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The Sopranos: College (Review)

College is interesting because it perfectly captures a lot of the themes at the heart of The Sopranos, effortlessly blending Tony’s upper-middle-class concerns with his familial obligations (both to his nuclear family and to the mob). At the same time, it explores many of the inherently contradictory aspects of modern living, including the implied acquiesce to a culture of greed and corruption. College is the first time that we really see Tony get his own hands dirty, and it’s the point at which we explore how complicit Carmela is in his shady dealings and illegal activities. I think it’s a show that really pins down what the show is going to be – and it’s no surprise that the episode won Chase his first writing Emmy for the show, and is reportedly his favourite episode of the series.

Driving the conversation...

It’s interesting, in these early episodes, to see the barriers between Tony’s two lives sort of fade away. After all, a viewer would be prone to wonder to what extent his family are aware of the stuff that Tony does in order to keep them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. Anthony Jr. only found out in the previous episode, while Meadow seems to have been aware for quite while. Here, we discover that Carmela definitely does know and that even her own attempt at denial is a somewhat half-hearted attempt at plausible deniability, coated with a layer of justification.

I have forsaken what is right for what is easy. Allowing what I know is evil in  my house. Allowing my children – oh my God, my sweet children – to be a part of it  because I wanted things for them; a better life, good schools. I wanted this  house. I wanted money in my hands, money to buy anything I ever wanted. I’m  ashamed. My husband, I think he has committed horrible acts. I think he has…  you know all about him Father Phil. I’m the same. I’ve said nothing. I’ve done  nothing about it. I’ve got a bad feeling. It’s just a matter of time before God  compensates me with outrage for my sins.

So everybody in the family knows what it is that Tony does. Even if they only tend to talk about it one-on-one rather than collectively, even if they continue to refer to his cover as the manager of a waste management company. Here, Meadow actually tries to talk about it with him, and it’s funny to hear Tony try to play the “stereotype” card as a means of deflecting the question. “It’s a stereotype,” he insists. “It’s offensive. And you are the last person I would want to perpetuate it.”

Carmela hasn't a prayer...

In hindsight, that defense is hilarious because the show would come under fire from various political correctness campaigners for its presentation of Italian-Americans. Never mind the fact that it’s very tough to set a show within the mafia without featuring any (or mostly) Italian-Americans who are gangsters. After all, most Italian-Americans aren’t mafia members, but most mafia members are Italian-American, to use a crucial distinction my maths teacher taught me to get out of situations like this.

It might be a stereotype, but it draws from a long history of an Italian-American mob, and it seems ridiculous to present the show as racist for focusing on that particular group. Yes, Chase could have chosen another type of organised crime, but if he picked any  within any sort of immigrant group, he’d come under fire from then. And, given how essential Tony’s ethnic identity is to the series – the question of how Tony manages centuries of tradition and ethnic identity with the challenges of a modern globalised and commercialised culture – I couldn’t see it working either way.

The dark side of the street...

Anyway, it’s interesting to see Tony try to concede that the illusion has been shattered – that his family know and that he knows that they know. After all, if Tony can’t be honest with his family, how can he be honest with himself? Sure, Tony eventually acknowledges that Meadow is a “grown woman – almost” and deserves to know, but he also immediately continues keeping secrets from her. He confesses that he is a member of organised crime, but makes excuses to hide his inquiries concerning Fabian Petrulio. While he tries to convince her he sees her as an adult, he still treats her like a child – yelling at her when she confesses her drug usage, and patronisingly hiding obvious secrets from her.

And, of course, Tony’s quick to justify his actions and his line of work. “You know I put food on the table,” he tells her, as if that justifies the murder and violence. Then, of course he falls back on the family argument, implying he had no choice but to end up a mob boss. “My father was in it. My uncle was in it.” It makes it seem more than a bit hypocritical when Tony warns Chris, “You chose this life.” Still, that’s perfectly in-character for Tony, as is Christopher’s need for external validation (he’s “one c**thair away from bein’ made”). To get back to Tony’s desire to blame others for his situation, it seems like this sort of projection might be at the root of Tony’s class resentment, as we’ve seen come up with Melfi time and time again.

He's got him Fred to rights...

Perhaps it is a misplaced desire to blame his upbringing for his line of work. “Maybe I was too lazy to think for myself,” he tells Meadow, “to consider myself… a rebel. Maybe being a rebel in my family would have been selling patio furniture on route 22.” Of course, he discounts any actual professional job, because then it might seem like he had a viable alternative. He seems to self-deprecating, but he’s really just justifying his decisions. Like many parents of teenagers during the nineties, it seems like Tony’s desire to see Meadow attend college stems from a wish to see her afforded an opportunity he never had.

“Grampa and granma didn’t stretch college,” he bitterly rationalises. “They were working class people.” I wonder how often Tony plays out a scenario in his head where he’s a qualified consultant or professional with a major degree and everything in his life is somehow perfect as a result. Tony is a truly compelling and fascinating character, because he doesn’t just compulsively lie to those around him to justify his actions, he also lies to himself to justify his own situation – he’s quick to displace blame and resent those he sees as having luxuries he was never afforded himself, while living in a fancy house and driving a nice car and sending a kid to college.

Got him collared...

While waiting for Meadow, Tony notices a quote from Hawthorne on a plaque on a college wall. “No man,” it suggests, “for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true.” Tony is lying to himself and to his family, as is Carmela herself. She confesses her sins of complicity to her priest – but makes no attempt to change her ways. Indeed, when he wakes up in the morning, hung over, she makes a conscious effort as if to pretend nothing has happened.

That’s the tragedy about College – the characters admit that they aren’t being honest with one another, but make no honest attempt to change those patterns. It makes Tony’s fascination with history – referenced throughout the series, but brought up directly here – all the more ironic. Tony has a passion for history, and yet an inability to recognise the recurring destructive patterns in his own life. The Sopranos is filled with recurrences and repetitions, people forsaking good choices for easy choices – and familiar choices are the easiest of all.

Happy families...

“Well, you know about us wiseguys?” Tony asks Fred as he strangles the life out of the informant. “The hustle never ends.” Even until his dying breath, Fred was lying to those around him. It’s no coincidence that Carmela and Father Phil wind up watching The Remains of the Daytogether, perhaps the best film ever made about people’s inability to communicate honestly with one another. It’s a life filled with complications and contradictions, where nothing necessarily makes sense.

It’s no wonder that Chase draws in religion to the show. In many ways it reminds me of something Frank Miller once said about his decision to focus on Matt Murdoch’s Catholicism while writing Daredevil; only a Catholic could work as a lawyer during the day and dress up as a devil vigilante at night. As Father Phil and Carmela muse, faith is a puzzling and often contradictory thing itself – especially Catholicism, which seems to have a dichotomy between the all-too-human desires and the spiritual obligations.

Carmela drinks her Phil...

Jesus Christ was both man and God at the same time. God is three beings, and yet somehow one. Human beings are expected to find virtue in the world despite being born with original sin. It’s hard to get a handle on, as Carmela understands. “We’ve got some major contradictions here!” Indeed, it’s telling that both Father Phil and Carmela spend more time talking about popular culture than they do about actual religion. “I understood what he did,” Camilla confesses about Jesus Christ, “but not a lot of what he said.”

I have to admit that I quite like the suggestion, made by the pair, that the Beatles have said more than Jesus. “You know what’s remarkable?” Phil muses. “If you take everything Jesus ever said, add it up,  it only amounts to two hours of talk.” Carmela responds, “No. No, but wait. I heard the  same thing about The Beatles. Except it was, if you add up all their songs it  only comes to ten hours.” In a way, it seems like an affection echo of John Lennon’s infamous boast, but also observing at how little so many iconic and influential figures have actually said. Even the volume of Beatles music available is finite, and it’s astounding how vast their impact actually is. It seems kind of surreal and put in such logical and definite terms.

He won't stand for it!

In particular, though, I do like the way that Chase plays with the sexual imagery at the heart of the chaste Catholic religion – the ritual of kneeling in submission, drinking and consuming from a chaste priest. Indeed, Tony even comments on it, in his own bullish way. “Oh, I bet he gave you communion,” he jibes after Father Phil stayed over. “Well, Carmela, the guy spends the night here with you and all he does is slip you a wafer?” Carmela warns him, “That’s verging on sacrilege.”

It is also worth noting that Carmela only tells Tony about Father Phil staying over because she was worried somebody else might, not because she wanted to tell him. Despite the somewhat small concessions made to the need to be open with the family, both Tony and Carmela wind up right back where they started, stuck in their passive-aggressive rut. In fact, Tony seems to project his own fears on to Carmela – while Carmela fights the temptation to be unfaithful to Tony, Tony has been shown to be repeatedly unfaithful to his wife, and yet he accuses her first.

Drinking it in...

College is also notable for being the first episode to have Tony kill somebody on-screen. Throughout the first few episodes, as we got to know him, Tony was generally removed from the more violent mob activity. Even his threat to castrate a captive was kept off camera. Up until this point, the most we’ve seen Tony directly administer is a brutal beating. I think that helps us warm to Tony, or at least not to actively hate him, while Chase defines the character a bit. As he suffocates the informer, the camera focuses on the blood on his hands. This isn’t Tony’s first kill, but this is the first we’ve seen.

Reportedly, HBO originally didn’t want Tony to murder Fred. I can’t help but think that would have weakened the episode and possible crippled the show. We have to be able to hate Tony, just as we have to be able to pity and understand him – it’s the inherent contradiction that David Chase seems to play out for the audience. We loathe Tony, and yet we come to respect him. He is a monster, but he’s also a man. Refusing to allow Tony that moment of brutality would have set an unfortunate precedent, while the sequence serves as something as a warning. However much we may relate to and understand Tony’s middle-class anxieties, he is a brutal and violent man. And that makes the fact that we understand and relate to him even more unnerving and makes the violence even more disturbing.

Fearful symmetry...

College is great. It’s the show really firing on all cylinders and nailing down the characterisation of the Soprano family. The first half of the first season has very much been about lining everything up and getting all the pieces in place, and I think that College represents the most graceful example of that sort of introduction to date.

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