• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

The Sopranos: Isabella (Review)

With Isabella, the first season of The Sopranos comes to a head. It’s all been building and building since the pilot, and the penultimate episode is the point where things really start to pay off. It’s amazing how structured the first season of The Sopranos is, dedicated to build-up and pay-off. Despite the show is about the randomness of life and how stuff just sort of happens, there’s a very clear internal structure and logic to the first season.

Those frustrated by the ending (or arguable non-ending) of Made in America may have missed the point of the larger show, but it’s not an unreasonable expectation when the first season was so careful about paying off all of its plot points and thread. Isabella is the point where things go wrong for Tony in a big way. It’s the episode where Junior and Livia’s scheming puts a bullet in him (and – in one of the show’s countless references to The Godfather – through his orange juice).

At the same time, it remains a story driven by Tony, focused on his character and his own psychology.

Let sleeping mobsters lie...

Let sleeping mobsters lie…

What’s interesting about Isabella is that reality is so fluid over the course of the episode. We discover towards the end that Tony has been hallucinating and dreaming, and that entire conversations took place inside his own head. It isn’t even just the eponymous Italian woman who he dreams about from next door; it turns out that some conversations with Carmela are entirely the product of his own imagination. Reality is fluid and somewhat elastic. It’s all subjective.

The Italian exchange student who Tony invents is an interesting character in her own right – not necessarily because of who she is or what she does, so much as the insight she offers into Tony. An Italian in America, she represents Tony’s pining romantic nostalgia for the old country. Tony has a way of imagining how things used to be, as opposed to considering how they really were. In Nobody Knows Anything, he boasted to Meadow about living inside his house was akin to living in 1954, albeit Tony’s idealised version of 1954.

Happy family...

Happy family…

The Sopranos is filled with characters dreaming of romanticised pasts, of people unsatisfied with how life turned out and wishing that maybe they’d been around when it was “good”, ignoring the reality that people have always been nostalgic. Perhaps that’s why the mob is so obsessed with The Godfather. Read at a superficial level, it represents an idealised golden-hue past for the mob – a world where everybody has respect, money was made easily enough, and family bonds meant everything.

The fascination with the old country is arguably an extension of that. The show would take Tony and several members of the cast back to Italy early in the second season, arguably another shout-out to The Godfather. The notion of an idealised home country, a place where the roots are firmer and the connection to history is stronger, is compelling. Of course, it ignores the fact that there was a reason that Tony’s great-grandparents left Italy to come to America in the first place. The grass is always greener on the other side, and Tony just happens to be standing in turn-of-the-millennium America.

Silvio lining...

Silvio lining…

We return to the idea, established early on in the season, that Tony is a character who would rather do what he finds easy than what is right. After his assassination attempt, the FBI offer him a way out of this life. There are a lot of reasons he should accept the offer – it’s safer for his family, and this life has brought him nothing but stress. And – rather than taking the offer at face value – Tony rationalises and attempts to justify his refusal to make what’s the best decision for his family.

He makes snide remarks about an alternate life that doesn’t even exist yet, setting it up as a crappy alternative to his current life – a life, the show has repeatedly implied, he is far from happy with. This feels completely in-character, a logical extension of earlier discussions where Tony argued that the only alternative career path to “mafia don” is “selling crap at the side of the road.” It makes his choice easy, but it also allows him to avoid the tough decisions. Tony’s willing to dream about a better life, as long as it’s unattainable.

I smell a rat...

I smell a rat…

Livia – who Melfi explicitly identifies as the root cause of Tony’s issues – even explicitly articulates Tony’s sense of nostalgia. When Tony wanders around his house in his dressing gown, Livia is quick to point out that men didn’t do that sort of thing in her day. She harks back to the romantic myth of her parents coming from the old country to make something of themselve in America. “My father came to this country with seventeen cents in his pockets and never made a peep. What’s he got to be depressed about?” Ah, the legend of the self-made man, another romantic nostalgic fantasy we can turn to when things get tough.

