“Sleeps With the Fishes”
It may not have always felt like it, but the entirety of season two has been leading up to one climactic moment: the execution of Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero at the hands of Tony Soprano. The majority of the season has been one large misdirect, full of artful one-offs and strong character moments, but a misdirect nonetheless.
Even the story of Richie Aprile was a misdirect. He was prematurely offed by Janice before he could cause any real trouble. The true backbone of the season — the nagging dark spot in the back of everyone’s mind — has been Tony’s inevitable realization that his best friend is an FBI informant. He reaches this conclusion (something he’s at least suspected since “Nobody Knows Anything”) during a fever dream brought about by food poisoning.
The Sopranos can be looked at as one of the great works of modern surrealism, and “Funhouse” features the best dream sequences in the entire series. Similar episodes — such as “The Test Dream,” “Join the Club” and “Mayham” — feature a similar subconscious vibe, but none interweave the dreams into the larger tapestry quite like “Funhouse.”
The first half of the episode finds a very sick Tony drifting in and out of reality. He finds himself on a snowy Asbury Park boardwalk encountering dead accomplices, Dr. Melfi and talking fish. Despite the surreal setting, there’s also plenty of dark comedy running concurrent to the dream sequences, as the scenes are continually interrupted by Tony having to go to the bathroom to purge his system. Once he is back asleep, the boardwalk creaks to the sound of his gastro-rumbling.
The imagery is unforgettable — an atmospheric, subconscious quality that is unlike anything on television, before or since (excepting, of course, Twin Peaks). Believably otherworldly, I’d call it; similar to Federico Fellini’s 8½ in the way we move from seamlessly from dreams to the real world and back again.
Compared to The Sopranos‘ other surrealist installments: “The Test Dream” may be more experimental and the pairing of “Join the Club” and “Mayham” may carry more metaphysical weight, yet there is no moment more emotional than when a Big Pussy fish “confesses” to Tony on the boardwalk, setting up the final half-hour. Tony now realizes what must be done.
Aside from Richie Aprile’s murder last week, The Sopranos doesn’t usually approach the concept of death as a shocking occurrence. Series creator David Chase knows that the end is inevitable for all. In fact, we should’ve seen it coming, as Big Pussy’s fate was already sealed by the end of “The Knight in White Satin Armor.”
After Tony recovers from his sickness, he and Silvio show up unexpectedly at Big Pussy’s house under the ploy that they want him to take a new boat for a test ride. Big Puss can already tell something’s off. Tony then searches Pussy’s room under the ruse that he has to vomit. A brilliantly tense scene, expertly staged by director John Patterson — Tony finds a wire hidden inside a box of Cuban cigars.
From then on, it’s a slow funeral march. The Sopranos will use this same formula late in season five when a similar situation comes up in “Long Term Parking.” Tony and Sil drive Pussy to the marina, telling him they are testing out a new boat. Paulie is already waiting for them at the pier.
Down below the deck is where the execution happens. Despite the greatness of the earlier dream sequences, this is the episode’s most impactful scene. Big Pussy understands there is no escape, yet the entire sequence is expertly drawn out — almost excruciatingly so.
First, they listen to a Frank Sinatra record. Then, they interrogate Pussy about his involvement with the FBI. Feeling they are about to be sick, Silvio and Tony go up to the deck. They come back down to drink some tequila. Pussy tells them the story of the girl he met in Puerto Rico. “Puss, was she even real?” Tony asks.
Finally, they shoot him and throw his body into the water.
One of the main points the season two finale asks us to ponder is where these characters began back in the season premiere. Big Pussy started the season pleading with Tony to let him back into the gang after his unexplained disappearance. He ends the year pleading with Tony “not in the face, alright?”
Likewise, Tony began season two trying to get back in Dr. Melfi’s good graces. In their final therapy session, Tony remains at an extreme disconnect, completely rejecting his opportunities to change and grow. Melfi knows that something heavy is weighing on Tony’s conscious (and it’s not the fact that his mother was arrested for possessing stolen airline tickets). However, he’ll never admit to her — or anyone — that he killed his best friend. He exits the session/season acting as a happy wanderer, blissfully singing Buddy Holly down the hall.
Season two’s final sequence mirrors its first — another elegant montage depicting a poetic passage of time. The sequence covers much of the same ground as its predecessor: life goes on. But instead of watching the characters settle into monotonous routines to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” we get to see how the mob’s activities have an unknowing, far-reaching influence (backed by the yearning notes of The Rolling Stones’ “Thru and Thru”).
From foreigners selling phony calling cards on the city streets, to down-luck junkies at Teittleman’s rundown hotel; from Davey Scatino packing up and moving to Vegas, to the ocean waves crashing ominously on the shore — Tony’s toxic existence has affected them all.
And so season two ends with Tony Soprano standing alone in his living room, puffing on a cigar in tormented solitude, while his two Families celebrate his daughter’s graduation all around him. Season one ended on a hopeful tone: “Remember the good times.” Season two ends with a solitary Tony contemplating the dark times ahead.
For all its meandering “nothing happens” nature, season two of The Sopranos ends with an assured yet ambiguous bang. It’s a turning point in the show’s trajectory, signaling a forthcoming era of doom, darkness and bloodshed just around the corner.
As for the here and now, “Funhouse” features a stellar combination of surrealism and gritty realism that makes the episode the greatest season finale in the series’ entire run (excepting “Made in America,” perhaps). The episode cements The Sopranos‘ reputation as the greatest TV show of all time.
- Voodoo Lounge, released in 1994, isn’t one of my favorite Rolling Stones albums, yet the repeated use of Keith Richards’ “Thru and Thru” — a powerful, reverberating electroacoustic ballad — adds a great deal to the episode’s overall effect.
- Tony’s bout of food poisoning stems from eating at an Indian restaurant and then eating seafood from Nuovo Vesuvio’s later that night. Artie Bucco deflects blames to the Indian food, but the true culprit isn’t clear.
- Similar to Adriana’s fateful car drive with Silvio in “Long Term Parking,” Tony has a wishful dream that he is back at home (Meadow announces she has chosen Columbia, while Tony announces he has bought a new boat), only to wake up back in the car with Big Pussy and Silvio on the way to the marina.
- A very subtle moment when Tony returns to Silvio and Big Pussy after having searched Pussy’s bedroom — “Who’s ready to buy a boat?” he exclaims. Pussy knows something is amiss, while Silvio looks deflated at the announcement. Although it isn’t specified, this line was obviously the code word between Tony and Silvio. He found Big Pussy’s wire, and thus confirms the inevitable: a trip to the marina to execute their former best friend.
- Elsewhere in “Funhouse,” future developments for season three are being set up — Tony gives Livia stolen airline tickets, the feds crack down on their investigation and Christopher will soon be getting his stripes.
- “Funhouse” was written by David Chase and Todd A. Kessler and directed by John Patterson.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “You passed me over for promotion, Ton. You knew.”
- “These guys on either side of me … They’re asleep.”
- “Why are you making me do this, you fat fucking miserable piece of shit?”
- “I had a dream I fucked your brains out. Right on that desk. You loved it.”
- “My friends don’t judge me. And fuck them if they do. I’ll cut them off.”