The Sopranos Season Two (HBO)
Written by Jason Cahill, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, Frank Renzulli, David Chase, Terence Winter, Todd A. Kessler, Michael Imperioli
Directed by Allen Coulter, Martin Bruestle, Lee Tamahori, Tim Van Patten, John Patterson, Henry J. Bronchtein
In the wake of season one’s success, it becomes clear that David Chase is pumping the brakes. While he adds new characters and explores the backstories of his characters, thematically, he stays put, preferring to mine deeper into these ideas. The result is one of the best seasons of television I have ever watched, my investment in the characters at some of the highest levels I’ve ever experienced. Chase has expressed a strong disdain for television grown out of his experiences working with networks in the 1980s & 90s. The constant focus on surface-level content like sex & violence worked prohibitively against exploring human existence. Free from those restraints, he was able to produce something as remarkable as The Sopranos, a show which has been copied again & again by showrunners across the spectrum.
One of the significant seeds planted throughout the series is Christopher’s drug addiction and his often troubled relationship with girlfriend Adrianna. Christopher is a perfect foil to Tony. While Tony is caught up in constant anxieties over how he presents to the world & fears of the Sword of Damocles dropping on him at any moment, Christopher lives his life with total disregard. He is a man obsessed with respect, whether he is owed it or not, and definitely not interested in showing it to others. The amount of times Christopher crosses the line with Tony speaks to the elder’s restraint, as within this system, he would have every right to beat Christopher to a bloody pulp. Christopher lives with the absence of fear of the future; instead, he is paranoid that he is not being shown what he believes he is entitled to, yet doing nothing to earn it.
Tony’s victim throughout this season is Davey Scatino (Robert Patrick). He’s a childhood friend of Tony’s and has an awful gambling addiction. Like Artie Bucco, Davey is another outsider who is tempted based on what the media has told them about the mafia and their desire to “make it big.” Davey believes all he needs is to get into the “big game,” and his prowess as a gambler will lead him to riches. Unfortunately, he fails to take in what he has in his life, a successful sporting goods store, a loving wife, and a son on the verge of college. Even Tony tries to warn him off, but we come to see that Tony will eventually relent and allow a person to learn through failure. The boss ultimately understands that his business is based around the foolhardy nature of humans and who is he to deny a person their request.
In this storyline, we see the dual nature of Tony. To some of the people he grew up with and his children’s friends & their families, he’s just a big blustery guy in the waste management business. There’s a moment where we see the switch between Tony & Davey, and in the latter’s eyes, he becomes aware that his friend has always been two people. Later, we see Tony and his cronies lounging around the sporting goods store, ruining Davey’s lines of credit, telling him filing for bankruptcy will get him out of all this pesky debt. The audience knows we are watching Davey’s life fall into ruin but is that Tony’s fault? Didn’t Davey take the risk of being warned about the inevitable cost? Should we mourn Tony’s losses & suffering as he has done the same? He made a choice to live in a way that risks everything.
There is a beautiful moment where Dr. Melfi engages Tony in a conversation about guilt & penance. Tony lays out the philosophy he has created for himself. He doesn’t believe he deserves to go to Hell and states that punishment is reserved for the worst of the worst, citing Pol Pot as an example. He posits that people like him and his men are soldiers in a generation-spanning war and that soldiers don’t go to Hell. They are just following orders. The show clarifies that Tony is not highly educated; he’s fiercely intelligent but not learned. Pol Pot was a general, and the people who committed atrocities under him were soldiers. They would argue they live in that same category Tony has created to spare himself. One of the most interesting things about The Sopranos and Tony is how he justifies being so monstrous in order not to go over the edge and end his life.
