Several months ago, I purchased the Sopranos: The Complete Series DVD gift set and watched all the episodes for the first time in years. It was fun having the opportunity to watch all of the show’s 86 episodes in a row within a short period of time, allowing me to put the entire series into context. I’m sure all Sopranos fans remember four years ago when the show came to a close with what is undoubtedly the most controversial series finale in the history of television. When the episode abruptly cut to black at the end, the initial reaction from viewers was to call their cable company to let them know they’d lost their service at the most inappropriate time. When they discovered that the cut to black was completely intentional, the world was treated to the largest and loudest simultaneous uttering of the letters “WTF?!”. Understandably, many Sopranos fans were initially pissed and felt ripped off, but some of them would eventually come around once they started to analyze the meaning of what happened. It’s possible that any conclusion to The Sopranos would have been unsatisfying for fans and that they still might have complained if the series had ended in a more conventional fashion. At the very least, series creator David Chase ensured that people would be analyzing his show’s finale until the end of time.
And it also increased T-shirt sales…
After watching the entire series from beginning to end, I have to say that I’ve warmed up to the much-debated ending and now think it’s quite clever. There are a lot of subtle little things spread throughout the course of the series that build up to this conclusion, and subtlety was always one of The Sopranos‘ strong suits. This show never, ever spelled anything out to the viewer and always trusted them to figure things out on their own, so it’s only appropriate that the very last scene would do the same thing. Back when the series finale aired, it seemed that everyone and their mother wrote a column listing their “Top Ten Favourite Sopranos Episodes”. I may be four years too late, but I like the idea of writing this list after having watched the whole series again, allowing me to analyze how well these episodes contributed to the series as a whole. And I think it’s only appropriate since today marks the 50th birthday of James Gandolfini. Warning: This column contains massive spoilers, so if you’ve never watched “The Sopranos”, but are planning to give it a look sometime in the future, do not proceed any further. So, without any further ado, it’s time to wake up this morning and get ourselves a gun…
10. Kennedy and Heidi – Season 6-Part II, Episode 6:
As The Sopranos was winding down into its final few episodes, many fans had started a “Sopranos death pool”, predicting which major characters would survive and which would never get out of the series alive. Christopher seemed like an obvious choice to get whacked since his erratic behaviour from the past few seasons indicated that he was treading on very thin ice. This prediction turned out to be correct, by the “how” and “when” of Christopher’s eventual death turned out to be a complete surprise. The first few minutes of this episode started off routinely with Christopher and Tony driving along until Christopher nearly winds up getting into a head-on collision with another car and crashes into the ditch. It’s obvious that Christopher was high on drugs while driving, so Tony decides to suffocate him to death before the paramedics arrive. Tony’s method for dealing his actions involves him taking some peyote and closing out the episode with a major head trip.
It’s an understatement to say it was quite a shock to see them kill off a major character like Christopher out of the blue in the fourth-last episode and to have him die in such a routine fashion as a car accident (the episode’s title, “Kennedy and Heidi”, refers to the names of two teenage girls who were driving the car Christopher nearly crashed into). The episode isn’t so much about Christopher’s death as it is about Tony’s reaction to it. The tension between Tony and Christopher had been simmering for several years, thanks to Christopher’s drug addictions and his bitterness at being forced to have his fiancee, Adriana, killed. Tony once loved Christopher like a son, but by this point, clearly views him as a major disappointment and was just waiting for an opportunity like this to kill him without arousing suspicion. The ramifications of these events are pretty potent stuff because even though Tony Soprano is a character we care about and sometimes sympathize with, this episode does remind you that he can be a pretty evil sociopath at times.
9. Pilot – Season 1, Episode 1:
It would seem like an obvious choice to put the original Sopranos pilot on this list, but as a rule, the pilot is usually never listed amongst the all-time greatest episodes of any TV series. The main purpose of a pilot is to set up the characters, plotlines and the world of the show and since it generally functions as an origin story, one rarely views it as one of the greatest standalone episodes of the series. However, the pilot for The Sopranos holds up incredibly well and is undeniably one of the greatest introductions for any television series ever. The moment you see Tony Soprano enter a therapy session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi to discuss his problems, you’re never quite sure what to expect and by the time they’ve shown their first flashback to Tony’s mafia activities, you’re hooked. The episode does a tremendous job at introducing all the characters, and once Tony’s relationship with his miserable overbearing mother is established, you know you have entered a television show like no other.
