There’s Gonna Be a Showdown: Mad Men vs. Sopranos Divorce Episodes
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 11, 2009
After a season mostly consisting of tense meandering punctuated by brief moments of inexplicable action, we finally got a Mad Men season finale (“Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”) that justified just about everything that came before it this season. If you haven’t watched it yet, probably based to stop reading now, since there’ll probably be spoilers, although the actual result of the action really isn’t as important as the scene episode itself, which is quite possibly the best of the series to date. But throughout the episode, which largely focused on the demise of Don and Betty’s marriage (as well as a concurrent plot about Don and the other bigwigs at Sterling Cooper plotting their escape from the company before it gets sold again), I was reminded of another classic TV episode from this decade–“Whitecaps,” the season four finale of The Sopranos, which saw Carmela and Tony Soprano part ways for the first time.
The similarities between the two shows have always been striking to me–not entirely coincidental, since Matt Weiner was so heavily involved in both shows–especially in the protagonist and his wife. Tony and Don were hardly carbon copies of each other, but certainly cut from the same cloth–family men in an often shady industry who regularly indulged in narcissism and infidelity. Meanwhile, Carmela and Betty were both housewives who learned to live with a certain number of their husband’s known dalliances, but eventually reached a tipping point where they decided it was time for a clean break. “Whitecaps” and “Shut the Door” were both season finales that saw the tension bubbling under (and occasionally over) the surface in each relationships come entirely to the forefront, with transfixing and often devastating results. (In the most direct parallel, the final break in both relationships came with Betty/Carmela insisting “I don’t love you anymore,” although in Med Men that line actually came in the penultimate episode).
Of course, only one episode can go down as the greatest breakup episode in 00s television. Which one shall it be? Break it down, one time.
Heartbreaking Moment of Decision: In neither episode to we really know that things are over over at first. (Well, we sort of do by the season finale in Mad Men, so I’m going to have to go back to the final scene in the penultimate episode for this particular challenge–consider it a lead-in). Betty was more than a little put out after uncovering Don’s web of lies about his past life (which, by the way, is evidence exhibit #156A why one should never keep a treasure trove of damning documents and memorabilia in one’s own home), but appeared to maybe sorta semi-forgive him after he broke down in tears in his explanation, and then stayed strong for her throughout the whole mess with the Kennedy and Ruby assassinations. But something was clearly gone from her eyes–credit the occasionally-maligned January Jones for doing a good job selling this–and when she came down with the “I don’t love you anymore” bombshell, we knew it was definitely over.
It was a different story entirely with Carmela in “Whitecaps.” Not only had she seemingly forgiven Tony his indiscretions, she had just been positively swept away with his purchase of a family summer home by the seaside (“Anthony Soprano, you are full of surprises,” she wistfully rhapsodized). It was only later in the episode, when Tony’s old mistress called his house to rat him out to Carm for his new mistress, that she started throwing his golf clubs out the window. The emotional violence that followed was all the more crushing because we had just seen their relationship–always a far richer and more compelling one than Betty and Don’s to begin with–reach a new apex. To see it fall so hard and so fast…well, we didn’t really want to believe it was over either. There’s no contest here.
Winner: The Sopranos
Discovery of Wife’s Maybe-Affair: Neither Tony nor Don knew of their wives’ growing affections for different men in their lives over the course of the season, before springing their grounds for divorce on them. Carmela had been engaged in an epic romance of longing glances with Tony’s Italian-imported muscle man, Furio Giunta, and although she never even came close to consummating it–Furio contemplated killing Tony and inheriting Carmela, Scarface-style, but made the more pragmatic decision to just move back overseas instead–the glee she took in informing Tony about her wandering thoughts, and his subsequent facial transformation, was one of the episode’s more indelible moments. Meanwhile, when Don heard about Betty’s push-and-pull tango with government advisor Henry Francis from a gossipy Roger while drinking, and I couldn’t even remember if he was just learning about this, or had heard before and just didn’t care that much. Whatever, another easy one.
Winner: The Sopranos
Telling the Kids: I’m not sure if we ever actually see Carmela or Tony telling Meadow and AJ about their impending split, but I remember a teary Meadow talking with Carmela about how she always thought she was better than her friends with divorced parents, and how she wasn’t looking forward to having to split time between them on the holidays. It felt like a pretty honest reaction, and I remember it being one of the more affecting parts of the episode. But this was a huge strength of “Shut the Door,” as Don and Betty engage in a subtle battle of agendas while informing Sally and Bobby about Don moving out, Don trying to leave the door open for his return and Betty trying to emphasize as best she can the finality of the situation. Meanwhile, Sally’s expression of betrayal at Don’s breaking of his “I will always come home” promise (which sounded like a risky guarantee to make even as he was making it ten or so episodes ago), “You say things you don’t mean, and you can’t just do that”…yeah, it’s a litlte bit of a too-easy summation of Don’s character, but it hits home nonetheless.
