It wouldn’t at all be a stretch to call The Sopranos one of – if not the – best television series ever made.
Running for seven seasons between 1999 and 2007 on HBO, creator and showrunner David Chase took audiences on a ride that not only featured its fair share of speculator dramatics and suspense-filled twists, but also a heaping dose of the utterly banal – the tedium of daily routines, the boredom of work, the existential malaise of postmodern America; “Made in America” is both the title of the series finale and the most concise summary of the series' entire narrative. It’s easy to see why other series in the so-called Golden Age of Television are still trying to ape their progenitor.
Eight-and-a-half years after its extremely controversial ending aired, it’s time to take a fond look back and take stock of the show’s 86 episodes and eight-year run. After all this time, which installments have remained at the top, and which have remained resolutely stuck in our consciousness? Which would today’s current crop of programs most benefit by studying?
It’s time to review the 10 Best Episodes of The Sopranos.
10 College (season 1, episode 5)
David Chase has long considered this to be his favorite episode of the series, due to its rather self-contained nature: Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) takes his daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), on a college-scouting trip to Maine, while Father Phil Intintola (Paul Schulze) comes over to wine and dine Carmela (Edie Falco). Neither story goes exactly as planned; Tony’s trip transforms into a revenge hit against a former Mafioso-turned-informant, and Carmella almost seduces/is seduced by the priest.
It may be a rather peculiar reason to rate the episode so highly, but, luckily for fans, there’s plenty here to appreciate and absorb. Tony’s garroting of Fabian Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi) is the first time we see the character kill on-screen, further crystalizing the protagonist that audiences would grow to both love and despise so much over the subsequent six seasons.
There’s also the seeds of Meadow’s entire character arc here, in which she starts off as an observant, insightful youth, clued in on to her father’s gangster ways. And whereas Tony’s development takes him along a (slightly) more self-aware path, having him become a bit more aware of who he is and why he does what he does, Meadow’s is the exact opposite – by the end of the series eight years later, she has come to be in as much denial as her mother regarding the outlaw nature of her family. She even goes the extra step of marrying the son of one of Tony’s crew.
9 I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano (season 1, episode 13)
“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” may only be the finale to the show’s very first season, but it packs quite a wallop, feeling like a semi-truck barreling down the highway at 100 miles per hour.
Tony confronts his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), physically accosting her – and then later apologizing and sending her off into hiding when her life is put at risk by an attempted coup. Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) holds a gun – albeit a hunting rifle – to Tony. Tony’s crew moves against Uncle Junior’s (Dominic Chianese), taking them out one by one. Uncle Junior gets arrested. And, finally, Tony is denied his revenge against his scheming mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), thanks to a timely (or entirely staged) stroke.
But perhaps the most memorable scene from the installment is its own finale, when the Soprano family is forced to seek refuge at Artie’s restaurant and eat a quiet little dinner together by candlelight. Elsewhere in the restaurant are Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), and Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), providing a visual manifestation of the “Tony’s two families” theme. There aren’t many moments like this across all 86 episodes, and it’s one to appreciate.
8 From Where to Eternity (season 2, episode 8)
Christopher, freshly engaged and shot by a rival crew that is desperate to move up in the Mafia ranks, lies in a hospital bed and balances between life and death. The Soprano crime family closes ranks around him, causing a certain amount – but only a certain amount – of introspection and moral hand-wringing.
The shooting also, of course, produces a certain amount of violence. "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore), eager to cover his FBI-informing tracks, takes the lead in hunting down Chrissy’s shooter, and then gladly commits his murder right alongside Tony. After comes a celebration, which includes an acknowledgement of God’s presence and grace – making the theological premise of the episode come full-circle.
The real star of the episode, however, is – unsurprisingly – Paulie Walnuts, whose obsessive-compulsive nature spins a great deal of humor out of the situation. After being told of a vision of hell that Christopher has while he was flatlining – which consists of Italians gambling (and losing) in an Irish bar that celebrates St. Patrick’s Day every day – he becomes fearful for his immortal soul, visiting a psychic and angrily confronting the priest of his church, saying that his innumerable donations should preclude him from most of his damnation. It’s capped by his personal computation for purgatory:
“You add up all your mortal sins and multiply that number by 50. Then you add up all your venial sins and multiply that by 25. You add them together, and that’s your sentence. I figured I have to do about 6,000 years. [That’s] nothing in eternity terms – I can do that standing on my head. It’s like a couple of days here.”
