As we find ourselves in the midst of summer, with both games and the TV season in a cooling off period, I thought now would be the perfect time to cross off one of the biggest items on my TV backlog, The Sopranos. Going through and watching the entire show for the first time I thought it was only fitting that I share my thoughts and experiences of this seminal show throughout the season.
The Sopranos third season is a force like nothing else I've watched, indeed in many ways it is the Sopranos take on the show about nothing. By far the strongest, most stand-out episodes, are in essence a series of largely stand-alone installments. The show shifts from what it did the first two seasons to deliver a series of stunning character portraits that in the end produced a breathtaking run of television.
Season three's 13 episode run is in reality a series of smaller, bit-sized episodes with a lose connective tissue running through them all. This season of the Sopranos is much more interested in focusing on who these people are and what they stand for. It proceeds to deliver by providing some of the most illuminating and penetrating looks into Tony, Carmela, Melfi, and Meadow and A.J. This is a season all about the characters instead of a larger plot driven story, indeed the major mafia storyline happens almost entirely in the background of the show.
Yet, that said the Tony/Ralphie divide that is introduced here presents one of the most compelling looks into just how differently Tony views the world from many of his mob brethren. This is highlighted most spectacularly in arguably the seasons most stunning, brutal, and brilliant hour of TV, University.
Depicting in startling light the chasm between Tony and Ralph, University ultimately puts them and their actions on the sidelines. It is them reacting to the events, yet in their reactions we get illuminating looks into them. University is the story about three women. Meadow and her struggles with her roommate Caitlin at Columbia and the tale of Tracee, a young 19 year old who works at the Bada Bing. The struggles, turmoil, and conflicting tracks the three characters are on and how others respond to them, provides the episode a palpable sense of excitement, dread, and tension. Sad, shockingly brutal and with a very powerful current of melancholy to the whole thing, University may be among the darkest and most tragic hours of TV I've ever watched and its climax was a staggeringly bloody and vicious scene that left an impression long after the credits rolled.
It is that climax that reveals wonders into who Tony and Ralph are and the two polar opposite worlds they inhabit. Ralph is the one who carries out the shocking beating to death of the young 19 year old girl and his blasé nature afterwards, just walking back to a party and making jokes to the other guys is in stark contrast to Tony. All episode long this girl has been seeking someone, anyone to help her out. She went to Tony, but he never quite got the depth of her problems, but here, as she lay sprawled out on the snow of the Bada Bing parking lot, her story and how closely it could have been Tonys own daughter spills out, as Tony is consumed by rage, emotion, and deep despair. Tony failed this girl, but its more then that, he is one of the only guys in that world that can truly see and sense the wrongs being committed. That has any idea of the devastation that can be had. His total breakdown in front of Melfi and Carmela during therapy to close out the episode shows just how much he sees the darkness in Ralph, the order of the mob life, and the total failure of himself to protect her. Tony's not a monster, he's far more complex then that, in fact in many ways he's one of the only people in his world to see the moral and ethical choice on a near constant basis. His refusal or inability to head down the moral path on a constant basis makes his story that much more of a tragedy. He can see the right thing to do, the good thing, but is incapable of doing so a majority of the time, or simply fails when he try's, yet he's not too far gone like Ralph or the others.
Indeed what makes season three of the Sopranos so odd, is the fact that it houses numerous of my favorite episodes of the shows run thus far, even as I struggle with its season long arcs. Over half of the seasons episodes I've jotted down in my notes of my favorite Sopranos episodes, by far the most of any season at this point. It has unquestionably my favorite and by far the most clever season premiere and presents breathtaking and powerful hours of story-telling and character development that rival anything else on TV. Employee of the Month, University, He is Risen, The Telltale Moozadeli, and Pine Barrens to name a few are arguably the finest episodes thus far in the shows run. Yet, as much as they define this season and believe me they are the defining moments of this season, they aren't the entirety and when the season is taken together it is less a cohesive story being told and more a collection of short stories and small moments patched together into a Frankenstein's monster of a season. Disjointed, all over the place, with profound and staggering highs and tedious, wheel-spinning lows, the third season of the Sopranos is almost certainly the most real to world for all the pros and cons that come with that and despite it all delivers some of the best damn television I have ever seen.