On January 10, 1999, the first episode of The Sopranos aired on HBO. David Chase’s series would go on to become a smash success up to and including its remarkable 2007 finale, both critically and in terms of ratings. On its exterior, The Sopranos may just seem like a TV interpretation of mob movie classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Spend some time watching, however, and you’ll come to find that the show has unrivalled depth and poignancy. Focusing on the inner conflict of protagonist Anthony Soprano (James Gandolfini) attempting to balance his family life with his “family” life, the show had a characteristic writ and humility about it. It was a show that didn’t spoon-feed you; it forced you to pay attention to what was going on. To this day, I believe The Sopranos is the best-directed, best-written, and overall best show to ever air on television.
Recently, my wife and I began re-watching the show, and I was once again reminded of its greatness and place in the upper echelons of the entertainment world. This inspired me to take on the daunting task of selecting the ten best episodes of the revered series. Please note that some very significant plot spoilers are referenced below. Without further ado, here we go.
- “Commendatori” (Season 2, Episode 4, originally aired February 6, 2000
This Season 2 episode mainly focused on Tony, his protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), and his loyal soldier Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Tony Sirico) taking a trip to Italy to work out the details of the family’s stolen car operation. This episode also marks the first appearance of Furio Giunta (Federico Castalluccio), a trusted associate of Tony’s who receives a major story arc in Season 4.
Tony’s dealings with the beautiful Annalisa (Sofia Milos) test Tony’s abilities to separate his personal feelings from business dealings. Christopher’s drug addiction is brought to the forefront here, setting up his downward spiral in later seasons. The colorful Paulie, playing the role of comic relief as usual, goes on a quest to discover his Italian heritage. However, he is perturbed to find that he can’t just get some simple “macaroni and gravy” to eat.
Meanwhile, Soprano family soldier (and FBI informant) Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) faces some struggles of his own, with his wife Angie (Toni Kalem) contemplating divorce.
“Commendatori” is a prime example of what makes The Sopranos so great. Not only are you interested in the plot and overall story, but there is a fair amount of dark and wry humor to keep you entertained (Paulie at one point laments, “I gotta take a wicked shit”). The series also continues the tradition of David Chase and the show writers to give the secondary characters copious amounts of character development.
- “Amour Fou” (Season 3, Episode 12, originally aired May 13, 2001)
The most significant plot point in “Amour Fou” is Tony ending his relationship with his goomar, Gloria Trillo. Crucial in their final exchange is Tony’s realization that Gloria has the same depressive, controlling personality as his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand). This is significant, because Tony’s abusive relationship with his mother and its subsequent effect on him is a highlight of the series.
Tony’s wife, Carmela, continues to be conflicted about how her husband makes his living and provides for her family. She speaks with a priest, who urges her to “live with the good” and ignore Tony’s sins. Frequently in the series, Carmela clearly realizes that what Tony does for a living is wrong, yet she is too used to the lavish lifestyle it provides her to do anything about it. She chooses to “live with the good.”
Finally, Tony’s wishes to keep his deceased best friend’s son, Jackie Aprile, Jr., out of the Mafia do not come true. His fate is sealed after he shoots at two made men, Christopher and Furio, during the failed jacking of a card game. Jackie will meet his demise in the next episode after Tony all but encourages capo Ralph Cifaretto to kill him for his transgressions.
What makes this episode so great is the acting of the major players. Acting was always a strong suit of The Sopranos, but it is even more so in “Amour Fou.” The final interaction between James Gandolfini’s Tony and Annabella Sciorra’s Gloria is a masterclass, natural and engaging. Joe Pantoliano, who plays the role of Ralph, communicates his inner conflict on what to do about Jackie supremely effectively through his tone and body language. As always, the talented Edie Falco does a wonderful job of presenting Carmela’s own inner moral conflict to the viewer.