David Chase was initially terrified by the fact that the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal comedy, Analyze This, was coming out not long after this since it featured a similar storyline about a mobster going into therapy. However, The Sopranos turned out to be so much more than just a one-joke premise that the comparisons didn’t do any harm at all. The movie’s wonderfully quirky and twisted sense of humour is perfectly established by the story arc where Uncle Junior orders a hit to take place inside a restaurant belonging to one of Tony’s best friends. Tony’s solution to the problem is to blow the place up, knowing that getting an insurance payoff and rebuilding from scratch is far less harmful than the stigma of a mafia hit taking place in your restaurant. How could a viewer not be compelled to enter a warped world like that?
8. From Where to Eternity – Season 2, Episode 8:
While Michael Imperioli deserves all the praise in the world for his terrific portrayal as Christopher Moltisanti, one should not overlook his important contributions to the series as a writer and director. Imperioli wrote and directed a number of episodes throughout the course of the series and his first script, “From Where to Eternity”, was one of the show’s strongest offerings. The previous episode had ended on a shocker as Christopher was gunned down in an ill-advised assassination attempt by two members of his crew, and at the start of this episode, he is brought back after being clinically dead for over a minute. Christopher genuinely believes that he wound up visiting Hell and that he will go back there when he dies for real, causing Tony and Paulie to start questioning their own mortality and whether or not they are destined for the same fate.
The episode also does a great job at moving the relationship between Tony and Big Pussy forward. Ever since the previous season, Tony has been suspicious that his friend became an FBI informant, but those suspicions are temporarily quelled when Pussy delivers Tony the kid who tried to kill Christopher and joins him in providing a sadistic death scene. However, it’s Imperioli’s strong writing about the themes of karma and eternity that really leave a big impression in this episode. From this moment on, whenever a character on The Sopranos was killed off, it was hard not to think about Christopher’s temporary journey to Hell… particularly when Christopher wound up dying for good in the final season! It was also interesting to think about this episode during the next selection on my list…
7. Join the Club – Season 6-Part I, Episode 2:
The sixth season started off with a major bang as the opening episodes climaxed with Uncle Junior going through a severe case of dementia and unexpectedly shooting Tony in the stomach. It was a hell of a way to start the season, but presented a potentially serious problem: how do you get through the next few episodes with your main character is stuck in a coma? Well, “Join the Club” really throws you through a loop when it opens with Tony entering a hotel in a business suit and speaking in a completely different tone of voice (in James Gandolfini’s real-life voice, in fact, since his actual Jersey accent is nowhere as thick as Tony’s). It turns out that Tony’s coma has caused him to entered this alternate fantasy world where he is now a mild-mannered businessman who finds himself involved in a bizarre nightmarish scenario where he seemingly switches identities with someone else. The episode intercuts between Tony’s fantasy world and some pretty powerful scenes of his recovery in the hospital, which showcase Edie Falco’s acting at its finest.
David Chase has never been shy about using surreal dream sequences to tell his story and while some fans have felt that he overused this gimmick too much, it’s used very effectively here. While watching Tony struggle within this different world, one cannot help but remember Christopher’s tale of being in Hell after his near-death experience in “From Where to Eternity” and wonder what ultimate fate awaits Tony. It’s pretty fascinating stuff and a prime example of an episode that could have conceivably been a disaster somehow turning out magnificently. The episode’s ending, with Tony sitting alone in a hotel room with the knowledge that he is developing Alzheimer’s, is work of beauty… and it’s amazing to think that you can feel so much sympathy for an alternate version of a character in an alternate reality that doesn’t exist!
6. Whoever Did This – Season 4, Episode 9:
In spite of being one of the most acclaimed television shows of all time, The Sopranos was not perfect and much of the criticism directed at the show came during its much-maligned fourth season. Some fans were disappointed that the pace was much slower, the violence level was way down, and that the storylines focused less on the mafia world and more on some rather uninteresting domestic issues. However, even a show’s weakest season has its great moments, and Season Four hit its peak with “Whoever Did This”, the episode featuring the whacking of Ralphie Cifaretto. In typical Sopranos fashion, his death comes up at a very unexpected moment and takes you by complete surprise. Wonderfully played by Joe Pantoliano, Ralphie was definitely one of the most despicable characters in the history of the show and for most of his run, he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, this episode begins with Ralphie making a cruel prank phone call to Paulie’s elderly mother, which is so wrong on so many levels, but piss-your-pants hilarious!
