The Sopranos Season 4 (HBO)
Written by David Chase, Terence Winter, Michael Imperioli, Maria Laurino, Robin Greene, Mitchell Burgess, Nick Santora, Lawrence Konner, David Flebotte
Directed by Allen Coulter, John Patterson, Tim Van Patten, Jack Bender, Henry J. Bronchtien, Steve Buscemi, Dan Attias, Alan Taylor, James Hayman
Season Four of The Sopranos is one of those brilliant artistic constructions that begins with such nuance and then dazzles in the finale. The season close has one of the best scenes between Tony & Carmela the show has ever presented, more on that a little later. So many of the plot threads here were seeded in season three and very carefully cultivated and developed over that season and this one. Once again, Ralph is an ever-present pest and a reminder of what Tony is/could become.
By the time we reach the end of these 13 episodes, Tony has murdered Ralph and enlisted Christopher to help cover it up. The violence in The Sopranos had been brutal, but this particular episode reached some gruesome points. To avoid identification, Tony & Christopher decapitate and dismember Ralph’s hands. The episode doesn’t show every bit of grisly detail, but we get a shot of Christopher holding up the dead man’s head at one point. While watching the series, I often wondered how these mob guys disconnect themselves from the horrific violence they inflict on others. What they do is so vile and inhuman, they have to have PTSD that destroys them from the inside out.
Season four shifts the focus from not just Tony to a lot of the side characters. Johnny Sac has moved to Jersey, and there are a series of episodes centering around a personal insult Ralph made about his wife’s weight. The episode where this comes to a crescendo is very insightful about the marriage between Johnny and his wife Ginny compared to the functional dysfunction of Tony & Carmela. I was incredibly touched by the love Johnny showed to his wife, stating unequivocally that he doesn’t care about her weight, that she’s beautiful. His anger about the joke is revealed not as an embarrassment but as anger that someone is disrespecting his beloved partner.
Bobby Bacala becomes a significantly more prominent character this season, beginning with the death of his wife, Karen. Bobby is my wife’s favorite character, and he is definitely one of mine. Though he is a mobster and threatens people’s lives, he has gentleness & empathy about him. In season six, we learn he’s never killed anyone; it was something his father, who was also connected, wanted to keep him away from. Bobby’s love for his late wife is so profoundly sad, he becomes lost in his grief. It makes sense that Janice is attracted to him because she is currently dating Ralph and has a history of bad choices when it comes to partners. The show doesn’t go down the route that Janice is living happily ever after. No, her relationship with Bobby will see her same toxic behaviors emerge, and they settle into a routine.
Despite some fantastic arcs, not every character feels like they have a solid conclusion. Sylvio continues to be the most underdeveloped of Tony’s close associates. He is the center of “Christopher,” possibly the worst episode of the series, which attempts to comment on the legacy of Columbus. Christopher’s heroin addiction has some highs and lows, but I don’t really think season four does him the most favors. He ends up in rehab, and his intervention is a hilarious scene. However, the follow-up seems to just push him to the side in favor of other storylines.
The MVP of season four is, without a doubt, Edie Falco. Carmela’s arc here is the most satisfying of the show, and this season is all about her worries over Tony’s business and dreaming of a different life. That dream is manifested in Tony’s driver and Italian import Furio. It turns out by the end of the season, Furio returns these feelings so intensely that he runs off back to Italy without telling Tony. Carmela is also laser-focused on protecting herself and the children in case something goes wrong, so she goes about pushing Tony to sign over money for legitimate investments. These investments are made through her cousin Brian, and just as Tony always does, he sucks this man into his lifestyle and leaves him worse off than when we met him.
The truth of Tony’s infidelity also becomes more & more apparent to Carmela when she discovers a lover’s press on fingernail in his pocket. This overflows into a pure rage for her by the end of the season when a former goomah calls the house and speaks to Carmela. It’s this episode, “Whitecaps,” that features the fantastic scene between Falco & Gandolfini where four years of the show’s simmering marital tension explode into rancor and scorn. Carmela admits to her feelings for Furio, and it’s clear he returned them, which sets Tony off. He is, of course, a consummate hypocrite, fully believing he should be able to have dalliances but that Carmela is his property entirely. The ensuing argument threatens to spill into domestic violence but remains a brutal verbal confrontation. By the end, the marriage is seemingly over with the couple unfurling old deep wounds.
This season is centered around husbands & wives (Johnny & Ginny, Bobby & Karen, and then Janice, Chris & Adrianna, Tony & Carmela). Through these relationships, the writers explore how some of them exist on beautiful lies, a kind of glue that holds things together poorly. The relationships that are the strongest are shown to be such because both partners communicate and genuinely care about the other person. The dissolution of the Sopranos’ marriage sets things up for the second half of the series, which will go further into the darkness and explore notions of guilt and evil to an even greater degree.