"Big Girls Don't Cry" (season 2, episode 5)
Imagine for a second that you're a cop or a doctor or a man who travels the country fighting crime in an intelligent car that holds conversations with you. Perhaps you have a big adventure every week or so. Perhaps you solve a crime or fix a sick kid or stop a mobster with your talking car. But what happens in the down time? What happens in between all of the big things that make up your weekly adventures? Do you go home to the wife and kids and slowly find yourself losing your mind, out of sync with who they are and what they want? Do you scramble to simply maintain your position within your workplace? Do you start to resent the talking car just a little bit?
The Sopranos was so revolutionary, in part, because it was a series made up of in betweens almost entirely. Particularly after the first season, there were episodes that featured mob action, but for the most part, this was a show about being a person alive in the late '90s and early 2000s and trying to figure out a way forward. There were hints of this direction in season one, but from season two onwards, The Sopranos became a show that was content to just plop the camera down in the corner and observe the way these people lived when they thought no one was watching. The mob stuff was like the weekly case on a cop drama: It was all performance, designed to terrify the target of the violence as much as actually hurt them, a threat of something even worse to come. The Sopranos suggests that the real story comes when you think no one is watching, when you're in therapy with your shrink or when your girlfriend enrolls you in an acting class for writers.
This is the first episode scripted by Terence Winter, whose credits prior to The Sopranos include Sister, Sister; The New Adventures of Flipper; The Cosby Mysteries; and Diagnosis: Murder. If you look at the shows he worked on before The Sopranos, they're mostly sitcoms, and the only one that's trying to say anything of note at all is The PJs (a not terribly successful series, but at least one that was aiming for something more than "Wouldn't it be fun to have a dolphin as a pet?"). David Chase had a habit of picking up people who'd been in the industry for years at a time, often getting nowhere and having careers filled with frustration, often sitcom writers, and turning them loose on his universe. Chase, of course, had final say over everything and rewrote scripts heavily (though not as heavily as someone like David Milch would), but The Sopranos is the one great drama series of the last ten years where it's still possible to detect individual authors' voices poking out from underneath the main authorial voice. Winter's was the most distinctive, though you'd never expect it from his prior credits.
Winter is a guy who's fascinated by those in between spaces. His best episode, season five's "Long Term Parking," for which he justifiably won an Emmy, features one of the series' biggest moments, but everything leading up to that moment is gripped by despair and anomie, by a sense that nothing can proceed and all of life is stuck in neutral. The best scenes in Terence Winter scripts tend to be set in kitchens or in living rooms or in Melfi's office. He's someone who can write the mob stuff, but he tends to be more interested in what's happening elsewhere, as though showing off that he can do this kind of stuff, but he'd rather focus on anything but that. This approach drove some fans of the show wild, but Winter became one of the two or three most important Sopranos writers over the course of the show. All of his trademark devices are fully on evidence in "Big Girls Don't Cry."
Take, for instance, the episode's big mob plot. Tony brings Furio over both to have someone he can completely control but also to have someone he can turn loose at a moment's notice to deal some almost complete fear. Now, he's forced to figure out a way to get Furio hidden away, the better to keep the immigration authorities from catching on to what Tony's up to and the better to have him as a pit bull at the ready. We've seen what Furio's capable of in "Commendatori," so we know there's a squall about to break. When it does, on Furio's first assignment, it's a thrilling sequence, captured ably on handheld camera by director Tim Van Patten, following Furio through the building as he deals out punishment.
But then the camera cuts away, back to the car, where Tony takes a call from Dr. Melfi, who's asking him to come back to therapy, concluding her arc for the first five episodes of the season. Winters has spent a surprising amount of time on Melfi's decision-making process in her own therapy with Kupferberg, particularly as the fact that Melfi will take Tony back seems like a foregone conclusion. There's very little room for her on the show if she's not treating Tony, and superfluous TV characters tend to end up off the show. Given how important Melfi was to season one, it was clear that she'd be back in the mix somehow, but the show also had to deal with her decision in something like an emotionally real way. This episode is that attempt.