The three antagonists of this season are Richie Aprile, Janice Soprano, and Big Pussy. Richie is the brother of Jackie, the recently deceased boss of the family, who has just been released from prison and wants to pick up where he left off. When he left, things were very different, and Tony was below him on the ladder. All season long, Richie seethes over the fact that he has to kiss the ring of someone whom he holds zero respect for. Richie is one of many reality checks Tony confronts throughout the series; he represents Tony’s worst impulsivity and manic rage. In some ways, he helps us see how constrained our protagonist is, how genuinely diabolical he could be. They also introduce that Richie is Adrianna’s uncle, but I never felt like the season really bore any fruit from that connection. It’s mentioned in later seasons but doesn’t really matter very much.
Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro) feels like an attempt to change course due to real-life events. Between seasons, Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, was experiencing worsening health problems. The writers incorporate that into the character, but the harsh realities of an illness like that sidelined the actress quite a bit. There are moments where it’s evident they had to ADR her lines because, on set, she was likely too weak to give the performance they needed. It’s a shame because Marchand as Livia is a brilliant performance. I am curious to know what the long-term arc was for her character because she will become a specter that looms large over Tony even in death.
Shifting the weight to Janice, Tony’s estranged older sister was a great move. Turturro created a truly iconic and complex character with someone who would have been one-dimensional on a network series. In her late teens, Janice ran away from home and became a flake, bouncing around from one spiritual platitude to the next with little interest in exploring anything more profound. Instead, these beliefs are used to create a sense of superiority, especially when it comes to her little brother Tony. Janice does such an excellent job of getting under Tony’s skin, and he can’t exercise the tools he might with someone he was dealing with regarding business. She can disrespect him so ruthlessly, and he can just rage into the void.
Janice & Richie’s relationship is a perfect culmination of Tony’s worries. The business & domestic sides merge to create major problems for him. In some ways, it parallels the union Livia & Junior formed in season one though not with the deadly intent. Janice uses Livia to try and wrest control from Tony, but he’s convinced she will flee when her financial prospects dry up. Ironically, Livia becomes the focus of Richie’s anger at Tony. I suppose any Soprano will do in a storm. But this decision is what dooms Richie and not by Tony’s hand either. Then, of course, the sole male Soprano has to come in and clean up Janice’s mess, but that leads to one of the most chilling and compelling scenes in the whole show.
Tony leaves his mother’s house, where Janice is staying, after spending the whole night there tying up loose ends. He has clearly been the decisive figure in this scenario. Then Tony hears his mother’s voice from upstairs, and she is coming down. Tony rushes to get out as she begins to berate him, and he becomes a little boy again. His nerves get the best of him, and he trips, falling onto the sidewalk. His gun falls out of his jacket. His mother’s response is to laugh at him. The look in Tony’s eyes is heartbreaking. He is so terrified of her, she has withheld any chance of love from him throughout his entire life. We can extrapolate that when Tony was hurt as a child, he was humiliated by her, and even when she passes, he continues to live in terror of that laugh.
But The Sopranos saves its most devastating moment for this season in the final episode. As soon as “Funhouse” started, I felt the influence of David Lynch at work. Like Lynch, David Chase seems to appreciate how the subconscious is more informed of the world than our waking mind. The dreams Tony has felt like actual dreams, the illogical flow of space & time. The dialogue seems both meaningless but also trying to communicate some more significant ideas. The food poisoning that is blamed for these dreams is actually something internal trying to wake up Tony. All the big problems of the season had been resolved at this point except the one thing he was not consciously aware of: Pussy’s betrayal.
The sequence where Pussy is taken to The Stugots and executed is done so well. I adore that Chase refused to allow any maudlin, overly sentimental flourishes. However, that doesn’t mean this death is a cold, unfeeling affair. Rather than use window dressing, Chase relies on his actors to communicate the scene’s emotion, often in silence. Tony clearly doesn’t want to do this, but he must pay the cost from time to time because he accepted the risk, just like Davey. Sometimes that means killing one of your best friends. Anytime a character has to execute a close friend in this series, you can see the regret and anger in their eyes. They are so angry that this friend has forced their hand. The Pussy situation clearly outlines the world Tony must live in. He has the obvious problems, but he must always think about the unseen threats, the dangers below the surface that threaten to take everything away. It’s no wonder his anxiety rules over him so brutally.