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Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini Dead at the Age of 51


To honor the career of James Gandolfini who suddenly passed away yesterday I have posted the top 10 episodes of The Sopranos from Time magazine's list.  Gandolfini's performance as Tony Soprano was an integral part of the show's success and helped usher in a new era of television, arguably the best time for quality television ever.  He will be missed.  If you have a favorite episode not found on the list, please add it to the comments.

1. College

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(Season One)
This gemlike season one episode captured the parallels, and the tension, between the family and Family parts of Tony's life. He goes to New England on a college tour with daughter Meadow, whose denial about what he really does for a living he encourages. ("There is no Mafia!") After he spots a former wiseguy gone into witness protection, he decides to work a little business into the family getaway by tracking down the rat and killing him, with his bare hands. "College" cemented fans' affection and repulsion for Tony, letting us see him as a caring father and an unforgivable monster at the same time. And bonus points for the B-plot in which Carmela nearly cheats on Tony—with a priest. Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
(Directed by Allen Coulter; written by Jim Manos, Jr. and David Chase)

2. Pine Barrens


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HBO
It's wrong, in a way, to include this most un-Sopranos-like of Sopranos episodes; in a series that unfolds like a novel, "Pine Barrens" is a distinctly self-contained short story. Paulie Walnuts and Christopher go to make a routine collection, from a Russian named Valery, which goes awry, ending with the Russian in the trunk of Paulie's car. When they try to dispose of his body in the snowy Jersey woods, they find he's still alive—and as a former commando, far better off in the Siberian conditions than they are. The pursuit turns into a brilliant comedy of violence and bonding moment. The episode (directed by later guest Steve Buscemi) has taken on a life of its own among fans, to the possible annoyance of the show's writers, who have said repeatedly: The Russian is not coming back people—get over it! Dosvedanya, Valery.
(Directed by Steve Buscemi; teleplay by Terence Winter, story by Tim Van Patten & Terence Winter

3. The Sopranos Pilot


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HBO
The series became subtler in its themes after the pilot, but the episode that started it all does a fine job establishing the show's premise, themes and cinematic look. After having a panic talk—brought on by job stress, but more so by the demands of family and his toxic mother Livia—the mob boss begins seeing a therapist on the down-low. Grousing to Dr. Melfi in his first sessions, Tony lays out the generational complaints that will inform the whole series and make the mobster's problems universal: that he can't balance his family and work lives, that he feels he's come of age after the best times of his business have past and that men have abandoned the "Gary Cooper" standard of strong silence (a model Tony's not able to live up to anyway). The show's richest days are ahead, but The Sopranos starts off with a bang.
(Written and directed by David Chase)

4. Whitecaps

(Season Four)

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HBO
In The Sopranos' most searing fight, no one dies, or even draws blood. And while the series has featured bludgeoning, rape and dismembering, I'm not sure if any scene has been more uncomfortable for viewers to sit through than the showdown that leads to Tony and Carmela's separation, after one of Tony's goomars calls and taunts Carm on the phone. It is a pitch-perfect rendering of one of those long-simmering meltdowns in which a couple hurls every grenade in their marital arsenal of grievances, and Edie Falco proves her Emmy-worthiness in a performance that's brave, fearful and just the right amount unhinged.
(Directed by John Patterson; written by Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess and David Chase)

5. Employee of the Month

(Season Three)

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HBO
Dr. Melfi is the closest thing The Sopranos has to a narrator: the probing, if not all-knowing, voice that walks Tony through his blood-slicked psyche. She's also a stand-in for the viewer, since she's Tony's main confidant outside the mob world. Which is why it was all the more horrible to see her brutally raped in a parking garage, and then to see her assailant let go on a technicality. Seeing her shed her professional calm and break down was anguishing; but seeing her wrestle with—and reject—the revenge fantasy of having Tony mete out justice was inspiring. When Tony asked the shaken doctor if anything was wrong and she answered—after a pause—with a resolute "No," she made us confront the parts of ourselves that so badly wanted her to say "Yes."
(Directed by John Patterson; written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess)

6. Join the Club

(Season Six)