There was some talk in comments last week about the idea that Kupferberg and Melfi miss the forest for the trees when talking about her dream of Tony's death. The radio, of course, is playing the song from The Wizard of Oz, "Out of the Woods." ("They're in the poppy field," Kupferberg contributes, unhelpfully, after Melfi, embarrassed, sings a few bars; Winter scripts are usually chock full of weird and absurd little moments like this or like Tony's girlfriend wearing her floaties on his boat.) One of you suggested that this means that Melfi's subconscious is trying to tell her that the death of Tony would mean she, herself, was out of the woods, free to continue her life without the psychic strain that Tony brought to her.
I think that's certainly a possible reading (and one I like), but I also think it ignores how distraught this idea makes Melfi. Clearly some part of her isn't yet OK with giving up Tony as a patient. Why would she take him back if that were the case? Maybe it's due to a sense of professional obligation, and maybe it's due to some sort of addictive thrill she gets from being in his proximity (the vicarious thrill people who aren't gangsters get from being around Tony is a big theme this season), but in any case, I think her subconscious is more conflicted than that comment would suggest. She's trying to move toward a place where she can give Tony Soprano up, maybe, but she's not yet there, and she's starting to recognize she won't be there for a good, long while.
There's another character who's dealing with Tony's influence hanging over his life in Christopher. The story of Christopher's aborted try at acting class is one of my favorite Christopher stories in the series' run, and it's the highlight of the episode (which I should say I find a little dry and academic in places - it's good, but it's not my favorite). Adriana purchased a membership in an "acting for writers" class for Chris' birthday, and now, he's started attending. The typical tack here would be to make Chris a pretty terrible actor, someone who can't get past his gangster bluster, but instead, Chris turns out to be surprisingly adept and natural at it, all the while terrified of what would happen if anyone found out that he was this good and this able to cry on cue, as it were. When Adriana seems even mildly amused by his ability with the Rebel Without a Cause scene, he immediately retreats back into his shell, hiding behind his hyper-masculine self.
Ideas and ideals of masculinity swirl throughout The Sopranos, just as Carmela and the other women in the mob life find themselves trapped by outdated ideals of what a mob wife SHOULD be. Just as going to therapy was something that Tony felt he had to hide from the world, Chris can never wholly embrace his acting ability because doing so requires going to a place where he's not a hardened criminal and is, instead, a sensitive person with feelings. Adriana suggests that Chris' reaction to the Rebel scene has much to do with the way that his father died when he was younger, but I'd argue it also has much to do with his complicated relationship with his surrogate father, Tony. Chris has spent much of the series to this point trying to get Tony to notice him, and he doesn't have much for it. When he punches the actor who played his father in the Rebel scene in the nose (in one of the more hilarious moments of the season), he's punching his own sense of vulnerability, to a degree, but he's also working out some aggression he has toward Tony.
And Tony's the other figure that stalks through this episode (as he always does), his anger slowly curdling out of control. Psychotherapy often suggests that unexpressed emotions may express themselves through rage, and much of this episode seems to be asking the question, "Why is Tony so angry?" He pulls the phone out of the wall. He grabs the Russian man who dares make fun of him to his girlfriend by the balls. He explodes at even the slightest of provocations. By all accounts, this is a guy who should be on top of the world, and yet the weight of it keeps bearing down on him. This is something the very next episode will deal with perfectly, but it's impressive to see it set up with such success in this episode.
Naturally, what Tony can't deal with is the fact that a.) he's a criminal and b.) his mother tried to have him killed. Both things weigh heavily on him in this episode. One of the arcs of The Sopranos is Tony slowly compartmentalizing himself more and more, and we get a slight reminder of how far he's slumped since even the pilot when his girlfriend feeds those ducks off the side of the boat. At one time, the ducks were a symbol of all of the things Tony hoped for that he had to set aside and a symbol of his fears about his family scattering to the winds. He still cares for the ducks, but he's off to the side, now, not the one feeding them (and, instead, suggesting they not be fed, somewhat sensibly, but also in opposition to things he himself did in season one). Tony, like his protege, is shutting out more and more of the world.
