Directed by Alan Coulter | Written by David Chase & James Manos Jr. | 56 min
By Colin Hart
10 / 10
Let me begin by saying that “College” is probably The Sopranos‘ greatest episode, hence the perfect score. It is the finest standalone hour in the show’s run, and while some later masterpieces may have better payoffs (season five’s “Long Term Parking,” for one), “College” is still the episode that works best whenever and wherever.
For instance, the best song on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below may be either of the final two tracks, “Vibrate” or “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete),” but that is because they come at the end of a (very good) sprawling and draining double album. The actual best songs, the ones that are masterpieces any time you hear them, are the eternal pop anthems “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move,” even if the former duo have more emotional resonance.
Even though “Long Term Parking” and any of season six’s final four episodes feature bigger rewards—emotional payoffs to stories that had been slowly building for years— “College” is still the one that you can take to a random stranger and say, “this is what The Sopranos can do.” And then you put on your sunglasses and leave the room.
“College” is also the first Sopranos masterpiece we had the pleasure of viewing, unless you’re watching out of order for some odd reason. This is the first time we see what this show is truly capable of, and, if you were there back in 1999, what TV itself is truly capable of.
Which brings me to my next point— “College” is not only The Sopranos‘ greatest episode, but the greatest episode. I’m talking about freakin’ history, dude.
Sure, the historical context helps— “College” was a watershed moment for television as an art form, sort of like what Highway 61 Revisited—shit, maybe even Pet Sounds—did for rock music. But when you look at other G.O.A.T. contenders, there are only a handful of candidates that can compare. “The Suitcase” from Mad Men is another self-contained masterpiece that is the absolute peak of television character development. “Ozymandias” and “Felina” from the final stretch of Breaking Bad are two of the most exciting and tense hours of TV or film. And yet, “College” is still the best of the bunch.
Do I have to explain it? I don’t want to, but if I have to, I suppose I must, a little. It is the type of episode you would bring to a random stranger on the subway and say, “this is what TV can do.” And then you put on your sunglasses and dance off the train, the random stranger staring at the dusty VHS you have just given them.
Then again, I could make the case for any one of those aforementioned Mad Men and Breaking Bad episodes too. “College” gets my vote more often than not, however, because it belongs to The Sopranos, which is better overall than both of those shows.
But then why not “-30-” or “Final Grades” or “Middle Ground”? The Wire is possibly (probably?) even better than The Sopranos. However, The Wire creator David Simon subscribes to a different format, that of the television novel. Every Wire episode works best within the context of the entire season. You can’t just randomly watch “Final Grades” and expect to get the same resonance that you would have had you watched the entire fourth season from the beginning. It joust wouldn’t pay off the same. (That’s why “Blackwater”—a standalone episode from another novelistic-structured show—is Game of Thrones’ single best episode)
“College” also gets my vote because it is the “official” answer. Roger Ebert said that Citizen Kane is the “official” answer for best film. Here are some more truisms— The Wire Season 4 is the “official” best season of any TV show, just like the Chrysler Building is the “official” zenith of art deco architecture and just like Madden 07 is the “official” best installment in the oft-stagnant video game franchise. But fuck “official,” “College” is the best damn episode of television that you’ll ever see.
“College” is a simple episode, really. Tony and Meadow are off in New England visiting potential schools, while Carmela spends the night back in New Jersey with a priest. No other distractions, just two stories that build to thunderous climaxes.
Mere minutes into the episode, Meadow asks Tony straight up, “Are you in the mafia, dad?” It’s the question we’ve wanted Tony to address all along, catching him by surprise. At first, he denies it, but eventually admits the truth, telling Meadow she is almost a woman now and it’s best to be honest with her. Not too honest, of course—best not to divulge any details. But the gesture is something that we are proud of Tony for doing. Even if the overall subject is inherently bad, Tony is being a good father by being truthful to his daughter.