- “Join The Club” and “Mayham” (Season 6A, Episodes 2 &3, originally aired March 19 & 26, 2006)
You might think it’s a cop-out to list two episodes in the #8 spot, but both of them are thematically connected. These episodes have been polarizing, with some fans of the show calling them “boring.” Personally, I think they are incredible, and what they represent is crucially important as the sixth and final season of The Sopranos continues on.
Both episodes take place after Tony is shot by his uncle and “co-boss” of the family, the now-senile Corrado “Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese) in the first episode of Season 6A. Now in a medically-induced coma, Tony has a bizarre near-death experience. He has visions of being in Costa Mesa, as a salesman of “Precision Optics.” This Tony Soprano is an everyman, working a normal job, and doesn’t have his thick New Jersey accent. Attempting to check into a conference, he realizes he misplaces his briefcase with a Kevin Finnerty. Initially, his Costa Mesa “trip” chronicles his struggle to uncover his identity.
It is jarring to see Tony Soprano in this way. His tries to hit on a woman, but is shunned…when does THAT ever happen to him? He learns that Kevin Finnerty may be attending a family reunion at “The Inn at the Oaks,” marked by a beacon flashing on the horizon.
At some point, Tony falls down a flight of stairs and is taken to a local hospital for a MRI. The MRI reveals “dark spots” on Tony’s brain (which in real life represent his inability to see clearly the error of his ways) and the physician hands him a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Tony calls it a “death sentence.” However, the physician reassures him that better treatments are now available and that he should “talk to his doctors back home.” This can be interpreted as a warning for Tony to continue to talking to his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) after coming out of the coma so he can avoid his real-life death sentence (which occurs in the series finale; more on that later).
Finally, Tony gets to the lavish “Inn at the Oaks,” where he is greeted by a man that looks like his cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buschemi). Tony had to murder his cousin at the end of Season 5. Tony is intensely afraid, and after seeing a figure that resembles his mother Livia, it becomes clear that Tony will die if he enters the Inn. Fortunately, his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) calls him out of his coma before that can happen.
After all that, a series of episodes that seem “boring” at face value actually reveal immense depth, supremely intelligent writing, and more acting prowess from the incomparable Gandolfini. These two episodes represent a second chance for Tony. It is an epiphany of sorts, a reminder that he must change his ways to prevent an undesirable future outcome. Unfortunately for Tony, he fails to make the most of his second chance, as we’ll see later.
- “Bust Out” (Season 2, Episode 10, originally aired March 19, 2000)
This episode shows Tony’s ruthless nature to full effect. Tony’s childhood friend Davey Scatino (Robert Patrick) is in debt to Tony and Richie Aprile (David Proval) after suffering huge gambling losses at their respective card games. Unable to repay the debt, Tony and Richie take over Davey’s outdoor sporting goods store, ordering frivolous items and running up the store’s credit. At the end of the ordeal, Tony nonchalantly informs a distraught Davey that once he is bankrupted, his repayment obligations will be fulfilled. Cold-blooded, indeed.
Another key story point in this episode is that Tony is very nearly incarcerated for a murder he committed in a previous episode. It is communicated from the very first episode that Tony’s greatest fear is losing his family. This is one of the first episodes where he must deal with his fear becoming reality, and it is interesting to see Tony become panicked and afraid as a result.
- “Whoever Did This” (Season 4, Episode 9, originally aired November 10, 2002
“Whoever Did This” is yet another episode where multiple major story arcs are addressed in the same episode. In this case, one begins, and one ends.
We see Junior begin to exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s disease for the first time, an arc that would continue through to the very end of the series. Likewise, Tony’s nearly two-season long feud with one of his capos, Ralph Cifaretto, comes to an end after Tony kills him. Ralph was always expertly acted by Joe Pantoliano to elicit a reaction of disgust from the audience; the viewer just didn’t like Ralph, plain and simple.
