The Sopranos Season 3 (HBO Max)
Written by David Chase, Todd A. Kessler, Henry J. Bronchtein, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, Terence Winter, Salvatore J. Stabile, Lawrence Konner, Michael Imperioli, Frank Renzulli
Directed by Allen Coulter, Tim Van Patten, John Patterson, Jack Bender, Dan Attias, Steve Buscemi
The first thing I immediately noticed watching this season’s premiere was that the look & tone had changed. In my review of season one, I noted that I had a sort of confusion when seeing promos for the series about whether it was a dramedy or a mob show. I think in season three, David Chase has become very comfortable with the creativity afforded to him by being on HBO and starts leaning into the darker moments even more. That doesn’t mean the show’s sense of humor goes out the drain; it’s just that the show really starts to show us how bad Tony’s world can get. The shadows and darker lighting also serve as a metaphor for how Tony is sinking further into his habits, chained to his position of the boss and actually less free now.
Early in this season, Livia is killed off due to Nancy Marchand’s passing between seasons. Livia still looms large over the show for the rest of its run, always the ghost from Tony’s past that haunts his relationships & interactions with family. A lot is changing about the family this season. Meadow is off to college at Columbia. AJ is in high school now. The destructive interactions with the Aprile family continue as Ro becomes a regular fixture at Sunday dinners with her new beau, made man Ralph (Joe Pantoliano). If ever there was a vicious thorn in Tony’s side, it is Ralph, someone who seems to exist as a way to make our protagonist look not so bad. Ralph is so easy to hate and deserves every ounce of scorn from the characters and the audience.
Side characters get some excellent spotlights this season, including “Pine Barrens,” directed by Steve Buscemi. This episode spotlights Chris and Paulie as they go to collect for Silvio. The man they are collecting from is connected with the Russians, and things go wrong, mainly due to Paulie’s temper; they shoot the man and then drive him out to the Barrens to dump the body. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go how they’d like, and the duo ends up lost in the woods overnight during the winter; their car is apparently stolen. Chris’s role throughout the series boils down to someone that Tony is obligated to keep around but who is a source of constant frustration. While extremely impulsive and selfish, Paulie is continually useful and does a better job of taking commands. In “Pine Barrens,” those roles are played with and, in some instances, reversed. It’s a hilarious & fascinating character study of two figures who only grow in importance as the series goes on.
While “Pine Barrens” often gets all of the acclaim, I think “University” is an episode that will stay with viewers in the same way it does Tony. Tony is trying to avoid the attention of Tracee (Ariel Kiley), one of the dancers at the Bing. She is grateful to him after suggesting she take her child to the doctor during a recent illness. However, Tracee plies him with baked goods, wants to shoot the shit, and asks for more advice. Tony is uncomfortable with this for reasons that develop over this season and beyond. Ultimately, his daughter is not that much younger than Tracee, and it forces him to reflect on how he treats women. This whole season looks at all of Tony’s female relationships and analyzes them pretty intensely.
But the episode takes a brutal turn because Tracee is Ralph’s mistress. She’s pregnant, and he doesn’t seem too perturbed about that. It’s only during a backroom party after hours at the Bing when Tracee confronts him that he finally decides he’s done with her. Ralph brutally beats Tracee to death and leaves her body in the grass just outside the club. She’s discovered, and Tony comes close to murdering him before the other guys pull him off. The boss is reminded that Ralph is a “made man,” which makes physical retaliation against him a no-go under their mafia code. Tony is a vindictive son of a bitch, and it takes a long time, but Ralph does ultimately pay for his vile actions.
The Sopranos is a show all about holding mirrors up to Tony, usually the form of other characters. Ralph is the most extreme mirror yet. Paulie can be a little over the top and slip into caricature. Ralph constantly frustrates the audience. In some instances, he’s sympathetic compared to Tony’s petulant brutality, and in others, he seems to be void of any ounce of humanity. His story ends up crossing the boundaries of the business and into Tony’s personal life. Midway through the season, Meadow ends updating Jackie Aprile, Jr., the boss’s son before Junior Soprano and Tony. The audience knows this will not end well because Jackie is slipping down a destructive path, influenced by the wrong people. Tony, believing he is looking out for his daughter, tries to physically impose himself and scare Jackie straight. Ralph is dating Ro, Jackie’s mom, and unknowingly undermines Tony by giving Jackie a gun and trying to be fatherly with advice on the young man’s small-time operations.
Jackie becomes too big of a problem after a failed attempt to steal from one of the Sopranos family’s gambling operations. He goes into hiding in the projects, and it’s Ralph who sends out Vito to assassinate a man who is his own step-son for all intents & purposes. Of course, Tony & Ro never know the truth; no one does or even suspects. The act is blamed on a drug deal gone bad, and the culprits are labeled as a couple faceless black men. We will revisit this need to blame deaths and crimes on black people when we get to season five, but it is a recurring theme.
Tony comes across as a very weak boss in season four, and it just gets worse from here. He lives in a constant state of paranoia that someone within the organization is seeking to undermine him. It just happens to be he’s most paranoid about Ralph. Ralph aggressively lobbies for Richie Aprile’s crew as he is a senior member of it. Tony denies him simply out of spite. Circumstance opens the spot back up, and so Tony eventually relents only after making Ralph grovel and beg. It’s a perfect example of how petty & spiteful our protagonist can be. He’ll have moments of warmth & humility only to easily slip back into being a petulant child. Meadow’s relationship with an interracial student is a prime example of how Tony is ultimately a shallow, hateful person. That doesn’t stop the audience from internally wanting to see him in a better light than he deserves. It’s human nature to “root” for your protagonist, but it’s that same inclination that David Chase is interested in challenging his audience on. Just because someone is the central character in a story doesn’t mean we should adore them.