Season four of The Sopranos is a victim of its own greatness. For me, Whitecaps, is the best episode in the entire series, a wrenching, hour long tour de force by Gandolfini and Falco. But to reach that peak, the show needed to burn slow, slower than they normally burn. Which means the first half of this season toddled along, lighting fuses that would eventually set off fireworks, but not yet, and until we get there, we must content ourselves with the small embers cast our way by the burning wick.
After finishing season four, even remembering what happened at the beginning of the season is difficult. Those moments were consequential (some of them at least) but only in relation to how they started a conflict, and once that conflict ignited, those early storylines receded out of memory. There is a beauty to that type of storytelling, a real ‘heart of the human condition’ situation where, at the point of highest conflict, what got us there rarely ever matters, and it certainly is not on our minds, or even decipherable to us.
So at the end of the season, when Ralphie was murdered by Tony, and his body had been chopped up and buried, and his role had been reassigned, and the damage had been mitigated, we stop thinking about his fights with Janice, his bickering with Paulie over no-show jobs, and his joke about Ginny Sac’s weight. What we remember is that Johnny Sac hated Ralphie, that Paulie was glad to see him go, and that Janice, in a long struggle to find someone to love and appreciate her, has now found a modicum of happiness in the big lovable oaf, Bobby Bacala.
And take Bacala for example. At the beginning of the season, he was just named as acting capo for Junior’s crew. He was happily married, and Janice meant nothing to him. He was such a small character at that point in the show, but through the course of the season, in storylines that largely served other purposes, Bacala became a whole new character by the end of the season. Its brilliant. But it’s not always engaging.
Especially considering not every character had that same payoff. In what might be one of the worst episodes of The Sopranos, ‘Christopher,’ Sylvio takes offense when Native Americans protest the Columbus Day parade. In the process, he disagrees and disobeys Tony’s wishes, turning into a surly figure that Tony has to deal with. There are inklings of this dissent in Sylvio in other moments as well, a subtle sign that Tony may lose the confidence of his top guy. And because The Sopranos takes these small embers and blows them into big flames, we expect this to happen, maybe even more so because why else were we put through that horrendous episode? But nothing ever comes of it. Sylvio, at the end of the season, is the same guy, with the same amount of loyalty to Tony. And so it goes I suppose. But this is the weakness of season four. When the slow burn pays off, the victories seem to make it all worthwhile, but sometimes it didn’t seem worth it.
A storyline that seems to bridge this gap, as equal parts great and questionable, was the slow burn of Chrissy’s descent into addiction. At the beginning of the season, he is still a casual user. Was it problematic? Yeah, but not debilitating. And by the end of the season, Tony can’t even call the guy without him showing up high on skag or not show up at all because he is high on skag. The best part of the storyline is how slowly they get us there. It’s a frog in boiling water. Through each episode they just slightly increase the temperature on Chrissy’s drug use, until we don’t even remember that he used to handle both heroine and the gangster life fairly well. But the payoff seems odd (in this season). He goes to rehab and gets out in a couple episodes, and becomes a Coke (the soda not the drug) guzzling workout fiend, and we are left to wonder, what became of this? Obviously, this is an important lift off into the next few seasons, but in the moment, it seems strange.
But the storyline that holds it all together, that all other storylines contribute to and, in the parameters of just season four, exist for, is Tony and Carmella’s marriage. Edie Falco carries this season. Her facial expressions, her subtleties, her ability to communicate so much more than words ever could or should, feel both worth the slow burn and the payoff. For a while now, we knew Carmella was unhappy with her marriage in an abstract sense. She did not like that Tony cheats, she did not like that Tony did not let her in on their financial situation. And in season four, these two elements merge and become much more real. She did not trust Tony because of his unfaithfulness and that extends to their finances. She asked to be a part of their finances through her own connection, Brian, but Tony is unwilling to grant her this small control over her own present and future, and even that which he does concede is manipulated and controlled and ends with Brian becoming one of Tony’s guys, making Tony money and completely committed to him. This seemed like the shuttering of the last window overlooking a world of freedom and control for Carmella.
Concurrently, she finds a nail from one of Tony’s gumars, Tony re-meets, if not reunites, with Irina, Bobby mourns the death of his wife, Svetlana starts taking care of Junior, and Furio buys a home. All storylines that seem unrelated but meet at the point of their impact on Carmella and her unhappy marriage. She feels suffocated by Tony, trapped in her own home. One of my favorite images from this season is Carmella laying underneath Tony as they have sex, covered by his gigantic body, the shot is crowded and we can barely see Carmella’s face, turned to the side, eyes shut. She appears to be, quite literally, smothered by Tony.
Conversely, we see the light in her eyes whenever Furio arrives, the small glances in the mirror to adjust her hair, the shifts in tone when it is not Furio, the joy when it is, and the disappointment when Furio says he will stay in the car. And it never feels over the top, like someone wouldn’t act that way, or if they did it would be obvious to all those around. It was obvious enough for viewers, following her story, but made such painfully perfect sense in each moment as well.
Furio, for his part, did this well too. In the span of a season, he went from a fun but static character, to a conflicted, dynamic character full of longing and love and a need to be loved that all seemed so out of reach, trapped in the concrete jungle as he was, longing for the beauty of Naples.
Also, and maybe this was just because I dreaded that phone call from Irina at the end of the season, but I couldn’t help but notice how frequently the phone rings in this season (and maybe it is just in the series overall). It becomes such a nothing-moment, to be interrupted by a cell phone or the home phone. It happens multiple times in a lot of episodes. Tony even decries his cell phone for always interrupting him (a quaint notion in the early aughts). So when Carmella, sick with grief after Furio’s disappearance, answers the bedroom telephone, we are primed for… nothing. And what we get, is a shock to the system, and all those stories, burning bright or merely sizzling along, explode.
We feel it like a punch to the gut- the fingernail, the finances, the stolen 40,000 dollars, Svetlana, Tony actually having broken it off with Irina, Furio, the fact that Carmella never acted on her love for him, the emerald ring, Whitecaps, Bobby’s love for his wife. And Tony and Carmella hurl a season (and a series) worth of issues at each other, a list of how they weighed and measured each other and found their spouse wanting- the jab before the MRI, the list of lovers, ex-boyfriend’s, the money they lived off of, hypocrisies big and small.
And each fight is more spectacular than the last. Falco and Gandolfini pull of some of the most intense and deep expression of emotion and conflict that television has ever offered, and it happens in three rounds of character development as Tony and Carmella come to grips with the loss of their marriage.
This is a storyline that makes the whole season feel worth it, even if it didn’t always feel like it along the way.
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