'The Sopranos' Rewind: Season 1, Episode 3: 'Denial, Anger, Acceptance'
Welcome to the third installment of our summer trip through "The Sopranos" season 1. When I revisited early seasons of "The Wire," as well as the whole run of "Deadwood," I did separate versions of each review for newcomers and veterans, but over time realized that the newcomers weren't commenting much, if at all, and that it therefore made sense to simply do one review. Any significant spoilers for episodes beyond the one being reviewed will be contained in a separate section at the end of the review; so long as you avoid that, and the comments, you should be fine.
Thoughts on the third episode, "Denial, Anger, Acceptance," coming up just as soon as I make like a mohel and finish your bris...
"If all this shit's for nothing, why do I gotta think about it?" -Tony
While I was watching "The Sopranos" pilot a couple of weeks ago, my wife wandered into the living room in search of a book, heard James Gandolfini speaking, winced, and said, "You'd think I wouldn't still feel this sad about him being gone, you know?"
I'd never pretend that I knew Gandolfini well, despite all my time covering the show. He was too shy and uncomfortable around the press(*) for someone like me to get to know him. But I knew so many people who worked with him and adored him, and of course I knew how great his work on this show (and in his many film roles) was, and I knew how many more years of amazing performances he had to give the world. So I entered into this project prepared for the same pangs of loss my wife felt when she heard Tony Soprano's voice again for the first time in years.
(*) And I always like to make this clear: Gandolfini hated dealing with the media, but it always came from a place of genuine discomfort and not arrogance. I've dealt with plenty of obnoxious stars who acted like they were reluctantly lowering themselves to be interviewed; this was never that. One year, he even sent members of the TCA Christmas cards with his home address on the envelope. Some people — even actors — just aren't built to talk about themselves.
But an episode like "Denial, Anger, Acceptance" was particularly tough to get through. The core of the episode is about Tony coming to grips with his own fragile mortality as he goes through the eponymous stages of grief about the impending death of Jackie Aprile. Gandolfini was a very different, and better, man than his alter ego, yet listening to Tony struggle with the meaning of life and death with Dr. Melfi, it's hard not to imagine it's the actor having the same conversation, or simply to think of him dying, like Jackie, much sooner than he should have.
The "Godfather"-style sequence where Meadow's choral performance is intercut with the attacks on Christopher and Brendan is particularly powerful, and not for all of the reasons David Chase and company intended back in 1999. Seeing Christopher plead for his life, and then watching Mikey Palmice end Brendan's, is intense stuff — and Brendan's death, far more than Little Pussy Malanga's, is the show's first real whacking of a notable character — but the part that wrecked me took place back in that school auditorium, as Tony's emotions found an outlet in the music, and the experience of seeing his daughter shine like this, and the brief recognition of how much he needs to treasure these moments, for however long he has on this earth. It was a great acting moment at the time, but now it has so much added resonance because of real-life events.
Gandolfini's performance, and the struggle inside Tony that fuels it, is strong enough to carry a lot of the episode on its own. Livia appears only briefly, and late at that. And the Mob Case of the Week involving the Chasidic motel owner feels, much as Pussy and Paulie's stolen car investigation did last week, like Chase still experimenting with exactly what the show could and should be: Hey, wouldn't it be funny to see these tough Italian-American wiseguys be stymied by a bunch of Jewish guys with funny hats and sideburns? It turns out to be a bit more than that, in part because Ariel's willingness to die for the principle of the thing ties in nicely with Tony and Jackie's reckoning with their own mortality, but it's still less compelling than what's happening in almost every other corner of the show this week.
We get our first real Carmela standalone story, as she invites Artie and Charmaine Bucco to cater the hospital fundraiser, and in the process winds up making her "friend" feel even smaller about her status compared to the wealthy and powerful Sopranos. The show has a really great eye and ear for insults — particularly ones not necessarily intended as such — and I like the way that Carmela can't even recognize that she's beckoning for Charmaine in the exact same haughty manner she used for the housekeeper earlier in the episode. Charmaine's revenge is both effective and the kind of thing that only someone in her unique position — a person who grew up in the same world as Tony and Carmela, but who is deliberately not part of it now — can do, in sticking in the knife by revealing that she and Tony hooked up back in the day, then shrugging and saying, "we both made our choices. I'm fine with mine." At the end of the day, Carmela will still have her McMansion and Charmaine and Artie will be living in their "cozy" fixer-upper and praying for the insurance money to come through, but we've seen through a couple of episodes now that Charmaine is serious and secure in her convictions about not being affiliated with mob business. In a show in which almost every character is compromised in some way, she's an anomaly.
Tony and Jackie are very much of their world, though. And while it's a world that offers the potential of going out early like Brendan, a more mundane (not to mention prolonged) exit like Jackie's is much harder for them to accept.
It's a great episode for both the actual Tony and the man who almost was Tony. As consolation roles go, Jackie Aprile isn't a super-lucrative or long-lasting one, but Michael Rispoli makes the most out of the time he has here. He nails the comic beats in the scene where Jackie doesn't realize that the "nurse" is someone Tony hired to give his day in the hospital a happy ending, but also the dramatic ones in the later scene where Tony wants to keep talking about the motel situation, while Jackie is completely absorbed in the specifics of his medical situation. It's a situation that's obviously tougher on Jackie, but it sure isn't easy for Tony to have to witness it.
Nor is it easy for him to have to talk about it with Melfi. Tony is a man who has gotten very far without asking himself the kinds of questions demanded by therapy, and you can see his intense discomfort as she forces him to actually think about who he is, why he's here, and how long he might get to stick around.
The moments where Tony Soprano is uncomfortable are often among the very best "The Sopranos" has to offer. But some of them can also unfortunately remind us of how we lost the show's leading man before anyone was ready.
Some other thoughts: