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The Sopranos – Nobody Knows Anything (Review)

Nobody Knows Anything represents the beginning of the end of the first season of The Sopranos. It is, despite my reservations about Boca and even A Hit is a Hit, a remarkably strong season of television. Part of the thrill of Nobody Knows Anything – particularly after two relatively stand-alone episodes – is watching the series gracefully and fluidly start knocking down the dominoes it has been lining up since the start of the season.

It’s text-book set-up and pay-off, executed with considerable skill. Rewatching the first season of The Sopranos, it’s easy to understand why so many viewers were frustrated by the non-resolution of Made in America. The Sopranos has constantly riffed on The Godfather, right down to Paulie’s car horn here, and it feels like the show is making a conscious effort to emulate the efficiency with which Coppola structured that gangster classic’s final act.

Diving on in there...

Diving on in there…

Most of the action in Nobody Knows Anything is driven by Vin Makazian. Makazian is a minor character in the grand scheme of the show, but he has popped up a few times over the course of the season. He never seemed especially important in the grand scheme of things. Here, he seems especially frustrated at how little he has amounted to. He’s frustrated with the way that Tony treats him, as “degenerate f%$@ing gambler with a badge.”

Makazian feels under-appreciated, even in the seedy profession of passing secrets to the mob. “Why you gotta talk to me like this?” he asks Tony early in the episode. “You know, I do a lotta risky shit for you.” When Tony visits her to talk about Makazian’s suicide, his girlfriend Debbie explains her reasoning for why he took his own life. “He was not happy,” she tells Tony. “With himself. With how he turned out.”

Dante's (interest is) piqued...

Dante’s (interest is) piqued…

In a way, it’s precisely the sort of sentiment that characters like Tony and Christopher could empathise with, the listless sense of “this is it?” The difference is, of course, that the audience has come to see Makazian as just as unimportant as he feels. He’s popped up a number of times and hasn’t really done too much of note, save for snooping around on Melfi for Tony. He’s a hired gun at best, a background character who probably isn’t worth too much attention from the show’s point of view because he’s not a member of the family.

While the audience comes to know Tony and Christopher, so that we can fully understand their insecurities and their yearnings, Makazian has been very much at the periphery of the season. He’s a character who might have drifted off into limbo after any one of his appearances, never mentioned or seen again. It’s fitting that his final act on the show is to shamefully flash his badge in a traffic jam to assert his importance, shortly before taking his own life. It’s sad and pathetic and tragic.

Not-quite badge of honour...

Not-quite badge of honour…

And yet, there’s also a beautiful irony that Makazian is the catalyst for so much of the troubles to come. He identifies Pussy as an FBI informant based on incorrect information. Somebody along the line of Chinese whisperers slipped up and confused one chubby dark-haired mobster for another. It’s an easy mistake to make, an understandable one. And yet that mistake almost leads Tony to have his friend murdered in cold blood.

It’s the most important thing that Makazian has done on the show, and it’s just a completely pointless mistake. The Sopranos exists in a delightfully twisted and ironic world, one with a very cruel sense of humour. The episode’s title, a Hollywood in-joke and a line given to Paulie, reflects on just how random and uncaring the world is. Everything is uncertain. Life is random. Nobody really gets those neat arcs that Christopher was talking about in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.

Behind the wheel...

Behind the wheel…

One of the delightful ironies of Nobody Knows Anything is that it underscores just how numb everybody is, and just how much difficulty Tony has empathising with other human beings. Makazian’s depression mirrors Tony’s insecurity. Tony even asks Debbie about the detective’s visits to her brothel, “What did he come here for? Therapy?” Tony is shocked to discover how much Makazian respected him, despite the fact that Makazian’s desire for Tony’s approval should have been a strong hint.

Pussy’s problems also provide a handy mirror to Tony’s own difficulties. Paulie talks to Pussy’s doctor, and assures Tony, “He says there’s not a f%$@ing thing wrong with his back.” Just like Tony’s breathing problems, Pussy’s back difficulties appear to be psychosomatic. It seems that everybody has their own demons and dysfunctions and insecurities.

Back up a minute...

