Friday, June 21, 2013

Family Business (The Sopranos)

Originally published in The Valve in April 2008.
I’ve now seen 17 episodes of The Sopranos – the entire first season plus the first four episodes of the second season – and I am getting a feel for the show. But that doesn’t mean I understand it in any critical sense, though I certainly enjoy it and think it very good. Fact is, I’ve now seen enough that I’m wondering: What’s it about?

Yes, I know, it’s about Tony Soprano, his shrink, and his two families. The one family, of course, is his wife and kids and so forth, while the other consists of his business associates in the mob. There is some overlap between the two groups, and that is certainly one of the things this series is about, negotiating one’s life between home and workplace. That is hardly a novel problem; on the contrary, it is ubiquitous. Most adult Americans face it in some way, but not quite this way. Perhaps that is part of its appeal, a defamiliarizing look at a familiar situation.

This particular theme was brought home to me in episode nine, “Boca,” as in Boca Raton, but also, according to the Wikipedia, a pun on bocca, Italian for “mouth,” and, by extension, gossip. Corrado Soprano, Tony’s nominal boss in the mob (and his uncle as well; he’s often called “Uncle Junior”) takes his long-term mistress to Boca Raton, where they enjoy a satisfying romantic interlude in which she compliments Junior on his skill in cunnilingus. I want to set this plotline aside, however, to look at the other one, which involves Ally Vandermeed, a friend of Tony’s daughter, Meadow, and the coach of their high-school soccer team.

Coach Hauser is very good and his team has a chance of going to the playoffs. He’s so good that he’s been recruited to coach at the University of Rhode Island. When this news hits the papers, Tony and two of his friends, who also have daughters on the team, are very upset. They decide to see if they can convince the coach to turn the job down.

One of these friends, Silvio Danto, is Tony’s consigliore in the mob. The other one, Artie Bucco, has known Tony since childhood, but is not involved in the mob. Artie’s a restaurateur, as was his father, but, of course, he knows that Tony’s a gangster. He has no foreknowledge of what Tony and Silvio do to persuade the coach to stick around.

First, they send him a 50-inch wide-screen surround-sound TV, which he angrily refuses, accusing Tony’s guys of extortion. They refuse his refusal and leave the box in his driveway. At this point I began to get upset. It seemed to me that Tony was out-of-line here. Then Tony had another henchman, Chris, steal the coach’s dog only to return it to him. Yeah, I felt, it’s too bad that the coach is leaving, but Tony should not be attempting to make him stick around, not like this.

Why was I upset? This little bit of business is nothing compared to what I’d seen Tony do in earlier episodes. In the first episode he ran into a guy with a car and then beat him up. In the fifth episode he garroted a man. Neither of those actions bothered me, though I knew they were wrong. I accepted them as “baseline” events in a drama of this type. Why was I bothered by Tony’s attempts to intimidate the soccer coach?

The only thing I can think of is the beating and the murder were done in the course of business. The man that Tony beat-up owed him a quarter of a million dollars in gambling debts while the man that he strangled had been in the mob and had testified against them in court. Thus Tony’s actions were governed by a grim reciprocity: you don’t pay what you owe me, I beat you up; you rat on your friends and mine, I’ll get revenge. No such reciprocity holds between Tony Soprano and his daughter’s soccer coach. That’s why attempting to coerce the coach felt wrong. At least that’s my best guess.

Let’s continue on with the story. Remember Artie, Tony’s restaurateur buddy, who also has a daughter on the team? Well, Artie’s wife Charmaine knows the coach’s wife, who called her to complain about the TV. She told Artie and Artie, in turn, decided to confront Tony. He went to Tony’s office – in a back room at the Bada Bing strip club – and had his confrontation. Silvio was there as well. Artie states his case, quickly and forcefully, and then is rocked when Silvio informs him that they now know that the coach has been having sexual relations with one of the girls on the team, Ally Vandermeed, Meadow’s friend. Tony had learned this from Meadow.

Artie exclaims, “He deserves to die! Betraying children!” (And, I might add, crossing the line between his business and his personal life.) Tony: “Artie, believe me. He ain’t gonna’ being doing that shit no more. I guarantee you that.” Artie sits down at the table with Tony as Silvio paces in the background. The scene ends.

I think we can assume that Tony and Silvio didn’t make any explicit plans with Artie in the room. He may be a friend and fellow father, but he’s not in “our thing” with them. They wouldn’t put him or themselves in danger by having such a conversation. We do not, however, have to merely assume that Artie left under the belief that they were going to do something drastic. When next we see him, he’s in his garden, furiously weeding away, when his wife comes to talk to him; coach Hauser’s transgression is now common knowledge within this particular social circle. Charmaine is angry and horrified: “He’s not gonna’ get away with this!” Artie: “You got that right!” Charmaine: “What!?” She divines that Tony’s up to something and convinces Artie that it’s wrong.

