“You Shook Me All Night Long”
“University” is the most violent and cruel episode in the entirety of The Sopranos. Nevertheless, the traumatic subject matter is handled with the necessary care and sorrow that it deserves. It’s no surprise that writing credit is split among the series’ prime architects — Terence Winter, Todd A. Kessler, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess and series creator David Chase. This is a cornerstone episode.
Just like in “Employee of the Month,” this installment does a great job condemning the violence that the series so often revels in. However, the commentary comes with a cost. In order to criticize the violence, “University” needs to show an agonizingly realistic depiction. Once again, the victim is a helpless bystander. And once again, our main characters face no repercussions.
By showing us an intensely disturbing and truly upsetting portrayal of domestic assault — and by letting the perpetrators go unpunished — The Sopranos smartly offsets its brutality with irony. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Chase once again turns the spotlight inward and implicates the role of the audience. We come to The Sopranos to escape everyday life, yet we’re repulsed when the series exposes the savagery of the ‘real world.’
The Sopranos is really a morality play at heart, and the fact that our ‘lovable’ antiheroes are all terrible people forces us to question our own ethics. However, irony can also work as a double-edged sword. For example, the violence has been glorified so much that it comes as a shock when we’re sickened by it. Likewise, the gratuitous scenes of Bada Bing boobage throughout the series have completely desensitized us to the strippers’ plight. “University” is the first episode to fully combine lowbrow thrills with high art, giving us a postmodern commentary that forever justifies all future salaciousness.
The standalone central storyline concerns an abused stripper named Tracee who is stuck in a volatile relationship with Ralph Cifaretto. She reaches out to Tony Soprano for help several times throughout the episode. But Tony is in no position to take on a new stripper friend, and so he politely declines her requests. It isn’t too long afterward that Ralph gets carried away and beats Tracee to death in the Bada Bing parking lot.
“University” succeeds in making us care for a one-time character, but it accomplishes its best work when it gets our signals crossed. The episode successfully plays two stories off each other — the tragedy of Tracee intercut with Meadow’s relationship struggles with Noah Tannenbaum. Through use of precise match cuts, we begin to associate one story with the other and vice versa. The most important thing to note is that both girls are around the same age.
Meadow is just figuring out that guys can be assholes, but Tracee has known this her entire life. She’s pregnant with Ralph’s baby, but he’s nothing more than a drugged-out sadist — as unfit a father as ever there was. His antics are cartoonish (re-enacting scenes from Gladiator at the expense of Georgie the bartender) and his vulgarities reprehensible (forcing Tracee to engage in backroom threesomes), which easily makes him the The Sopranos’ most deplorable villain yet.
The behavior Tracee is subjected to is absolutely sickening, not just from Ralphie, but also from club owner Silvio Dante. It’s hard to watch, but it reminds us of the harsh realities of the sex worker industry, a tragedy shared by countless women all over the world. It’s inevitable that Tracee meets her doom, though even she should’ve been spared such a cruel and painful exit.
Season three of The Sopranos is as feministic as the show will ever get, but don’t expect anything to be sugarcoated. Must the gals be raped or murdered for their plight to be recognized?
Questions of misogyny aside, “University” is an all-around fantastic episode. The very fact that Meadow breaking up with her boyfriend is just as interesting as the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold storyline is quite a feat. Usually the Soprano kids play second fiddle to the mob violence, but now that Tony and Carmela are sharing joint therapy sessions, these familial connections have only grown stronger.
Yet it is for Tracee whom this episode is best remembered. Her death is quickly brushed over by the main characters, yet the memory is what lives on. The retention of traumatic events hangs over the entirety of season three, a perfect counterpoint to season two’s lighter shades of comedy.
So, where do we stand going forward? From a plot perspective, Tony could be in deep trouble after beating up the murderous Ralphie (the ultimate irony is that you can’t lay hands on a made man no matter what). This new development takes all precedence — losing Tracee was ultimately nothing more than a business expense. Ralphie is a loose cannon more dangerous than Richie Aprile, but he can’t be disposed of quite as easily.
From an emotional standpoint, there is no going back. We’ve become entangled in the lives of these terrible people and, just like the strippers, we know it’ll end in tears. Not even the postmodern irony can lighten the mood.
- Tracee and Meadow are inextricably linked, and not just from tricks of the camera. Tony now views the dead stripper somewhat as a daughter figure, and this will pay dividends in season four (particularly “Whoever Did This”).
- Meadow’s boyfriend Noah breaks up with her, and I’m glad we’re finally ending this chapter of the show. He’s such a pretentious twat. Along with Meadow’s depressive roommate, Caitlin (who serves as the reason for their breakup), he’s the most insufferable character on the show.
- At least Caitlin provides a few moments of levity. Her hysteria is somewhat hilarious: “Now if only I don’t get freaked out by the sound of the pine trees at night.”
- Did Noah cheat on Meadow with Caitlin? It’s never revealed, but the implication is there. Caitlin goes to Noah’s dorm to ‘study,’ and she is seen in a much more cheerful mood the next day (similar to how Meadow was in a cheerful mood the day after having sex with Noah). Noah later gets a restraining order against Caitlin because he got a C-minus on his term paper. He then breaks up with Meadow for being “too negative.”
- Not so much of a sequel to “College” as the name would suggest, but “University” still stands out as one of Jamie-Lynn Sigler’s best acting performances on the show.
- Almost every scene with Tracee is followed by a scene with Meadow. The characters then become inextricably linked in our eyes. Meadow is subjected to Noah’s manipulative behavior, while Tracee faces the same thing on a much more dangerous level. Furthermore, the editing shows how it is only a matter of circumstance that both these characters end up where they are. If Meadow didn’t have a privileged upbringing, she might’ve gone down the same path as Tracee. They’re practically the same age, after all.
- Another great match cut: Ralphie laughing at Tracee getting punched by Silvio, leading right into Ralphie and Silvio (along with their wives) laughing around a dinner table with Tony and Carmela. The characters always stress the importance of family, yet their families have no idea just how evil they truly are.
- Ralph mentions that he was forced to drop out of school to take care of dying mother. He was “supposed to be an architect.” Later on, Tracee mentions that her mother used to hold her hand to a hot stove. Once again, psychotherapy in The Sopranos shows that everything about everybody is really about their mothers.
- “Living on a Thin Line” by The Kinks is played three times throughout the episode. According to writer Terence Winter, this is the most asked-about song on the series.
- “University” was written by Terence Winter, Salvatore J. Stabile, Todd A. Kessler, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess & series creator David Chase, and directed by Allen Coulter. As one of the series’ most important episodes, it’s no surprise that all the prime architects contributed to the writing.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “If you wanna work the VIP, it’s 50 bucks to me plus a blowjob later on.”
- “I have come to reclaim Rome for my people!”
- “Believe me, with Ralphie as the father, you’d be doing this kid and the next few generations a favor.”
- “They didn’t have flattops in ancient Rome!”