Back up a minute…

To be fair, there’s a suggestion that Tony recognises the similarities between his situation and Pussy’s.  He asks Melfi, “This mental stuff can cause physical problems, right?” However, he still can’t respond with anything approaching compassion. When Melfi grows uncomfortable handing out a medical opinion that might serve as a death sentence, she asks Tony if they might talk about him now. “This is about me!” he protests, even though he’s considering murdering a close friend.

It’s telling that the only member of the cast who seems entirely well-adjusted and comfortable in this life is Paulie, who tried to talk Christopher down off the metaphorical ledge in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti. Apparently Paulie is the only member of the family apart from Tony who prompted a response from Makazian, who considered him a psychopath. So, you know, he probably has his own problems.

A-Paul-ing behaviour...

A-Paul-ing behaviour…

Nobody Knows Anything also develops several of the themes building throughout the season. There’s that same divide between the life that Tony leads and the home life he aspires to. “I don’t think that sex should be a punishable offence either,” he tells Meadow when she discusses the arrests at the brothel. “But I do think that talking about sex at the breakfast table is a punishable offence. So no more sex talk, okay?”

Tony is yearning for the past, but he’s not aspiring to any past that actually existed. “See, out there, it’s the 1990s,” he tells Meadow, gesturing out the windows. “But in this house, it’s 1954.” However, it’s not the real 1954. It’s Tony’s fantasy version of that year, which is quite different from the reality. Of course, Tony is oblivious to that as he attempts to construct his own idealised Leave It to Beaver reality.

Fair cop...

Fair cop…

He’s probably quite close to the mark when he tries to get AJ to open the door late at night. “Make sure you know who it is before you open the door,” he instructs, the champion of 1950s-style paranoia. In fact, he even playfully threatens domestic violence if AJ doesn’t get up from his dinner to answer the door. “If you don’t answer it, you won’t have any teeth to eat with.” It’s probably closer to family life in the real 1950s than Tony realises, even if it’s very far from his idealised version of the era.

We also get more of a sense of how the family unit has eroded, even for the mob that prides itself on the status of “the family.” When Tony insists that Pussy couldn’t have turned federal against him, Makazian argues, “He’s a man who loves his family above all else. And guess what? That’s their favourite target.” The implication is that the “Soprano family” isn’t Pussy’s family in any real or substantive sense. Indeed, the fact that Tony is flesh-and-blood can’t spare him from Junior’s wrath. “If I don’t act now,” Junior begins, “blood or no blood…”

He's really cleaning up...

He’s really cleaning up…

There’s something delightfully bitter and hypocritical about Livia’s appeal to old-school family values while she manipulates Junior into attempting to kill her son. She complains about the way that the modern generation have treated their parents, sending the elderly to live in retirement communities “instead of living in normal homes, with their sons, like human beings.” It’s easy to see where Tony might have appropriated his own misguided sense of nostalgia for family life.

Livia remains a compelling character, manipulating her brother-in-law into murdering her own son. Nancy Merchand is great in the role, and Livia is an absolute joy to watch as she feigns injury and stirs old grudges to get others to pursue her own sinister ends. When Junior wonders why he wasn’t included in these fictitious meetings that she is describing, she innocently offers, “Maybe it was you they were talking about, who knows?” And yet, as soon as he reaches the point she has guided him towards, she’s quick to assert her own innocence. “I don’t like that kinda talk, now stop it. It upsets me.”

Momma told me not to put her in a home...

Momma told me not to put her in a home…

Of course, despite the fact it takes the label “family”, the mob is really just a business. Mikey has to cancel a long-planned trip to Vegas with his wife when his job gets in the way. He assures her that something’s come up, prompting her to reply, “Something always comes up.” When he forces the matter, his wife seems primarily concerned about his paycheck. “I hope it means more money, because I need a new car.”

When he gets the good news about the possibility of a hit on Tony, he anxiously checks his watch while holding the phone, as if wondering who he can call outside of office hours. He talks about the assassination in terms of his career advancement, rather than in terms of the politics of gangland crime. “I might be getting bumped up a notch. Or two. Tony Soprano is on his way out.” He makes it sound like he’s taking the fancy corner office that used to belong to a VP receiving a golden parachute.

A rat in the basement...

A rat in the basement…

Nobody Knows Anything marks a fantastic way to kick off the end of the show’s first season, and is an absolute joy to watch. After a couple of episodes that weren’t up to show’s high standards, it’s nice to see the series getting back into the swing of things.

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