I’m with Charmaine on this. What the coach did was terrible, but Tony has no standing to intervene here. Note that Charmaine is generally disapproving of Tony; she certainly would not approve of him murdering the man who turned on his mob buddies. If I were living in her world, neither would I. But I’m not living in that world; I’m watching a TV show.

Artie returns to the Bada Bing and talks to Tony, telling him not to do it, whatever “it” is. Artie leaves, Tony paces the floor. And calls it off. The episode ends with the coach perp-walking on TV and Tony drunkenly rolling on his living-room floor, saying that he didn’t hurt anyone. End of episode.

And thus it was that Tony Soprano was able to maintain a separation between his business and his life outside the mob. But it wasn’t easy, and he didn’t do it alone. It took people outside the mob, Artie and Charmaine, to convince him to hold the line.

Meanwhile, we have Junior (aka “Corrado”) Soprano and his oral skills. What does that have to do with maintaining a separation between mob business and personal business? When Bobbi, his mistress, compliments him on his skill, he tells her never to utter a word about that to anyone. When she presses him on that, which seems silly to her, he tells her that it would hurt him in the eyes of his associates. It’s OK for him to get her a job with the union he controls, and to spend $20K on a junket to Boca Raton, but talking about his skill at oral sex, that could hurt his professional reputation.

Unfortunately, that horse had already left the barn by the time Junior had laid down the law to Bobbi. She’d been gossiping with her manicurist and someone had overheard. That someone told Tony’s wife, Carmella, and Carmella ended up telling Tony, who then uses that information against his Uncle Junior during a golf match. Tony doesn’t say anything explicit, just makes mysterious remarks about smelling sushi and (singing) “South of the border, where the tuna fish play” as he makes his drive.

The innuendo is enough to tell Junior that Bobbie had gossiped and the information had gotten out to at least one guy in the mob, his nephew and arch-rival. And so, in a scene that’s roughly four minutes from the end of the episode, Junior confronts Bobbie in the union office. It’s after hours and they’d obviously had a date scheduled; she had gotten some food for them. He’s very angry, threatens to hit her with his fist (see screen shots in the appendix), she begs him not to. He notices a lemon meringue pie on a nearby desk, grabs it, and viciously rams it into her face, grinding it in. She’s in tears. He yells: “You stupid fuckin’ blabbermouth cunt!” He orders her to clear out her things and not report for work the next day.

Then he leaves, still furious. And, one suspects, not simply over her for gossiping, but over the end of a 16-year relationship. As he walks from the building he appears to be – manfully – holding back tears. He’s furious at himself.

That was the dramatic climax of the episode. It was the most violent scene in the episode and, more to the point, it felt more violent than the one (in the first episode) where Tony ran his car into the gambler or the one (in the fifth episode) where he garroted the squealer. The physical violence – a pie in the face – was not comparable to the violence in those other scenes, but the dramatic violence was greater. The resolution of the soccer coach plot, when Tony calls it off, is simply the denouement.

How does this plotline exhibit the thematics of business life vs. family life? Bobbi clearly belongs to Junior’s personal life. She is not privy to his mob business. But she certainly knows that he is a man of some importance in the mob. After all, he’s gotten her a job with a union he controls and has just signed a union check for $20,000 to cover their tryst in Boca. These he regards as the perks of high rank in the mob. As he remarked to his lawyer earlier in the episode, “If you can’t get your friends jobs, what’s the purpose of attaining success?”

The problem, as we’ve seen, concerns the specific details of their sexual life. That is, of course, his (very) personal business. But his mob associates care about those details, inferring more general aspects of character from such things. In the scene where Carmella told Tony about Junior’s expertise, Tony breaks out in laughter, muttering about “whistling to the wheat field” and “a Bushman of the Kalahari.” When Carmella offers that Tony and his friends all do it, Tony indignantly replies, “What goes on in this bedroom, stays here. And you know that.” It is thus clear that Junior is not the only one who believes in, but fails to obey, a taboo on oral sex.

The only way to maintain the taboo and evade it at the same time, to have your cake and eat it too, is to keep the evasion secret. If the secret gets out, then the game is blown. The boundary between personal life and mob business has been dangerously breeched. When Corrado ended his relationship with Bobbi he did so to restore the separation between those two arenas of his life space.

