Thursday, June 07, 2007


My 10 favorite Sopranos episodes

By Edward Copeland
Since I can't see the finale early, I thought I'd toss this post up to tide you over until I can write my final thoughts on The Sopranos as a whole. It was tough pruning the many great episodes the show has produced to a mere 10, but I've done it. (Part of the way that helped is that I automatically excluded any Season 6 episodes) So here are my 10 favorites, in chronological order:


I almost resisted including this landmark episode, since it's always cited. It's almost become the Citizen Kane of Sopranos episodes, but that's no reason to leave it off the list. It was the perfect blend of Tony's attempted balancing act, taking Meadow to visit colleges while engaging, for the first time, in a literally hands-on murder itself.


I seem to be one of the few that stick up for this episode as one of my favorites. First, it's the first (of many episodes that show how gossipy and petty these wiseguys can be as word gets around that (gasp) Junior goes down on his girlfriend, something that the mobsters seem to think make men less manly, even though most of them admit to doing it as well. It also shows how a simple joke can escalate into deadliness. On top of that, it's balanced against the guys learning that their daughters' successful soccer coach may be leaving, something they want to prevent at all costs until they also learn that he's been carrying on with one of the teens, leading to one of the greatest episode endings ever where a drunken Tony chooses to let the police handle the coach and ends up flailing about his living room bellowing, "I didn't hurt nobody."


In the otherwise weak second season, this episode to me was by far the standout. You knew almost from the moment he was introduced that Richie Aprile was going to have to be taken out by year's end, but few saw it coming as it did, with a pissed-off Janice responding to a sock to the face by putting a couple of slugs into Richie as he ate dinner. Then, the episode kept building beyond that point with Tony coming to bail his sister out, the last great Livia scene as she dresses down Janice for "losing" another man and then laughs as Tony flees her house and falls flat on his face on her sidewalk. There's also humor to be found as Tony tries to reassure an about-to-go-on-the-lam Janice that Richie got a proper burial. The capper though was one of the many great uses of music on the series. As Tony returns home and tries to fill Carmela in without the details, Carmela remains pissed over other matters and tells Tony that she and Rosalie Aprile are going to take a trip whether he likes it or not. As she leaves Tony alone on the couch, the Eurythmics' "I Saved the World Today" begins playing as the perfect punchline/capper to the episode with its lyrics: Hey hey I saved the world today/Everybody's happy now/The bad things gone away/And everybody's happy now/The good thing's here to stay/Please let it stay


In a way, a real change-of-pace episode and the finest showcase Lorraine Bracco ever got as Dr. Melfi. The sequence of her rape was shocking, but it's really the psychological aspects of this episode that makes it one of the series' all-time bests. It could almost be called "The Last Temptation of Melfi" as she struggles to resist the impulse to get vengeance on the man who raped her through the hands of her most famous patient. It may also be the only case in the history of dramatic television where the climax of an episode consists of the use of a single word, in this case, "No."


As much as some viewers hate to admit it, part of the joy of The Sopranos always came when Tony and the gang used their strong-arm tactics not against other criminals or innocents but against people who get away with victimizing others because of their status. No greater example exists than in "Second Opinion" as Uncle Junior struggles with cancer and can't get his busy well-off doctor to treat him like a human being. Having been a victim of this attitude from so-called "health professionals" many times, I couldn't help but cheer Tony and Furio on when they used subtle threats to get Junior's doctor to do his job and be decent. That would be enough to make this a memorable episode but then we also get Carmela finally going to her own psychiatrist who tells her what she should already know: "You'll never be able to feel good about yourself, never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and you're his accomplice." The doctor even refuses to accept her "blood money." "One thing you can never say ...that you haven't been told," he tells her. It gave Edie Falco one of her very best episodes, for which she deservedly won an Emmy, even if it did cost Bracco her Emmy the same year for "Employee of the Month."


Before Steve Buscemi appears as Tony Blundetto in Season 5, he directed one of the shows' most memorable larks with "Pine Barrens." I'm sort of like David Chase: I can't believe people are still out there waiting for the Russian to come back. Sure, I wondered about it at the time, but you had to figure he wasn't coming back when he failed to show rather quickly. (Now watch Chase go and prove we were all chumps by having him reappear in the series finale.) Michael Imperioli always was good, but this was the first episode that really gave Tony Sirico the chance to shine for an extended period of time as he and Chrissy fight and freeze in the frigid Pine Barrens, awaiting some sort of rescue from Tony, who has his own troubles back at home with the increasingly unstable Gloria.


From the moment Joe Pantoliano appeared as Ralph Cifaretto, you knew he had a huge target on his chest, but once again the show managed to surprise us with when and how it happened. First, it gives him some of his strongest scenes as he struggles with the critical injury of his son in a bow-and-arrow accident. However, Tony can't stay in a sympathetic mood for long as the horse Pie-O-My dies in a stable fire that Tony is certain Ralph bears responsibility for. Besides, Tony still hasn't forgiven him for killing poor doomed stripper Tracee and he would have never bumped him up to captain if Gigi hadn't blown his gasket on the can. The brutal fight to the death comes suddenly and then the cleanup time between Tony and a high-out-of-his-mind Chris made for the perfect dark-humored tone.


