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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Sopranos: "Pie-O-My"

Illustration for article titled The Sopranos: "Pie-O-My"
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“Pie-O-My” (season 4, episode 5)

In which the copies are never as good as the real thing.

You get to see one of Tony Soprano’s most unguarded emotional moments in “Pie-O-My.” There’s no one there he’s trying to impress or, alternately, hide his emotions from. There’s, really, no good reason for him to be feeling this way, except for the fact that he feels so, deeply. It’s just the man, an ailing horse, a goat, and the viewer. The rain outside is pouring down. More than many other moments on the show, this is an intensely private moment, one where we get to see someone simply be alone with their emotions. The horse, Pie-O-My, might be dying, and this seems to affect Tony more than any other event we’ve seen him deal with in the show’s entire history. It’s a strange thing to be worked up over, but it’s representative of the show’s use of animals as vague symbols of something that can’t quite be properly expressed, of the hopes and joys we yearn for but never quite attain.

I don’t think “Pie-O-My is a great episode of The Sopranos, but there are some great scenes and great storylines within it. It’s surprisingly thematically cohesive, for as far afield as it seems to go, and it’s put a great deal of thought into every story choice, no matter how minor. It’s very much the kind of episode that exists to put things in place for episodes to come, but even when it’s doing something as obvious as having Janice all but throw herself at the newly widowed Bobby, it’s doing so in a way that’s smart and understated (well, understated for Janice). But I come back to that final scene again and again. It might be the first time we’ve seen Tony really grieve for something, and this is a man who’s seen friends fall, who had to order the death of the young man he swore to keep out of the mob life last season. Whatever part of himself he’s shut off in regards to emotions felt about humans has been left open, just a crack, for animals. He feels horrible about Pie-O-My’s potential death because he can.

In some ways, “Pie-O-My” is all about how representations and replacements are never as good as the real thing. The key to this idea is Junior Soprano’s RICO trial. The trial has mostly been going on in the background all this time, where other series’ might have made it the main plot focus of the whole season. Instead, we don’t really go to the courtroom, just as the other characters don’t seem terribly interested in seeing what’s up with the old man. However, as he hangs out at home and tries to adjust to Murf (himself a replacement for the absent, grieving Bobby), he sees coverage of the trial on TV. When it comes time for the courtroom drawing of him to appear, Junior is borderline offended. The artist thinks he looks like THAT, like that blobby, misshapen, old man?

It’s a funny scene (largely because the drawing really is that bad), but it gets at a larger truth about the show: None of these people is terribly aware of how the world sees them. The Sopranos was always very good about portraying how all of these people saw themselves as far more important than they actually were, as somehow BETTER than the lot in life they had drawn, and it was also very good at punctuating that bubble almost as soon as it had been constructed. But “Pie-O-My” uses this idea of stand-ins, of things meant to symbolize or represent other things, in nearly every storyline, and the characters are always forced to confront the ways in which they’re lacking, even if they’d never acknowledge it. Junior doesn’t want to think the world—even one person!—sees him that way, and even if the other people in his life insist that the real artists would have paintings hanging up somewhere, he remains fixated on that drawing, to the point where he spends the next day in court glowering at the artist from his perch at the table, focused on the representation that doesn’t matter, rather than the reality that does, the reality that could land him in jail.

Or take the character who’s arguably the main character in the whole episode, Adriana. She’s very quickly realizing that Crazy Horse, while a respectable business, is mostly there to provide a front for her boyfriend and his mob friends, giving them a place to talk business that won’t be bugged. (Of course, little do they know that Adriana herself IS a bug.) While the bands out front and the music she loves are the ostensible reason for the club’s existence, she knows the score. When Tony and the guys come by to beat a man named Giovanni early in the episode, she waits outside, watching what happens, the gruesome reality of the life she’s tried to shield herself from right in front of her eyes. And later in the episode, when she tries to walk into her own office, Tony and Ralphie are there, having a conversation, and he ushers her out. She’s in charge, but only as a fake, a dupe, someone to sign the checks and seem like the person out front while the real power waits behind the scenes and forces her out.


