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The Sopranos: "Isabella"/"I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"

Illustration for article titled iThe Sopranos/i: Isabella/I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano
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"Isabella" and "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" (season 1, episodes 12 and 13)

The final two episodes of The Sopranos' first season are, essentially, one long two-parter. Between the two of them, they reel off classic scene after classic scene. (There was actually a moment in "Cusamano" where one all-time TV classic scene followed another for something like 25 minutes.) They also bring the first season of the show to a triumphant close, closing off the narrative arc for the season and leaving everybody in a place where the series could end but also hinting at a way forward for future seasons. No one involved in the production of the show knew if the series would air or if it would be a success, so these two episodes featured all involved tossing in every last idea they had. Some work beautifully (the hit on Tony is one of the show's best sequences). Some don't work as well (the whole concept of Tony seeing an Italian mystery teenager is … a little out there). But the cumulative effect of the two hours is like nothing else the show had attempted up until that point and like few things TV had attempted up until that point. (Thinking of other shows that had hit similar highs over the course of a handful of episodes up until this point in time, I'm left thinking of Twin Peaks' pilot and St. Elsewhere's "Time Heals." But that's … about it.)


I thought it might be useful to look at the final two episodes of the season as one unit and also consider how the first season as a whole works. The first season is, aside from the weird two-punch of "Boca" and "A Hit Is a Hit," probably the most coherent and consistent narrative the series would ever tell. It, in some ways, set expectations for the series to be a traditional mob narrative. Sure, the show would tell long, rambling, digressive stories about what these characters got up to when they weren't taking hits out on each other, but the series would always make time for those hits. The Sopranos would become ever more contemplative as it went along, usually for good reason, but it could deliver a satisfying payoff when it wanted to. And these two episodes are one fantastic payoff after another, practically action-packed for the show.

The basic storyline is as simple as the emotions driving the characters are complex. The hit against Tony, indirectly ordered by Livia and carried out by Junior, finally goes down, but thanks to a lucky moment, Tony doesn't get hit and escapes his prospective murderers. Slowly, he comes to realize that his uncle and mother were behind the hit, and he marshals his forces to take over the family from his uncle, whacking all of the men loyal to Junior and also taking out rat Jimmy for good measure. Junior is taken into FBI custody before Tony can strike back at him, and Livia has a stroke (or possibly fakes it - I think there's ambiguity here) before he can do much but rant at her. Carmela, meanwhile, closes off her contact with Father Phil for the time being. Artie Bucco reopens his restaurant and learns from Livia that Tony torched the first one. And Melfi, trying to help Tony, finds herself in ever more danger and finally takes his advice to go on vacation.


When you lay it out like that, it doesn't seem like all that much happens to fill two hours of TV time. Sure there are small scenes I didn't touch on - like Tony telling his crew that he's been seeing a psychiatrist - and there are narrative devices that seem there mostly to pad things out - like Isabella, the Italian exchange student. But for the most part, the show sets a bunch of the big character conflicts it's been building all season into motion and stands back to watch them happen, always careful to pay attention to the verisimilitude of the emotions in the moment. Take, for example, the scene from "Cusamano" where Artie confronts Tony with the rifle and accuses him of burning down his restaurant. It's a scene that's somehow tense and subtle all at once, as Tony tries to talk his old friend out of believing that he was the one behind the burning, even though both of them know he was. It's a scene where it's never immediately clear that Artie stops believing that Tony torched the restaurant, but it's also a scene where it's clear that Artie makes a choice, at some point, to stop caring. As he says to Father Phil later, it may be better to just go along with a friend than someone who only wants to bring misery into people's lives.

But look at how nicely these two episodes bring a close to season one as a whole. Virtually every important plot point is closed off, right down to relatively minor details like Artie finding out who torched the restaurant. But more importantly, every emotional beat that the series has set up is knocked down, one after the other. Tony's flitting attraction to Melfi finds its antithesis in his rage directed at her, and then his affection for her turns more protective and paternal (perhaps the only way Tony knows how to really relate to a woman) as he tells her to head out of town. The scene where Tony tells the guys that he's been seeing a psychiatrist, similarly, plays perfectly off of all of the information we've learned about this relationships with these three over the course of the season. The reactions of all four characters in the scene are consistent with what we've known about them over the course of the year.