It is here that the episode provides an interesting contrast and tests the viewer’s morality, as the show often does. Some viewers may be no doubt delighted to see a scumbag like Ralph get his comeuppance. However, the scenario makes it difficult to justify Tony’s killing of his former friend. Ralph’s son had recently been severely injured and hospitalized from an accident, rendered barely able to walk and speak from brain damage. Ralph (allegedly) kills his and Tony’s horse, Pie-O-My, in a stable fire to procure the insurance money to help with his son’s medical bills. Tony violently murders and disposes of Ralph when he realizes this. Interesting is Tony’s line, “That poor innocent creature! What did she ever do to you? You fucking killed her!” could not only refer to the horse, but also to a young stripper named Tracee that Ralph killed in a previous episode.
Was Tony justified in killing Ralph over the murder of a stripper and/or a horse? That’s up to you to decide as the viewer. Chase is great at presenting morally-gray scenarios like this, and this is one of the better ones.
- “College” (Season 1, Episode 9, originally aired February 7, 1999)
Now we’re into the top five of our countdown, the best of the best episodes of the best TV show in history.
“College” is a harrowing episode because it is the first time where Tony’s actions as a Mafia boss bring his family dangerously close to his criminal life. While taking a young Meadow on a trip to visit different colleges, Tony encounters former made man and current FBI informant Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi). Fabian nearly kills Tony in his hotel room with Meadow there to watch, but he is distracted by innocent bystanders in the process.
Tony does eventually kill Fabian, but this episode is significant because it clearly communicates the consequences of Tony’s actions as a notorious criminal. He has to watch his back at all times, because his death can possibly come from anywhere, and those he loves most may be brought disturbingly close to the conflict. This is something that is finally realized in the series finale.
- “Kennedy and Heidi” (Season 6B, Episode 18, originally aired May 13, 2007)
This is a phenomenal episode mainly because of its overwhelming sadness, bleakness, and disparity. It is fitting, because in this episode we see Tony Soprano sink to the lowest point he has ever attained.
“Join The Club” and “Mayham” represented a spiritual rebirth for Tony. He vowed that, “Every day is a gift” and initially, he seemed to be changing for the better. It seemed as though Tony had an epiphany and would avoid having his greatest fear (losing his family) come true.
As Season 6A and 6B progressed, however, it became clear that Tony would never be able to change. He regressed throughout the final season, becoming more ruthless and carefree than he ever has. Up to this point, Tony has already become a serial adulterer yet again, even after Carmela caring for him and staying by his side after the shooting. He undermines Christopher’s attempts to become sober, and ruins his relationship with close family friend Hesh Rabkin (Jerry Adler) over money. Tony even becomes a degenerate gambler, even after his father told him, “You should never gamble, Anthony.” Tony hits an all-time low in this episode when he kills his own nephew, Christopher, following a terrible car accident. He pinches Chris’ nostrils shut, causing him to suffocate on his own blood.
Tony appears upset on the outside, but is internally joyous. He takes a trip to Las Vegas to “take care of Chris’ business interests.” While in Vegas, Tony sleeps with Chris’ goomah and takes peyote. He recklessly gambles, yet wins big, attributing his newfound luck to Christopher’s death.
Remember that beacon on the horizon from “Mayham?” The one representing “The Inn at the Oaks,” wherein Tony will die when he enters the Inn? At the end of “Kennedy and Heidi,” Tony and Chris’ mistress find themselves in the Nevada desert. Tony looks out to the horizon, exclaiming, “I get it!” as a beacon flashes from behind the rising sun.
Tony, having completely squandered his second chance and refusing to change, has accepted his “death sentence.” From this point on, his fate is sealed.
- “Pilot/The Sopranos” (Season 1, Episode 1, originally aired January 10, 1999)
Of course the premier episode of The Sopranos would be this high on the list. Being the series premiere, it introduces several important characters, relationships, and themes. These include Tony’s recurrent panic attacks, his fear of losing his family, his tumultuous relationship with his wife, his dysfunctional relationships with his mother, and his nephew Christopher’s subordinate tendencies.
