Of all the cringe-worthy moments in six seasons of The Sopranos, perhaps the most awkward, embarrassing scene comes a few minutes into the third episode of Season 4. Tony’s sister, Janice, is in bed with Ralphie and, well, if you’re a fan of the show, I probably don’t need to say more because what she’s doing to him — not to mention the fact that she keeps muttering about “pimping him out” while doing it — is something you can’t un-see. The scene was obviously meant to make the viewer feel uncomfortable; it probably was not meant to sum up the way most of us felt about the episode as a whole.
Also known as the Columbus Day episode, “Christopher” is widely regarded as the era-defining show’s nadir. At The A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff argued that what’s notable about “the worst, clumsiest hour The Sopranos would ever produce, is that it’s not just the worst episode. It’s the worst episode by SEVERAL DEGREES. The show had not been this bad before, and it would not get this bad again.” Writing about the episode soon after it aired, Alan Sepinwall (who actually came to its defense) noted that fans’ reactions ranged “from ‘It didn’t move the story along’ to ‘These guys wouldn’t get so worked up about a parade’ to ‘We get the point, already!'”
It’s the last response that gets at the crux of most viewers’ complaints. Those who love The Sopranos love it, in large part, because it does what our high-school English teacher told us to do in our writing: show, don’t tell. Like Gary Cooper (who comes up at the end of the episode, just as he does every time Tony Soprano is forced to question his most deeply held beliefs), the show eschews overstatement and polemic in favor of nonjudgmental, if symbolism-laden, representation of its characters and their behavior. But this episode, written by the Soprano crime family’s own Christopher, Michael Imperioli, tells the story of what happens when a Native American group that blames the Italian “discoverer of America” for genocide announces it will protest local Columbus Day festivities. It tells this story and then it tells it and tells it and tells it some more.
All this “telling” adds up to a deep dive into identity politics, with just about every character expressing a fiercely held opinion that hadn’t even been hinted at in previous episodes. Sil tells the guys that he intends to go to the protest and crack some skulls — and then he does, scuffling with the police as Artie Bucco cowers in the car. When Dr. Melfi’s ex-husband Richard (also an outspoken advocate for respectable Italian Americans) sees the incident on the news, he pronounces it “tragic.” Also on TV, a Native American leader called Dr. Redclay debates a spokesman for an Italian-American group, whose misuse of the term “Middle Passage” offends the show’s African-American host (Montel Williams!). A bit later, Ralph preposterously threatens Redclay that he’ll reveal the hilariously irrelevant tidbit that Iron Eyes Cody was Italian. At a church ladies luncheon, Carmela and the girls grimace through a professor’s (frankly quite stupid) speech about “Italian-American women and pride” that isn’t particularly flattering to mob wives. Eventually, Tony and the boys come into contact with a Chief Doug Smith, who’s about as authentic a Native American as his name suggests. He is, of course, in charge of a casino, and he couldn’t care less about Columbus — he just wants Sil to hook him up with a Frankie Valli residency.
But the identity politics get even more obscure than that: Furio reveals that Italy’s own North/South rivalry makes him no fan of Columbus. Reuben “The Cuban” says the explorer “was no better than Hitler” — which doesn’t go over big with the gang’s token Jewish friend, Hesh. Even poor Redclay is betrayed by his assistant, who reveals that she, too, is part Italian. It’s like America is just one big melting pot or something!
Before I get into any kind of defense of this episode, let me make clear that I don’t necessarily dispute the charge that it’s the show’s worst. Outside of its mastery of the obvious, Imperioli’s script includes plot points that are completely dissonant with the characters. Carm and Ro may be big on church, but how often do we see them at lectures? Would AJ read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at the breakfast table? The latter moment is, in fact, so unlikely that — in what feels like it could have been an edit from David Chase (or whoever was tasked with salvaging this episode) — Tony comments on its implausibility. The dialogue itself is frequently laughable. Redclay actually utters the words “This is a major PR boner” to his assistant, in reference to the Iron Eyes Cody news. (Never mind that Cody’s lineage had been public knowledge for the better part of a decade before the episode aired, and an expert on Native American history would not have needed a poster-toting mafioso to break the news about it.) It does a great disservice to poor Karen and her distraught widower, Bobby, that her sudden, accidental death had to be the B-plot of this particular episode.
What I take exception to is the idea that The Sopranos is too good, too pure for the occasional frank discussion of identity politics. In the aforementioned Gary Cooper monologue that ends the episode, Tony knocks Sil off his high horse. “Did he say, ‘I come from this poor Texas Irish background… my people got fucked over’?” he asks, lamenting that today Cooper would be speaking out for “the abused cowboys, the gays.” When Sil says, “People suffered,” Tony counters, “Did you?” Of this speech, VanDerWerff observes, “The show rarely allows Tony to be unequivocally right, but it seems to agree with him here that it’s fine to be proud of your heritage, but what really matters is who YOU are.” He concludes, “It’s not a bad life philosophy, particularly coming from Tony, who can be kind of an oaf about these things, and it stands in marked counterpoint to an entire episode made up of people complaining about who’s had it hardest.”
This is true to a certain extent, and it also helps to explain why the episode can’t seem to settle on a tone: It expresses the requisite bit of empathy for all of these wronged groups and the micro- and macro-aggressions they endure, but its take-home point — the one VanDerWerff singles out — is a bit libertarian for my taste. It’s easy to say that you’re responsible for what you make out of your identity when you’re born into mafia royalty rather than life on an impoverished reservation. And, for all that I love The Sopranos, it’s easy for a show created largely by successful white men to agree with its antihero on that point.
There’s no denying that “Christopher” hits an utterly false note, that Imperioli’s script got too tangled up in criticisms — which actually got a selection of Sopranos actors barred from a real-life Columbus Day parade — aimed at the show’s representation of Italian Americans. In retrospect, the episode (which aired in 2002) is also emblematic of the general post-9/11 impulse to reassess what it meant to be an American. But perhaps the episode is a failure in part because of what Tony’s moral-of-the-story manifesto implies about the show’s disinclination to engage further with issues of identity. I’m not saying that I wish The Sopranos were less subtle on the whole. All I mean is that if more of these conversations had been woven into the show’s first three seasons, especially for characters outside the immediate Soprano family, Imperioli wouldn’t have had to make such dramatic, baseless leaps when he was scripting “Christopher” — and, in fact, no Very Special Episode would have been necessary at all.