Really, what makes the first season of The Sopranos so remarkable, what's made it the gold standard for series trying to establish themselves as serious drama and yet somehow still crowd pleasers, is the fact that it is almost entirely equal parts world-building and narrative arc. Every episode advances important plot points, for the most part, but every episode also deepens the characters and their situations and relationships with each other. When "Isabella" and "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" roll around, all of that time in "The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti" could feel like it was wasted, certainly, but it doesn't because a better understanding of the inner workings of Christopher makes a scene where he finally lets out some of that slow-building rage by taking down Mikey in the woods (as Paulie struggles with poison ivy - another nice expression of the series' bleak absurdity) that much more powerful.

Really, the difference between the first season of The Sopranos and most other well-known gangster tales is the difference between movies and television, between what makes each medium great. Even if you add the whole Godfather saga together, it falls short of the length of just this one season of television. In his terrific book Have You Seen …?, film critic David Thomson talks at length about 1,000 films he feels every cinema fan should at least be familiar with. Among the number, he includes The Sopranos as his sole U.S. television series candidate, and at the end of his essay on the work, he concludes that he'd rather rewatch a Godfather film than a Sopranos episode most days. That, of course, is correct. I would rather watch The Godfather (or its immediate sequel) than a randomly selected episode of The Sopranos, too. But where The Godfather succeeds in (relative) succinctness, The Sopranos succeeds in accumulation. Again, the difference between the two media.


I don't know that there's a single episode of The Sopranos - watched in a vacuum - that has the texture and sweep of one of the Godfather films. Indeed, the entirety of the series is almost what you have to watch to get to that point, and even then, who has time to do that? But the events of the final two episodes of The Sopranos would likely be the major events of a film like The Godfather (and, indeed, kind of are, since they're all about a mob boss consolidating his power). The events - murders and funerals and fraught confrontations - will always carry a kind of power because our reptilian brains are lined up to enjoy seeing big moments like this in our dramas. But the emotional undercurrents behind them, the character arcs that have led us slowly but surely to this point, that make all of these moments seem like tragic certainties, those are the kinds of things television does extraordinarily well, better than film when it wants to. Watch "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" sans the rest of the season, and you wonder why the hell anyone would compare this to Godfather or Goodfellas (or even The Public Enemy). Watch it at the end of 12 hours that build up to it, and the sense of time having passed, of the world slipping through your fingers even as you fight to hold onto it, is like nothing else any other medium can provide. Put another way: The Godfather, Part II, skips over something like five decades of history, but you're always consciously aware you're watching a film. Watch The Sopranos' first season, even on DVD over a few days, and you feel like those four or five months Tony talks about in the finale really have passed. Accumulation and time.

But it's not just about the ways that The Sopranos neatly finds a way to turn 11 hours of television into a massive, character-based prologue for two hours of typical mob movie action (that's nonetheless strikingly executed). It's about smaller things as well. Take, for example, the failed hit on Tony in "Isabella," one of the finest sequences the show would ever do. As Tindersticks plays to give a soundtrack to the depressive malaise Tony finds himself in, the guy stops to buy an orange juice and a snack at a streetside vendor. He walks back to his car. In the reflective surface, he sees a man approaching, pulling a gun from inside his coat. Tony turns, perhaps realizing what's about to happen. The shot shatters his orange juice bottle.


And it's then the will to live courses through him, the primitive instinct to just get the fuck out of there, even though moments ago, he might have been called borderline suicidal. He dives into the car as the music stops, evading the two men (even causing one of them to shoot the other), finally racing off with a look of something like satisfaction on his face. His life has been saved by these men in more ways than one. He's back among the living, and now that he is, there's not much that anyone can do to him. He walks through the rest of this episode and the next as if death cannot touch him, because, in a real way, it cannot. The hit on Tony is such a brilliant sequence because it's thrillingly shot and edited, yes, but it also finds a way to put a button on Tony's mental illness, at least for a while. The show has been slowly but convincingly building his mental illness to a point where it seems as though he might really be willing to throw his life away. And then, no, he isn't.