What is most impressive to me is how effectively Chase and the writing team were able to carry these themes through the show’s entire six season run. The very first episode of The Sopranos introduces us to these wonderfully-acted characters. Furthermore, the importance of the series premiere is evident even at the very end. For these reasons, the pilot episode deserves its place in the top three.
- “Pine Barrens” (Season 3, Episode 11, originally aired May 6, 2001)
This is a funny episode of The Sopranos in both a literal and figurative sense. Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods after failing to collect a payment serves as the catalyst to one of the more light-hearted episodes of the series. Paulie is at his best in this episode, with quips such as, “He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. Guy was an interior decorator” and “Squirrels’ll eat him anyway” providing ample laughs. His argument with Christopher in an abandoned van over ketchup packs is comedy gold.
Some other comical moments include Gloria literally throwing a roast beef at Tony’s head after an argument. While visiting Uncle Junior, the boss comments to Tony, “You been eating steak?” This is immediately followed by Bobby Bacala (Steve Schirripa) walking into the home in a ridiculous hunting outfit, much to Tony’s (and the audience’s) amusement.
Figuratively, this is a funny episode because it is one of the few self-contained episodes of the show. You don’t really need to understand much of what has happened prior to the episode to appreciate it and enjoy watching it. Likewise, the ramifications of this episode have virtually no effect on the story going forward.
- “Made in America” (Season 6B, Episode 21, originally aired June 10, 2007)
We have finally reached the series culmination, and also the best episode of The Sopranos: the finale.
After the bloodbath that occurred in the penultimate episode of The Sopranos, “Blue Comet,” the finale does a wonderful job of tying up the loose ends. It also does a great job at showing how much Tony has lost through his actions and conflicts. The crew’s hangout, Satriale’s pork store, used to be brimming and full of life as Tony’s crew expanded. By the end of the series, Paulie is left sitting outside of Satriale’s alone, except for a peculiar orange cat. Paulie’s interactions with this cat are hilarious, as had come to be expected of the character.
What makes The Sopranos’ finale so special is the ending sequence that takes place in Holsten’s diner. Not just because it was so well-acted or shot so incredibly and intelligently. It is the discussion that it sparked in the hours, weeks, months, and years after it aired.
“Chase is messing with us!” “The ending means life goes on!” “Dammit, our cable cut out!” The Sopranos infamous cut-to-black ending was frustrating to many at the time the finale initially aired. In retrospect, though, it’s easy to appreciate the beauty (and horror) of the final scene.
If you’ve been paying attention to the final season (and the way Chase masterfully sets up Tony’s point-of-view shots in the final scene), it’s very clear that Tony is shot and killed when the screen cuts to black. The way that this scene was shot is truly a master work that must be seen to be appreciated. Herein lies the beauty of the final scene.
The horror of the final scene is experiencing Tony’s death from his point of view. Tony is shot by the man that entered the bathroom a few minutes prior. He didn’t hear his death coming or perceive it in any way. Just an abrupt cut to deep blackness and nothingness. Chase drives home this jarring sensation of instant death by allowing this blackness to linger for a few seconds before the credits roll. In this way, the viewer can truly appreciate what just happened. We didn’t see Tony die. We experienced Tony’s death. It’s simultaneously artful and horrifying, further confirming the genius of the man that is David Chase.
The other horrifying and deeply saddening element of the finale of The Sopranos is the setting where Tony dies. He is enjoying the company of his family in Holsten’s. This is the same family that, from the very beginning, he was so very afraid of losing. Then, just as his precious daughter is entering the restaurant, it all ends. Tony is killed. For the entire series, Tony was afraid of losing his family. He had a chance to change to prevent this from occurring. At the end of the series, he is finally separated from his family through his own death. Even worse is that his family was there to witness his murder.
And that, my friends, concludes our top ten. The Sopranos truly is a tragedy that was six seasons in the making. This was more than gratuitous Mafia glorification. It was a show that not only made you feel and care, but also made you think. For those reasons, I stand by my opinion that there never has been a TV series as good as The Sopranos…and I highly doubt we’ll ever see one in the future.