"Another Toothpick" (season 3, episode 5)
In which Junior's got cancer.
We've talked before about how The Sopranos occupies a moral universe, a place where Heaven and Hell are more than theoretical and where those who do evil will eventually get what's coming to them, even if that doesn't happen until after they die. These twin themes of death and morality animate much of the show's run, but "Another Toothpick" places them on parallel streams. Roughly half the episode is about the elderly passing on and their children trying to make sense of it. Roughly the other half is about various people sucked into Tony's orbit trying to do the right thing, a favorite recurring plot point the show would return to again and again. Sure, there's other stuff going on here. (Since season three has so many hours that are closed off from everything else, like "Employee of the Month," this episode does a lot of the heavy plot-lifting, and, as such, it's a little cluttered.) But the primary ideas at play here are those of morality and mortality, yet again.
I once read a piece by an atheist who'd once been a believer, and he stated that the hardest thing for him to give up on in his old belief system was the idea of Hell. He was fine with the idea that he would die and wouldn't receive any theoretical award after, would just drift into nothing. That gave his life on Earth greater drive and purpose. But without Hell, then the evil wouldn't necessarily be punished. Sure, there are those like Hitler, who are eventually brought down by their own egos and hubris, but for the most part, those who exploit and take and use people go unpunished. In fact, it sometimes seems like the world is set up to their benefit, to push toward the idea that the powerful just gain more and more power, no matter how they take that power, and the powerless are trod upon. The Sopranos, taking place in a fictional universe, feels no compunctions about suggesting that the wicked will be punished, but at times, I wonder if that doesn't harm the show in its third season.
Make no mistake: I think that season three of the show is one of the series' finest. But at times, particularly in the early episodes, there's too much of an attempt to set up simple morality plays for the characters to go through. Sometimes, they gain enough raw power via the writing and performance to become standouts of the series, even as viewers are acutely aware of how the writers are pulling the strings (as with "Employee of the Month"). At other times, the little morality tests simply seem to be there, another reminder of the fact that Tony thinks the world will pretty much conform to whatever he wants, since he's usually right until he meets someone with a stronger moral code than just about everyone else in the universe he inhabits. Tonight, he brushes up against two such people, a traffic cop, who has the temerity to cite him for speeding, and Charmaine Bucco, who continues to hold him in low regard and forces her husband to choose between her and a potential business opportunity with Tony.
To be fair, Tony pretty much never knows about the Charmaine ultimatum. He mostly seems to be getting into business with Artie to give the guy something to do to liven up his life, which is increasingly desperate, the more he seems to fall out of love with his wife and the more he obsesses over Adriana, who's quitting her job at Vesuvio at her fiancé's request. Artie and Charmaine have always been a sort of mirror image of Tony and Carmela, as though the show passed through a wormhole into some other universe and wound up with a man who's tempted but rarely gives in (or has the opportunity to give in, more accurately) and a woman who keeps him from falling prey to those temptations at every turn. Plenty of Sopranos fans disliked Charmaine during the show's run, but I think she's an important character. She's a reminder that people can live in this world without having to be of it. Melfi is a similar character, but she's outside of the mob world, which means she's less of an exemplar of the idea that these guys could have avoided this life than Charmaine is. But I think a larger part of Charmaine's lack of appeal for some stemmed from the fact that we're watching a show about an antihero, where the drama will naturally be driven by him doing Very Bad Things. In that situation, it's rare to want to see someone who constantly reminds the characters and audience that this man is doing those bad things.
But Charmaine is necessary for the reasons I outlined above. Fans often turn against the "nagging" wife who holds the antihero back on shows like this (witness some of the vitriol spilled against Rita on Dexter or Skyler on Breaking Bad), but David Chase was wise to push Charmaine to the edges of the series. She, like her husband, is very much a supporting character, even though she's a regular, but every time we check in on her, she's plugging along, trying to keep her family from losing its soul, and the show doesn't really comment on it. Charmaine may say that she sees Tony as someone beneath her (at least morally), but the show doesn't make a huge deal out of her moral stances. It's just simply a part of who she is, and the more the series goes on, the more interesting that portrayal becomes. To a real degree, Charmaine is one of the show's less subtle reminders that the audience shouldn't be having fun, a part of its passive-aggressive relationship to its own success, but as a character, she works more often than not.