The rest of these two episodes, then, might be entitled The Depressive Triumphant. We know enough to know that if the show goes on for another season, Tony's issues won't be all cleared up magically by two men trying to take him down. But they've given him a new lease on life for a few days, and that's all he really needs to carry out his brute force justice against the men who've meant him harm. Season one is the most conventionally satisfying season of The Sopranos because it both builds to an actual climax (though the two people who plotted the hit against Tony are taken out of commission before he can get to them, the one reminder that, for all its boldness, this IS still a TV show) and because the emotional undercurrents of the season dovetail with the plot movement. The climax of the emotional storyline is also the climax of the mob storyline, and that becomes increasingly rare as The Sopranos goes on.


I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. Indeed, I like the ways the subsequent seasons play around with our expectations, expectations that were roughly built by this first season. The Sopranos became famous for anticlimax, and while there were plenty of anticlimaxes in the first season, the final two episodes are full of actual climaxes or at least emotional ones. Tony doesn't actually kill his mother, but when he leans over her and seethes about how he knows her plot against him and how he's going to live a long and happy life, then rants about how she's smiling, it's practically a murder anyway. In some ways, Tony has finally become his mother, at least as he relates to her, and the smile on Livia's face (which, I'll admit, can be read in any myriad of ways) seems to confirm she feels roughly the same.

Because when you come back down to it, the first season of The Sopranos is about a boy and his mother. The central emotional conflict of the season is not between Tony and Carmela - as it would be in following seasons - but, rather, between Tony and Livia. Given where the show would go in the future, it can be easy to forget just how important Livia was to the arc of the first season. Even the one element in these two episodes that just does not work - Tony's visions of Isabella - is directly tied to his idealized version of his own mother, at least in Melfi's version of the story. This is the story of a boy who fights to get the best for his mother, only to realize that the only way to really please her is to live down to her expectations for him. Livia's personality hangs heavily over the entirety of the series, the monster that can never be shoved back in the closet. No matter how many times Melfi puts a name on her particular mental disorder, the monster can't be pinned down. It'll strike out against anyone who tries to contain it, occasionally indirectly, as it does when Tony attacks Melfi.


I keep talking about the Isabella portions of "Isabella" not working, and I do feel I should qualify that statement. They're well-written little scenes, to be sure, but the whole attempt to make them a big twist ending that keeps incorporating new elements of the storyline (Tony also hallucinated a conversation with Carmela? Sure) ends up feeling like it's trying too hard. The Sopranos isn't exactly known for narrative trickery like, say, Lost, and though I had completely forgotten that Isabella was a figment of Tony's imagination (probably because this is not a show known for narrative trickery), it didn't make the ultimate reveal that she was - no matter how motivated by the lithium - any more satisfying. For some reason, this whole story feels just a bit beneath The Sopranos, a show which is usually better at portraying the troubled psyches of its characters than doing something so simple as outright literalizing them.

But no matter. Everything else in these two episodes is so well done that any objections to the Isabella storyline are washed away as quickly as they form. "Isabella" and "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" may tell one, long story, but they're also remarkable for how they bring another, longer story - the story of season one - to a close. There hadn't been a lot of television playing at this level before The Sopranos. There's been more since, but still not a lot. These are the episodes that, more or less, create the specter of some sort of crazy, violent show filled with whackings that the series would be on the run from for the rest of its lifespan. (It certainly doesn't help that a disproportionate number of viewers came to these episodes on DVD, which always makes a series feel faster-paced than it actually is.) But just because these episodes created something the show could not live up to doesn't mean they're bad or anything. Indeed, these are episodes that show just how easily the show could have been the big, mob saga so many of its fans wanted it to be. Instead, the series chose a very different path, one that was harder to trace and one that would bring many frustrations as the years went on. And yet I suspect that path was ultimately more rewarding than a path that would have simply brought the members of the Soprano family into conflict with newer and bigger mob bosses season after season. You can go off the trail, but first you have to earn the right to. The Sopranos does so with style here.


