'The Sopranos' Rewind: Season 1, Episode 5: 'College'
Welcome to the fifth 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 fifth episode, "College," coming up just as soon as I find $50,000 in krugerrands and a .45 automatic while hunting for Easter eggs...
"Are you in the Mafia?" -Meadow
There are masterpieces of the moment, and there are masterpieces for all time. Which, I wondered as I began this project, would "College" be?
In the early weeks of 1999, "College" was the episode that sealed the deal between "The Sopranos" and its audience. It put the "Analyze This" comparisons to bed forever(*), made clear that this wasn't some cute show about a henpecked mob boss with troublemaking kids — "Wiseguys: They're just like us!" — and said that this would be a revolutionary change in how TV dramas functioned, rather than all the evolutionary ones that had started with "Hill Street Blues."
(*) Or, at least, until David Chase threw in a celebratory joke about them in the season 2 premiere.
But that was 16 years ago, when it was still jaw-dropping to see the show's relatively sympathetic main character strangle a man to death in tight close-up, when the thought of the protagonist's wife flirting with her priest seemed unthinkable, when — even in a cable universe that had seen two seasons of "Oz" and four preceding episodes of this show — we still didn't expect our TV shows to do... this.
After 16 years of pale imitators and rightful inheritors, of anti-heroes and pure villains, of series showing their main characters doing things far worse — often to people we cared a hell of a lot more than we did about Febby Petrulio — would all this feel like the bolt of lightning it was at the time, or would it feel dated and safe?
I couldn't push out all memory of Walter White, Vic Mackey and company as I watched "College," but it ultimately didn't matter. This was a spectacular episode when it first aired for reasons that ran far deeper than the shock value of Tony pulling that cord tight around Febby's neck until his hands bled, and in many ways it's an even more powerful experience now than it was when the surprise was so fresh.
Look, for instance, at Meadow and Tony's conversation early in the episode about what he really does for a living. At the time, he was still the relatively cuddly mobster next door(**), and wasn't this another amusing little pickle he was finding himself in? Watched now, in light of what we know comes later in the episode — and, for many of us, what's coming later in the series — Tony's blithe dismissal of her concerns seems far more unsettling. So do all the later moments where he casually — often while flashing a smile that's terrifying given knowledge of his full intentions — lies to her about where he's been or what he's about to do. This is an episode about Tony stumbling into a chance for a revenge killing, but it's also about Meadow trying to connect with her father — he'll tell her that he's in the mob, she'll tell him she dabbled in meth, and they'll all laugh about it later, no harm, no foul — in a way that we understand is impossible well before she does. "Sometimes, I wish you were like other dads," she laments, not understanding how unlike other dads her father truly is.
(**) "The Sopranos" chapter of my book goes into this in much greater detail, but trying to make Tony less cuddly was one of Chase's primary motivations for making this episode. The idea terrified his HBO boss Chris Albrecht, who recalled, “I said, ‘David, you can’t do this. He can’t kill this guy. You haven’t earned it yet. The audience is going to hate him. It’s the fifth episode. Wait ’til the end of the season.’ And David said to me, ‘If Tony Soprano were to find this guy and doesn’t kill him, he’s full of shit, and therefore the show’s full of shit.’ And I said, ‘Okay, that’s a good point.’”
Because Chase knew this would be a huge deal, he kept the episode simple, with just the action in Maine and what's going on back at the house in North Caldwell. Christopher's the only other wiseguy to appear, and only as a proxy for the audience so we'll understand why Tony is stalking and killing this random Joe in Waterville.
The why is ultimately what made Febby's death stand out at the time. There had been a tradition in television of heroes getting to occasionally murder bad guys who either posed an imminent threat or a recurring one: men so monstrous that the audience could never really judge the likes of Thomas Magnum for executing them in cold blood. Febby is not that. He's a small time drug dealer, but also a travel agent, a volunteer fireman, and a father to a little girl. Tony gets a glimpse of Febby's home and family and doesn't feel the slightest twinge of guilt; his only concern is making sure this is the same guy. (Which he finally confirms from noticing the wood bust of Reagan — much like the one of Sinatra that Febby made for Jackie in prison — at the travel agency.) Now, Febby does try several times (first on his own, and then by recruiting two of his drug customers) to kill Tony himself — and contrary to the lie that Tony sees right through, he doesn't stop himself because of the sight of Tony's own daughter, but because he's distracted by the presence of two other motel guests — but Tony doesn't know this. Febby is no danger to anyone Tony knows or cares about; he's just someone who broke the code of Omerta, and a useful outlet for Tony's ongoing feelings of remorse over Jackie.