Even before Melfi draws him on it though, it’s clear that Tony’s hallucinations are all about Livia. dream!Carmela threatens to castrate him. More subtly, Isabella is a dentistry student. While the show is generally shrewd enough to avoid relying too heavily Freudian imagery, it’s worth noting that the psychiatrist suggested that a lot of dream imagery concerning teeth really reflected an anxiety about castration.

Everything's topsy-turvy...

Everything’s topsy-turvy…

(Interestingly, the opening exchange of the episode – which is never hinted at as being a dream, but could be – Carmela speaks lines that sound like they should be coming from Livia berating her no-good son. “This is not normal, for a healthy adult male to take to bed like this,” she protests. Whether this suggests that Tony married a woman rather like his mother, or that the entire sequence was a hallucination, it’s an interesting point.)

Of course, Tony has a reason to worry about his mother. She’s the one who pushed Junior to order a hit on his nephew and her son. It’s a Freudian nightmare, and the logical conclusion of a show about the mob as a “family.” After all, there comes a point where describing an organisation like that as a “family” ceases to convey the dynamics of the organisation. When an uncle orders the assassination of his own nephew with the consent (and urging) of his sister-in-law, it’s safe to say that things are broken.

The inside looking out...

The inside looking out…

There are the smallest possible nods towards familial courtesy. “He’s not gonna suffer,” the ambitious Mikey assures Junior. “He’s gonna have an open casket.” That’s very considerate, I suppose. I also love how Junior treats this as a strictly business decision, informing Mikey, “Jesus Michael, if I delegate, I delegate.” You just can’t get good help these days.

For her part, Livia remains a fascinating character. I’d forgotten just how deliciously warped and manipulative the woman was, and just how perfectly Nancy Marchand pitched the performance. The best part here is the way that she immediately sees how far things have come off the rails and shrewdly tries to protect herself by developing the world’s most convenient case of dementia. As Junior rather pointedly observes, “That’s terrific timing. Right after the move on your son goes in the toilet.” Livia offers a rather considered response. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He's not going to take this lying down...

He’s not going to take this lying down…

To be fair, the show does an excellent job playing up the ambiguity of Livia’s illness. It is entirely possible that her dementia developed at the perfect time to save her from Tony’s wraith. After all, dementia can be accelerated by chronic stress, like the stress Livia has clearly been under over the course of the season. While it’s relatively convenient for Livia to fake forgetfulness and absent-mindedness, one imagines that it’s a bit more difficult to fake a stroke. (At least without being found out.)

The show never firmly answers the question one way or the other, which is a shrewd move. Can we, like Tony at the climax of I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano, see Liva smirking at him from the trolley? Or are we just inferring it from our season’s worth of experiences with her? Personally, I suspect she faked the dementia, but not the stroke – but there’s certainly room for interpretation. It’s one of the strengths of Chases’ writing, a willingness to leave this sort of thing open to the audience to decide for themselves.

The long dark late afternoon of Tony's soul...

The long dark late afternoon of Tony’s soul…

Looking back over my earlier revies, I feel bad that I haven’t singled out Edie Falco more. The actress is – like just about every other member of the ensemble – pitch perfect in her role. There are several wonderful sequences in Isabella hinging on Carmela as a character. I love her wonderful reaction shots during the family dinner, which perfectly encapsulate the character’s opinion of Livia and, perhaps, her husband.

Falco also relishes the chance to play the more assertive version of Carmela that exists inside her husband’s head. dream!Carm is downright terrifying, and you can see how Tony might be afraid of his wife. Falco and Gandolfini do wonders with that scene, managing to make the audience forget that Gandolfini is about twice the size of Falco. It’s all the more impressive because the show doesn’t resort to trick cinematography to do so. You can see that she’s tiny, but Falco just invests her with a frightening energy.

Arranging deck chairs...

Arranging deck chairs…

Isabella is a wonderful penultimate episode for what has been a remarkably strong début season. It’s quite impressive how skilfully David Chase pulled off the show’s first year. In a way, it feels almost like the culmination of something that has been building for years, even though we’ve only seen thirteen episodes of it. It’s not too hard to imagine an alternate show where this season would serve as the last season of the show, with Tony finally managing to bring the family under his control. There’s an incredible and an impressive depth here.

The Sopranos‘ first season is coming to an end here. But what an end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: