By Simon Miraudo
February 21, 2014
The Sopranos aired its first episode on January 10, 1999, resulting in a seismic shift of the entertainment landscape. In the fifteen years since its premiere, the perception of Television as Cinema’s shorter, cheaper, trashier little brother has been completely upended, and much of that is thanks to David Chase‘s ambitious mob drama. It’s not just “important” though; it’s really, really, really good.
For those unfamiliar with the program (really?), it starred the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, a complex, funny, ferocious, increasingly sociopathic and yet somehow still likable New Jersey mob boss struggling to balance his family life with his “family” life. In the early seasons, he was largely concerned with the women in his universe: conflicted wife Carmela (Edie Falco), therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and grudge-holding mother Livia (Nancy Marchand). As the years wore on, Tony detached from any semblance of sympathy, and his attention turned to self-preservation in the always-simmering New Jersey/New York war. Gandolfini throughout displayed an incredible range that may not have been apparent to those only familiar with his grimaces on the promotional materials. His performance here is one of the all-time best.
A decade and a half after it first debuted and changed the whole damn game, The Sopranos still stands as the only piece of media to challenge The Godfather as ‘the essential’ mafia story. To celebrate its birthday, as well as its return to streaming on Quickflix, I’ve selected my 10 favourite episodes (along with 10 fantastic runners up). Some spoilers ahead, but this is mostly safe for newcomers. Still, you’ve been warned.
The earliest great ep of the show sees Tony take daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) on a tour of potential college campuses, only to spot a former acquaintance (well, a rat actually) and reunite. By “reunite” I mean whack him. Witnessing Tony’s hands-on hit is the first step on the troubled journey of alternately loving and despising our protagonist.
On the other side of the series – coming just two episodes before the big, still-contentious finale – is one of the show’s most heartbreaking chapters, involving Tony’s long-denigrated son A.J. (Robert Iler) finally taking steps to rid himself of his poisonous family. Climaxes with perhaps The Sopranos most harrowing sequence… and that’s saying something.
The season’s simmering gangster-related issue comes to a head here, however, it’s the showdown between Tony and his unstable goomah Gloria Trillo (Annabella Sciorra) that makes this such an electrifying, distressing watch. Pro tip: when your significant other begs you to kill them, scram.
In the heat of Tony and Carmela’s separation, Tony gets a little too close to Adriana LaCerva (Drea de Matteo), fiancée of his addict nephew/cousin Christopher (Michael Imperioli). Speculation over why the two of them were in a late-night car crash spreads like wildfire, sending Christopher wild.
A powerful parable centered on Dr. Melfi, who is viciously raped in a parking garage late one evening. When the police are unable to apprehend the culprit – despite knowing exactly who did it – she’s given the option of asking her murder-happy patient for some retribution. What an ending.
Recovering from a bungled hit orchestrated by his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), Tony attempts to wrest control of the family with violent precision… before fate intervenes. The real highlight comes when Tony finally confronts his incapacitated mother in hospital with the intention of suffocating her to death. They, erm, have a history.
Speaking of troubled family history, Tony and Carmela go on a relaxing trip to the upstate cabin of sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and brother-in-law Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa), where they fish, play Monopoly, drink too much, and eventually erupt into violence. For those hoping to unravel the answer to the brilliant, infuriating closing scene of the entire series, I recommend looking to the clues in this, the first instalment in The Sopranos‘ final run of episode. Although, maybe attempting to solve that ending is a fool’s errand. (Co-written by Matt Weiner, eventual creator of Mad Men.)
If you were to survey fans, Pine Barrens would likely be named as the most popular episode in the show’s history. A bizarro almost-bottle episode, it involves Christopher and Paulie (Tony Sirico) screwing up an assassination and forced to give chase to their mark across the deserted, snow strewn pinelands, only to get lost in the wilderness. A grand display of the show’s best, most secret weapons: a fierce sense of humour and a malleable cast of characters who could always be thrown together in fascinating, conflict-creating combos. Steve Buscemi – who would later star on the series – directs.
There are few laughs to be found in the troubling Long Term Parking, which sees Adriana – forced into working for the FBI – contend with potentially revealing her troubles to Christopher. Tragic, truly upsetting, and unforgettable (with ace performances from all involved). Just try to block-out the closing car ride with Adriana and Tony’s second-in-command, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt; yes, Little Stevie Van Zandt).
Though it precedes the weakest (a relative term when talking Sopranos) run in the show’s history, the hypnotic Join the Club is my personal pick for all-time best effort. Tony’s in a coma, and his families are scrambling to deal with not only the power vacuum, but their own complicated feelings about his possible, impending death. Meanwhile, in his unconscious state, Tony imagines he’s a travelling – not-Italian! – salesman who has lost his identity and can’t quite get away from a hotel convention. The final image, of Dream Tony sitting on his bed and looking out towards the enigmatic light house, unable to hear his wife back home, remains my favourite. The Sopranos was always more than just a ‘mob opera’ and Join the Club is a perfect example of how it was able to reach new, incredible emotional heights in often strange, unexpected ways.