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Conversations With the Family: Christopher’s Intervention Scene

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 21, 2008


Maybe it’s just because of the 90210 re-runs I’ve been watching on SOAP recently, but I’ve recently regained an appreciation for the Very Special Episodes of The Sopranos. There aren’t too many of them, and they don’t usually look the way VSEs are supposed to, but they’re there–the one where Meadow’s friend attempts suicide after having an affair with the soccer team coach, the one where Dr. Melfi gets raped, or the one where office gossip ends up leading Chris to erroneously believe that Adriana cheated on him with Tony, for instance. They’re not done with the melodrama of your garden variety SVE, but they definitely have a different feel than other Sops episodes–a more self-contained, old-fashioned method of television that you’d probably think would clash with the show’s usually cinematic, grand-scale, and dramatically unpretentious manner.

It’s that clash, of course, that makes some of these scenes so unforgettable–no more so than in “The Strong, Silent Type,” when Tony and his family and friends decide to hold an intervnetion for the smack-laden Chrissy. The precursor to this scene, from “Whoever DId This,” is similarly remarkable–after Tony kills Ralphie in an impulsive rage because he believes Ralph burned his horse alive, he calls in Chris to help with the cleanup, and to keep the unsanctioned hit secret from the rest of his crew. While they’re disposing of his body, Tony brings up the subject of Chris’s burgeoning drug addiction and admonishes him for it. And you realize that for these two men, hacking away body parts and trying to make them disappear is probably the most likely time for genuine, emotional male bonding.

The intervention is even more striking. It starts the way you’d expect it to–with Chris acting insulted and beligerent at the insinuation that his drug problem is that serious. And then, of course, the tearful speeches start, with Adriana breaking down weeping while recounting Christopher’s drug-induced impotence (Chris: “Jesus, is this fuckin’ necessary??”) and how he suffocated their dog by sitting on it while high. Meanwhile, Tony and the other intervention members sit around and tut-tut at Christopher’s druggy misdeeds, some more violently than others. This is the stuff that after-school specials are made of, and it seems an unusually emotionally raw moment for a show that resorts to cheap shots as little as The Sopranos does.

The scene takes a much different turn, though, as Sil gets up to give his speech. Monologuing his own words like he just got called on to read through a scene of Death of a Salesman in a high school Language Arts class, he recounts the way Chris’s drug addiction has affected him personally: “When I came in to open up one morning, there you were with your head half in the toilet. Your hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting.” Chris pleads that he had the flu that week, which Tony reluctantly confirms to be true. When it becomes Paulie’s turn to talk, he is even more direct and somewhat less compassionate: “I don’t write nothin’ down, so I’ll keep this short and sweet. You’re weak. You’re out of control. And you’ve become an embarrassment to yourself and everybody else.

At this point, Chris can’t take it any more, and he stats to point out the hypocrisy of his being condemned for his lack of self-control by the similarly indulgent and occasionally irresponsible people in the room. When his mother finally speaks up, though, urging someone to “knock some sense into him,” he commits perhaps the cardinal sin of family culture by telling Ma “fuck you, you fuckin’ hoo-er.” Naturally, the rest of the guys don’t take this kindly, and start beating up Christopher amidst the pleas of the intervention leader (played by Elias Koteas, for some reason). Eventually, the beatdown gets so bad that Chris ends the scene in the hospital, which apparently has a sobering effect, as he breaks down to Tony and willfully agrees to check himself into rehab.

The scene’s a Sops classic for any number of reasons. First off, it’s fucking funny. It’s certainly one of Paulie’s all-time great moments, as the strictly old school greaseball has very basic conflicts of interest with the new age-y philosophies being espoused by Koteas (whose constant insistence on having the intervention take place in a “non-judgemental” atmosphere is routinely ignored), and Chris’s incredulous reaction to some of the less urgent complaints about his drug use (namely his unrelated vomiting and erectile dysfunction) are pretty chuckle-worthy. It’s also certainly an emotionally wrenching scene, especially when Carmella calmly but with great hurt recounts Chris obviously being stoned at Tony’s mother’s wake, and of course it’s far from pretty when Chris tells Ma to fuck off.