One of the funniest television nights I ever remember was Nov. 17, 2002 when I watched back-to-back this episode, with its hysterical mob version of a drug intervention, followed by Curb Your Enthusiasm's third season finale, "The Grand Opening," where an entire restaurant let loose with profanity so a chef with Tourette's syndrome wouldn't seem out of place. Not that all of "The Strong, Silent Type" was played for laughs: Tony's crew suspected he knew more about the missing Ralph than he let on, but Tony succeeded in blaming it all on New York. Meanwhile, Carmela seeks Rosalie's help with her obsession with Furio. Still, it's Christopher's drug problem that powers the episode, beginning with him accidentally crushing Adriana's dog Cosette to death when he sits on her. Junior advises Tony that Christopher is a liability that should be "put out of his misery," but Tony opts for the intervention route and it ends up being one of the funniest scenes in Sopranos history.


Much like College, Whitecaps is such a fabled episode that I was tempted to choose others instead of it, but how can you ignore the episode where Carmela finally calls Tony on his shit and orders him out of the house when his ex-Russian goomah spills the bean about Tony's sexual encounter with her one-legged cousin. The tension was palpable as Carmela finally admits her feelings about Furio to Tony after Furio has fled the U.S. and dreams of a house on the Jersey Shore for the family collapse alongside the Soprano marriage. There is movement on other fronts as well as Christopher returns from rehab, clean and sober, Tony backs out of a deal with Johnny Sack to take out Carmine and Uncle Junior's trial ends up with a hung jury thanks to some tampering. Still, it's the domestic drama that dominates this episode, which even has some time for humor as Tony uses some hilarious pressure techniques to get out of a real estate deal with a prick of a lawyer. Who knew Dean Martin could be so persuasive?


People tend to pick Long Term Parking out as the fifth season's best episode, but for me it was never a contest because this one seemed more pivotal and tense and was one of the best episodes they'd produced since Season 3. Tony and Adriana's flirtation bodes ill even before the highway wreck that prompts the ever-chatty wiseguys to start rumors that really begin the split between Christopher and Tony that lasted until this year's final batch of episodes. This is the episode that I think really won Michael Imperioli and Drea de Matteo their well-deserved Emmys, even more so than Long Term Parking.

Also, to prove I'm not just a blind Sopranos fanatic, I thought I'd toss in my choices for my five least favorite episodes. In this list, I am including Season 6, though once again I'm just going to list them chronologically.


The first time an episode that attempted to delve more seriously into Christopher's Hollywood dreams went off the rails. Was it an excuse just to toss in cameos from Jon Favreau, Janeane Garofalo and Sandra Bernhard? It doesn't matter, because the entire enterprise didn't work and distracted from the episode's positive elements of Pussy's guilt over wearing a wire to A.J.'s confirmation.


Another example where a strong, emotional story strand, namely the death of Bobby's wife Karen in a car accident, is undermined by the silliness of the crew's anger over protests against the Columbus Day parade. Sure, this was David Chase trying to answer critics who think The Sopranos malign Italian Americans, but it just wasn't funny enough or thoughtful enough to make the enterprise work.


I think I speak for many viewers when I hope and pray that no dream sequence is going to mar Sunday night's finale since more times than not, they've been a bad idea, and Tony's car trip with the ghosts of his past was another bad example. Unfortunately, the show's other major story thread didn't work either, namely Janice scheming to try to get widower Bobby for herself, going so far as to force him to eat his late wife's final baked ziti.


I know this episode has its defenders, but for me it's the definition of a time waster. The entire episode really has only one key development: Tony B.'s revenge killing of Phil's brother and botched killing of Phil himself. Unfortunately, it's wrapped so intricately with the snoozer of what has to be the longest dream sequence outside of The Wizard of Oz or that one season of Dallas. Why was Annette Bening there again? Never mind. I don't want to know.


It's really amazing that the payoffs to the "Cleaver" movie storyline ended up working as well as they did, since this episode with Carmine Jr. and Christopher venturing to L.A. to try to woo Ben Kingsley was so bad. Hey, Lauren Bacall can take a punch though, huh? Those scenes would have been bad enough, but they were countered with the worst Artie Bucco episode ever as the restaurateur gets into a feud with Benny Fazio over credit card scams and the hostess that Benny is having an affair with and that Artie has the hots for.

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D-Girl's actually one of my top ten favorite episodes, partially because of the Pussy stuff, but also because beyond the Favreau comedy stuff, it's the critical turning point for Christopher. There, he chooses to give up his dream and follow Tony, but the doubt linger. And, that doubt is what ultimately divides him from Tony and leads to his death. But, generally I'd agree with your picks. I'd be curious to see how you'd fit season six in there.
From the first half of season six, I don't think there are any that would make the cut, but of the 8 that just aired (with the big one left to go), I've liked them all a great deal, except for "Chasing It." Of course, I've only seen each of this batch of episodes one each, while I have seen all the other ones at least twice, which is the other main reason I chose not to include them.
I'm pretty much in total agreement with your choices. Although Test Dream truly was awful, it was only one episode - the dream sequence in which the comatose Tony imagines himself in a different reality was stretched over several episodes, and seemed completely pointless to me.
I'm surprised An Army of One was left out of the list. I thought Major Zwingli was priceless. Apart from that the rest of the episode was mainly about the hit on Jackie Jr. It stirred up real emotions in all the characters especially the ending when Junior sang at the wake for Jackie Jr. Then the tears and emotions really let loose and you finally get to connect to the human side of these gangsters. On one hand they're cold blooded killers and sociopaths and yet they can be moved to the point of tears over an Italian ballad. It's a case in point of the contradictions and paradoxes of the characters and the lives they lead.
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