I can't really say the same about Leon, the traffic cop played by veteran character actor and director Charles S. Dutton. Dutton's work is very good, giving Leon an almost instant sense of dignity that stands out from the second you first see him. (Dutton's dignified air is probably why the producers hired him for what's, ultimately, pretty much a bit part.) And the story does some canny things with Tony, revealing how he thinks he can buy pretty much anything and the limits of his sympathy. On some level, he realizes that getting Leon demoted was a bad thing that he did, and on some level, he wants to make amends. But he doesn't want to rock the boat too much to do so, and that means Leon's stock falls farther and farther in life, simply because he dared give a ticket to a venal man who thinks the world should bow to him at every turn. The final image, of Leon turning away from the bribe Tony offers in an attempt to assuage his own conscience (and to make sure his fountain arrives in "one piece," is powerful, and Tony exploding about how Leon got what was coming to him on the phone with Assemblyman Zellman is a nice reminder of who this guy is at some base level. But the overall sense here is of a morality play that the show has toyed with over and over again, yet another reminder that Tony has some instinctive moral sense but never pays attention to it because that would be deeply inconvenient in his line of work.
Critic Matt Zoller Seitz, whose writing on the show has been highly influential on my own, spent much of the show's mid-period thinking the series had said all it could say about its characters and was now spinning its wheels. (This is, of course, an oversimplified summary, but bear with me.) Though he always appreciated the show, he felt, especially beginning in season three, that the show was playing out some of the same basic scenarios, over and over. Sadly, Seitz's columns on the matter have largely been lost, as they were written before newspapers began saving their archives online, so I can't link you to them, but it's easy to see in "Another Toothpick" where that concern might come from. Tony's encounters with people who want to do the right thing are variations on a theme the show has spun before, and the story of Ralphie chafing at having to serve under GiGi and thus being a pain in the ass to Tony has heavy similarities to the story of Richie Aprile refusing to listen to Tony's orders in season two. The same basic set of circumstances plays out, over and over, without much changing because the show is at that point of its mid-period where is has no idea how long it will run.
And yet I'd disagree with Seitz about season three. (I think he's got some good points about season four, which I'll hopefully remember to bring up when we get there.) Unlike a show like, say, Lost, which was more or less tied to its overarching master plot, The Sopranos was always more interested in presenting its characters with chances to escape their circumstances, then watching as the characters didn't take those chances. To a real degree, life is about the same basic cycles perpetuating themselves over and over again. Tony will always run into virtuous people who make him crazy with their basic reminder that he is NOT virtuous. Tony will continue to have psychological problems until he really begins to plumb how what he does feeds in to his own mental issues. Tony's underlings will always jockey for position and pose certain threats to him, if he can't figure out how to handle them correctly. Season three has very little of the epic sweep that distinguished the first two and last two seasons, but in its balance between the serialized story and the mundane nature of everyday life, it captures something essential about these people's lives, something we need to see before any sort of reckoning can be visited upon them. If this is how these characters are when things are, more or less, going well, how will they be if the fates begin to turn on them?
Which brings us back to the idea of death as a theme in the episode. Early in the episode, two things happen: A henchman named Mustang Sally loses his temper with Bryan Spatafore and beats him with a golf club, and Junior becomes obsessed with all of the cancer going around after attending the funeral for Carmela's uncle, Febby (not, so far as I know, the Febby Richie takes out in season two), and hearing about the physical ailments of Bobby's father, Bobby, Sr. Bobby, Sr., who's ailing with some form of lung cancer, is tasked to punish Mustang Sally for what he did, since he's the one who can find where Sally's holed up and get close to him. The sequence where Bobby, Sr., takes out Sally is one of the show's best unexpected action sequences, turning the usual sort of mob hit sequence into a weird struggle between an old man at death's door and an injured hoodlum. It's ugly, hard to watch. There's no elegance to it, like there have been in other mob hits we've seen. It's just an old man clinging to what he has left and trying to regain who he was by taking out a younger man. And, of course, on the way home, Bobby, Sr., begins to wheeze, and his attempts to grab his inhaler end with him in a car accident, which kills him.
Junior, unfeelingly, asks Bobby if Bobby, Sr., died from the car accident or the cancer. It seems like he's just being kind of a dick, but he later reveals to Tony that he has stomach cancer, which he'll undergo surgery to determine the extent of in two weeks' time. He believes these things come in threes and had hoped Bobby, Sr., would be the number three that would ensure his own safety. He begs Tony not to tell anyone, so, of course, Tony immediately tells Janice, who comes over to discuss these developments over wine. It's the best scene of the episode, outside of the fight between Sally and Bobby, Sr., and it drives home yet again how much the ghosts of the past haunt the characters in this world. Janice's refrain about the various cancer deaths throughout the episode, "another toothpick," is revealed to be something her mother said about those who became so sick that they were emaciated on their deathbeds. It's a typically callous thing that Livia would say, yet it's passed on to her children, who toss these words out without really thinking about them. Livia's dead, but she's still a presence. So is Big Pussy, whom Janice brings up toward the end of their conversation, suggesting Tony might find some solace in the arms of Christ, as she has. (Tony, of course, says he's in "witness protection," which Janice just greets with a skeptical look.) There are no literal ghosts in this episode, but the dead crowd up the proceedings anyway, whether they're haunting a superstitious Junior or creeping up in Tony and Janice's speech patterns.
