By Colin Hart
9.5 / 10
Ever since Tony saw those ducks in his swimming pool, The Sopranos has been — above all else — a show about family. That’s certainly the case in the season three finale, which almost completely dispenses with mafia-related activities to instead focus on Tony’s efforts to get his troubled son, AJ, into military school.
In fact, everything about the episode subverts expectations. Jackie Jr. is killed within the first 15 minutes, thus giving series creator David Chase ample time to explore what’s really on his mind: the Sopranos’ toxic influence.
“The Army of One” isn’t a triumphant climax; it’s an introspective slow burn. Fitting that the series’ most experimental season concludes with a most experimental finale.
Season one of The Sopranos ended at a family dinner; season two at a graduation party. Appropriately, season three finishes with a funeral. Yet “The Army of One” never wallows in depression. As a matter of fact, the episode is somewhat light and optimistic, surprising the viewer at every turn.
For example, the tragic fate of Jackie Jr. is counterbalanced with a lighthearted story about AJ Soprano. Through use of careful editing and subtle imagery, the two characters become inextricably linked, just like Meadow had been with Tracee in “University.” As a result, AJ getting expelled from school unexpectedly becomes one of season three’s most touching storylines.
We identify with Tony’s fear that Jackie Jr.’s fate will befall his own son if he doesn’t act fast. It’s evident that AJ needs to avoid the Soprano family business at all costs, and if sending him to the Hudson Military Institute will solve that problem, then so be it. Yet it also puts Tony’s terrible parenting skills on full display — in “The Army of One,” the mafia and the military are one and the same.
The ultimate irony is that AJ is saved by the one thing Tony desperately wants him to escape: his own cursed, Soprano DNA. After AJ suffers another panic attack, Tony realizes that he can’t send his son to military school, and that he’ll probably be doomed no matter what. For better or worse, AJ ends the episode by his parents’ side, standing silently at Jackie Jr.’s post-funeral family gathering.
“The Army of One” possesses a perfect balance of comedy and tragedy. The good-natured humor of the AJ storyline is directly contrasted with the emotional aftermath of Jackie Jr.’s death, which becomes even more powerful when viewed from the perspective of mobster outsiders like Meadow Soprano and Rosalie Aprile.
The “official” story is that Jackie was killed by unidentified black males in a drug deal gone wrong. Of course, Meadow knows this explanation is bullshit. She suggests as much in an argument with Carmela. Yet when Jackie’s teenage sister suggests the same thing, Meadow ends up defending the false narrative. She plays dumb, and suddenly becomes staunchly loyal to her family.
Her conflicted emotions come to a head when she gets drunk and sabotages the funeral after-party. Admittedly, it’s one of the few cringeworthy scenes in the series — dumb teenagers being dumb teenagers. She then runs off back to college, momentarily freed from the burden of being born into a mob family. Tony has no choice but to let her go.
For the first time ever, Meadow finally sees through the bullshit, yet it remains to be seen whether she’s even learned anything at all.
The main goal of “The Army of One” is to expose the superficiality of its characters. Look no further than Jackie Jr.’s funeral procession, in which the mobsters responsible for the kid’s death are too busy taking last-minute Super Bowl bets to even feign sympathy. When the feds crash the party, Silvio Dante and Chris Moltisanti take the opportunity to grandstand in the cemetery.
Yet in the episode’s final scene, David Chase exposes the superficiality of TV itself. At a family/famiglia gathering, the recently-exonerated Uncle Junior serenades the audience with an emotional rendition of “Core ‘ngrato,” an old Neopolitan ballad from the 1910s. Aside from a brief interruption by Meadow, the performance is beautiful enough to bring several characters to tears.
Just as the episode is about to conclude, however, a recording of a French ballad sung by Lucienne Boyer is superimposed upon the scene. The effect is quite jarring, as the camera continues to pan across Uncle Junior and the various onlookers entranced by the music. Two more smash cuts — one song in Chinese, and the other in Spanish — finish the season on quite a confusing note.
It’s a divisive and dissonant ending (perhaps foreshadowing an even more divisive and dissonant ending in the future), but it works within the context of Chase’s underlying cynicism. By breaking the fourth wall, the scene highlights the different ways that art can manipulate the emotions, and how music and television work hand-in-hand to provoke a preordained reaction. In the end, it ultimately doesn’t matter what language the lyrics are sung.
That’s also the reason why Aphex Twin’s “#8” plays over the end credits — an electronic instrumental lacking both lyrics and a proper title shouldn’t provoke any type of emotional reaction whatsoever. It can mean anything, but it can also mean nothing.
Peculiar ending aside, “The Army of One” is an effective albeit unexpected anticlimax. The stakes might seem small, but the spotlight on characters outside the series’ main orbit greatly expands the overall scope. It’s almost as if The Sopranos has become fully self-aware, passively observing itself with an omniscient shrug.
Now that season three is over, where do we go from here? Even though it was a most violent year full of doom and gloom, it seems to end with an optimistic tone. Or maybe that’s just how the music makes it appear. Given the show’s past history, pessimism seems to be the only option.
Whatever your takeaway might be, there’s no denying the fact that it remains the greatest show on TV. In the grand scheme of things, nothing much has changed.
- Jackie Jr.’s death was a long time coming, and after his foolish actions last week, it was all but inevitable. Still, to see him gunned down so quickly—and so easily—is quite a surprise. Vito Spatafore shoots Jackie Jr. in the back of the head, leaving his body in a pile of snow on the side of the street. As Patsy Parisi told us last week: “It won’t be cinematic.”
- Michael Kenneth Williams has a small role this episode as the owner of the safehouse where Jackie Jr. hides out. Perhaps if he was playing Omar Little, then Jackie would still be alive.
- The episode provides plenty of self-contained closure to season three, but it also sets up future storylines that will be expanded upon in season four. The FBI makes Adriana La Cerva an unwitting target of their investigation, and Paulie grows increasingly disenchanted with Tony’s leadership.
- Dominic Chianese has a great voice, as evidenced by his tearjerking performance at the end of the episode. He even released an album in 2003, appropriately titled “Ungrateful Heart.”
- Meadow references Tony’s “remember the times that were good” quote from season one, but she attributes it to her mother. Carmela quickly corrects her: “Actually your father said that.”
- In a certain way, “The Army of One” serves as a blueprint for “Made in America,” the series finale. Both episodes are anticlimactic, and both episodes feature an ending that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
- Here’s what David Chase has to say about that avant-garde final scene: “That singing thing is about how all over the world people engage in pure sentimentality. Everyone loves a good cry. And I don’t mean to denigrate funerals or death. It also has something to do with entertainment, filmed entertainment. Music can be used so manipulatively. And Junior, who is the most selfish character in the cast, is pouring his heart out. Didn’t mean a thing. Just to wallow in the moment…Pop music is so abused and overused, manipulated and employed in the service of the devil. It was to give the audience a laugh about how they are being manipulated everyday.”
- Perhaps that’s why the series finale ends with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” As David Chase basically says, the music selection doesn’t matter.
- “The Army of One” was written by Lawrence Konner and series creator David Chase, and directed by John Patterson.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “You should’ve played that out. That’s the only way you’re gonna learn.”
- “I’ve been dreaming of that fucking lo-mein all the way the fuck over here. Now who came in here and ate my shit?!”
- “As General MacArthur said in his farewell address at the Point: ‘the corps, the corps, the corps.’”
- “He’s got that putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene.”
- “When you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself.”
- “He was killed by some fat fuck in see-through socks.”