Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: Separating Plot and Character Scenes in the Sopranos Pilot

The “Sopranos” pilot almost perfectly conforms to the checklist, but there’s one major deviation: It has separate “plot” and “character” scenes, which is supposed to be a kiss of death. Nevertheless, it works here.

It’s hard to do therapy scenes, because the characters aren’t moving, they aren’t exchanging objects, and they’re openly engaging in emotional talk. Furthermore, Chase had a rule that not even the camera could move. He didn’t want to “push in” on any one line in therapy, signaling an emotional breakthrough.

So why aren’t these all-character, no-plot scenes dreadful?

For one thing, Tony is getting news he can use. This would change later on, but in the early years, Tony was eager to change, and he was using Melfi’s advice to fix his problems. The plot wasn’t happening on screen in these scenes, but Tony’s wheels were turning, and we would see instant results of his breakthroughs.

But beyond that, these scenes are compelling simply because Tony is so broken. His world is utterly compartmentalized: he must keep each “family” separate from the other, and he feels he must keep his true character hidden from both. Only in therapy does he allow himself to become fully human. It’s usually a problem to have “synthesis” scenes: we like to see a thesis and an antithesis smash together and then synthesize the meaning for ourselves. But in this case, Tony’s worlds, inner and outer, are so divided that it’s actually compelling to watch him struggle (and fail) to fit the broken pieces together.

So the show gets away with it in the pilot, but this would become more and more of a problem as the series proceeded. Dr. Melfi simply didn’t have enough to do. They did try to give her storylines, but it never worked very well:
  • Tony gets a crush on Melfi and half-heartedly pursues her romantically.
  • Tony dates one of Melfi’s other patients (and eventually kills her)
  • Melfi is raped and then refuses to allow Tony to kill her rapist.
The problem is that these storylines were off in their own little bottle. We were still taking breaks from the main plot, instead of furthering it.  It didn’t have to be this way: The pilot creates a lot of potential energy by pointing out the inherent danger of this relationship:
  • She warns him that she must tell the police if he tells her too much about an ongoing or upcoming crime.
  • He makes it clear that he could get killed if the wrong people find out that he’s in therapy.
Insanely, neither of these things ever happened! (Commenters here says that Silvio, at least, did find out, but there were rival mobsters who wouldn’t have taken it so well.) There are so many potential storylines that would have paid off this potential energy:
  • Tony accidentally says too much about a killing that’s about to take place, then wonders if he has to kill Melfi before she tells the authorities.
  • Melfi decides to turn Tony in, or somehow interfere with one of his crimes in a way that preserves her ethical duties (or violates them.)
  • Other mobsters find out about Melfi (with or without her knowledge) and Tony has to protect her.
  • The Feds find out about her and bug her office, or implore her to turn him in, or threaten to arrest her as his accomplice.
  • For any of the above reasons, she has to go into witness protection and/or turn state’s evidence.
Ultimately, this show should have been more like “Breaking Bad” and less like “Mad Men.” Tony’s situation was unsustainable, and the longer the show lasted without any major plot developments, the more dubious and exasperated the audience became.

Even as the show meandered towards its finish, Chase was stubbornly unwilling to deviate from its status quo: Tony was never sent to prison for any serious length of time, none of his capos ever flipped on him in court, etc. In the end, Chase left us with the impression that Tony was killed, but even then he recoiled from showing it, because he was by that point openly contemptuous of the audience’s desire for any sort of closure:
  • “There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony facedown in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head. Or, on the other side, taking over the New York mob. The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been peoples’ alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. [...] The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”
Ultimately, for Chase, the metaphor became more important that the story. For him, Tony was a mirror of America’s soulless success. Our identification with him implicated us in his evil doings, and so giving him any sort of downfall would somehow let us off the hook for our own moral failings, in Chase’s mind. The result was a once-great show that limped to a belated and unsatisfactory close, without ever cashing in most of the drama inherent in its wonderful premise.


j.s. said...

You're really on fire up with these SOPRANOS posts. I watched the pilot again yesterday and agreed with everything you've written so far. Your suggestions about Melfi here are dead on. Not only does sidelining and normalizing their scenes together fail to deliver on the promise of the potential drama set up in the pilot it ignores the inherently unique qualities of their "relationship we've never seen before." And you're correct that BREAKING BAD is the example of how to do it right. You need only compare this to the relationship between Walter White and Saul Goodman to see how THE SOPRANOS might have ended differently. It's tragic enough to see Saul have to go on the run and end up with a new identity as a Cinnabon manager in Omaha, but he was a shady lawyer compromised on so many levels before he ever crossed paths with Walt. Melfi's really trying to help Tony become not just a more effective person but a better human. To have all that totally ruin her life -- and maybe leave him high and dry at the moment of his most pressing personal crises -- would have been so much more compelling.

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