Denial, Anger, Acceptance marks the first episode of The Sopranos not written by creator David Chase. In the United Kingdom, it’s traditional for a particular writer (or writers) to write every episode of a given series, to the point where you are quite likely to find a television show credited “by” a particular person. In the United States, due to longer seasons and various other concerns, such an approach isn’t feasible. (There are exceptions, such as Aaron Sorkin’s tenure on The West Wing, where he contributed eight-one scripts in the show’s first four seasons.) However, The Sopranos remains associated with its creator, David Chase, so it’s interesting to look at Denial, Anger, Acceptance as the first episode written by a writer other than Chase, in this case Mark Saraceni.
What’s remarkable, at this early stage of the game, is how relatively granular the episodes seen. Of course, the characterisation builds seamlessly off earlier developments, with the Buccos’ financial difficulties as a result of the first episode playing into the catering of the Sopranos’ party. And, of course, the subplots are still ticking away in the background. Junior is still mad at Tony, and the situation is still at boiling points due to Christopher’s actions in 46 Long.
However, it is still quite possible to watch each individual episode in isolation. In fact, I’d argue the earlier episodes view better that way. It is still possible to watch the series in instalments spaced relatively far apart and easily follow what’s going on, as each episode features its own plot points, guest stars and developments. Chase does an excellent job developing the subplots running through the season and maintaining thematic continuity, but it’s fascinating how distinct these early episodes are from one another. Perhaps it was a conscious decision, to introduce us to the cast by increments, rather than to throw us into one gigantic forward-moving plot while catching up about the individual characters, their motivations and allegiances.
Although The Sopranos is still a show featuring gangsters (and, to be fair, this episode does end with Godfather-esque montage), Chase is rather consciously using it to explore bigger issues. The Sopranos is, as a series, a poignant exploration of the American Dream, and uses the crime element as a handy way of prying into the dark underbelly of American consumerism and capitalism. In this cynical world view, everything has price, anything can be obtained, morals are sold to the highest bidder.
In hindsight, I think it’s possible to argue that quite a lot of regular suburbanites might have been living almost as gangsters, living beyond the means they had at their disposal and borrowing on credit they knew didn’t exist. It might not be nearly as glamorous as the gun-wielding Godfather-quoting antics of Tony and his crew, but how much of the recession was a result of people buying fancy cars and nice homes they couldn’t obtain through their legitimate jobs and legal enterprises?
The Sopranos creates an environment where class warfare can go from being a conceptual conflict to a literal bloodbath. There are all manner of familiar drama acting themselves out here, captured in Denial, Anger, Acceptance. Junior and Tony are the old and the young at war over who controls the destiny of their social class. Of course, Tony isn’t necessarily too young, but it’s clear that Junior plans to greedily hold on to his power and influence until his successors pry it from his cold and dead hands.
There are, of course, the have and the have-nots, or the masters and the servants, with Charmaine Bucco resentful of having to serve at Carmine Soprano’s reception. It probably seems especially harsh since it demolishes any sense of social equality between the two. They are both part of the same immigrant community, but class distinctions already establish themselves. Of course, this is America, so such class distinctions are not matters of birth or blood. It’s all material. Carmine has more and so is of a higher standing. It’s telling that, rather than actually addressing the issue, Charmaine responds by asserting her own property claims – making it clear that she has had Tony as a petty and spiteful revenge for being demeaned.
It’s telling that, even in America, a country built on immigrants and a functioning melting pot, there’s still such strife and distinction between the individual groups. Despite desperately struggling to retain their Italian-American cultural identity as distinct from the rest of middle-class America, the mob are perfectly willing to exploit other ostracized and isolated ethnic groups. We’re introduced to the “Rabbi goon squad”, the lowly maid or cleaner from Poland and, of course, Tony’s foreign prostitute. In a way, this distinction between more modern immigrants and the more established immigrant community almost reminds me of Gangs of New York, and the way that Bill the Butcher looked down on and exploited the newer arrivals.
Even the discussions between Tony and Melfi simmer with some sort of class distinction. Tony clearly resents Melfi’s education – something that all his money can’t buy at this point. In College, Tony would explain that he dropped out of college, but it’s clear that he’s resentful of those who did enjoy a higher education. Tony is quick to make a big deal about a painting in the lobby, convinced that Melfi’s trying to get one over on him. “You think I want to trick you?”she asks. Of course, Tony makes his own attempts to feign culture and class, albeit with no real success. He buys nice paintings as a status symbol, but clearly has no real affection for them – banging absent-mindedly on the one above his bed to get Meadow to turn her music down.
At the heart of this, again, we see Tony’s primal fears at play. Despite being a powerful mob boss, Tony is racked with the insecurities that must grip the modern middle class. He worries about his family, he worries about his social standing, he worries about his own ethnic identity. “Somebody called me a Frankenstein,” he remarks after a Jewish man labels him a Golum. Melfi wonders if he fears being described as “a thing lacking humanity” – or is he merely a product of modern society? Of course, a Golum is a piece of animated clay, but Frankenstein’s monster is a whole constructed from discarded and mismatched parts without any real identity of its own. I think there’s a distinction, and Tony fears being one more than the other.
Saraceni’s script is sharp, filled with a lot of the irony that defined the series. “Take it easy,” Junior insists as his colleagues swear up a storm. “We’re not making a Western here.” This is a man capable of incredible brutality, but who claims to blush at the slightest vulgarity. Confronted with goons threatening his execution, Christopher is more convinced it is about selling meth to a consenting teenager rather than about murdering an innocent man. (Of course, he’s probably right to assume Tony would threaten to kill him for selling drugs to Meadow, but it never crosses his mind that the death of an innocent person could have consequences.)
The show is blackly comic as we’re witness to characters with wonderfully off-base priorities. Tony seems visibly upset that Jackie is more concerned about his own fatal cancer than he is with Tony’s worries. It’s “just him and his cancer”, as Tony argues - which illustrates perfectly how warped and self-centred his perspective is. Livia Soprano vetoes the execution of Christopher not because she objects to murdering him in cold blood, but because he once did a favour for her. “He put up my storm windows for me one year.”
Denial, Anger, Acceptance might not be quite as fluid and as perfect as the opening two episodes were, but it still stands as an example of a show with a very clear vision right out of the gate. It’s utterly compelling stuff.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | Acceptance, AmericanDream, Anger, Christopher, David Chase, Denial, Denial Anger Acceptance, history, holocaust, Judaism, Junior, Livia Soprano, Meadow, Melfi, Poland, Religion and Spirituality, Soprano, the sopranos, Tony, Tony Soprano, United States