Stray observations:

  • Dominic Chianese was wonderful in the little scene where he decides not to betray Tony or Johnny Sack. He is 70. He doesn't terribly like being behind bars. But he's not going to betray the code.
  • Similarly, Tony and Carmela's decision not to enter witness protection is significant. There are a lot of moments in these episodes where the series could completely abandon the status quo - Tony could be killed, Junior or Livia could be killed, Tony and Carmela could go into witness protection - but the show is careful to return to that line at all times. It is, after all, a TV show.
  • From memory (which, admittedly, can be shoddy), Lorraine Bracco was most pundits' pick to win the Emmy for this first season, an Emmy which she lost to Edie Falco (the only Sopranos cast member to win an Emmy for their work in this season). Having watched the full season again, I'd have to give the edge to Falco. Melfi's arc is probably more important to the substance of the show, but we're already running up against the limits of what the character can be used for, which is as a kind of psychological expository device. Carmela's arc is only in its infancy, but the strongest moments for her character here - usually involving Father Phil - are as good as anything she'd have during the series. And if you know where Carmela is going, that's very good indeed.
  • What's interesting about these episodes is how the show doesn't entirely abandon most of its favorite themes to tell these stories. A few - like the primacy of good and evil over moral relativism (or vice versa) - kind of fall by the wayside in the pursuit of mob excitement, but most of the big ones make at least a cameo appearance.
  • Seriously, seriously great use of music in these episodes. There's Tindersticks, yeah, but also Bruce Springsteen playing hauntingly over the otherwise happy coda of "Cusamano." There will always be the shadows of awful things on the horizon for these characters, so long as they're in the business they're in.
  • Death count: Off the charts. One of Tony's assassins kills the other accidentally. Mikey kills the guy he and Junior hired the assassins through. And in the finale, Jimmy dies, Mikey dies, and the guy on the boat dies. (I have trouble keeping all of the various mob underlings' names straight.)
  • Speaking of the scene where Jimmy dies, I like the way it confirms that Jimmy was the one wearing the wire without ever confirming it.
  • I knew, intellectually, that Big Pussy didn't appear in these episodes. But I was surprised by how much it still struck me not to have him hanging around. I wonder if the actor was worried he wouldn't be coming back or not?
  • It's easy to forget at this point, but the first season of The Sopranos, while an absolute media sensation, was only a middling ratings hit, even compared to some of the other stuff on HBO. It wouldn't become a serious hit until the show started being released on DVD. This may have contributed to the show's Emmy loss to The Practice (!) for its first season. Then, of course, it would run into The West Wing steamroller for its next three seasons before finally winning in season five.
  • It shouldn't feel this way, but seeing Rosalie with Father Phil feels just as wrong to me as it does to Carmela, dammit.
  • Noel Murray's "A Very Special Episode" feature tackles a season two episode tomorrow. I have gone to the magical A.V. Club back-end, where the mystical elves that keep things running make sure all of the articles publish on time, and read the article. It's a great take on the show, and I'm a little amused by how the two of us made enormously similar points about the show's relationship to the mob movies that inspired it. (Those of you who find me unusually long-winded may enjoy his take even more.)
  • Finally, a procedural question: How would you like to handle season two? I'm going to have one week when I tackle just one episode. Would you rather that be the premiere or the finale week?
  • "Tony, how are you fixed for sweatsocks? We're gonna be right by the Sports Authority."
  • "You know, if I was that young lady and you came and took me to that dance and used that kind of talk, I'd slap your face!"
  • "We could sell some Indian relics by the road. Maybe have a rattlesnake ranch."
  • "You've got whooping cough! Get yourself under the vaporizer!"
  • "We got bigger things to talk about than Jean Cusamano's ass." "Like feelings of worthlessness sparked by your mother's plot to have you killed?" (This may be my favorite Tony and Melfi exchange of the whole season. Just perfectly aware of its own ridiculousness.)
  • "I think a lot of it is tied up with food somehow, as well as the sexual tension game."