Throughout the first four episodes of The Sopranos, we’ve mostly seen Tony as a pretty good guy—relatively speaking, of course. Sure, he used a telephone to beat the shit out of a bartender, and, sure, he cheats on his wife with a smoking hot Russian mistress, but for the most part we have been witness to an admirable cavalier—the kindhearted father who loves his kids, the teary-eyed friend at Jackie’s deathbed, and the honest patient during therapy. “College” is the episode that fully calls all that into question— What kind of man is Tony Soprano? Gary Cooper or Golem? Hero or antihero?
Tony and Meadow stop at a gas station and Tony recognizes someone he used to know. The man in question is Febby Petrulio—a former gangster turned informant, now living in Maine thanks to the witness protection program. He tells Meadow to get in the car and then he speeds off, swerving through traffic in hot pursuit.
This balance of family vs. Family expertly builds throughout the episode. Tony is no longer concerned with visiting colleges for the time being—he’s focused on finding and confirming and then killing Febby. He is forced to give up the street chase, instead pulling into the motel. However, once he gets the chance, Tony is immediately calling Christopher from the pay phone, telling him the details of the situation and asking him to look up some plate numbers.
It is constantly raining back in New Jersey. Christopher—the only other mob character featured in the episode—spends the night waiting on calls and orders from Tony. He has to keep running out to the pay phone in the street, standing in a torrential downpour, and it’s like he’s in some sort of limbo. This is the symbolic metaphor for Chris’ series arc as a whole, actually—he’ll see the raven outside the window while taking the oath of Omerta in season three; he’ll always seemingly have a dark cloud floating over his head. Most of the time that dark cloud will be due to his drug usage, but it will also be caused by Tony’s toxic influence as well.
Elsewhere in Jersey, Carmela starts the day sick in bed. AJ goes to spend the night at a friend’s house and Father Phil Antintola, the friendly priest, stops by. Fr. Phil is a known schnorrer—like ‘golem,’ another Jewish word, this one meaning mooch—and he initially drops in solely because he wants to eat some of Carm’s baked ziti.
It is clear that Carmela and Father Phil share a mutual attraction for one another. This is evident from the moment the doorbell rings, Carmela quickly fixing her hair in the mirror. And the mood is just right too—AJ off to a friend’s house, Tony and Meadow out of town, the two of them sitting on the couch, watching The Remains of the Day, drinking plenty of wine.
Added to this, Carmela is angry with Tony for not letting on that his therapist is a woman (Dr. Melfi calls the home to cancel an appointment). “Why would he lie about it unless he’s screwing her?” she asks, and she’s justified in thinking so, even if it’s not true. Tony took the time to call Irina from the pay phone up in Maine, and Carmela is well aware of his many infidelities.
She is fed up. She breaks down in tears and confesses her enormous guilt in being married to Tony. She admits that she looks past his mob affiliation because she loves the luxury-filled life it has provided her with. Father Phil offers her Communion and, lost in the moment, the two are nearly driven to kiss each other. The moment is averted when the very drunk priest suddenly runs into the bathroom to vomit. He spends the night on the couch, the rain pattering on the windows. In the morning, the two will reflect on a night that felt immoral but which not a single sin was committed. “Of all the finook priests, why’d I have to get the one that’s straight?”
While much of the greatness of “College” stems from Tony’s storyline, it is easy to forget that Carmela’s scenes touch on the sublime as well. Up until now, Carmela has been portrayed as a shallow and privileged housewife. “College” is the first time we see her develop into a considerable and complex character of her own. The storyline is carefully written, each bit of dialogue played out for maximum effect. On top of this, I feel safe in saying that Edie Falco’s performance in this episode is quite possibly the greatest acting performance by a woman in TV history.
While Meadow is partying at the motel bar, Tony has free time to do some snooping around. After making more calls to Chris, he goes to investigate the stranger’s home. Without a doubt, he confirms that it is Febby Petrulio, living comfortably, with a wife, a young daughter and his own travel agency.
Febby is aware that Tony saw him back at the gas station and is suspicious when he hears a car (Tony’s) leaving his house. He also starts to inquire about. He tracks down the motel Tony is staying at and waits in the parking lot with a gun. He sees Tony returning—with a very drunk and sick Meadow—the gun aimed, but he does not shoot. Perhaps it is because Tony is with his daughter. Or perhaps it is because there is also an elderly couple outside and he doesn’t want any witnesses. We want to believe the former, but it is in fact the latter. Likewise, we hope that the connections to family are enough to spare violence between the two. But Tony was only focused on one thing when he saw Febby with his wife and child, and that was correctly identifying him as a man who must be killed.
