Tony Soprano: Father, Killer

James Gandolfini and Jamie-Lynn Sigler in 'The Sopranos.' (Image courtesy of HBO Entertainment)

Tony Soprano stands in the middle of Bates College in Maine, looking skeptical and puffing his way through a cigar while waiting for his daughter, Meadow, to exit an information session. Students in backpacks, shorts, and baseball hats walk past him while a bell gently tolls in the distance. The sunny, tree-lined campus looks familiar to me—the scene was actually filmed at Drew University in New Jersey, five minutes from my childhood house, where I’d gone regularly for soccer practices and summer camps. Yet something else looks familiar: Tony Soprano himself. 

Italian Americans like me would recognize Tony’s doubts about institutions of higher education. Knowledge was prized, to be sure, but knowledge received in expansive gray granite buildings was suspect for a certain generation of Italian immigrants and their brethren. When Meadow leaves a presentation and shares that one student quipped that Bates “is the world’s most expensive form of contraception,” Tony is disgusted. He’s an overprotective father with a short fuse, cracking a joke one minute but scowling the next.

In this way, and so many others, viewers could see themselves in The Sopranos’ characters—and at other times be so repelled by them. That paradox lies at the heart of the show’s genius, and it makes the episode where the aforementioned scene takes place a great entrypoint to experience the series on its 25th anniversary.

The episode, titled “College,” first aired in February 1999 on HBO. Despite being only the fifth episode of the show’s debut season, “College” arrived with the spirit of a fully formed series and established Tony Soprano as a compelling anti-hero. Played to perfection by the late James Gandolfini, Tony is a terrible, selfish man whose muted and sparse moments of goodness convince us that he just might, somehow, change. 

While they continue across campus, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) prods Tony about his own college experience: a semester and a half at Seton Hall University, in East Orange, New Jersey. “Grandma and Grandpa didn’t stress college,” Tony says. “They were working-class people,” before admitting that he got into trouble. The anecdote perfectly captures the early generation Italian American experience, the desire for social ascendancy while retaining ethnic authenticity. 

In “College,” and throughout the series, Tony strives to affirm his facade as a respectable businessman, a necessary move to evade law enforcement, but also an aspirational act. Tony wants money; he craves success. Perhaps more than anything else, he wants to be taken seriously. Yet shortly after Tony gestures toward respectability, he’s brought back to reality. At a gas station near Bates, he spots someone who looks a lot like Febby Petrulio (guest star Tony Ray Rossi), a mob informant who has remade himself as a local travel agent. Tony speeds after Febby, weaving between cars, before pulling into a motel lot with an exasperated Meadow confused in the passenger seat. 

The episode continually switches between Maine and New Jersey, with Tony employing the help of his underling Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) to verify Febby’s identity. At first, the frenetic shifts almost feel comic, as Tony can’t concentrate on the real reason he is in Maine—a college tour for his daughter. Soon, however, the back-and-forths underscore his fate: Even in bucolic New England, Tony is a mobster. His work is inextricable from his home life.

The other part of that life is back in New Jersey, where his wife Carmela is sick in bed with a fever. The local parish priest, Father Phil Intintola, arrives out of the rain, ostensibly to check on her. “I also have a confession to make, Carm,” he says, before pausing. “I have a jones for your baked ziti.” She’s happy to heat up some for him, and to serve him a glass of wine. When Father Phil asks about the college trip, Carmela laments: “He doesn’t have time to talk to me for two lousy minutes.”

It’s true. Up in Maine, Tony is busy being proud of Meadow and cracking dad jokes. (“What’s the Potsdam Conference?” “Pots-damn if I know now.”) He’s also planning revenge. Although Tony had previously worried about how college might taint Meadow, he’s eager to pass her on to some current Colby College students so that he can stake out Febby’s home. The contradiction hits at the heart of Tony’s character: He’s ultimately aggressive and vindictive. 

Back in New Jersey, the episode teases something more between Carmela and Father Phil, while somehow also capturing the absurdity of that possibility (a feat accomplished by the deft acting of Edie Falco and Paul Schulze). For the first time, Carmela discovers that Tony’s therapist—Dr. Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco—is a woman, and she wonders what else Tony has been lying about. Father Phil offers a gently skeptical voice, but it’s clear that he wants something to happen between them. A bottle or two of wine later, their dinner party becomes more intimate. Father Phil hears Carmela’s confession and offers her communion directly on her tongue in front of a lit fireplace, a moment that feels far more personal than anything physical that could happen between them. Sweaty, exhausted, and more than a little drunk, they pass out in the living room. 

When they wake the next morning, Father Phil worries about the scandal of being parked overnight in front of the Sopranos’ house. In Maine, though, a greater sin unfolds. Tony hunts down Febby at his travel agency, a trailer tucked into the woods. It’s there that Tony becomes his most primal; rather than a city guy out of place, he is his most lethal in this wilderness. He strangles Febby, leaving his body in the grass. Ducks sail overhead.

Although a quarter-century has passed since the debut season, The Sopranos captures both a very particular sensibility in North New Jersey, and also a timeless conundrum. In the deeply Catholic world of the show—and I mean that both in the religious and cultural sense—all are fallen, and some more so than others. 

Famously, the final scene of The Sopranos leaves viewers wondering about Tony’s fate. But that worry was sealed long before, all the way back in the first season, when he had to decide, amid a college trip with his daughter, whether to be a father or a killer. He chose both.

Comments (69)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More