“Rat Pack” (season 5, episode 2; originally aired March 14,2004)
In which old rats climb on board a new ship
We’ve discussed before how The Sopranos has at its core a rather devastating critique of the typical ways television does business, even as it adheres to those rules. Nothing can ever change; any plot development is eventually returned to the status quo. The characters might have brief moments of insight, but those moments are few and far between, and they’re almost always tossed aside in favor of going back to the way things were. Tony might have a breakthrough in therapy, but that breakthrough is always shallow and quickly abandoned. The other characters fare no better, and the only people able to really change are tertiary characters, who pop up every once in a while to remind us that people, yes, can make up their minds to live their lives differently and actually see those plans through.
It stands to reason, then, that if things don’t actually change and the characters are stuck in their patterns both because it’s easier to stay stuck and because, on a meta-level, they’re TV characters, then all of them are horrifically trapped. Season five is the one season of The Sopranos I’d say actually attains a certain level of Shakespearean grandeur for this very reason. Previous seasons came close, but David Chase’s love of anticlimax would always cut the show off at the knees when it would seem to be heading in for the grand, final moment. Season one perhaps comes the closest to this season in those terms, but the characters were also less well-defined at that point and less fundamentally tragic. Season five is like act four of Hamlet in a lot of ways: The shit’s really starting to hit the fan, and the supporting cast is getting weeded out, and everybody is starting to realize how this is all going to end.
Part of the reason for this involves the two characters “Rat Pack” (the first script Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner is ever credited with for this show) turns its focus to most often. Adriana is starting to realize that her informing to the FBI can only end poorly, and the nerves are finally starting to get to her. (In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised the other wives/girlfriends in the movie club don’t start to suspect something is up in this episode, what with how she breaks down after Ro starts talking about Judas’ betrayal of Christ, but I suppose Adriana’s about the last person anyone would suspect. That’s why the FBI picked her, after all.) In the parallel plotline, Tony Blundetto has gotten out of prison, and now he’s decided that it’s time to make a go of going straight as a licensed massage therapist. He’s had a taste of what it’s like inside, and he never wants to go back there. If he can keep on the up and up, then he just might have a chance of building a new life, a smaller, quieter one, sure, but one that doesn’t end with him back in the clink or dead.
The question of season five—and this episode—then is whether these characters can escape the traps they’re caught in. But in a larger sense, that’s the question the show asks of all of the characters at this point. Carmela, in her nice, big house, doesn’t want to go back to her husband, but there’s always the sense that as long as she’s there, he’s going to keep insinuating himself into her life. The same goes for Tony, who’ll always be trapped by his old patterns of behavior but also finds himself surrounded by emptiness, longing so much for someone to talk to in the middle of the night that he calls his cousin out of the blue and tries to start a conversation with him, even as his cousin has to go to work in the morning. (I love the way that Tony, again, seems sort of like a giddy kid in this scene, even as the subsequent footage of him settling in to watch TV underlines just how much of a man all by himself he really is.)
But it’s Tony B. and Adriana that we’re really concerned with here (and really concerned with this season). Those who criticize season five often do so via Tony B., who’s a character that apparently meant a lot to all of the characters that abruptly turns up out of nowhere in this episode. Of course, this is the sort of thing that all TV shows eventually have to bump into, as they’ll need to introduce an important new character, then intimate that this is a longtime confidante of the series regulars we just haven’t met yet. “Rat Pack” even comments on this a bit, as Bobby, Jr., when meeting Tony B. for the first time, asks where he’s been and why he’s never heard of the guy. But the show also suggests that in some ways, that’s how it is for these guys. Once someone is off in prison, it’s not uncommon to rarely hear much about them, especially after their trial and sentencing. Do we really think that Paulie and Silvio would sit around, wondering what Tony was up to if he went off to jail? Of course not. There’s a certain sense of out of sight, out of mind with these guys.