However, Ralphie’s young son is soon a left in a coma after a bizarre accident involving an arrow, and this is the first time the viewer is allowed to see his more sympathetic, compassionate side. Just as it seems the show is on its way in transitioning Ralphie’s character and presenting him in an entirely different light, he is killed off for a most unlikely reason: because Ralphie burned down a stable and enraged Tony by killing his prized horse. It’s quite an interesting look into Tony’s psyche and the world of The Sopranos in general: Tony has had to resist the urge to whack Ralphie for years because of the rules of the mafia, but the thing that causes him to cross the line and become unhinged is the death of a horse! The death of Ralphie and the disposal of his body (complete with severed head!) is classic Sopranos, and helped quell the fear amongst viewers that the show had run out of team.
5. The Blue Comet – Season 6-Part II, Episode 8:
The series finale of The Sopranos is one of the most hotly debated television episodes of all time, but one thing that pretty much everyone agreed on was that “The Blue Comet” was one of the all-time greatest penultimate series episodes and did a tremendous job of getting everybody hyped for the finale. After several seasons of simmering tension, the power struggle between Tony Soprano and rival mobster Phil Leotardo finally reaches its breaking point and a full-scale war erupts. You knew that some major characters were going to get whacked in the series’ final episodes, but “Blue Comet” goes all out by having Bobby Baccala and Silvo Dante both get hit within minutes of each other near the end. Silvio would wind up in a coma, but in typical open-ended Sopranos fashion, the series would end without revealing if he survived.
Even though the series finale would end in an atypical fashion, “Blue Comet” would end in a fashion that perfectly summarized the series as a whole, with Tony lying alone in a room next to an assault rifle, finally at the point where his misdeeds have almost completely caught up with him. And even though the character of Dr. Melfi had served little purpose in the final few seasons of the show and had long run her course by this point, her decision to finally drop Tony as a patient in this episode and bring an end to their relationship was a tremendous payoff to their long-running story arc. In a way, “The Blue Comet” almost felt like the true climax of the series with the actual finale mainly functioning as an epilogue.
4. Funhouse – Season 2, Episode 13:
Ever since it was revealed that Tony Soprano’s enforcer, Big Pussy Bonpensiero, had flipped and become an FBI informant, everyone knew it was only a matter of time until he got whacked. Of course, leave it to The Sopranos to build up to it in the most unconventional way possible. Like I stated earlier, David Chase has always had a fascination for putting surreal dream sequences into his show, and the first half of this episode is just filled with them as Tony winds up getting ill with food poisoning, leading to some very bizarre nightmares for him. Now, think about this for a second. This is a heavily hyped and much-anticipated season finale where you’re expecting something huge to happen and the episode fills up its first 20-30 minutes with weird dream sequences and gags where Tony is throwing up in the toilet! What other TV series would have the balls to do something like this? Of course, by this point, Sopranos fans had enough faith in the show to trust that this was all leading somewhere and, sure enough, it did…
These dreams finally allow Tony to come to terms with something he has known all along, but had trouble accepting: his friend, Big Pussy, is a rat. The last half of this episode is a dramatic powerhouse, as Tony and his crew take Pussy out on a boat to finally get rid of him. This long sequence is about as tension-filled as a television show can get and unfolds in a way that leaves you completely unsure about what’s going to happen. This would be the first (but certainly not the last) killing off of a full-time character on The Sopranos, and perfectly conveys the horrific world of the mafia, where you are often forced to kill people that you genuinely love.