Speaking with the Fishes:

  • Junior's in prison. We all know how his trial turns out, I think, but I had forgotten just how long it takes to get to that result. Obviously, no one involved with the production could have known Nancy Marchand would die, but I wonder if it didn't feel constraining to have limited Junior's position so much when Tony really needs an antagonist from the older generation. That said, the fact that Tony is pretty much rudderless in season three is what makes it one of my favorite seasons.
  • We see, for the first time, the agent in charge of the federal investigation into the Sopranos. He'll turn up here and there throughout the course of the series.
  • Artie Bucco's new restaurant, of course, will be an important setting for the seasons to come.
  • There's a LOT of stuff here that will get callbacks in later developments. Mikey, for instance, returns in "The Test Dream," and we get Paulie's callback to his poison ivy infection later on as well.
  • The Sopranos often ends seasons with scenes of the family gathering together, as it does here. And Tony's speech about remembering the good times gets a callback in the very last scene of the show and probably proves he dies somehow. (A note to the "Tony dies!" theorists who take over comments every week: I don't think your theory is wrong. But I don't think it's right either. I remain unconvinced that the final scene is a self-evident puzzle that has to be solved for the rest of the show to be satisfying. I think it's a solidly entertaining scene that can be read in any myriad of ways and remain satisfying. It says as much about what YOU BROUGHT to the series as it does anything about its actual self. But we'll get to that in, oh, two years.)

From the comments:

  • Bubbles makes the good point that Tony gets the idea to give Cusamano the box of sand from The Godfather, Part II, but Cusamano either doesn't make the connection or figures this is how all mobsters operate.
  • AV Club Crack Dealer kicks off a healthy debate about the best and worst seasons of the show. I think it's safe to say that I don't HATE any season of the series, though I come close to finding the back half of the first part of season six pretty pointless (I hear it works better in context). He specifically wonders just why I'm so high on season three. We'll get to that next summer, but I think it's one of the show's best seasons because it's the one where the rhythms of what the show does are firmly established, but it's also beginning to show the cracks around the edges of Tony's operation. In many ways it feels eerily prescient of the post-9/11 mindset that will settle in around the series' final three seasons, despite airing well before 9/11. (Season five is my other favorite because of the way the cracks burst wide open, and I think the Christopher and Adriana arc might be the best thing the show has ever done.) In general, I wonder why there's not more agitation for an "odd numbered seasons of The Sopranos" theory on the Internet. It's not that 2, 4, and the first part of 6 are bad, but their fans seem to be outnumbered by fans of seasons 1, 3, 5, and the second part of 6 (which was produced a year after the first part of 6 and would have been labeled as season 7 but for production deals).
  • And I like Tadzio's reading of "Nobody Knows Anything," even if I don't always agree with it: "Therefore, I think the review of 'Nobody Knows Anything' here is overly rigid. All we have is a compelling interpretation of Livia's actions, but the 'facts' are not altogether incompatible with a(n) alternate account(s): dementia, misunderstanding, etc. It is not obvious that Vin is wrong, nor is it even obvious that Jimmy is a 'rat.' Conversely (*spoiler alert*) it later does become obvious that Pussy is an informant, but remains ambiguous exactly when (although Tony has his suspicions with the Christmas/Santa flashbacks.) Ergo (in response to your first stray observation), I think the title simply refers to Tony's lament about all of this: no one knows where Pussy is, whether Paulie has already killed him, whether he truly is an informant, etc. I liked the line about when we stop living life and it starts living us, and I do think there were two very astute observations here: that our inability to control our appetites/desires drive us to ruin and that our actions are driven by our way of seeing/construing the world, and therefore to change the former requires changing the latter—a 'conversion' in a fittingly Catholic parlance. Therefore, Vin's suicide reflects a certain rigidity or inflexibility, an inability to give up his self-image and perception of the world and his place in it. If he were willing to be honest, confess and repent (again, a Catholic model of reconciliation) an avenue to redemption was open, however improbable or like threading a needle with a camel…"

Next week: Season two begins.

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