Winner: Mad Men
Moment of Near-Violence. This is pretty directly tied to the “Discovery of Maybe-Affair” section, as this revelation so incenses both Don and Tony that they come as close to physically striking their spouses as they do in the entire show run. It’s more jarring to see from Don, not necessarily a violent person by nature (although one who certainly doesn’t mind getting a little physical with the ladies, as Bobbie Barrett’s vagina will attest), grab Betty with a look of abject malice and inform her “You’re a whore. You know that??” Despite his cheating, his occasional manipulation of his employees, and his man-of-his-time prejudices (his “You people” sneer at Sal for rejecting Lee Gardner Jr.’s advances, despite obviously being gay, was pretty harsh), Don basically seems like an OK guy, especially considered in contrast with some of his particularly reactionary peers. Nearly beating Betty is as close as his character may ever come to genuine unlikability.
That said, it still can’t quite complete with the hugeness of the moment when Tony nearly comes to blows with Carmela. Unlike Don, Tony does not basically seem like an OK guy, and over the course of four seasons of the show, we’d seen him do enough unscrupulous, conscienceless shit that no low or him would seem particularly out of the question. As Carmela begins to taunt him with the news of her wordless affair with Furio, anything seems possible–hell, he might even kill her if he reds out for long enough without coming to his senses. As he wound up for a punch, the entire character hung in the balance of that moment–we could get past, if not necessarily forgive, Tony for doing a lot of fucked-up things, but if he beat up Carmela, there would be no going back. At the moment of truth, he pulled back and punched a hole in the wall instead–maybe something of a cop-out for the show, but still arguably the most intense split-second in all of The Sopranos. (Although I’ll never believe that it’s even half as easy to actually punch a whole in the wall as Tony made it seem).
Winner: The Sopranos
Concurrent Side-Plot: An underrated part of “Whitecaps” (well, I’m not sure who I actually think is rating these things, but it probably would be underrated if people bothered to rate it) is the ongoing dispute that Tony has with the real estate agent that sold him the summer house, since he decides to rescind on his purchase after the fall-out with Carmela, and the agent doesn’t want to give him back his deposit. The ensuing battle of wills–mostly consisting of Tony blasting Dean Martin live albums from his boat towards the agent’s beach house to bully him into submission–adds much, much-needed levity to the episode. The side-plot in “Shut the Door,” though, is almost as compelling as Don and Betty’s split, with Don, Roger and Bert scheming to start anew while gutting Sterling-Cooper in the process, and gradually getting most of the show’s other principals in on the act as well. As Don’s home life crumbles, his little office coup serves to show that his S-C cronies are probably closer to being his real family, or at least the family he needs and/or deserves. It’s a fun little subterfuge, besides.
Winner: Mad Men
Where Do We Go From Here Ending. “Shut the Door” ends with Don in his new office/hotel room, calling Betty and essentially admitting defeat in his (really fairly half-hearted) fight to keep their relationship together, as well as taking back his threats to take the kids and leave her penniless. “I hope you get what you’ve always wanted,” he offers to her, and that’s just about that–the books appear to be closed on Don and Betty, as she and Henry jet off to Reno and he re-focuses all his energy back into his work. With the “Whitecaps” finale, things couldn’t have been much more open-ended, as Tony reluctantly moves out of the Soprano mansion, tells his kids to be good to their mother, but leaves with a kind of “I’ll be back” hitch in his goodbyes. The episode doesn’t even end with Tony and Carm, but rather with T’s continued harrassment of the agent, whose wife begs him to give in, and who ultimately seems to conclude that you just can’t fight New Jersey Sanitation. Neither ending really stands out ahead of the other, and without knowing what’s to come with Mad Men, it’s basically impossible to make a ruling anyway.
Yeah, it was a hell of a Mad Men episode, but in the end, there’s still no fucking with The Sopranos in its prime, and “Whitecaps” was as good as the show–or any TV drama this decade, really–ever got.
ULTIMATE VICTOR: “Whitecaps,” The Sopranos