And, really, isn’t that the way it always is? Yes, the stories Tony tells about when he and Tony B. were kids, stories about how they were called “Tony Uncle John” and “Tony Uncle Al,” are sweet and nostalgic, but they’re also coated with the show’s healthy dose of cynicism about that kind of nostalgia. The entire episode is framed by a painting that a contractor named Jack Massarone gets for Tony of various performers in The Rat Pack, the sorts of guys that Tony would have a healthy dose of nostalgia for. Tony’s tickled pink by the gift, but events soon lead to him realizing that Massarone has been flipped by the FBI and is recording the conversations he and Tony are having. The realization eats away at him, giving the picture darker undertones. The same night as he calls Tony B. at 3 a.m., he spends endless amounts of time trying to arrange the picture and not cause him the anxiety he feels at what may or may not have transpired with Massarone. Finally, he leaves, driving over a bridge and flinging the painting into the water below. Smash-cut to the FBI finding Massarone’s body, golf club stuffed in mouth, in the trunk of a car. Did Tony order the hit? Probably. We don’t know. All we know is that the realization of who Masserone was became an acid chewing away at the relationship Tony had with the guy. He’s become a man trapped by the fact that he can’t trust anyone, and with good reason.
It’s that inability to feel true nostalgia for anything but a false version of a world that didn’t really exist that also colors the release of Tony B. and the other characters from prison. (Phil Leotardo is also in this group.) It’s the false nostalgia that leads Little Carmine to tell Johnny Sack that he was like a son to his dying father, a comfortable lie told to avert some of the grief felt while the old man was on his death bed. And it’s the flipside of Ro’s anger at Angie Bonpensiero at something her husband did, the anger that’s led the other women to push Angie out of the group. (And remember: The last time we saw her, Angie seemed pretty hard up.) In the world Tony and his gang are in, you can’t question things too long, or the inconsistencies start to eat away at you. Everything has to be either all good (Jesus and Frank Sinatra) or all bad (Judas and Big Pussy). And when things start to take on those darker undertones, best to just chuck them over the side of a bridge.
Or you could try to get out. That’s what both Tony B. and Adriana are doing, both with limited success. It’s Adriana who best figures out how to exploit her perilous position. After nearly cracking and telling the other women in the movie club about her decision to inform (a scene I never quite buy that nonetheless works because Drea de Matteo—who turned in career-best work this season—plays it so honestly), she rushes out to her car, injuring herself in the process. But she soon realizes that she can’t keep feeding the FBI non-information forever, nor can she really give them much that would bring down Tony or her fiancé, both because both men have kept it that way and because, well, she still feels more allegiance to them than the FBI. And yet her tentative relationship with her FBI contact continues to grow, as she begins to realize this woman is the only person in the world she can be truly honest with. (I love how the show portrays this relationship as a kind of cruel friendship that can never be a friendship because it’s logistically impossible. It has the contours of a normal female relationship, but it’s also something based entirely on a disproportionate power arrangement.)
Adriana’s also worrying about the fact that her friend Tina spends a lot of time at her club and seems to hit on Chris quite a bit. (Early in the episode, Tina talks about how she wishes she could find a guy like Chris.) Yet Adriana finds a way to get her revenge on her friend and assert her power in a hopeless situation by reporting Tina’s check-cashing fraud to Agent Sanseverino, who dutifully starts taking down information in her notebook. Finally, she’s got something worth pursuing, while Adriana can feel fairly confident that she won’t find herself in trouble with Tony after what she did because Tony won’t even notice, most likely, and he’d never tie it back to her if he did. Isn’t Tina supposed to be her best friend?
Tony B.’s the one who can’t quite figure out what to do next. In many ways, his situation parallels Carmela’s. They’re both dependent on Tony in ways they wouldn’t like to be—Carmela depends on his earnings, while Tony B. depends on him to find a job—but they’re also both determined to make him a minimal presence in their lives, even as the very lives they lead make that essentially impossible. Tony B. is trapped by the fact that once you’ve been in the mob, it’s very, very hard to go straight and by the more practical fact that as a convicted felon, it’s going to be hard to find the kind of work that would eventually let him open up his own massage therapy practice. But he’s also trapped by the fact that all around him seem sort of confused by the idea that he’d even want to go straight. When Tony is trying to figure out how to handle the Masserone situation, Chris suggests that, hey, Tony B. could do the hit, because no one would be watching him. Tony angrily wheels on his nephew, saying that Tony B. is trying to go straight. But even Chris knows that it’s just a matter of time before all of this comes out, before the whole thing goes back to the way it was back in the day, before the old ways reassert themselves.
