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The Countdown: The Fourth Best Soprano Tangent Episode

April 26, 2006

4) When Tony meets his father’s gooma; Christopher hangs out with Tim Daly (Season 5)

The stuff with the gooma was fine, but the real meat in this episode was Christopher’s ill-fated friendship with J.T. Dolan (Tim Daly), a once-successful television screenwriter who bottomed out on drugs. After becoming each other’s sponsors in rehab, Chris lets Dolan in on a high-stakes poker game… and Dolan quickly trades in his drug addiction for an addiction to gambling.

After Dolan racks up a $57,000 debt, Chris beats the shit out of Dolan, who proceeds to lose writing assignments and return to heroine. After taking Dolan’s car as a partial down payment on the debts, Chris, ever the friend, suggests Dolan return to rehab.

The episode is fascinating, because like the Season 2 plot about Robert Patrick’s gambling addiction, it shows how these bastards live with themselves: they divide their lives completely into business and personal spheres. Under the rules of Christopher’s “business,” it’s perfectly reasonable to viciously attack a close friend for not repaying his debts. It’s also perfectly reasonable to switch back to friendship mode and give an old friend advice about how to fix his life. Good guy, that Christopher.

This episode uses Tim Daly to perfection. As an actor, I find him smug and unlikable (popular critical opinion notwithstanding), and he’s no different here. (The only exception was the TV show Wings, where he played a wooden good guy, and was as boring as John Corbett.) So how do you make a smug guy sympathetic? Pair him with a hardened criminal who beats the crap out of him and takes his car.

I always like these episodes where civilians get mixed up with the crew because it swiftly reminds you that Tony Soprano and his associates are very, very bad people, with ludicrous and hypocritical value systems.

Unlike some other mob shows and movies – like Miller’s Crossing or Scarface, for example – Chase and his writers don’t buy into the popular claptrap that there’s a moral equivalency between mobsters and civilians and cops. While civilians may be just as obnoxious, ignorant or self-involved as the criminals, they’re never evil. Tony Sopranos’ violence against others is not a metaphor for the psychological violence that man commits against man or anything like that; it’s just reprehensible, morally bankrupt violence.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Brad Glaser permalink
    April 26, 2006 3:44 pm

    Nice pick. Most mob movies present the crimes of the Mafia as being largely victimless, at least outside of the Families themselves, which is key to the romanticizing of this lifestyle. The Sopranos has always, admirably, been grittier than this, regularly showing the effects of the mafiosos’ behaivor on the world around them. I was an even bigger fan of the David Patrick storyline (I’m gonna see how many times I can mention this in Comments,) but this episode was strong. I was less enthusiatic about the plot involving Johnny Soprano’s goomah. I know it was intended to probe Tony’s character further, but I found it a bit ponderous.

  2. April 26, 2006 3:54 pm

    I agree completely. As great as The Godfather movies are — and they’re just about the greatest piece of art man’s ever produced, in my mind — they’re seriously guilty of making the mob look like victimless killers, like all their actions spring from a rigorous code of honor. One of the beautiful things about The Sopranos is that while Tony constantly spouts off about the code, we consistently see how it’s a bunch of bullshit. Everybody lies to their superiors about what they earn and lies to their inferiors about what they’re owed. The code really exists as a way of justifying the pyramid scheme structure of the mob: screw everyone and anyone to make money, give a piece of that money to a guy above you, and don’t screw anyone above you because eventually they’ll die, and you’ll get to screw regular people AND lesser mobsters.

  3. Phil permalink
    April 26, 2006 5:26 pm

    Victimless killers, eh? What about the killing of Michael’s son? He was just hanging out in the womb, minding his own business when Kay had him whacked.

  4. April 26, 2006 5:32 pm

    Let’s not forget the death of little Anthony’s innocence, as so expertly chronicled in Godfather III: The Letdown.

  5. Brad Glaser permalink
    April 26, 2006 10:04 pm

    Having just rewatched Godfather III on Sunday, I can confidently report that it still sucks.

    Goodfellas is interesting in that it falls somewhere between The Godfather and The Sopranos in terms of showing the way the Mafioso treat the outside world. It doesn’t get into the personal lives of those effected, as the latter has done brilliantly, but it does show the beatings of Henry’s mailman and Karen’s boss. Additionally the dismissives with which Henry treats regular people in the narration is telling.

    As these are the three most significant Mafia-themed pieces in film history, it makes for an interesting continuim, from the stately Vito Corleone to the equivicating Tony Soprano. I think it would be a mistake to read this as a temporal deterioration of the codes. rather, I would conjecture, the depiction has become more honest over time. There is good reason to believe that “there is no honor among thieves” and that rules to the contrary are just so much talk. This point was well illustrated this season when Tony, acting on Melfi’s advice, felt the need to fight the bodybuilder to prove his continued preeminence.

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