Strathairn, of course, went on to his most famous roles—his Oscar-nominated work in Good Night And Good Luck or his work in the Bourne series—after this season had aired, but this episode also features cameos from David Lee Roth and Lawrence Taylor, of all people.
- We haven’t spent a lot of time with Meadow this season. I can only conclude that this is because all she’s doing is having copious amounts of sex. She doesn’t even try to talk A.J. out of staying at the hotel.
- Feech’s constant lamentations for the old days often seem to be more about his loss of power than anything else. That said, he was pretty stupid to think he could get away with jacking the cars at that wedding.
- Okay, this episode is also remembered for being the one where A.J. learns the difference between a “hotbox” and a “Dutch oven.” (And the episode where he tries to suggest to his dad that he’s had sex, and Tony’s all, “Please.”)
- If there’s a plotline that doesn’t work for me here, it’s Tony and Melfi’s separation. It feels too much like a rehash of what we already went through in season two, with not enough to differentiate it.
- Wikipedia suggests that Feech’s tale of the “Peppermint Lounge” is meant to hint at his homosexual affairs in prison, but I have to confess it seems like a stretch to me, no matter what the real lounge was like. (I’m not saying that Feech didn’t have homosexual affairs in prison; I’m just saying I don’t see this as particularly convincing evidence of that point.)
- The episode of The Honeymooners Tony watches is perhaps the most famous in that show’s run. I feel like one could draw a direct line between Ralph Kramden and Tony if one really wanted to.
- Hey, it’s 2004 alert: Borders still exists.
- Yet another reminder that although Tony might be king shit in his world—look at how Tony B. longingly looks at his house—he’s still small potatoes compared to some of the other guys in his world, like the guys he plays poker with. Tony may be rich, but Goldman Sachs is where the real money is. (That or puppeteering. I can never tell.)
- “So lemme guess. He called the English teacher daddy-o.”
- “What’s different about you?” “He has no eyebrows, Tony!”
- “What went on up there? Poppers and weird sex?”
Speaking With The Fishes:
- I’m amazed at how close the sequence where Lorraine dies is to the sequence where Adriana dies. It seems like deliberate foreshadowing of the events of “Long Term Parking.”
- Feech talks about weapons of mass destruction while trying to distract the parole officer. Terrorism, of course, would be the reason the FBI eventually lost interest in Tony and the gang for the most part.
- Tony B.’s inability to write any of these folks out of his life is a strong suggestion that he’ll be dragged right back into the Mafia world before too long. (Honestly, this barely even counts as a spoiler if you’ve seen more than a season of this show.)
Next week: Season five hits one of its peaks with “Irregular Around The Margins.”