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20 Years Later: Looking Back at The Sopranos Pilot

The Sopranos Season 1, Episode 1: “The Sopranos”

When we first meet Tony Soprano, he’s sitting in a waiting room, staring at a statue of a naked woman exposing her breasts. The first shot frames Tony’s face between her legs, then a series of shots closing in on Tony’s face, the statue’s breasts, Tony’s face, and her face in succession. His brow is wrinkled, and he alternates looking at her and looking at the floor. It’s a fantastic opening shot to one of TV’s most cinematic pilots, establishing a number of important details before a line of dialogue is even spoken: Tony’s black shirt and gold watch suggest some sort of upper-class demeanor – the credits preceding it, birthing the American dream from the tunnels of New York into the suburbs of New Jersey, with the lyrics talking about “the chosen one” embracing the dark side, also further contextualize Tony’s character. He’s obviously a traditional “man’s man”, the first frame establishing his favorite place to be (between a woman’s legs – but knowing what kind of “traditional man” he is, we know his face isn’t actually spending much time in that area). But he’s also a dark man struggling with his darkest feelings, his black shirt signifying his refusal to externalize them (the absence of color, or a man who presents himself with no heart and soul) he has inside.

Right away, writer/director David Chase (the only other time he’d be behind the camera would be the series finale) has told us exactly who Tony Soprano is and the difficult situation he’s about to enter. And for the next fifteen minutes, him and Dr. Jennifer Melfi talk about the events leading up to his first panic attack – further introduction to Tony’s life and how he presents himself to the rest of the world; “I’m a waste management consultant” he tells her, and then proceeds to tell a story about a guy who had an “outstanding loan”, as if he were a private banker. These are all entertaining little anecdotes, introducing us to his protege Christopher, a few of his associates, and satisfying the audience looking for the mob show they saw in the previews.

But the most important images in Tony’s reflection are not his daily activities: it’s the ducks currently living in his pool. Tony’s fascinated with those damn ducks, getting excited when the ducklings start flapping their wings, but are unable to go anywhere. He jumps in the pool with them to watch, the biggest grin you’ll ever see on a mobster spreading across his face as he watches them. He calls his family outside to look, but they’re not interested in it at all, dismissing the animals as some stupid hobby of their father’s. However, the camera’s obsession with images of the ducks and the pool quickly reveal their importance: when Tony sees one fly away, he passes out. In an instant, Tony’s problems are clear: he’s afraid of losing his family, watching everyone fly away and being left alone to stand in front of his empty pool.

Sopranos Pilot Review

The other riding undercurrent of Tony’s life is his midlife crisis, his dissatisfaction with what he believes is a softer, lesser world, one where tough men can’t go about their business anymore. “Whatever happened to the strong, silent type?” he asks Melfi, almost a plead by Chase to the audience to let him show us what happened to them, and why they can’t exist in this world anymore. Tony fashions himself as a Gary Cooper type: the tough, hard-nosed cowboy who turns a blind eye to the law, and does what he has to do without complaining. But a semester and a half of college do not a mastermind of psychology make, and Tony’s value in traditional masculinity prevents him from being able to explore the “dysfunction” inside he tries to hide from the rest of the world.

His anger at his proposed degradation of the American man is a very interesting one in a social context: but in strict terms of how it shapes the narrative in the episode, it reveals Tony to be a sad, bitter man who is unwilling to accept that all good things come to an end. His marriage is on the rocks, his kids are growing up, and the garbage business isn’t providing the bread and butter everybody is used to: underneath it all, he’s scared to death, and it comes through in his lividness over the un-James Dean-ization of America (thanks to Gandolfini’s performance, which is still breathtaking to watch, even after seeing the pilot a dozen times in the 20 years since it premiered). Tony can’t keep up with the changing times (his slowly failing business is a hint towards this; Junior notes how the mob “used to be recession-proof), and as he watches everything slowly sink, the three people he holds dearest (Junior, Meadow, and Carmela) are showing signs of flapping their wings and flying the roost soon. In the end, Tony Soprano is just like the rest of us: he’s afraid of existing (and dying) alone, the single most important component of Tony’s character that engaged American audiences. He’s a mob god: but he has the same insecurities as us – who wouldn’t want to watch that show?

It’s hard to find something ‘new’ to say about the pilot of The Sopranos: it’s one of the most disseminated pieces of television in American history, the opening chapter to a revolutionary television series. There’s so much love in the pilot, it’s impossible to ignore: whether’s it’s the daily life of a mobster, toxic male pride, and how the inevitable winds of change eventually blow away the most immovable of objects, no matter how much masculinity and marinara sauce it’s soaked in. “The Sopranos” is not just an hour of television about a man and his therapist: it’s an all-encompassing mediation on the state of America, it’s culture, and how we’re all probably living in the wrong time as Tony tells Dr. Melfi:

“It’s always good to be in something from the ground floor, but I came to late for that. But lately, I get the feeling I’m coming in the end, that the best is over.”

