Directed by Tim Van Patten | Written by David Chase | 56 min
R.I.P. Nancy Marchand
By Colin Hart
9.1 / 10
“Proshai, Livushka” seems to be a whole bunch of different types of episodes in one. That’s a mouthful; the episode somewhat is, too. A wide variety of micro-moods range the episode — from faux-melancholy to deathly somber.
Off the set, the Soprano crew members were going through somber times themselves during the early production phase of season three. Nancy Marchand, age 71, had died. Her portrayal as Tony’s unloving mother helped separate the show from the rest of TV, especially in the first season. Ever since the beginning, Livia Soprano has held a dominating presence on the show, and with Marchand’s untimely passing, creator David Chase was forced to rewrite much of season three.
The original seasonal arc was to have Tony attempting to reconcile with his mother as she testifies against him in court (hinted at during the season two finale). Don’t even start with the “what if’s.” Chase varies the approach but keeps the tone the same, his “re-write” ultimately becoming one of The Sopranos’ greatest overall seasons.
The first two episodes of season three are somewhat scrambled and experimental — an off-kilter prologue to make up for lost time. “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” is a musical number told from an outsider’s perspective; “Proshai, Livushka” is a piece-mover with no set destination.
As a result, “Proshai, Livushka” is a little choppy and uneven. It even features some questionable directorial choices. Despite that, the episode’s seams and sods are endearing in context of The Sopranos’ overall ascetic aesthetic.
Where does Tim Van Patten — The Sopranos’ most consistent director — potentially go wrong? The episode starts with Tony passed out on the kitchen floor. The scene then plays in reverse — Tony springing up from the ground — and quickly shows the events leading up to his latest panic attack (in VHS rewind) until it restarts from the beginning. Nothing wrong with a random camera-curveball now and then, right? But it does make the uncharacteristic flashback to “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” a little harder to defend…
The most polarizing style choice of all, no doubt, is the choice to use CGI to place Livia’s head onto a body-double for one final scene. It occurs toward the beginning of the episode, and features a Tony/Livia conversation that uses cut-and-paste clips from prior episodes. Livia’s disembodied head delivers several of her nihilistic catchphrases: “I wish the Lord would take me now” and *disgusted grunt*.
The first few times I watched it, I would almost call it cringeworthy — a rarity in The Sopranos not seen since the pilot. On sixth thought, the tech folks seemed to do an alright job at the visual editing. It’s not so much an issue of cinematic ethics; it is an issue of whether the scene is even relevant at all.
But a few mishaps are easily made up for with all the great things going on in “Proshai, Livushka.” Livia dies offscreen, and the episode soon becomes one of The Sopranos’ traditional Spooky Meditation on Death episodes. The last such episode was the very good “From Where to Eternity.” This one is even better.
Throughout the episode, Tony reflects on his situation by watching the 1930s’ gangster classic The Public Enemy. James Cagney makes him laugh, but ultimately it is Tommy Boy’s mother in the film that resonates with Tony the most. The love and care she shows near film’s end causes Tony to end the episode in tears, the only time he cries in the entire hour.
Tony does not know how to feel over his mother’s death. She tried to have him killed back in season one, after all. Relief, then? Throughout the episode, he repeatedly replies to condolences with a rhetorical “Well, what are you gonna do?”
And then you have all the rest of Tony’s issues — daughter Meadow is dating a black Jew named Noah Tannenbaum, top earner Ralphie Cifaretto is causing trouble along the sanitation routes, and, worst of all, sister Janice is back in town and stirring the pot more than ever.
“Proshai, Livushka” comes across all these “nuthin happens” plot points in a quite choppy procession, but that only adds to the uneasy feel of the episode. There’s enough pressure on Tony’s head to cause him to see ghosts. Literally.
During Livia’s after-party “remembrance,” there are a couple of notable ambiguities. The first is the sudden glimpse of Big Pussy in an upstairs mirror. The second is the mysterious man who briefly observes the “ceremony” from the staircase. Both are unimportant in the larger sense, as far as plotting goes, but they are supernatural Easter Eggs that add to and help solve the overarching philosophical mysteries of this show.
Can we get a soundbite of Homer Simpson saying “Mmmm…supernatural Easter eggs,” please?
The script’s choppiness is masked by the fact that the episode onscreen has a consistently somber tone. Various plot threads are laid down, but they all move with the same funereal march.
This is an episode that completely relies on mood, after all. Livia’s death and its meditative repercussions makes this one of The Sopranos’ most underrated and rewarding episodes, while also providing a perfect counterpoint to “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood.”
If you view these first two episodes of season three as an introduction, then now the season proper begins, I guess. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the ghosts will go away.
And, last but not least, let us all take a moment to remember the great Nancy Marchand for her cornerstone performance as the great Livia Soprano, and also her four (4!) Primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Actress. Those were wins for Lou Grant, by the way.
-Marchand was nominated twice as Best Supporting Actress after season one and (posthumously) two. She definitely was robbed in 1999. The Emmys in those years went to Holland Taylor in The Practice (huh?) and Allison Janney in The West Wing (meh).
-$250k for the Livia CGI.
-We get some Poetry 101 as Meadow helps AJ figure out the meaning behind Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s about death, ya know.
-Tony is being a racist asshole with no consideration for his daughter, but Noah Tannenbaum will prove to be a pompous ass soon enough. One of my least favorite characters, alongside Meadow’s annoying friend Hunter Skankarelli (mentioned by name only, thankfully).
-We also get some Film History 301 (upper-level, ain’t it?) as self-proclaimed film buff Tony ponders the meaning of The Public Enemy (1931). Alluded to earlier in the episode is Howard Hawks’ gangster classic, Scarface, released in 1932 and starring Paul Muni.
-So, what’s the significance of the ghosts? Tony, a killer by trade, doesn’t know how to handle death. He is still coming to terms with executing close friend Big Pussy Bonpensiero, and is momentarily befuddled when he appears in the mirror. Tony doesn’t see him like we do, but he does seem to sense that something’s amiss.
-The mysterious man on the stairs is far more difficult to explain. It’s obviously not an error by an unnamed extra because it is shown so clearly in the background. The man’s face is blurred, but he comes down the staircase, peers into the living room and then silently walks back up. Tony’s father, maybe? Not likely. Whoever he is, he is real and he is damn spooky.
-The end credits music is another gift that The Sopranos’ has given me: Les Paul’s 1951 instrumental “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” The beautiful arpeggios captured my attention so much that I instantly sought out the album from which it came, Les Paul’s New Sound, Volume 2 (1951) by Les Paul & Mary Ford. The music is so ahead of its time — country, in name only. It led me to a musical epiphany: this may be where rock & roll started. Or dream pop, even. I will definitely have to revise my 50 Greatest Albums of the 1950s after this monumental discovery.
-The final scene with Tony crying reminds me of the Mad Men season 6 premiere, “The Doorway.” Roger Sterling has a similar moment revolving around the death of his mother — finally crying when he finds out that his shoe-shiner has also died.
-“Some people say Hawks invented the genre, but Cagney was modernity.”
-“You know, for a year I didn’t speak to you. Maybe I should have kept it that way.”