Sorry for the long gap between this post and my post on season 3. I had planned on doing these weekly, but other things have taken priority. Anyway, onto the post…and as always, SPOILERS abound.
One of my favorite episodes of the entire series comes up halfway through season 4, specifically “The Weight,” an episode dealing with Johnny Sack’s obese wife.
This poignant and funny episode stands out because it’s one of the rare times we feel bad for a cast member. The Sopranos generally gave the audience few characters we could truly sympathize with. You can name only a handful before running out of options. Dr. Melfi is the major one, naturally. She is in many ways the show’s conscience. Artie is another (though we’re sometimes frustrated by his dumbass decisions), a good man with bad friends. And of course Bobby Bacala, who is one of my favorite characters of the whole series. The guy is so sweet it’s easy to forget he’s a gangster.
I think Ginny Sack is another.
In “The Weight,” New York boss Johnny Sack is infuriated because Tony let one of his guys — Ralph, the troublemaker of seasons 3 and 4 — get away with insulting his wife, Ginny. Johnny wants Ralph killed for the insult. Typical Sopranos stuff, really, but the real heart and soul of “The Weight” is Ginny Sack. It’s hard not to feel for her in this episode. Johnny’s love for her feels true, and also tragic, since the love of his life is an object of ridicule for others because she’s so obese. Often on The Sopranos, one of the mobsters will overreact to something and demand retribution far beyond what is deserved. You never feel they’re in the right, only that they’re an awful, pushy thug. But in this case, I was totally on Sack’s side because Ginny is one of the show’s truly sympathetic characters.
The actress who plays Ginny comes across as incredibly sweet, a nice, fragile woman who happens to be heavy. I make fat jokes, so there is some hypocrisy in me feeling this way, but it breaks my heart when she’s a target for mean-spirited jokes by Ralphie and others. A rare moment of heart for The Sopranos, this.
For an episode that relies so much on fat humor, it’s surprisingly on the nose when dealing with the reality of how we view weight. Tony, pretending to be sympathetic, tells Johnny, “Hey, I understand weight! I mean, look at my gut!” But Johnny just waves it off and says, “Nah, it’s different for women.” And he’s right. It is. Good little moment.
It’s also illustrative of something this show does that few other shows do: it casts a lot of unattractive people in major roles. Cast members on The Sopranos are often ugly, out of shape, and overweight. The men are especially ugly — fat, knob-nosed guys abound — but even women who get a lot of action, like Janice, are far from your usual television women. No glitz and glam here. No hard bodies. Just the reality that not everyone looks as if they just stepped out of a clothing catalog. This gives the show a sense of grounding that you wouldn’t expect from a series that so often veers into the farcical.
Oh, and I especially love that this episode is weirdly central to the mob conflicts that will unfold over the coming seasons.
Anyway, ugly folks. In a way, that’s a prime example of the way in which this show plays with your expectations. This show did that to you a lot. Think of Ralphie’s murder at Tony’s hands. When Ralphie first came on the scene you thought for sure he’d be whacked. Total loose canon who caused tons of problems. It was inevitable the order would come down to have him removed from the picture.
But he EARNED, and he earned a lot. Suddenly, he seemed safe. The other guys didn’t like him, but Tony liked his money. Unexpectedly, Ralph eased into place as a regular and all the reasons to see him whacked were pulled off the table.
Then Tony falls in love with a horse, the horse dies, Tony thinks Ralph did it. You get that intense scene in the kitchen, that nasty dirty fight, and out of the blue BANG Ralph is dead. No foreshadowing. No building storyline. Nothing leading up to it. Just BOOM, Tony murders him.
And that’s just what this show did. One more reason why the controversial series finale (which we’ll talk about in a future post) made sense for The Sopranos.
Unfortunately, for all the good moments here season 4 really limps to a halt. The marital stuff between Tony and Carmela is intense as hell if you’re engrossed in that side of the show — Edie Falco is amazing in the final episode of this season — but if you’re more into the mob end of things, as most fans are, the last few episodes are a lot of teasing with no payoff. (All mob payoff comes next season.)
The split between Tony and Carmella has some great moments and some moments where it’s hard to suspense disbelief. For example, I never bought the attraction between Carmella and Furio. Yes, I get why she was attracted to a strong younger guy, but his attraction to her comes out of left field and totally turns the character on his head, transforming him from Tony’s most brutal enforcer to Sensitive Euro Man. I just didn’t buy it.
On the other hand, the Tony/Carmella relationship unfolds with a stunning sense of truth. It’s honest and ugly. You believe every action, every statement, every look, every emotion. Taken as a whole (meaning the whole show), it’s one of the best depictions of the breakdown of a marriage I’ve ever seen, reaching its peak at the end of this season.
There are some wonderfully small moments, too. When they are having their climactic confrontation after Carmella finds out Tony slept with the one-legged Russian — those words look hilarious when you type them — Tony denies doing it. Ah-HAh, Carmella says, but I found her fingernail. It wasn’t her fingernail, though, and Tony almost throws that in Carmella’s face until he catches himself, realizing he’d be revealing yet ANOTHER affair if he did. Carmella is completely wrong but has the right idea, so Tony can’t call her out on it. It’s a brilliant small moment.
Speaking of the one-legged Russian chick, Svetlana, what a fantastic character! She was introduced a few seasons ago almost purely as comic relief, a gruff and standoffish personality who was one of the few who could get away with telling off Tony. Here, she develops into a wonderful, layered character, a young woman who knows pain and difficulty but who struggles on with a strength Tony can’t fathom. You sense that he is drawn to that; he wants to fall for her, but she won’t let that happen. This is one of the only (if not THE only) women he’s actually had respect for in the series.
Other characters don’t fare as well. Paulie’s decline into an unlikable character is VERY strong throughout this season. He was a funny oaf early on, an endearing thug who played his absurd comic relief totally straight … which is what made it work. By this point, however, he’s just unlikable. As I recall, he never really recovers from that, either, and remains unlikable for the rest of the series.
Side characters, though, feel as if we’ve always known them. This show routinely introduces people and events as if they have always been around. For instance, Meadow has an apartment, two roommates, and has been dating a guy (Finn) she’s in love with. Since when? (You might recognize one of her roommates. She’s Aleksa Palladino, who plays Angela Darmody, Jimmy’s wife, on Boardwalk Empire.) Doesn’t matter. We’re supposed to pretend we know them.
Oh, quick side note about Janice. I had forgotten how she and Bobby got together, but I should have recalled that it was by way of pure frickin’ manipulation. She doesn’t actually fall for him, she falls for the idea of what he is. She sees he had something she wants and plays her typical games to try and take him for her own. So even here, when we’re past the days of her manipulating people to kill her brother, she’s still evil and I still hate her.
And finally, Steve Van Zandt is never going to win an acting award — his portrayal of Silvio was mostly stereotype without nuance — but he had a few great moments. One of the best comes when everyone gathers for an intervention for Christopher.
Absolutely OUTSTANDING delivery there. It’s absurd.
Overall this season had some very strong episodes but a weak overall narrative arc. Season 5, on the other hand … I think that was the series’ best. Can’t wait to watch it.