“Eloise” (season 4, episode 12; originally aired 12/1/2002)
In which Furio skips town and Carmela falls apart.
The Sopranos invented the by-now-standard formula where the next-to-last episode of a given season featured the big, dramatic moments, and the season finale featured more of a ruminative tone, a look back at where everybody had been. So far, this pattern has held true for the show’s first three years. But “Eloise” is different. Stuff happens in it, sure. Furio heads back to Italy, Johnny Sack offers Tony the hot tip that maybe things would be a little different if Carmine weren’t around, Paulie kills his mother’s tormentor (or is it the other way around?), and Meadow has her parents over for dinner at her new apartment. (And I’m not crazy, right? We’ve never met any of these people both Meadow and Carmela are mostly familiar with? I know this is the first time we meet Finn, but Colin? Alex?) And yet because we’re definitely heading somewhere—and I won’t spoil where that somewhere is, if you somehow don’t know what next week holds—“Eloise” is a little more frantic than previous penultimate episodes, even as it seems like not much happens in it. The episode has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get us from “Calling All Cars” to “Whitecaps,” and that makes it feel slightly too busy at times.
But it’s a good kind of busy, that sort of busy where the show sets up so many plots and characters to bounce off of each other that it sort of doesn’t matter that the episode is so chaotic. (In the sequence where Tony and Furio are at the casino, the show keeps cutting to other stuff that’s supposedly happening concurrently, and it really seems like the timelines don’t match up.) Season four has been slowly bringing a huge number of plotlines to a simmer, and now it’s working to push a few of those over into an outright boil. Hell, the episode seems to pay off some storylines that didn’t really seem to exist before this one, like that conflict between Meadow and Carmela, which very much feels like a season-long arc the show just forgot to work into the other 11 episodes somehow. And despite having all of this stuff going on, the episode is very deliberate, almost stately in its pacing. Nothing here moves too quickly or too suddenly.
At the episode’s center are two people dealing with crippling disappointments: Carmela Soprano and Paulie Gualtieri. Carmela confronts the fact that the man she loved (who loved her in return but could do nothing about it) has fled the country, after nearly pushing her husband into the propeller of a helicopter. (He may be the only one who remembers this happening, as Tony was fairly drunk at the time and doesn’t make mention of it the next day, instead more upset that one of his top guys has fled to Naples, rather than being upset at nearly dying.) Paulie, meanwhile, has built up in his head all of this time that he could so easily switch over to New York, and instead, he finds that Carmine doesn’t have any idea who he is, even after he goes to all of that trouble to track Carmine down at the wedding of his housekeeper’s daughter. And at the same time, the ladies down at Green Grove aren’t being very hospitable toward his beloved mother, which means something’s going to have to happen.
Season four plays so thoroughly with our expectations that the “big whacking” we might expect from the latter quarter of a Sopranos season comes in episode nine, leaving the death in this episode to be that of Minn, Paulie’s mother’s “friend,” who’d really rather not deal with Mrs. Gualtieri altogether. Like the fight between Artie and the French investor, the scene where she dies is something that’s almost shot as if it’s being played for comedy, even though what happens is so ghoulish that it chokes any laughs down. (The series, as always, portrays old women as opportunistic vultures, who won’t hesitate to make any given person’s life miserable because that’s what they do, apparently. Check out the scene where the women squabble over the free rolls at dinner after Paulie takes them all to see The Producers on Broadway.) The show, via its seasonal structure, has warned us not to get complacent, but “Eloise,” if nothing else, is an episode where those cries from fans that nothing happened in season four are sort of understandable.
And yet so much is happening, all the same. Take a look at Carmela. Carmela was a character fans often detested, largely because she had plenty of illusions about her own goodness that she refused to examine in any sort of depth. (Say what you will about Tony, but he was at least honest with himself about the surface level of his life.) She was, in short, the most basic version of the character type that has bedeviled serialized dramas starring antiheroes since The Sopranos invented the many tropes we associate with the form today. Betty Draper, Rita Morgan, Skyler White, Martha Bullock: They all trace their basic lineage—the wife who gets in the way of the hero/antihero’s dark business—back to Carmela, and they’ve all encountered similar resistance from fans.
And maybe one of the reasons for the relatively poor reception season four has from fans is directly due to the fact that so much of the season is spent hanging out with Carmela, slowly realizing that she’s completely and utterly depressed and has no outlet to pour herself into, no hope to cling to. And, yeah, that’s not as viscerally exciting as Tony killing Ralphie, but when the show brings all of the strands together in “Eloise,” when she starts sniping at Meadow solely because Meadow is not only the person she can never be again but the person she never was, it’s as devastating an emotional climax as the show ever came up with.
Just look how carefully the show builds all of this in the course of this episode. Carmela and Furio continue to dance around their attraction to each other, getting ever closer to just admitting their feelings for each other, all the while seeming further and further away from that moment. (The little look of hopefulness on Carmela’s face when she says, “It’s a date!” in response to Furio’s willingness to go with her to Colortile is pretty damn sad, in and of itself.) The hardest thing about being in Carmela’s situation is that Tony has given her no real good reason to stop loving him. He’s a brute, and he doesn’t understand her on an emotional or psychological level, sure, but those things have always been true of him. In his eyes, he’s still the good, providing husband, even reaching out to give her the trip she’s always wanted. In her eyes, he’s a prison guard, keeping her trapped in a life she increasingly doesn’t want, even if she’s too comfortable there to ever leave.