Sopranos Pilot Review

In the end, The Sopranos is about the end of the American dream. Institutions, technology, corporations: all the things we’ve strived for as a society are the same things bringing us down. Robots take human jobs, institutions force people into boxes (as exemplified by the RICO discussion) and corporations take the power of financial freedom and prosperity out of the citizen’s hands. These things aren’t overtly stated by Chase, but it’s clear how he feels: the best times are over, and clinging onto our old belief systems and ideals just aren’t going to accomplish anything. Tony’s great-grandfathers built a church with no blueprint in front of them: these days, your neighbor probably can’t fix a tub without calling a plumber. The world is changing: and as it does, even powerful men like Tony Soprano are helpless but to mold themselves into new shapes and evolve (the MRI fraud plan he concocts with Heche throughout the episode). And when your one constant (the family, represented by the ducks in the pool) is slipping through your fingers, what do you have left to hold onto?

The answer, Chase tells us with the last shot, is nothing. As Junior’s second birthday party ends (“what, no fucking ziti then?”), the camera quietly pans over the pool until its completely in focus. It’s blue and empty: no waves, no leaves moving around, no ducks floating in the pond. Everybody is gone, and all that’s left is emptiness. It’s a beautiful ending: no matter how hard you try to keep everything the same, the golden years eventually end. The final shot barely shows the last child remaining at the party before he runs out of the frame: the good times are coming to an end, and Tony’s going to have to fundamentally change who he is to save them.

Pilot Sopranos

Unlike most attention-grabbing final scenes, The Sopranos ends on a contemplative note, quietly bringing the episode to a close mere minutes after we’re watching Uncle Junior pass the idea of whacking Tony to Livia, and seeing her non-response to the situation. Along with being one of the most important episodes of television, it’s also one of the best: it’s able to establish a universe, set up a season-long conflict, and muse philosophically about the modern world without losing focus of Tony’s emotions. What else can I say? “The Sopranos” is a remarkable episode of television, a combination of intelligence, passion, and classic filmmaking techniques that marked the arrival of a cultural phenomenon.

Sopranos Pilot GIF

Other thoughts/observations:

– Junior’s 13th birthday (the first teenage year, and when the Jewish celebrate a boy becoming a man) also puts into context a lot of thoughts Tony had about his own father. His father shaped him into who he is: how come that’s not happening with Anthony Jr.?

– Livia spouting “he was a saint” at the mention of her dead husband’s name always makes me laugh.

– Carmela tells Tony he’s going to hell right before he enters the MRI machine. A troubled marriage, this is.

– Tony takes his compare to a restaurant, then brings his wife to the same one hour later. Shameless, this guy is.

– the subplot with Christopher whacking “Email” to prevent a rival from bidding on a contract is almost tossed in to show a little dysfunction between Christopher and Tony. It’s ok: Chase would spend plenty of time on the two of them over the series.

– Meadow snuck out because Patrick “needed her” before his swim meet. Naughty little Meadow.

– Father Phil is played by a different actor than in the rest of the series, and it’s funny how marginalized his presence is. Two things that come through: an obvious attraction to Carmela (who calls him a “spiritual mentor”), and his obsession with Tony’s lifestyle, asking Carmela what his favorite mobster movies are.

– Tony to his mother: “I bought CD’s for a broken record.”

– everyone getting confused over Big Pussy and Little Pussy probably went unnoticed by millions upon first viewing, but remains my favorite bit to this day. Even the newscast makes a point to distinguish between them!

– Carmela gets upset that an angry Meadow doesn’t want to have tea at the Plaza Hotel like they always do. Kids just refuse to stay kids sometimes, ‘Mela.

– Melfi to her date: “Neil, shut the fuck up.” Love Dr. Melfi for moments like that.

– I like how Chase doesn’t even make Melfi a pure entity: she’s perfectly willing to whip out the prescription pad, boasting about the wonderful life-fixing remedies modern medicine purports to provide.

– Tony, talking about himself: “Oh, now he’s going to cry. Fuck me.”

– Chase takes a shot at all the mobsters writing books and selling screenplays, when Tony accosts Christopher for threatening to go Hollywood. A man’s gotta have a code, right? Given the contexts of the events of ‘College’ later this season (one of The Sopranos’s finest hours), it makes sense why Tony is so pissed off in that moment.

– Tony talks about a dream where he unscrews his belly button, his penis comes off, and a bird flies away with it. It’s kind of a simple metaphor, really (Chase would do much better with dreams throughout the series): Tony is afraid that opening himself up, he’s sacrificing his masculinity, and that will ultimately cost him his livelihood and family.

– Tony refers to the infamous serial killer as “Hannibal Lecture.” Mobsters: not good with names.

– Tony: “nobody appreciates the penal experience anymore.” Such a beautiful piece of dialogue that puts the mob mentality (and how it changed) into perfect perspective.

– Carmela pulling out an assault rifle: always hilarious.

Written By

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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