"Big Girls Don't Cry" isn't, as mentioned, my favorite episode of this show. There are long stretches where there's a definite sense of the wheels spinning before things can really get going again (and I wonder how much Nancy Marchand's health concerns played into this), and the Furio arc has never captivated me as much as it obviously did the show's writers (though I'm being consistently proved wrong about things I thought I knew on this rewatch, so maybe I'll find him the most captivating character ever this time through). And while I like Winter's approach of showing the moments in between, it will take a few episodes before he finally nails it down and starts to turn out some of the all-time classics he was responsible for. If there's one thing The Sopranos is great at, it's suggesting ominous storm clouds on the horizon. This episode more than does that, but I can't help but wonder if there wasn't a way to do it a bit more succinctly.
- On the other hand, we get the revelation from Hesh that Tony's father also suffered from panic attacks, which mostly saves the party for Furio scene. It's not a bad scene, but it's also not one that accomplishes a whole lot in terms of story or theme or … anything. Still, the connections between Tony and his father weigh as heavily on the show as they did last season.
- With Furio's arrival, Tony hands out promotions all around. I also like Pussy and Skip commiserating about no longer being in their respective bosses' favor.
- Always good to see Artie and Charmaine, especially as their old stalemate over Tony Soprano raises its head again.
- It's been a while since we saw Johnny Sack. I always forget just how relatively unimportant his character is in the early going of the show.
- And speaking of the above, some of you are asking me to cool down on spoilers for the time being. I'm trying as much as I can to keep discussion of future events confined to the Speaking with the Fishes section, but considering the entirety of the series is about the slow accretion of theme, rather than fast-moving plots, it's hard not to talk about thematics. I will endeavor to discuss more how the themes relate to prior episodes than future ones, and I will continue to keep all future plot points out of discussion. But this is a show where it's remarkably hard to stick to just what happens in any given episode, and I hope you can understand that.
- Kupferberg is such an asshole (in an amusing way). I love his attempts to discuss weight gain with Melfi.
- The Melfi's therapy scenes really serve to underline just how useless the show finds therapy, I think. It's clear that Tony and Melfi build a bond, but most of the other therapists on the show are all but useless. Kupferberg's question of just who in The Wizard of Oz Tony might be strikes me as particularly stupid.
- Chris tossing out his screenplay is such a sad moment.
- "You wanna hear this fuckin' dream or not?"
- "Just watch your intake of sugar and sugar substitutes."
- "Acting is mostly feelings, unless the actor's driving a car or sword fighting or something."
Speaking with the Fishes:
- Carmela and Furio's first meeting is more subdued than I remembered it being. Clearly, she's aware that he exists and he her, but the whole flirtation between the two was slower-building than I remembered it being. Obviously, my head conflates events on this show massively.
- Winter's directorial debut would come on yet another episode titled after a Frankie Valli song, late season six's "Walk Like a Man," an episode which has some interesting parallels with this one, what with another surrogate father figure for Christopher causing consternation for him.
- Winter wrote a huge number of episodes over the course of the show, including four of the last nine! Among his scripts are several that would be in my top ten episodes of the show's run, including "Pine Barrens," "Long Term Parking" (possibly my favorite episode) and "The Second Coming." Now, he's off making Boardwalk Empire, which sounds good.
"The Happy Wanderer" (season 2, episode 6)
I've heard some commentators on The Sopranos say this episode is strictly middle of the pack, but I don't get it. This is one of my favorite Sopranos episodes ever, potentially even in my top ten. I love the more standalone episodes the series tends to throw in the middle of its seasons, and even though this one has stronger ties to what happens next than, say, "College," it's still an hour that can largely be broken out of the whole show and watched on its own. I also love episodes of this show that deal with the addictive influence of Tony Soprano on those around him, on the way that he preys on men's weaknesses and thinks nothing of it. And I love episodes where the Sopranos are oblivious to the way they leave everyone around them scrambling. "The Happy Wanderer" is all of those things and more.