3. College – Season 1, Episode 5:
A couple of episodes into the series, David Chase realized that in spite of being built up as a notorious mob boss, Tony Soprano had yet to be shown actually killing someone. Some people even told him that you couldn’t show your main character committing cold-blooded murder, but Chase knew that Tony would completely lose his edge if he was allowed to be too sympathetic. Chase came up with a brilliant context in which to present Tony’s first whacking as while taking his daughter, Meadow, on a tour of Maine to visit some colleges, Tony happens to see a former mobster who became an informant and went into the witness protection program. He is forced to spend the rest of the trip in a delicate balancing act between being a father and a mobster, trying to figure out a way to whack this informant without his daughter finding out. The episode is also the first real showcase for the immense talents of Edie Falco, as Tony’s storyline is intercut with Carmela spending the night with her priest, Father Phil, trying to resist the urge to conduct an affair while confessing several terrible secrets about her husband.
Everything you need to know about the characters of Tony and Carmela is perfectly established with this episode. You know that no matter how guilty Carmela feels about her husband’s lifestyle, the temptations are too strong for her to ever leave it. And this storyline perfectly the demonstrates the bizarre double life that Tony is forced to live as a mobster and a family man, and the climactic moment where he stares at Nathaniel Hawthorne quote on the wall of an admissions office tells us everything we need to know about him. Quite simply, this is the episode that announced to the world that The Sopranos was a television series like no other and was destined to become one of the greatest shows of all time.
2. Long Term Parking – Season 5, Season 12:
The Sopranos featured so many scenes of people getting whacked, but none of them had more impact or were more harrowing than when Adriana La Cerva got hers. During the previous season, Adriana had been forced to become an informant for the FBI, which, of course, had been the kiss of death for so many characters before her. The FBI finally puts their foot down and tells her that she will go to prison if she does not wear a wire, but Adriana says she thinks she can also get Christopher to turn as well. It seems that she has actually succeeded… until Adriana receives a phone call that Christopher has tried to kill himself. Silvio offers to drive her to the hospital, but when their car turns off into a deserted wooded area, Adriana comes to the horrible realization that she has been set up.
Adriana’s death was the one murder from the series that did not take place on camera since everyone involved thought it would be too painful and disturbing to show. For all her involvement in illegal activity, Adriana just a simple naivety and good nature about her that always made her sympathetic, and it seemed unfair that she was put in a position where she was so in over her head. The whole episode is an amazing dramatic powerhouse, particularly the scenes where Adriana finally confesses to Christopher that she’s an informant, and Christopher’s emotional reaction to Tony about having to sentence the love of his life to death. This was probably the dramatic peak of the series, as nothing in the last two seasons of the show was able to match the impact of “Long Term Parking”.
1. Pine Barrens – Season 3, Episode 11:
This is a pretty obvious choice as it’s not just one of the most popular episodes in the history of The Sopranos, but one of the most beloved episodes in the history of television! I selected it as #1 because if I had to recommend one Sopranos episode to someone who had never watched the show before, this would definitely be it. You don’t have to know anything about the world of Sopranos or their characters, and can just dive right in from scratch to enjoy the hell out of this episode. The story involves Christopher and Paulie doing a seemingly routine collection from a Russian mobster, Valery, but things go horribly wrong and the two of them are forced to dispose of his body in the snowy Pine Barrens wooded area. However, Valery turns out to be still alive and makes run for it, leading to a priceless comedy of errors as Christopher and Paulie wind up getting lost in the woods and almost freezing to death. They call Tony for help just as he’s dealing with a lot of drama with his mistress, Gloria, making this the WORST possible time for him to clean up their mess! Oh, and the moment where Bobby Baccala appears in a goofy hunting outfit and causes Tony to break into uncontrollable laughter might be the funniest thing in Sopranos history!
This is the first Sopranos episode to be directed by Steve Buscemi (who would eventually be cast in the role of Tony’s cousin in Season Five) and he milks this hilarious premise for everything it’s worth. The interaction between Christopher and Paulie as their hellacious situation keeps spiraling out of control is just priceless, and even though this episode contains all the elements of humour, violence and drama that fans of the show love, it also works brilliantly as a standalone story and could have made one hell of a short film. Of course, they never do actually reveal what happened to the Russian after he ran off into the woods and all the way up until the show went off the air, fans were always debating whether or not Valery would make a surprise return. However, this is one loose end that doesn’t need to be tied up and it just adds to the nightmarish, surreal quality of this episode. If you just want to dive into one episode of The Sopranos, the only two words you need to know are “Pine Barrens”.