This idea of something that only serves a symbolic function, at best, recurs in that early scene where Tony visits. As Adriana watches him drinking and talking, her mind splits (indicated through dutch angles and distortion in the music) and thinks of what he would do if he realized she’s been cozy with the FBI. She’d be dead. She’d be destroyed. (It’s deliberate that Tony is seen at both his imagined worst and at his most nakedly emotional in this episode, and that those moments bookend it.) It’d be one thing if the FBI were any sort of safety net, but it’s not. The bureau clearly just wants to pump her for information and doesn’t necessarily care how it gets it, so long as it gets that information. When she finally starts talking, it’s because Servitto and the others simply wait her out, keeping her in a car for long periods of time on the pretense of official business. (Tellingly, the one moment of genuine emotional connection Adriana experiences in the episode comes from the former “Danielle,” who wishes her well in trying to get pregnant someday, and it’s a connection Adriana spurns. “Danielle,” of course, was a fake friend, someone who put on a false face and pretended to be someone she wasn’t.)

Adriana’s a pawn in two different games, someone who might think she has power but has only been handed the illusion of power. She only talks to the FBI once she realizes just how thoroughly Crazy Horse isn’t hers at all. The episode ends with her desperately reaching for drugs, seeking any possible way to avoid the nausea clawing at her gut, even if it’s ultimately a fake cure.


Bobby, meanwhile, is dealing with one of the episode’s more obvious replacements, as Janice attempts to move in on him, shunting aside Jo-Jo, another woman who wishes to help him, and then insinuating herself into his life as best she can. She cooks for him—or, rather, she appropriates other dishes and passes them off as her own, as Junior points out—and she picks up his kids from school. She tries to create the semblance of a normal life for him, and in this case, at least, the appearance of a normal life is enough to get him to move forward. He’s able to interfere in the union election, as Junior wanted him to, and he’s able to begin putting his wife’s death behind him so he can move on. Sometimes, just having someone there who’s willing to step into the role you need them to (even if you don’t know you need that) is enough to get you to start plodding forward, and Janice, in her own stubborn way, becomes that person for Bobby. She’s not Karen, and she never can be. But she can provide enough of the stability Karen did for him to blunder on ahead. At the same time, he’s not ready to let go entirely. That ziti still waits for him in the fridge, as touching a symbol of a man’s devotion to his dead wife as TV has ever cooked up.

And then there’s Tony, who finds himself locked into two very different struggles with his wife and with Ralphie this week. Let’s start with Ralphie. I love the way that Pie-O-My doesn’t sit still as a symbol. At the end, she seems to represent some sort of purity deep inside of himself that Tony has misplaced somewhere along the way, the one place where he can be truly honest with himself. But earlier in the episode, she also represents a good way to make money and a way for Tony to assert his authority over Ralphie. Pie-O-My, of course, is Ralphie’s racehorse, one that he purchased with his own money (under the name of his maid, in a gag that keeps repaying dividends throughout the episode). But once Tony takes an interest, it’s almost as if the horse becomes HIS, even though he doesn’t have any money in the horse. For Tony, everything that belongs to those under him is ultimately his, and he deserves his cut.


Notice the way this balance of power shifts. At first, Tony’s supposed genius with how to run a race—genius that only seems so accidentally, since the horse inadvertently follows Tony’s guide to the race, due to a slow start out of the gate—allows Ralphie a way to suck up to his boss. He tells Tony how smart he is, plies him with money, lets Tony be the bigger man. But as Pie-O-My wins another race—this time with Tony just copying the advice of the trainer—Ralphie comes over to give Tony his cut, and Tony keeps his hand held out. He wants more. Now that he expects a cut of Ralphie’s gambling winnings, he’s going to take more and more until he finally gets it all. Pie-O-My is a money-making opportunity for both men, but in Tony’s eyes, the horse is his, both because it belongs to Ralphie (his underling) and because he really cares for it, where Ralphie seems to mostly see the money it could make. In its own way, Pie-O-My represents the entirety of the relationship between these two men, in often surprisingly subtle ways.