The whole episode is constructed to build to its final line, when Carmela finds out that Meadow's duet partner, Eric, has abruptly dropped out of cabaret night, so Meadow will get to sing the solo she wanted to sing in the first place (all the better for college transcripts, see?). "That's a lucky break," Carmela says. "I wonder what happened?" What happened was her husband, and even though she knows what her husband did, she fails to put the pieces together, to see how just being around Tony caused Eric's dad to crumble, to fall back into bad habits and create a situation where he finally snapped and "ruined" his son's life. (I use the quotes because Eric continues to live and breathe, but his dad is so heavily indebted at this point that it's hard to see how Eric will go to one of the expensive colleges he wants to, and he's lost his car, a big deal to a teenager.)
Obviously, I'm giving Tony too much influence in this scenario (and more about this in Speaking with the Fishes). David Scatino (wonderfully played by Robert Patrick) is a man who has every opportunity to say no, to walk away from the game and head back to his wife and son. But he never takes that opportunity. He's weak-willed. He's a gambling addict. He's the kind of person Tony preys on, and on some level, I think, he knows it, which is why he keeps pestering Tony to let him into the executive game and why he also falls in debt to Richie. Scatino is one of the show's most resonant portrayals of a guy who just can't help himself, who gets stuck in a pattern and then finds other men all too willing to prey on that pattern.
At the same time, though, the show is careful not to exonerate Tony either. If he truly were Davey's friend (as Scatino keeps insisting), he wouldn't let him get involved in the game. He'd continue to remain firm that this is not the situation for someone who's, ultimately, a successful small-business owner, but not someone with wealth on the level of the mob guys or Frank Sinatra, Jr. There's an argument to be made that Tony is trying to make the whole thing seem more appealing to David by withholding it from him, but it really does seem to me (in this episode, at least) that Tony is simply trying to keep someone he's essentially friendly with from falling into a situation he's well aware could ruin the guy's life. The relationship between the two is complicated by their casual friendliness, a friendliness that Tony understands much better than Scatino does. When Scatino is in to Tony for $45,000, all of that goes out the window. Money's involved, now, and Tony's going to get what he wants.
Really, everyone in this episode is out to get what they want. Meadow wants her solo. Richie also wants his money from Scatino. And Scatino just wants to gamble. There's a sense of all of the loose ends tying up a bit too neatly, of this being a preordained morality play, but I still love the way it all plays out. That Meadow gets what she wants at the end and actually knows just why Eric is quitting suggests that she could take a moral stand against her father if she really wanted to … but she'd rather have that solo on her list of accomplishments when she's applying to colleges (and, honestly, isn't the timeline a little weird here, in terms of when she'd be applying?). Tony gets the car as partial payment, but he's also going to get interest from the sporting goods store. Scatino gets to play in the executive game, even if it costs him dearly. The only one who really doesn't get what he wants is Richie, who just grows more and more resentful.
I also love the atmosphere of the executive game. At its best, television can give us a sense of immediacy, that we've been deposited into a world we normally wouldn't visit and left to look around for a while. The executive game definitely accomplishes this. How many of us would get the chance to gamble along with people like Silvio or Frank Sinatra, Jr., particularly at an all-night, high-stakes poker game? There's a certain vicarious thrill to the mob stuff on The Sopranos, a thrill that the show is both dismissive of and fond of, knowing that we wouldn't be watching if it wasn't there. The executive game is one of the few times when the show seems to take actual joy in depicting a certain mob tradition, even if it pops up out of nowhere at the start of this episode. The show is well aware of its ill effects, but it does seem to view the idea of this backroom card game as weirdly intoxicating, and that feeling bleeds over to the audience.