It’s hard not to fall in love with The Sopranos after an exchange like that.
7 Funhouse (season 2, episode 13)
There are many elements that The Sopranos manages to perform well, from comedy to violence to character growth. It turns out, however, that one of its most accomplished feats is in capturing the surrealism of dreams – and “Funhouse” ends up being only the first of a long line of dream-focused installments.
Indeed, much of the joy of this episode comes in the form of the ethereal imagery that constantly inundates Tony (and the audience) during a night of food poisoning: walking in place down the boardwalk, watching himself through a coin-operated tower viewer, setting himself on fire after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. But the accuracy of the absurdist elements is underwritten by real narrative footwork, including Tony’s subconscious resolutely leading him to the conscious epiphany that his friend Big Pussy is, in fact, the rat they’ve been looking for ever since the first season.
From this point forward, the episode takes a turn for the tragic, as Tony, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), and Paulie Walnuts lure Pussy out to a boat to clip him. Big Pussy’s final scene is funny, touching, melancholic, and, finally, pathetic – the perfect embodiment of the series as a whole.
6 Pine Barrens (season 3, episode 11)
This is, quite simply, The Sopranos at its best.
The A-plot of the episode follows the always-interesting pair of Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti as they’re forced to make a collection for the flu-ridden Silvio. The resulting mess is, much like everything else in the Sopranos’s sprawling narrative, a self-inflicted wound: Paulie provokes a confrontation with Valery (Vitali Baganov), a member of the Russian mob that Tony has close ties to, and a fight breaks out, resulting in the Russian’s apparent death. Paulie wants to make a day of disposing of the body, driving down to the Pine Barrens and then grabbing a steak at Atlantic City. Once they arrive, however, they discover that Valery is still alive – and manages to escape their clutches, despite his being shot in the head.
Lost, cold, and starving, Christopher and Paulie’s predicament plays out like the stage play Waiting for Godot as it charts their desperate antics at survival, including eating old, frozen ketchup and relish packets they come across and Paulie fashioning a makeshift shoe out of carpeting from a derelict van.
And just like Godot, the resolution is filled with anything but resolution, making it, very likely, the perfect episode.
5 Whoever Did This (season 4, episode 9)
“Whoever Did This” is a tour-de-force, a dramatic roller coaster ride that, by the end, leaves the viewer breathless and drained – and primed for another go.
Interestingly – and deceptively – enough, the episode starts as something of a character rehabilitation for Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), who started life the previous year as Tony’s primary antagonist and who merely faded to be a background nuisance (a development which was supposed to have highlighted Tony’s growing maturity as a leader and as an individual both). After his son is rendered comatose, Ralph makes the suddenly self-aware rounds, apologizing for past misdeeds and trying to set his wayward life straight.
Just as the audience starts to fall for the okey-doke, the installment takes a gut-wrenching swing. Pie-O-My, Ralphie’s racing horse that Tony has adopted as his own, is killed in a stable fire that Tony is positive that the other set on purpose. When Ralph points out the hypocrisy inherent in Tony’s sudden morality over an animal dying, the two get dragged into an all-out, no-holds-barred fight, which results in Cifaretto’s somewhat gruesome death.
Then the real fun starts, as Tony and Christopher have to dispose of the body, cutting off its head and hands and using a backhoe to dig through the frozen ground on an abandoned farm. The discovery of Ralph’s wig, the rolling of his head (contained in a bowling ball bag) down a flight of steps, the fumbling at the backhoe’s controls – all are classic Sopranos.
4 Whitecaps (season 4, episode 13)
“Whitecaps” is brutal, intense, raw, disturbing. Strangely enough, the material that produces such qualities has absolutely nothing to do with blood, gore, or dying.
The fourth season finale is the long-awaited culmination of the series up until that point, producing a seemingly-irreparable rift between Tony and Carmela and complicating the lives of their children. The series of confrontations between the two – verbal and emotional, and only threatening to become physical – are the ugliest the show ever produces, making audiences flinch to a degree that dismembered body parts or gangland hits never could.