So after Furio almost puts Tony through the propeller and skips town, Carmela finds herself having to figure out just what happened on her own. Even more crucially, the episode invites us to sympathize with her, not just on the level of being fellow people who’ve loved and lost but in terms of thinking that if Carmela and Furio had hooked up, well, that might make for a juicy storyline. How long would they be able to keep it from Tony? What would he do when he (inevitably) found out? Yeah, we’ve seen these beats before, but rarely with men as volatile as Tony as their center. Instead, all we get is that shot of Carmela peering into Furio’s now empty house, Tony’s anger about how one of his top guys took off for Naples, a postcard that seems to be from Italy but is just from a local business, advertising its wares. Carmela is cut off from the object of her infatuation, just as we’re cut off from a story with any sort of build to a climax. Like a lot of things in life, the story of Carmela and Furio just ends. Maybe Carmela will move on, like Ro says she will, like Tony says Meadow will once Finn leaves. But that look in her eyes suggests that Furio was not so much a potential lover as he was an escape hatch that’s now been welded shut.
If there’s one area season four excels in, it’s the way it portrays interactions between the Soprano family members. The scenes between Carmela and Meadow, where Carmela can’t quite pinpoint where her fury is coming from, are terrific, but so is that scene between Tony and Meadow on the staircase. Meadow’s pieced together just why her mother’s in such a bad mood, thanks to one of A.J.’s typically self-centered rants, and as she listens to Tony try to puzzle out just why his wife seems like such an alien creature to him now, we see that she gets it, sees for one of the first times that her parents are just as confused and messed up of human beings as she is. (Tellingly, this is the scene where Meadow first learns her father has been in therapy.) There’s a kind of mild amusement mixed with awe in that moment in every child’s life, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler plays all of this perfectly. For once, she understands her parents better than they understand themselves, even if it’s in this one tiny facet. And that final scene—where Tony tries to get Carmela to forgive Meadow and doesn’t realize how thoroughly what he’s saying is stabbing at his wife’s very core—is similarly well-written and built to throughout the episode. So many of these season four episodes have ended with scenes between Tony and Carmela where both partners are bringing completely different thoughts and ideas to the table, even if they’re ostensibly talking about the same thing. This is another case of that, one where the show gets away with Tony indulging in cliché simply because cliché is the last thing Carmela wants to hear right now. She wants someone to share her pain, but all pain is, ultimately, lonely.
Perhaps more significantly, Furio’s exit leaves Tony down another man as tensions with New York ramp up. Christopher’s in rehab, Ralphie’s dead, Paulie’s loyalties are questionable (at least until Carmine doesn’t recognize him at the wedding), and now Furio’s in Italy. Tony’s pretty much down to Silvio and a few second stringers (notice how much he has to call on Vito in this episode—Vito!), which is a bad position to be in if you’re going to try to go to war with a much more powerful family. And yet here’s Johnny Sack, offering Tony an out. Carmine’s gotten so loopy that he’s hurting Johnny’s bottom line, and Johnny’s enough of a pragmatist to know that he and Tony could both have their lives made better if Tony would just take the initiative of bumping off Carmine. (Gandolfini’s “Holy shit” after Johnny says this without really saying it is another terrific moment.) The New York vs. New Jersey storyline has come on strong in the last few episodes. Is there going to be enough room to wrap it all up in “Whitecaps,” hopefully in explosive fashion? That’s the question fans were asking back in 2002, at least.
But what’s interesting is how well “Eloise” prepares us for two different possible finales, one that explodes in mob warfare and one that shows a slow dissolution of people who’ve let each other down in myriad ways. What we expect heading into the next episode is something big and climactic, simply because of the genre we’re playing around in. But the show has equally well-prepared us for any other of a large variety of options. Because sometimes, things blow up, and warfare breaks out, and lots of people end up dead. And sometimes, you don’t push your boss into a propeller, and you take off for Italy, leaving questions and recriminations and sadness in your wake.
- Junior’s trial also gets some amount of focus, and the scene where the mobsters intimidate the jury member by being very, very friendly is another good one.
- Something I still don’t quite understand: Why the hell does the union guy who comes to shut down the Esplanade project drive around in a truck with a rat on it? I presume he’s an exterminator or something, but it’s such an odd little detail.
- The scene where Carmela angrily protests the fact that everything has to be about gays nowadays over dinner at Meadow’s place made me supremely uncomfortable. It really captures that moment when one of your parents is saying something you think sounds really retrograde and stupid but you’re powerless to get them to take it back perfectly. (Also, the fact that all of Meadow’s friends seem to find Tony amusing is the perfect grace note to Carmela’s desperation.)
- Hey, Garden State! The Sopranos got to The Shins TWO YEARS before you did. I’m glad we could establish this.
- I love the way that Paulie turns over the money he stole from Minn (who never deposits anything in a bank), and Tony remarks that it seems like he must have robbed a bank to have this much cash.
- Billy Budd and Death In Venice seem a little heady for A.J. Is he in AP English somehow?
- Remind me: This isn’t the first time the show has brought up Carmela and Meadow’s birthday tradition of dining at the Plaza in front of the Eloise painting, right?
- More class issues bubble around in this one, with Meadow’s friends coming from families with far greater ties to the world aristocracy (in one case, literally!) than the Soprano family.
- Another person Tony’s cut out of his life, heading into the finale: Dr. Melfi.
Speaking With The Fishes:
- I tried to stay away from spoilers above, but here, we can talk freely. I’m amazed by just how perfectly this episode prepares us for “Whitecaps,” yet it’s incredibly easy to get distracted by the mob stuff. This is just a great job of getting us prepared for one thing, then blindsiding us with something else we didn’t even know was an option. And the title of the episode even indicates what we should be paying attention to!
- Carmine, of course, dies early in season five, but not in a way that would offer lots of exciting, blood-n-guts climax.
- Finn sticks around for a surprisingly long time before Meadow does finally forget about him.
Next week: Season four concludes in unexpected fashion with “Whitecaps.”