“Indigenous Peoples’ Day”
“Christopher” isn’t necessarily the worst Sopranos episode ever, but it is the most redundant. Did we really need a 54-minute diatribe on the dangers of Italian-American nationalism? Are we as an audience really so dumb that we need Tony Soprano to convince us that Christopher Columbus isn’t someone we should idolize?
In the eyes of series creator David Chase, yes, all of the above.
Even though Chase has always viewed his audience with contempt, he really should give us a little more credit. “Christopher” feels like we’re being talked down to — the rare Sopranos episode that is both preachy and pretentious. It tries to be topical but fails to resonate, and when it attempts sarcasm, it chooses to be earnest rather than ironic. The most clever thing about “Christopher” is the fact that the title refers to the 15th century Italian explorer rather than Christopher Moltisanti.
Whenever the series steps outside its comfort zone, it tends to come up short. Remember Massive Genius from season one and Jon Favreau in season two? Likewise, whenever The Sopranos provides social commentary on Italian pride, the dialogue rings hollow (e.g., “Italian Americans are extremely proud of Christopher Columbus: admiral of the ocean seas and a great Italian”).
Unfortunately, “Christopher” exemplifies the worst of both worlds: a shallow spotlight on Native Americans and a ham-fisted story about Columbus Day. And when it comes to depicting minorities, The Sopranos will always trail far behind The Wire.
It also doesn’t help that the main characters are all unrepentantly racist. Silvio Dante takes personal offense to a group of Native Americans protesting the local Columbus Day parade, which sets him off on an episode-long odyssey of blackmail and petty revenge. His plan falls apart when he discovers that everyone already knows Iron Eyes Cody was Sicilian.
Once again, Chase is deliberately trying to make us hate the characters by highlighting their immorality. However, the attempt falls flat due to the overall lack of quality. The action feels forced, the messaging too on-the-nose and the recycled thematic territory is akin to beating a dead horse.
Even the minority characters are stereotyped for the sake of advancing the storyline. It should come as no surprise that Del Redclay and Reuben the Cuban have nothing of substance to say.
The role of Italian-Americans in modern-day society is one of The Sopranos’ major themes, but usually the subject is shoehorned in as a subplot. “Christopher,” on the other hand, overwhelms us with its politics, and it seems that every character from AJ Soprano to Hesh Rabkin wants in on the action. We even get Dr. Melfi’s husband Richard spouting off his obligatory anti-Mafia propaganda (typical pretentious Richard remark: “[the race riot] could be scored with Albinono’s Adagio“).
But it doesn’t stop there — the episode references school textbooks, Star-Ledger articles and clips from The Montel Williams Show in an effort to drive its point home. Never before (and, thankfully, never again) will The Sopranos be so clumsily unambiguous.
Who’s to blame for this bungled attempt at social commentary? The episode is written by Michael Imperioli, yet despite the title, we don’t get much from Christopher Moltisanti. Likewise, Tony himself has only a small role. Therefore, the one who deserves criticism is Chase, especially considering that this is a creative reservoir he has returned to time and time again.
Meanwhile, the non-Columbus aspects of “Christopher” are also disjointed. Bobby Baccalieri’s wife, Karen, dies in a car accident, but the tragedy is undercut and brushed over in favor of the Italian pride storyline. Elsewhere, Janice Soprano goes to therapy and ends her sordid affair with Ralph Cifaretto. It seems the writers have grown bored with this sub-plot already (their relationship only lasted three episodes), and so it receives an unceremonious conclusion. But not before we’re subjected to the most revolting sex scene in television history, of course. The less said about Janice and Ralph’s sexual exploits, the better.
Luckily, the ending is good enough to somewhat redeem the installment. It’s the best scene not because it’s the last, but because it features the only genuine dialogue of the entire hour. Tony delivers a memorable rant that tears apart everything that Silvio stands for, and although Tony’s worldview is flawed, we agree with him due to the nature of all that has transpired.
In the end, Tony’s message toward Christopher Columbus and phony nationalism ultimately boils down to this: “Who really gives a fuck?” Unfortunately, the same can be said about the episode itself. “Christopher” is often pointed to as the worst episode of the series, and even though the episode provides some great moments of humor (for example, Johnny Sacrimoni’s outward hatred for Ralph, and Artie Bucco getting a slushee thrown at him), the substantial dip in quality can’t be ignored. Sticking out like a sore thumb, the reputation of “Christopher” is well-deserved.
Then again, this is The Sopranos we’re talking about here. Adjectives like “worst,” “clumsy” and “disjointed” shouldn’t be taken at face value. Relative to the rest of TV, “Christopher” is half as good as more than half the shit on the airwaves. Relative to The Sopranos, however, “Christopher” is as confounding as the previous sentence.
- Elsewhere in the episode, Carmela and the rest of the mob wives attend a church-sponsored event in which the guest speaker tells the audience to take pride in names like Armani and Asiago instead of Corleone and Gotti. It’s another tired attempt at forcing social commentary into an already-uninteresting storyline. And it also gives us an unnecessary scene between Gabriella Dante and Father Phil Intintolla, which only adds to the episode’s confusing structure.
- Thank God that Janice and Ralphie’s coke-fueled romance has come to an end. After Bobby Baccalieri unexpectedly becomes a widower, Janice breaks up with Ralphie (who has also cut things off with Rosalie Aprile) to find “true love” with Bobby.
- Bobby, stuck in traffic, on the phone with his son, complains about having to do chores for his wife. Unbeknownst to him, the traffic jam is caused by his wife’s car crash. The fact that this extremely tragic twist of fate is glossed over in favor of Christopher Columbus is a missed opportunity.
- Even though the majority of the episode deals with social commentary, it still hints at future developments: subtle flirtations between Carmela and Furio Giunta, the beginning of Uncle Junior’s RICO trial and the budding tensions between New York and New Jersey.
- An interesting revelation about Tony’s “Gary Cooper” philosophy: his “strong, silent type” American ideal isn’t based on the real Cooper, but rather Cooper’s portrayal of Marshall Will Kane in High Noon (who defends Hadleyville despite his friends abandoning him). The fact that one of Tony’s main beliefs is founded on a work of fiction renders it quite meaningless. It also ties in with the Soprano crew taking comfort in Silvio’s Godfather impressions — romanticizing a golden era that didn’t even exist.
- Closing with Frankie Valli’s “Dawn (Go Away)” is a strong musical selection, playing against the episode’s context in a sarcastic manner. Even though the majority of “Christopher” is forgettable and inconsequential, the episode finishes with a very strong ending.
- “Christopher” was written by Michael Imperioli and Maria Laurino and directed by Tim Van Patten.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “I wouldn’t mind sitting on my ass all day smoking mushrooms and collecting government checks.”
- “Mussollini was Hitler’s bitch!”
- “In this house, Christopher Columbus is a hero. End of story.”
- “Whatever the fuck happened to Gary Cooper? That’s what I’d like to know.”
- “He was gay, Gary Cooper?”
- “Columbus was so long ago he might as well have been a fucking movie.”