So, of course, as Pie-O-My increasingly becomes Tony’s interest, it increasingly becomes Tony’s problem, as Ralphie foists the horse off on his boss (just as he’s attempted to shove so many problems off on Tony over the years), giving the maid Tony’s phone number so he’ll settle accounts with the vet, who’s there to keep Pie-O-My from dying. And why shouldn’t he do so? Tony’s essentially taken over the horse’s winnings. Why not take over the horse’s care? He’s, after all, the one who really is interested in the beast and really cares for it. As Carmela asks Tony just why he has to go out into the rain to care for a racehorse, a racehorse he hasn’t technically invested in, the answer is clear to us and him but could never be clear to her. Pie-O-My isn’t his, but she is, all the same. He’s invested in her emotionally, somehow, and that never happens with Tony Soprano. Now, he’s backing that up with money. (There’s probably a graduate-level thesis just waiting to be written comparing Tony’s treatment of this horse and his treatment of the one other living thing he seems to genuinely love, his daughter, who doesn’t appear here.)


And just as Adriana is longing for more and realizing how little she has, Carmela is beginning to push against the artificial constraints her marriage and her husband have placed on her. She’s supposed to take care of the house, Tony says, and now that she’s getting involved in the investment game and trying to get him to sign papers designed to provide for the family in the event of his death, it’s like she’s violating that unspoken bond. Ginsberg the accountant, in particular, advises that Tony not sign the papers for the trust, and when he doesn’t, it angers Carmela even more. If he really cared for her, if he was really that caring husband and not just a lump on the couch, he would sign those damn papers. He tries to do the right things, the things he knows how to do, by coming up with his own trust plan (still working through Carmela’s cousin!) and buying flowers. He tries to call up old days, back when things were less hectic, when Carmela enjoyed a TV movie about Winston Churchill. But no matter what he does, there’s nothing he can do to recapture those feelings. He feels more for a horse than he does his wife in this episode.

And, really, if you think about it, those two differing representations of Tony, the good husband—the folder of papers waiting to be signed and the endless array of gifts—both seem like a pretty good guy, sure, but they couldn’t be further apart. Tony’s trying to be the man he thinks Carmela wants, but he’s too far away from her to realize what she needs has changed.


Stray observations:

  • Some excellent sound work in that scene where Tony is laying in bed and watching TV, with the hair dryer, A.J.’s music, the TV documentary, the rain, and the dialogue all contributing to the soundtrack but none of those items dominating the other.
  • The song from Rio Bravo returns as the final song in the episode. It’s a nifty way to weave in an earlier motif from the season in a very subtle manner.
  • I love the chilling scene where Servitto asks Adriana if she REALLY believes Pussy and Richie are in the witness protection program. You can see decades of deeply held beliefs shattering in Drea de Matteo’s face.
  • The crude footage from the racetrack being stuck in with the rest of the beautifully filmed episode really sticks out like a sore thumb. I get the choice to use that footage—actually going and filming at the racetrack probably would have been very expensive—but particularly in the scene where Tony and the guys are looking down over the track, it seems a little embarrassing.
  • Some great, wordless acting from Aida Turturro and Steven Schirripa in that scene where Janice gives Bobby a pep talk and then grabs hold of his hand a little too long before trying to excuse it as a part of the pep talk. She’s a desperately lonely person, grasping at straws.
  • Both Vito and Adriana fall over in the broken chair (well, Vito actually breaks it); both are heartily laughed at before anyone asks if they’re OK. (To be fair, I laugh long and hard at both moments, too.)
  • I love the almost Biblical composition of the final shot (seen above): The rains coming down like sheets outside, Tony sitting alone and off to the side, the horse lying in what might be its death throes, Tony producing a cigar, the goat trotting on in like some ill omen. (Careful! He butts!) It’s all very nicely framed. (I will say that you can see the horse just waiting for the take to be over so it can get up.)
  • And with that, I’m off on vacation, so you’ll have to talk about everything I missed. See you guys next week!
  • “No, Tone, watch out for the goat. It butts."

Speaking With The Fishes:

  • Interesting that Ginsberg raises the possibility of divorce this early in the season. I still remember how the upset nature of fans throughout this season eventually calmed down somewhat once they realized David Chase and the writers were building to the death of the Soprano marriage. Seen now, knowing what’s coming, the season plays even better, with lots of great foreshadowing.
  • Pie-O-My, of course, will become one last symbol of Tony and Ralphie’s relationship, as Tony finally erupts in anger over the horse and kills Ralphie.
  • Karen Young’s Agent Sanseverino makes her first appearance. She’ll go on to become almost something like a confidante to Adriana, though I wouldn’t call the two friends.

Next week: Tony learns the fate of an old girlfriend in “Everybody Hurts.”