Mostly, though, I think it’s an interesting scene because it shows how the Soprano Family, for all their pretense of being a family first, operates in a system too full of hypocrisy to possibly ever do something like an intervention successfully. They can’t really look down on Chris for his drug use when their own self-indulgences (sex, greed, impulsive violence) are, while occasionally less obvious, certainly just as destructive as Chris’s drug use. They can’t really open up honestly to tell Chris how they really feel, since their business is still so full of potentially lethal secrets (not just from the outside world, but from each other, as demonstrated by Ralphie’s recent death). And they can’t really confront him an a sympathetic, non-judgemental way, because fact is, if they can’t clean him up, they’ll probably have to kill him. It’s hardly surprising that it ends up with everyone brawling–the entire thing was probably so emotionally confusing to these guys that they’d have to take their aggression out on something.

Kind of makes me wish the episode where Meadow and Hunter buy speed from Chris had ended up a little more dramatically.

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Listeria / Conversations With the Family: Tony Soprano’s Ten Most Cold-Blooded Moments

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 10, 2007

“That’s my Uncle Tony. The guy I’m going to hell for.”

Every couple of episodes of The Sopranos, Tony gets this look–or one of two looks, actually–that Bill Simmons would probably refer to as “The Tony Soprano Face.” One of them is pictured above, where his brow gets furrowed, his eyes get low, and his face suddenly loses all traces of humor–the show’s second-biggest signifier of a truly line-crossing moment (the first, of course, being the “Oh!” cry shared by virtually every male cast member). But the far more dangerous one, the real Tony Soprano Face, is the one where his eyes get maniacally wide, and he starts to smile a bit. If the other TSF shows that he’s lost all sense of humor, this one shows that he’s lost all sense of reason. And that’s when you know shit is ’bout to get deep.

Tony Soprano is not a good person. This should be a point far too obvious to take the time to make, but really, it’s not. Tony’s such a likeable guy 90% of the time that the show perpetually tempts fans into making excuses for him–he’s just doing it for his family, he only really inflicts harm on people who are also in his shady corner of society, he’s just the logical extension of the evil and corruption that already exists and always has existed in our society to begin with. And it’s a tribute to the show that a combination of those three excuses actually do a good job of making the great majority of Tony’s evildoings–the stealing, the muscling, even the murders–somehow seem at least partly excusable.

But then there’s the really unforgivable shit. The things Tony does that seem totally pointless in their malice, the ones that lack both proper motivation or positive consequences. The ones that don’t even make him seem particularly cool or tough. The ones that rarely provide the pivotal plot points of the show, but the ones that linger with you the longest afterwards, making you think that hey, maybe this guy isn’t really worth rooting for after all. Here’s the ten least excusable–which, incidentally, are almost all from seasons five and six. Probably meaningful of something.

10. Tony Hospitalizes The Bing Bartender. That poor, poor schmuck of a bartender (actual name: Georgie Santorelli, though not even The Sopranos deserves fans big enough to be able to recall that fact off hand)–the guy seems to only appear on the show when Tony needs someone to unleash his wrath upon for no real reason. He gets the worst of it in “Cold Cuts,” after making some fairly harmless comment in response to Tony’s discussion about the possibility of terrorists coming across seas via crates on the shipping docks. Tony ends up putting him in the hospital and giving him permanent hearing loss. This’d probably be higher on the list if it didn’t seem at least a litlte bit like Georgie sorta deserved it–not because his comment was particularly offensive, but because after a while, you’d think he’d learn to avoid jumping into conversations with Tony altogether.