What’s most interesting about this episode, however, is the overall effect it has upon Tony’s marriage, which is arguably the most central relationship in the entire series. Before “Whitecaps” and the separation, Carmela plays the victimized wife, the reluctant and much-abused spouse who is dragged along for the very nasty ride. Once they reconcile in the subsequent season, she’s much more aware of her own compliance in the relationship and the selfishness that it helps feed. The following three years are very much about self-awareness for Carmela, continuing – and completing – the character growth that Tony started in the first half of the series but which he cannot take any further.
3 Long Term Parking (season 5, episode 12)
Tony attempts to move back home, and Carmella treats it as a business negotiation, shaking her separated husband down for money and his blessing in a spec house venture (proving she has learned a thing or two during all her years of marriage). Meanwhile, relations with the Lupertazzi crime family threaten to spill over into war, and Tony has to face some unsettling prospects about his on-the-lam cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi).
But the real highlight of this installment, of course, is Adriana La Cerva, who has been forced into becoming an FBI informant since the previous season and who is now facing a 25-year prison sentence for obstructing a homicide investigation (which just so happened to occur in her club). Her subsequent decision to try and bring her fiancé, Christopher, along with her, offering them both the possibility of entering the Witness Relocation Program, proves to be a fatal one.
The rest of the episode is a master’s class on emotional manipulation (otherwise known as filmmaking). Adriana receives the phone call that Chrissy tried to kill himself and is now in the hospital – it’s a ploy for driving her out to the middle of nowhere and murdering her. And the scene of her driving, alone, with all her belongings to a brighter (but uncertain) future is revealed to be a last, desperate day dream, the only respite she’ll ever know.
Adriana’s death is the series at its most vulnerable, making it all the more relatable as it continues to inexorably become all the more difficult to watch.
2 Soprano Home Movies (season 6, episode 13)
The premiere of the second part of The Sopranos’s sixth season is, perhaps, the most unlikely entry on this list. It’s also one of the most well-rounded, given its quiet moments of reflection, its chaotic game of Monopoly, and its insertion of new material into older episodes, to create a final narrative that will propel it to the series finale. Indeed, the infamous board game duel between Carmela, Tony, his sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), and her husband, Bobby Bacala (Steven R. Schirripa) is the stuff of Sopranos legend, starting off with drunken jokes of Janice’s promiscuous youth and ending with a massive fistfight that sees Tony inexplicably being beaten by Bobby.
It’s also one of the saddest entries, though not necessarily for the most expected of reasons: Bobby Bacala, perhaps the one genuinely affectionate and likable character in a roster of utterly despicable ones, is forced to pop his murdering cherry by being given an assignment from Tony that is obviously meant to be punishment for besting him the night before. It’s a low blow, even for Tony Soprano, even across all these years.
Finally, this installment has become critical on many a fan’s viewing list due to its possible clue to the ambiguous series finale, which followed eight short episodes later: Bobby speculates that, when the end comes, “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” Foreshadowing, it may well be…
1 The Blue Comet (season 6, episode 20)
The penultimate episode of The Sopranos sees an early climax for the series, as various plot threads that have been building and simmering over the past seven seasons finally come to a head.
War with the Lupertazzi family is now unavoidable, with Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), the head of the New York family, ordering the deaths of the top three members of the Soprano family: Tony, the boss; Bobby Bacala, the underboss; and Silvio Dante, the consigliere. Bobby goes first, being gunned down while shopping for a rare Blue Comet model train; Silvio falls next, slipping into a coma from which the doctors are sure he’ll never awaken. It’s the final appearance of either character, and the duel losses sting. The episode ends with Tony, his family, and the rest of his crew going into hiding.
Before then, however, there’s the continuing emotional fallout of his son, A.J. (Robert Iler), who’s just been released from the mental ward after a suicide attempt a few episodes prior, and the final, emotionally raw clash with Dr. Melfi, who finally ends her relationship with the mob boss after learning that sociopaths don’t become better people from their therapy – they simply become better criminals.
That’s more than enough death and finality for any episode, let alone the second-to-last.
Did we miss a classic or one of your favorites? Do you have a different analysis of each of the installments listed? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.