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HBO
There are Sopranos fans who hate David Chase's dream-sequence episodes. I'm not one of them. Although "coma-sequence" episode would probably be more appropriate here. Shot in the gut by Uncle Junior (during a senior moment), a comatose Tony lives out a parallel life in his mind. In this world, he's a heating-systems salesman, whose ID has been switched with someone named "Kevin Finnerty" on a business trip. This alterna-Tony has no New Jersey accent. He's faithful to his wife. And when he gets blown off by the hotel staff or hassled by Buddhist monks, it never occurs to him to head-butt them. The fantasy sequence (which continues into the "Mayham" episode) inverts our image of Tony, showing him, on the borderline of life and death, meek, stranded, friendless and unable to find his way home.
(Directed by David Nutter; written by David Chase)

7. Whoever Did This

(Season Four)

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HBO
First of all, severed head in a bowling bag: that gets you into the top ten off the bat. But this episode stands out not so much for the shock of Ralph Cifaretto's murder (and disposal) as for what it says about Tony. Ralph's son is badly injured in a bow-and-arrow accident; meanwhile, a stable fire kills Tony's beloved racehorse Pie-Oh-My. When Tony accuses Ralph of setting the fire for insurance money, Ralph make a denial that sounds like an admission ("It's an animal!"). They fight; it gets out of control; Ralph ends up dead. But what's most chilling is what Tony says just before killing Ralph—that Pie-Oh-My never did anything to hurt anyone—which is almost exactly what Ralph said earlier about his son. Tony doesn't just kill Ralph, he sends him out of the world equating his innocent child's life with Tony's horse's, which pretty much sums up Tony's moral universe.
(Directed by Tim Van Patten; written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess)

8. Long Term Parking

(Season Five)

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HBO
This season-five episode not only contains possibly the series' funniest line ("We're in a f___ing stagmire," by the malaproping Little Carmine Lupertazzi) but its most pitiful whacking. Christopher's fiance Adriana, pressured into informing for the Feds, is trapped between ratting on the Family and spending years in prison and makes a desperate try to escape by persuading Christopher to run away with her. Chris wavers, chooses Tony over his woman, and one long drive with Silvio and a short crawl through the leaves later, Ade is snuffed out. In her last season, Drea De Matteo takes a big-haired, gum-snapping character that always verged on parody and makes her a fully empathetic person, exploited by both sides, wanting nothing more than love and a family—OK, and the occasional expensive gift—and getting two bullets put in her for it.
(Directed by Tim Van Patten; written by Terence Winter)

9. Funhouse

(Season Two)

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HBO
Season two wasn't The Sopranos' finest, but the finale searingly ended Vincent Pastore's storyline as Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, Tony's good friend, captain and rat. Tortured by suspicion of Pussy, Tony has a dream in which he sees his friend, who will soon sleep with the fishes, as literally a fish on ice. The whole season has been an acting showcase for Pastore as the conflicted, trapped Pussy (recall his anguished breakdown in Tony's bathroom in "D-Girl"), but as Tony takes Pussy out for one last boat ride, James Gandolfini also shows how he can take his character from anger to sorrow to self-pity to brutal resignation with one well-inflected squint of Tony's piggy eyes. It's Tony's toughest hit and one he, and we, will never quite get over.
(Directed by John Patterson; written by David Chase and Todd A. Kessler)

10. Where's Johnny

(Season Five)

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HBO
Most top-ten lists are really a top-nine list, and an eleven-way tie for tenth. There are probably a good dozen episodes that could fill out this final slot, but there needs to be at least one place on this list for an ordinary Sopranos episode, with no big whackings or stunts, that just moves the plot another three yards downfield. (In a way, a list of best episodes is antithetical to the novel-like Sopranos—do you have a top-ten list of Dickens chapters?) This episode from early in season five advances several storylines, including the succession battle in the New York Mafia and cousin Tony B.'s doomed attempt to go straight by becoming a masseur. Meanwhile, Uncle Junior has started repeating a taunt at Tony's high-school sports abilities: "He never had the makings of a varsity athlete." As Junior is picked up by the police wandering Newark, looking for his dead brother, it's clear that the insult is just one more marble leaking from his head. But it's small comfort to Tony, who asks, hurt, "Why's it got to be something mean? Why can't you repeat something good?... Don't you love me?" Junior's words hurt Tony as badly as the slug he pumps into him a season later: in The Sopranos, the cruelest hits can come at the Sunday dinner table.
(Directed by John Patterson; written by Michael Caleo)


(Top Ten episodes chosen by TIME's television critic James Poniewozik)




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