9. Tony Sells Out Caputo’s Poultry for Sex. In “Johnny Cakes,” Tony gets an offer from real estate agent Julianna Skiff (Julianna Margulies) for a piece of his property, which he currently rents out to a neighborhood poultry store, whose owner he is friends with, and whose eggs he says are fresher than anywhere else. He initially refuses, but repeated offers wear down his righteous resolve, as does his newly restored sex drive. It’s more understandable than some of the other items on this list–plenty of guys’d probably do a whole lot worse at the prospect of getting with Julianna Margulies–but the fact that he doesn’t even end up sleeping with Skiff (a rare burst of sexual conscience from Tony) makes the act seem particularly pointless.

8. Tony Tells Chris to Have a Drink. The second of three “Cold Cuts” moments to appear on this list–Tony was really on a roll in this episode–was arguably the first moment where it became obvious that Tony and Chris’s relationship probably wasn’t going to end too well. Joking with his cousin Tony B at Chris’s expense, Tony is non-plussed when Christopher doesn’t cotton to the verbal jabbing. He angrily tells him to lighten up and have a drink, only a few months after Chris had gotten out of rehab, and while he’s restrainedly nursing a ginger ale among Tony and Tony B’s carousing. It’s one of the tensest moments in the entire series, and it’s the first of several moments of complete heartlessness that Tony has in regards to Christopher.

7. Tony Beats Up His Driver to Prove What a Bad-Ass He Still Is. Just released from the hospital after getting shot by Uncle Junior, Tony goes back to work, and is eager to demonstrate that he’s still top dog around Satriale’s. Echoing advice given by Feech La Manna the season before, Tony decides to take on the biggest guy in the room, which happens to be new driver/bodyguard Perry Annunziata, on essentially no provocation. This ranks higher than the Bartender incident for two reasons. One is the fact that Perry seemed like a genuinely nice and shrewd (compared to the Bing guy, anyway) guy, not nearly as deserving of an unprovoked outburst. The second is the smile that appears on Tony’s face as he’s vomiting after the fight–totally devoid of conscience, simply bursting at the seams with satisfaction.

6. Tony Whips Assembly Zellman with a Belt for Seeing Irina. Sops writer Terrence Winter on this scene from episode “Watching Too Much Television”: “One of the other writers asked, ‘Isn’t there a statute of limitations?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Eternity. Just find another girl.'” This one just seems so unbelievably selfish on Tony’s part–Zellman openly discloses the relationship to Tony, who rightfully gives it his blessing, having been a few years since he ended things with Irina. But in a moment of self-indulgent sentimentality (thanks to the Chi-Lites’ admittedly powerful “Oh Girl”), he decides to beat and humiliate Zellman in front of Irina, ruining the relationship and satisfying his own bruised ego. The worst part is Tony’s purported self-righteousness in the matter, asking Zellman “Why her?” As if Tony hadn’t had to pay the girl thousands in compensation just to get him out of his life.

5. Tony Suffocates Chris to Death. On paper, this is by far Tony’s most cold-blooded moment. Sure, he had killed major characters before, but Big Pussy had turned rat, Ralphie was always ratty to begin with, and it was only a matter of time before Tony B got it from someone. Christopher, on the other hand, gets peaced by the big man because of a combination of his drug relapsing, a car accident, and an unfortunately symbolic movie script. What’s more, Tony expressed time and time again how much he cared for Christopher, grooming him as his successor and treating him more like a son than often times he did A.J. Regardless of the circumstances, it surely goes down as one of the most shocking moments of the series.

What keeps this “Kennedy and Heidi” stunner out of the #1 spot, then? Well, partly because Christopher did fuck up pretty badly, not only getting high and flipping his car as a result, but coldly murdering his friend J.T. the episode before because he didn’t want to listen to Chrissy bitch about his mob problems. And partly because it looked like Christopher might’ve died anyway–he was already coughing up blood before Tony laid a hand on him, and more generous fans could even write the murder off as a mercy killing. But really, it’s because it seems somewhat purposeful–if not forgivable, it’s at least understandable that after learning about Chris’s relapsing via a potentially fatal car accident, and after the months of tensions that preceded it, Tony would lash out against him. The top four are less easily explained.