In general, I'm as skeptical of the mob tropes as the series itself, but I like the executive game. I think it's probably because the scene is written with such a perceptive eye for the characters and who they are and is often laugh out loud funny. Watching Sil's slow descent into gambling-induced anger, which he takes out on just about everyone else at the table, is a lot of fun, as is watching Paulie trying to make idle conversation with the rest of the guys. And having Christopher's two underlings from the stock firm show up and do their very best to suck up to Tony is funny as well. It's a fairly light and breezy scene for one that pictures a man's complete and total undoing, and it stands out as a highlight amidst the gloom of season two.
But, of course, there's more to the episode than the unraveling of David Scatino. For one thing, Tony is back in therapy as a full-time concern, and he's slowly uncorking some of the anger that's been building up over the course of the season. For as pivotal as the therapy scenes were in season one, I think the therapy scenes in season two are even better, and this episode and the last one (where Tony reminded Melfi that she knows exactly who she is) are a big part of the reason why. The scenes are now almost as much about Melfi, wondering just why she's taken this man who nearly ruined her life back as her patient, as they are about Tony, and the two are on more even and honest ground. They're able to get deeper into issues closer to Tony's core psyche, and the darkness that Tony exudes in any number of them is fantastic.
Here, of course, Tony unveils the idea behind the episode's title: He hates seeing people walking along the street who are happy, as though they don't have a care in the world. Even though he's on top of the world, often more successful than these guys (and it's heavily implied that Scatino may be one of the ones he's referring to), he wishes he could be as carefree. He's hemmed in both by what he does and by the fact that the life he's chosen limits his ability to express himself. The show is now digging more directly into the idea that some of the causes for Tony's problem may be directly inspired by the fact that, well, he intimidates and kills people for a living, and that has to exact some sort of psychic and moral burden at some point, as must the constant fear of being killed or going to jail. The therapy scenes in this episode are bitter tete a tetes, with Melfi probing uselessly at some of the things Tony says, unable to get down to the root of his anger, perhaps because she, herself, is afraid.
There's also, of course, the matter of Tony's mother, who turns up at a funeral for Tony's brother-in-law's father, who dies one day after retirement when a gust of wind blows him off of his roof (something that greatly concerns Tony in therapy). Without being able to hold her darkness over her son's head, Livia's importance to the series has been greatly reduced in season two, turning into just another thunderhead on the horizon that could pop up at any time to ruin Tony's day. (More practically speaking, some of this had to do with Nancy Marchand's health concerns at the time.) But the scene where he nearly leaves the funeral simply because she's attended is a killer. All she has to do is look at him for all of those feelings to well up inside of him again. Melfi is more right than he'll admit about his parents making him unable to feel much of anything beyond resentment, but there's no way to get him to realize this.
And yet, the basic story of "The Happy Wanderer" is fairly simple, as all of the best stories are. A man knows the devil and thinks he can make a deal. When it turns out he can't, he keeps making new deals to get out of his original deal. And when he gets down to the very end of it, he realizes the devil essentially owns his soul, and there's no way out without further ruining the lives of others, which he begins to do. It's a classic motif, one that's played down throughout history. What The Sopranos does is makes the devil in the story the guy we've been sympathizing with all this time and invites us to say that, yeah, Tony is owed his money (which he is) and that he has every right to collect it. Or, as Tony puts it, "A grown man made a wager. He lost. He made another wager. He lost again. End of story." The show asks us, on the other hand, if we agree.
- The final performance of "The Happy Wanderer" that plays over Tony's daughter getting everything she wanted is by Frankie Yankovic. I actually knew this one without Wikipedia consulting because my grandma loved that record.
- I love Scatino's excuse for taking away his son's car. Offroading, indeed.
- I believe this is the first episode of the season to feature the season's entire credited cast, even if some of them are only there for blink and you'll miss them parts (like Janice). The Sopranos always had such a large ensemble that fitting everybody into the same episode became tough in later seasons, and that is already starting here.