Now, we might ask, why did David Chase put that specific action at the dramatic climax of this episode? More specifically, why did he put it between a scene in which Tony is thinking about calling off the hit on coach Hauser and the scene where he actually makes the phone call? Of course, this bit of construction links the two plotlines at the thematic level. But it is an odd juxtaposition: Corrado commits a violent act, Tony declines to have a violent act committed. Tony accepts a limitation on his desires and authority. Corrado accepts a limitation on his desires as the price of forcefully asserting his authority.

In order to go much beyond those formulations – which I like, but do not find satisfying – I suspect I would have to go into psychoanalytic territory. Were I to do so, I would be heading toward infant-mother separation anxiety; but I don’t know how to get there quickly and easily. Obviously, Corrado does separate himself from a woman over oral matters – remember the title of the episode, “Boca” and the Italian for mouth and gossip, bocca. And Tony’s troubled relationship with his mother frames the entire season. The elements are there. But getting from the surface features of this episode, and the specific way the episode unfolds, that strikes me as being a tricky and delicate matter. Tempting though the argument is, I must pass.

* * * * *

But I would like to make one final comment, one that is about the way Chase has structured this episode, and about my response to it. Though I have not indicated it in my summary descriptions, Chase interleaves these two plotlines throughout the episode, along with scenes that could be assigned to both plotlines, or to neither. That surely affects how we experience the episode.

And now we go meta.

It follows that a critical approach that is content to explain the desires and motives of the characters will have little to say about just how Chase has crafted his story and how that craft affects us. For those motives and desires are independent of how we encounter the action. Those motives and desires are whatever they are regardless of where Corrado’s brutal treatment of Bobbi is placed in relation to Tony’s actions with respect to the soccer coach. Those two lines of action are causally independent of one another.

But the effects those actions have on the viewer, they are not independent of one another. They depend on what Chase reveals to us, and when he does so. He has interlinked them and so our responses to the two plot lines are necessarily interlinked. This is particularly important in a medium where the viewer’s attention is necessarily entrained to and thus controlled by the narrative medium. We can leaf through written texts at will; we do not have such freedom with televised narratives – though we can move about on a DVD fairly freely, if we so choose.

By my count, this episode runs about 49 minutes, excluding the title sequence and the end credits. It has 36 scenes, which works out to an average of 82 seconds per scene, some longer, some shorter. The mind can shift between perceptual and cognitive states relatively rapidly, within the space of a single frame of film. Emotional shifts can be considerably slower. While we can be surprised into high arousal relatively quickly, it takes awhile for the arousal to dissipate – if dissipation is appropriate. Thus there is likely to be considerable emotional inertia between these short scenes.

So far as I know, we do not have a criticism that is deeply responsive to such issues. To be sure, we have literary theories of reader response, but, so far as I know, we do not have a practical reader response criticism that attempts to trace reader response to a “text” as it unfolds from beginning to end.

Nor, so far as I know (though I might well be mistaken in this), do we have reader or viewer response research programs that attempt to ascertain just how readers or viewers respond to specific moments in a narrative. I know how I responded to the final scene between Corrado and Bobbi; when Corrado approached her and gathered his fist to pummel her in the face, at that moment I flinched. I didn’t want to see it. Fortunately, Bobbi begged him not to hit her, and he didn’t. Instead, he smashed a pie in her face, a brutal gesture, though a trope normally encountered in comedy. Do other viewers respond (more or less) like this? I would imagine so, for Chase and his team are skilled in their craft. They “know” how an episode should unfold if it is to be satisfying to viewers.

One could investigate such matters by simple means: ask people how they felt. One could also use sophisticated instruments for physiological monitoring, including brain activity. Given such information, and our ability simply to describe what happens, we might begin to create a new criticism.

Are we willing to hazard such a criticism? These issues have nothing specifically to do with The Sopranos, much less this specific episode. They are general issues that can be raised through any text in any medium one chooses. They aren’t going away. If we don’t address them, we’re not going to understand how these things work, not The Sopranos, not Kurt Vonnegut, nor Shakespeare either.

Appendix: Corrodo Gets Tough

The first three screen shots are from the scene where Corrodo breaks off with Bobbi.

sop 600 1-9.1 junior fist.jpg

sop 600 1-9.2 pie in face.jpg

sop 600 1-9.3 aftermath.jpg

The next two screen shots show Corrodo back on the street after his break-up with Bobbi.

sop 600 1-9.4 junior regrets.jpg

sop 600 1-9.5 junior fr above.jpg

This last shot shows Tony returning home after having watched the coach's arrest on TV at the Bada Bing. The point of view – from above – is unusual and echos the final shot of Corrodo, also from above.

sop 600 1-9.6 tony from above.jpg

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