Alan Couture directs the episode and makes prominent use of shadows and light-and-dark contrast, the two Tonys walking hand in hand. The editing—the fraught pacing and back-and-forth tension as Tony and Febby search for one another—is a big part of what makes this episode the bona-fide classic that it is. It has the feel, to me at least, of the Coen brothers’ great debut, Blood Simple, the web between the characters drawing tighter and tighter.
But to give this episode the comparison it deserves, I’ll have to go art school on your ass— the chiaroscuro does for “College” what it also does for The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.
Tony drops Meadow off at Bowdoin but then suddenly has to leave, saying he forgot his watch, giving excuses and tiptoeing questions. Febby, at his travel agency, hears a noise in the parking lot. He goes outside to investigate. Tony brutally garrotes him, merciless and remorseless. After the deed is done, Tony walks across the lot, looking up at a flock of ducks flying away. It is a haunting scene, an image that sticks in our heads. For Tony to kill this man for this particular reason, it starts to change our perspective on him. We didn’t actually believe he was going to do it until he did it.
While Tony waits for Meadow back at the college, he looks up and sees a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote adorning the wall: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” It’s a perfect quote to encapsulate Tony’s main moral dilemma—to which family does he truly belong? What kind of man is Tony Soprano? Tony himself doesn’t even know. The ducks flying away are the perfect symbol to capture this, both a reminder and a warning for Tony’s soul.
On the drive home, Meadow notices that his hands are bloody. Tony brushes it off with fumbling excuses, but the conversation reaches a point where it seems like the truth is clear. They exchange a very knowing “I love you” “I love you too” and continue driving.
Like it so often does, The Sopranos leaves us with a sublime low-key scene to perfectly cap off the episode. Tony and Meadow return home and Carmela tells Tony that the priest slept over. Arguing ensues (“This is too fucked up to even comprehend”) until Carmela pulls out the chair (“Your therapist called. Jennifer?”), and Tony is immediately put on the defensive. The ending is nothing, but it is everything, summing up the entire episode in a beautifully understated fashion.
I hope I did it justice. This is the greatest hour of television of all time we’re talking about. It’s a tour-de-fucking-force of emotion and a powerhouse display of acting. Top-notch in everything else, too—writing, directing, editing and all the rest of that behind-the-camera parcheesi.
It is the most powerful “I’ve arrived” moment in TV history. More than essential. A perfect 10 out of 10. An hour of television like no other. It is—how do they say on the steppes?—хамгийн агуу.
- First mention of Svetlana, the one-legged blonde Russian who will play a prominent role in season four.
- Irina—Tony’s Russian mistress—combines the phrase “knight in shining armor” with the The Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin” (from their 1967 debut Days Of Future Passed), to come up with the term “knight in white satin armor”. It’s such an amusing and interesting turn-of-phrase that it would be used as an episode title late in season two.
- Jamie-Lynn Sigler was a pretty good actress, especially in the earlier seasons. Her skill made it possible for the show to delve into the lives of the Soprano children, and this might actually be her finest performance of the entire series. This is also probably my peak point of admiration for Meadow as a character.
- Tony talks about how he liked history in college. It once again plays into his idyllic view of the past.
- More mention of Scorsese films as Meadow tells Tony how her friends all prefer Casino to The Godfather, and Carmela and Father Phil talk about how Robert DeNiro was almost cast as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. (Fr. Phil parodies Travis Bickle) Goodfellas is the film that The Sopranos is most indebted to, so it’s no surprise that the Scorsese name-dropping is frequent. Five of his films have already been mentioned by name (Goodfellas, Casino, The Last Temptation of Christ, Taxi Driver and, of course, Kundun).
- “Are you talking to me? Well, you must be talking to me. Or Barabbas here.“
- “Did the Cusamano kids ever find $50,000 in krugerrandts and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?“
- “What you guys do for 12 hours? Play, uh, ‘Name that Pope?’“