- Should we add Tom to the death count? We didn't see him die, but we DID see his funeral. Let's count him half a time, shall we?
- The poker dealer is another of my favorite minor recurring Sopranos characters. "No help. Mysteries abound."
- I wish Frank Sinatra, Jr., had become a more important character. Actually, I don't wish that, but having him turn up here is still such a weird thing to see.
- Finally, what do we think of the revelation that there was another brother in between Junior and Johnny Boy? I've been straining to tie this mentally handicapped brother into the episode's overarching themes and failing. Maybe you guys can do a better job.
- Again, this show has a perfect ear for the kinds of music people listen to and/or perform. "Sun and Moon," one of the more bearable numbers from the awful Miss Saigon, is a song that every high school male/female duet partnership performed at one time or another in the '90s (as this season was filmed in 1999), and all of the instances of Muzak are perfect too.
- "I got the world by the balls, and I can't stop feeling like I'm a fucking loser."
- "She kept talking about my father's feeble-minded older brother, but I always thought she meant you."
- "So whaddaya think?" "There's a resemblance."
- "I'm losing my balls over here, and this fucking moron's playing Hazel!?"
- "Who the fuck listens to prize fighters?"
Speaking to the Fishes:
- First of all, Vito turns up for the first time ever here, even though he gets basically nothing to do. Vito is, of course, the gay mafioso whose escape to New Hampshire to sleep with a Morgan Spurlock look-alike takes up so much time in the first part of season six.
- As hinted at above, Tony says in season three that he tried to subconsciously influence Scatino to get involved in the game. Is that true? I have no idea, but Tony obviously thinks so. I don't give him that much credit.
- The Scatinos will turn up a few more times this season. I wonder if there were plans to bring them back that were scuttled by Robert Patrick ending up on The X-Files and John Hensley ending up on Nip/Tuck? (Incidentally, when it looked like HBO wouldn't pick up The Sopranos based on the pilot, David Chase was talking to Fox about joining The X-Files.)
- The other poker players make re-appearances as well, and even the dealer turns up a few more times.
- Artie Bucco pulls away from giving David money, but he REALLY pulls away when he learns he's in hoc to Tony. Artie's allegiances will shift as the series goes on, but he is pretty consistent in his attempts to not get financially involved with people who are indebted to Tony.
- Lord Running Clam made the comment I talked about above. Here it is in full: "I pointed out how Melfi's arc was pretty much defined by whether she would let Tony defile her (note how Tony will soon echo Defiler's 'You know what we are, you know what we do' when Melfi calls him back into therapy). The dream of Tony dying is part of this and it is also a subtle lampoon of dream analysis in therapy in that it shows us two trained professionals missing the message Melfi's subconscious mind was trying to send her: Tony's death would mean freedom for her. that's why 'you're out of the woods' plays as she drives by his dead body. Melfi's dream was warning her gainst resuming therapy in language that, in dream speak, could hardly have been clearer. And as the season progreses, we will see Melfi become more and more Tony-like and unstable. I've said this before, but once Melfi makes her decision in 'Employee of the Month,' this arc effectively ended and Melfi would go from being a character to a device." Man, I can't wait to get to "Employee of the Month."
- An offhand comment by Rowan comparing Richie to Marlo Stanfield from The Wire got some of you musing on which Wire characters are like which Sopranos characters. I only mention it again because I think the subject would make for more fascinating discussion.
- And, finally, I was asked again to defend why I called season two a "minor" season of The Sopranos (I assume I did this, since people keep asking me about it every week, though I don't remember doing it). I certainly don't think it's a bad season or anything (I don't think any season is bad). I just prefer other seasons to it, though I'm liking it much more than I remembered on this rewatch. I do think that there are places coming up where the show gets a bit too obvious, but we'll deal with those as they come, including …
Next week: "D-Girl." I'm not really looking forward to that one. But also, "Full Leather Jacket," which is much better.