That’s the thing about traps, generally speaking. The more you try to struggle, the more you find yourself getting sucked down into them. The problems Tony B. and Adriana find themselves caught by aren’t things that just suddenly came up. They’re fundamental problems that have existed for years (and in Tony B.’s case for decades). They’re a part of the world both characters live in, and they’ve been caught by them ever since they made the decision to get involved. The only way to win the game at the center of The Sopranos is not to play, and even though Tony B. is trying desperately to get out of the game and even though Adriana is trying desperately to find a way to play both sides, neither is going to be able to find a way out. The situation they’re in requires a tragic end, and the best they can do is try to forestall that as long as possible. And if you wonder why I call this season Shakespearean, well, I’d hope it all makes sense now.
- The scenes with the women’s movie club are both very funny. In particular, I like the fact that they apparently watch Citizen Kane on VHS, and I like the discussion afterwards where Carmela tries to keep things going by bringing up the cinematography and no one has much of anything more to say about that.
- Ray Curto continues to be an informant, but he doesn’t have a great deal of information to impart to the FBI, even as he tries to clear up recordings he made. Later, he tries to get the FBI to up his compensation for the work he does. Nobody suspects Ray within Tony’s organization, but he also doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to anything that would send Tony away.
- I do like the way the episode reminds us that the FBI is out there, plugging away at the Soprano trial and still has so little to show for it. That’s hammered home in a scene where the lawyer reminds the agents just how little they really have on Tony, especially with Livia dead. Plus, they need to figure out how the jury member was flipped, even with rock-solid proof of Tony’s guilt. There’s an alternate version of this show that’s just about the FBI agents chasing Tony, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s almost as compelling.
- One of the reasons Tony’s so suspicious of Masserone: He’s the one person in the episode who says it looks like he’s lost weight. One of the reasons Tony blows up at Tony B.: He suggests that Tony’s gotten fat (jokingly). Tony and Tony B. might have been very close friends at one time and might have been able to joke about this. Those days are over.
- Junior ties the Class of 2004 into the episode’s general theme of misplaced nostalgia, calling them “rats on a new ship.” He then calls Tony B. “Tony Egg,” showing that his dementia is progressing.
- The Agent Sanseverino origin story—she became an FBI agent after a guy with a stolen gun tried to use it to open a coconut and paralyzed her sister (his girlfriend)—is kind of ridiculous. I sort of want to say she’s lying, but she seems genuine. And I don’t think she’s making the kid and ex-husband up either. (I keep wanting to say her husband was Will Arnett, but that’s the other agent.)
- Matt Weiner contributed his first script for the series to this episode, yes, but it was also directed by Alan Taylor, who directed the pilot for Mad Men down the line, as well as a number of other key episodes on that show. (He’s also directed some great episodes of Boardwalk Empire and Game Of Thrones in the last year.)
- The point-shaving incident Junior refers to is actually a real thing.
- Opus Dei was very much in people’s thoughts back in 2004. That was the year The Da Vinci Code really exploded into a phenomenon. (It had been published the year before and had been a bestseller ever since.)
- Things that no one should have to think about: Bobby trying to find Janice’s “rosebud.” (There. Now I made you think about it again.)
- And with that, we’re going to take a couple of weeks off for premiere week. We’ll be back here come Oct. 5, when we’ll jump to “Where’s Johnny?”
- “I loaned the guy some money, he tries to kill himself, and guess who got the blame?”
- “It’s like Sun Tizzu says…”
- “Tzu! Tzu!”
- “To give us some background, let’s see what Leonard Maltin has to say.”
- “So it was a sled, huh? He should have told somebody.”
- “Nothing like being in the joint to learn how to ease a man’s tensions.”
- “She goes from zero to bitch any time I show a little warmth.” “That’s gotta be tough.”
Speaking With The Fishes:
- Adriana, of course, is doomed, but I forgot that the season so quickly zeroed in on her plight. I know it’s central to the storyline of season five, but I had remembered her not really taking center stage until “Irregular Around The Margins,” one of the season’s classics.
- This is the last time we ever see Tina, so I have to assume that Adriana’s information got her put away, though if anyone has information to contradict this, go ahead and share.
- Lorraine, the woman at Carmine’s funeral, gets a minor storyline for this season, though it’s one that’s mostly resolved in the very next episode.
Coming Oct. 5: Uncle Junior goes for a walk in “Where’s Johnny?”