"Another Toothpick" isn't the most well-constructed episode of The Sopranos. The Wikipedia plot summary of the episode sprawls over many more words than the plot summaries usually do and is divided into six separate sections, only four of which we've talked about above. The various sections don't comment on each other with the precision of the best episodes of the show. At all times, there's a sense of the show lurching the plot forward, sometimes succinctly, like when Junior tells Tony about his cancer, and sometimes via plot points being squeezed in for lack of anywhere else to go, like with the Ralphie and GiGi conflict. The ruminations on death keep it from being a bad episode, but it is an unnecessarily busy one, missing some of the short story snap of the series' best episodes. And yet, it's a necessary episode. In many ways, it sets up the playing field for season three. It may not do so organically, but, hey, sometimes, you just need to say where everybody is and what they're up to, rather than rolling along with the rhythms of day to day life.
- One of the two plotlines I haven't mentioned pops into the episode surprisingly late (in the last 20 minutes), in a way that feels abrupt and unsatisfying, until the unexpected, deeply funny conclusion. The FBI continues to stake out Tony's house, listening in on the conversations he has on the bugged lamp. (The way the show reminds us of this is one of the many ways this episode feels like about five episodes clumsily stitched together.) They're listening in, that is, until Meadow decides she needs a lamp for school and takes the one in the basement nobody seems to be using. The scene where the FBI agents realize what's happening is hilarious, but the inclusion of this plotline makes an already busy episode even more busy.
- Finally, we have Tony and Carmela's introductory visit to Melfi as a couple. Not a whole lot happens, outside of Carmela becoming convinced, somehow, that Melfi is going to blame everything that's wrong with Tony on her, but I do like how Carm insists Melfi should have fixed Tony by now.
- Artie's attempts to make time with Adriana are some great cringe humor. I particularly like his earring, and the way he keeps trying to grope her hands.
- Paulie, as always, looks out for number one by making sure Tony knows Johnny Sack didn't hear about the Mustang Sally hit from him.
- Bobby and Junior's repartee would grow into one of the great pleasures of the series, and this is perhaps the first episode where there's so much of it. The scene where the two play checkers is one of the better moments of the episode.
- Sign of the times: Meadow sings along to the Corrs' "Breathless," a song I had completely forgotten about the existence of. (Jamie-Lynn Sigler, who has a very nice voice, is a bit out of tune here. I don't know if it's a conscious choice, but it makes the scene feel more realistic.)
- This was probably frustrating to people at the time: Carmela asks Melfi how things are getting along after Melfi's "accident," and Melfi simply responds, "Fine."
- A subtle reminder of who has the power in the Tony/Artie relationship: The proposed food company the two are going to open will be called Satriale's, not Vesuvio's.
- This episode is directed by Jack Bender, who would go on to become the head director on Lost and responsible for almost all of that show's most cinematic moments.
- This is the first time Carmela and Melfi speak face-to-face. Thanks, Wikipedia!
- "Stop speaking in anagrams!"
- "What's this? We're in the Navy?"
- "So I told him … I'd take those Duncan Sheik records and shove 'em up his fucking ass."
- "You could have hair like Casey Kasem. It wouldn't make a difference."
- "Product brand names that begin in the letter V make people think of vagina. It's a turnoff."
Speaking to the Fishes:
- The squeezed-in nature of the Ralphie storyline is probably necessary, since he's going to show his darker side in the very next episode, and there's not really room to do much with this plotline in the earlier episodes. Maybe Gigi's promotion could have played out in an earlier episode and given Ralphie time to seethe, but those other episodes were crowded as well.
- This is probably the luckiest break Tony catches in terms of staying just ahead of the FBI. The show needs to figure out a way that Tony never gets arrested while not making the agents seem like idiots, and its reliance on Tony's dumb luck works, for the most part.
- Thus begins the long saga of the Bucco marriage, which will end up with Charmaine and Artie back together, seemingly just as unhappy with each other as always. Maybe this is one of those couples that's happier in unhappiness.
Next week: Tony deals with a big Ralphie problem in yet another of the series' best episodes, "University."