Reviewed by David Williams (December 30, 2003)
The fourth season of HBO’s The Sopranos was quite divisive among fans … with the majority of them feeling that the show had lost its edge; that it failed to provide any sort of momentum from one episode to the next; and that too many plot points from season three were never fully fleshed out, or were simply ignored. While some of the criticism was true, and in some way, deserved, series creator David Chase and his team of actors/directors/writers seemed to have other things in mind; namely, that mobsters and their families are slightly more complex and multifaceted than gratuitous “whackings” and that they are affected by the real-world events that shape our lives as well.
Chase seems to realize that real life can sometimes be monotonous and that issues like pride, infidelity, financial security, addiction, and the like affect the mob as much as they do you and me. While some may argue that it doesn’t make for the most exciting television, many forget that it’s exactly this type of realistic narrative that made The Sopranos so refreshing in the first place. (A mobster in therapy?!?) While the show may have plodded along at a snail’s pace and not enough major developments took place in relation to seasons past, the fourth season of The Sopranos only gets better and more brilliant after a second look.
The season opener takes place soon after 9/11 and we see that the slowing economy has affected the mob and Tony and his wife are arguing about their financial stability and Tony’s reluctance to invest in more “traditional” avenues. (Tony’s current investment is a shady land speculation deal that he hopes will pay off big.) This conflict sets the tone for the entire year, as Tony and Carmela’s marriage will become the centerpiece for the show’s fourth season. Other plot lines include Paulie’s imprisonment; Christopher’s power struggle and drug addiction; Adriana’s befriending of an undercover FBI agent; dissention in the ranks of the Soprano family; and Ralphie (need I say more?). All of the aforementioned storylines are concurrent – albeit secondary – to Tony and Carm’s struggles at home and it all works together well to create an often misunderstood and underappreciated season.
This season offers a change of pace in other areas as well, as in seasons past, Tony has been the centerpiece of the show, whereas in season four, Carmela takes center stage as she exerts her independence and is allowed to be more than Tony’s docile and obedient wife. Her passivity ends in season four, as Carmela is presented as a woman looking out for herself and her children’s best interests – all the while, struggling with the conflicted emotions of a woman enjoying the attention of another man that works hand-in-hand with her husband. Unfortunately for Carmela, she sees her marriage much differently than her husband; she views it as an actual commitment between herself, her husband, and her God and not simply a societal constraint for public appearances only. However, by season’s end, we see Carmela kicking Tony out of the house and making a refreshingly powerful stand for herself. It’s a nice change of pace and unfortunately, not one embraced by all Sopranos fans.
Let’s take an episode-by-episode look at season four and see what had so many fans up in arms ... (Spoilers Abound! Read at your own risk!)
- Disc One -
For All Debts Public And Private (Original Air Date: September 15, 2002)
After an all too long 16-month absence from the airwaves, The Sopranos returns to HBO with an episode written by the series creator himself, David Chase. When the fourth season of the show opens, we find that even mobsters aren’t immune to a post-9/11 economy and Carmela (Edie Falco) is suddenly very concerned about her family’s future should something happen to Tony (James Gandolfini). Tony is also concerned … because he’s sick and tired of funneling his cash into Uncle Junior’s (Dominic Chianese) pending RICO trial and he’s crawling his crew’s ass in order to make the family more money. In order to move things along, Tony gets into a land scheme in Newark with local Assemblyman-on-the-take Zellman (Peter Riegert).
Meanwhile, Paulie’s (Tony Sirico) pissed off over serving time; Tony’s daughter, Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), is still emotionally despondent over the murder of her ex, Jackie Aprile Jr.; and her brother, AJ (Robert Iler), is still a juvenile delinquent. Tony’s mentally unstable sister, Janice (Aida Turturro) is in love with the wrong guy again … and Tony’s nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), perturbed at the way he’s been treated, changes his tune when Tony gives him a shot at some long-deserved revenge. Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), develops a friendship with the wrong person – an undercover FBI agent named Danielle (Lola Glaudini).
No Show (Original Air Date: September 22, 2002)
With Paulie still in jail, Tony gives Christopher more responsibility … starting with the construction site in Newark that the mob is controlling. At Dr. Melfi’s (Lorraine Bracco) suggestion, Tony and Carmela plead with Meadow to see a therapist (Linda Lavin) to work through her current slate of problems and unfortunately for the family, Meadow’s visits only amplify her sullenness and irritability and the doctor’s advice doesn’t still too well with Tony and Carm. Meanwhile, Adriana and Danielle have a falling out and Danielle’s true intentions are learned.
Christopher (Original Air Date: September 29, 2002)
In an episode written by Michael Imperioli, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) and Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) attempt to quell some planned protests at the local Columbus Day parade, while Bobby Baccala’s (Steven R. Schirripa) wife, Karen (Christine Pedi), is tragically killed in a car accident. Bobby confesses to Janice that he feels responsible for his wife’s death. New York underboss, Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), learns of a cruel joke made at his wife’s expense while Janice and Ralphie’s relationship remains rocky.
- Disc Two -
The Weight (Original Air Date: October 6, 2002)
Commentary by writer Terence Winter.
