You’re a captain, Ralphie, when I say you’re a captain. [The Sopranos] (Season 3)

Season 3 of The Sopranos was more of a follow up than a continuation of season 2. Most of the storylines that dominated season 2 found a hard stop in its two-episode finale, and the one that lingered- Tony and his mother- was brought to an end by Nancy Marchand’s passing. So instead, we got new storylines, new characters, and a new tone.

Season 3 also marks a tonal shift. Seasons 1-2 feel starkly different from what season 3 brings (which is maintained through seasons 4, 5, and 6). The first two seasons were lighter, quite literally, the shots and scenes were often well lit and on sunny days, and when in-doors there was plenty of light and beautiful or at least comfortable surroundings. Not so with season three. Instead, the shots are mired with shadows. Tony sits in darkness as he talks to Dr. Melfi, the Bing feels claustrophobic and gross, Tony’s house is never lit up to the brightness of those early get-togethers, and there are just as many moments that play out in dark city streets or poorly lit backrooms in the middle of the night than in the broad daylight in front of Satriale’s with Paulie sunning himself. 

These visuals cue a change in the plot’s tone as well. The Sopranos was always dark. But seasons one and two made it easy to root for Tony. They made him a sympathetic hero, plagued by his overbearing mother, the loss of his American idealism, a family that he struggles to care for, and a crime family he would and nearly has to die for. But this isn’t the Tony we get in season three. 

And necessarily so. Tony has consolidated power, his mother is dead, his family is growing and leaving his home, his struggles cannot hold at the center. So instead, we get a spiteful Tony who makes hell for Ralphie because he just doesn’t fucking like him. Tony’s overt racism makes him try to bring Meadow back into his fold when she is getting away from him physically and emotionally, and when that works, he tries to bully her next boy into submission rather than deal with the harsh realities of Junior’s situation. This eventually costs Junior his life (in a call, by the way, that Tony refused to make, letting Ralphie, pseudo-father to the boy and boyfriend to the mother, make the call instead, a clear act of weakness we had not yet seen from him). 

But even besides revealing a darker side to Tony, this season sees a single mother get beaten to death, a fatherless twenty-something get capped in the back of the head, a capo have an aneurysm on the toilet, racism, abuse of women and children, and precarious mental health situations, on top of the adultery, crime, death, and ruined lives that were a part of the previous seasons as well. 

Season 3 is an important development for the show, a rebuild from not making enough lasting storylines in an amazing season two and from losing the one they did, and a redirecting so the tone and plot stay more consistent into future season. It feels as if in this season the directors and producers settled in and cast a long term vision for The Soprano’s greatness.

However, no one can talk about season three, or The Sopranos in general, without mentioning ‘Pine Barrens.’ Its virtues half been extolled in many pieces, but from the 3,000 foot view I am taking in these Long Overdue Recaps, I did find one aspect of this episode particularly interesting- the state of Paulie and Chrissy’s characters. When I think of Paulie generally, I think of a content appendage, loyal and prone to fits of selfishness and unawareness, but mostly a necessary cog in the machinery. When I think of Chrissy, I think of a malcontent, untrustworthy and always gumming up the works. But for this memorable episode those roles are reversed. Paulie’s discontent had been building all season, and this anger comes out on the Russian, not as a solitary act, but a culminating one and, as we know, begets the whole clusterfuck.

On the other side of the van, Chrissy is newly made, focused, and trusted in this scenario (Tony asks Paulie to put Chrissy on the phone to confirm that what Paulie said was true). Chrissy was right all along even though he was outranked by Paulie and had to walk through his mistakes- he told Paulie to chill out at the Russians, they should have eaten first, they were going too far into the Barrens and were going to end up lost- Chrissy was on a roll. 

In fact, the whole season, besides an episode and a half tiff with Tony, was void of Chrissy’s major blow ups, drug use, and general poor decision making. And I didn’t remember that… which is probably why they made him a hot mess again not too much later.

But, as good as the single episode of ‘Pine Barrens’ is, it does not, to me, outshine the body of work of Joe Pantoliano as Ralph Cifaretto. He embodies a type of gangster that the show didn’t really have upon his entrance. He is understated in comparison to the caricatures of Paulie and Sylvio. He also provides a new foil for Tony after Junior and Livia and Ritchie all made their exits in one way or another. And he creates a great story. He is so hatable in the beginning, but by the end, as he sits to watch TV after burying the son of the woman he is seeing, a death he was responsible for, he is easy to feel sorry for. Maybe he isn’t likable yet, but he isn’t just the rat bastard who beat Tracee to death. And he went from the scum of the earth, to someone we can empathize with on the fulcrum of Tony’s pettiness and spite- making him grovel for forgiveness, only making him captain after he is forced to, and even then, manipulating it to his own advantage. Ralphie brought some of this spite on himself to be sure, maybe even most of it. But maybe for the first time, we get a glimpse into how deeply flawed Tony is, through his family and through his psychiatry, but maybe through Ralphie the most.

Previous Posts In This Series:
Sometimes we’re all hypocrites. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 2
It’s business. We are soldiers. [The Sopranos] (Season 2) Part 1
Long Overdue Recap Of Season 1 [The Sopranos]

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