4. Tony Sends Bobby to Do His First Hit. In super-underrated season six (part two) premiere “Soprano Home Movies,” Bobby Baccala makes the mistake of telling Tony that he’s never been on a hit before. He then makes the significantly bigger mistake of punching Tony for off-color comments made about Janice, and subsequently beating him in their fistfight brawl. Though Tony seemingly acknowledges the fairness of the fight, he not-so-secretly harbors bitterness for being shown up in front of Carmella and his sister, and you know revenge is imminent. It comes in the form of Tony sending Bobby out on a relatively pointless hit–something to do with Asprin sales, I think–just to make sure Bobby doesn’t go his whole life (what little there is of it left) without knowing what it feels like to be a cold-blooded killer. At first it seemed like Tony was just gonna have Bobby clipped, but forcing him to belatedly make his bones seemed even worse–Bobby felt like the last true nice guy left in the family at the beginning of the season, and it was heartbreaking to see Tony make sure that the rep didn’t last.

3. Tony Tells Carmella Her House is a Death Trap. Oooh boy, was this episode a tough one. “Chasing It,” a mid-sixth season ep, was the absolute low point for Tony Soprano as a human being. Accruing gambling debts at the hands of his one-time trusted advisor and good friend Hesh, Tony just gets deeper and deeper into the hole, until a bet Carmella neglects to make on the Jets when he actually would’ve won sends Tony into his cruellest rant ever. He preys on her worst insecurities by telling her that the Spec House she’s spent the whole last season working on is actually a death trap that’s going to kill whoever lives inside. For the first time in possibly the show’s whole run, Carmella is left without a comeback, and flees the scene crying and cursing Tony out. I had never been so grateful for a new Entourage episode in my life as I was after this.

2. Tony Beats Up Chris for Getting High After Adrianna’s Murder. Sometimes it’s entertaining to think about how Sops scenarios would play out if they happened in your own life. Now, your best friend and surrogate son has just betrayed his fiance by confessing her misdeeds to you, a confession that he can be positively certain will result in her murder at your hand. Not only does he not complain about this fact, he even thanklessly cleans up the scene for you afterwards. Now, talking to him later, you notice that he’s acting sort of out of it, and he confesses to you that he’s had a minor relapse because he couldn’t handle the pain of having had the love of his life eighty-sixed. Now, do you take this opportunity to display compassion for and re-establish trust with your good friend and family member during his darkest hour? Or do you instead decide to beat the ever loving shit out of him, yelling “YOU THINK YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE IN PAIN?!??!

Tough one, right?

1. Tony Goads Janice Into Undoing Her Anger Management Therapy. Oh dear. Janice, having struggled with anger issues her whole life, finally manages to get them under control with the help of a specialist and the support of her husband. But at Sunday dinner, an extremely angerable Tony (see #s 10 & 8) concludes that Janice’s calm responses to minor irritants are simply unacceptable, and he starts mocking her for having abandoned her son Harpo at an early age, culminating in the unforgettable quote: “What’s French-Canadian for I grew up without a mother?” Janice, understandably, decides to attack Tony with a fork. He leaves with a big-ass grin on his face, to the strains of The Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”

Is it as emotionally hurtful as his abuse of Carmella? Probably not. Is it as physically destructive as his abuse of Chris? Not even close. But is this scene from “Cold Cuts” Tony’s purest moment of evil? Sort of hard to argue otherwise. This isn’t just some low-level crony he’s unloading upon simply to make himself feel better, this os his own sister, who has actually managed to make significant psychiatric breakthroughs (something, we by now realize, that Sopranos are not usually terribly likely to experience). Yet he feels no remorse at all in undoing them, simply because he doesn’t like feeling like the family fuck-up by comparison. This is Tony Soprano–the mobster, the sociopath. The bad person.

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