Johnny Sack seeks revenge on Ralphie for the fat joke made about his wife (Denise Borino). Although one of the bosses, Carmine (Tony Lip), attempts to craft a truce between Sack (of the New York family) and Ralphie (of the Jersey family), Tony and Uncle Junior come up with a solution of their own. Meadow considers doing some volunteer work at a free Law Center in the South Bronx, while Carmela finds herself falling for Furio (Federico Castelluccio), as she visits and dances with him at his housewarming party. Tempers flare between Tony and Carmela over finances.
Pie-O-My (Original Air Date: October 13, 2002)
Uncle Junior, still on trial, gets quite upset when he sees an artist’s unflattering rendering of him on TV, while Tony finds enjoyment at the horse racing track, as he and Ralphie go in together on a horse named “Pie-O-My”. However, while Tony finds solace in the company of “Pie-O-My”, things are still rough at home as Carmela presents him with a document in order to secure her future financially. Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana, gets upset when her nightclub becomes a place for Christopher’s mob business. Janice continues to comfort Bobby over the tragic loss of his wife.
Everybody Hurts (Original Air Date: October 20, 2002)
Commentary by actor Michael Imperioli.
Steve Buscemi, in an episode written by Michael Imperioli, shows back up in the director’s chair for the hit series as we find gullible and naïve restaurant owner Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), as he’s gotten himself into another fine mess. Thinking with the wrong head, Artie loans $50,000 to a hostess’s brother and he becomes more indebted to Tony. Christopher is given more power inside of the Soprano family, as Tony starts passing all orders through him. Tony’s son, Anthony Jr., falls for a wealthy young girl and Tony gets some disturbing news about a former girlfriend that sends him directly to Dr. Melfi’s office.
Watching Too Much Television (Original Air Date: October 27, 2002)
Tony and Ralph get some advice on a moneymaking scheme from Carmela’s cousin, a financial advisor while Adriana is getting impatient and is ready for she and Christopher to tie the knot. Paulie gets out of jail and rejoins the Soprano crew at the Bada-Bing for a huge welcome home party and Johnny Sack lends him a sympathetic ear.
- Disc Three -
Mergers and Acquisitions (Original Air Date: November 3, 2002)
Ralphie introduces Tony to his new girlfriend, Valentina (Leslie Bega), an art dealer. She presents Tony with an opportunity to have a portrait of “Pie-O-My” painted … and then an opportunity for a little something more. Furio goes back to his native Italy for a visit and Carmela finds a “hidden” source of income. Paulie tries to get his mother to be more outgoing at the retirement home. However, when he finds that some of its residents are less than friendly to his beloved mother, he applies a little pressure.
Whoever Did This (Original Air Date: November 10, 2002)
Commentary by writers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess.
Uncle Junior takes a tumble on the courthouse steps and it causes his lawyers to try a new strategy in the defense of their client. Ralphie takes a few jabs at Paulie’s mother and the tables are tragically turned on him when his own son is involved in a freak accident. When the stable that “Pie-O-My” was housed in burns down and “Pie” must be put to sleep, Tony blames Ralphie and whacks him.
The Strong, Silent Type (Original Air Date: November 17, 2002)
Tony and the boys search for a “missing” Ralph and Furio has returned from Italy, as it is becoming more and more evident that his feelings for Carm are as strong as hers towards him. Christopher’s heroin addiction becomes worse and when others start to notice, an intervention takes place.
- Disc Four -
Calling All Cars (Original Air Date: November 24, 2002)
Tony’s HUD scheme is up in the air after a sit-down with Carmine and Johnny Sack. Janice is still moving in on Bobby and his family, but she grows tired of his undying devotion to his deceased wife. Meanwhile, Anthony Jr. plays a cruel joke on Bobby’s kids and Dr. Melfi continues her work with Tony.
Eloise (Original Air Date: December 1, 2002)
Tony’s problems with Johnny Sack and Carmine are as bad as ever while Furio’s feelings for Carmela almost cause him to make a huge mistake while the whole crew is out on the town one night. Realizing he wants something he cannot have, Furio decides to move back to Italy … much to Carmela’s disappointment. Paulie’s loyalty to the Soprano family is being called into question and Uncle Junior finds a sympathetic juror.
Whitecaps (Original Air Date: December 8, 2002)
Commentary by series creator David Chase.
The fourth season comes to a close as we find Carmela upset over the fact that Furio has left and Tony trying to keep his family together by investing in a summer home, Whitecaps. Junior’s trial is thrown out because of a hung jury and Christopher is ordered to put a hit on Carmine when he gets out of rehab. Carmela gets a call from one of Tony’s former girlfriends that causes all types of problems between them and Tony is forced to move out – setting up a completely new dynamic for Season Five.
While Season Four was a bit more inconsistent than its predecessors, it definitely merits a second look by those of you disappointed with it during its initial run on HBO. Reevaluate the shows knowing what Chase has in mind and I dare you not to enjoy it. Along with Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos remains one of the main reasons HBO is worth its weight in gold and why the networks are scrambling to figure out why viewers are leaving their “reality” based programming in droves for cable-based TV and its superior programming selections.