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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Juxtaposition as Structure

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/23/08 at 03:56 PM

The [Sopranos] undertook to find how many variant aspects of each of these characters could be revealed. We circled around them and studied them from different angles, taking all the time necessary to contemplate these clearly limited yet somehow infinitely mysterious beings. The process could never really be completed except in death—and death would arrive for many. – Geoffrey O’Brien

My previous two posts on The Sopranos have discussed how the show interweaves multiple plotlines. This post continues that discussion, but the angle of regard is different. My first post was about the thematic underpinning of a particular episode, “Boca,” and argued that its intertwined story lines both exemplified a concern with the proper separation of business and personal life, though in different ways. My second post looked at two scene-to-scene transitions in “D-Girl,” pointing out that they involved visual links between two independent story lines. In these cases it would appear that I was pointing out ways to bring about coherence among independent story lines.

But why have independent story lines in the first place? Let’s say it’s an obvious way to structure episodes in an open-ended ongoing story. The tightly plotted three-act structure of the Hollywood feature presupposes closure. Closure is one thing you don’t have in a serial. Having multiple lines of action in an episode gives you room to move around. Looking back, you can pick and choose from materials you’ve laid down. Looking forward you leave many opportunities for new developments.

Still, how do you create a coherent episode from such materials? Yes, we have thematic linkage and visual continuity, but we also have a logic of juxtaposition. That’s what this post is about. I offer no generalization, no overall theory, just explorations of three episodes. I have no particular reason to believe that these episodes are somehow representative of all the episodes. They’re just episodes that attracted my interest. I will consider the episodes one by one and the offer some general comments at the end.


The fourth episode of the second season, “Commendatori” moves back and forth between Naples and New Jersey. Tony decides to go to Italy to renegotiate arrangements for a car-theft business that had been run by his Uncle Junior, now sidelined by house arrest. He travels with Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisani. After they’ve checked-in at the hotel they attend a big dinner hosted by their Neapolitan friends. After dinner is over we follow them separately, with Tony’s actions receiving the most attention. The Italian trip thus gives us three independent sets of events. The New Jersey action follows Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero as he copes with being an informer and it follows his wife as she decides to divorce him. Two sets of events. We thus have five sets of events that are divided into two narrative streams, Naples and Italy.

Let’s do Italy first. Both Tony and Paulie are exited about the Old Country and the Old Ways; Christopher not so much. In particular, Tony looks forward to doing business with Don Vittorio, a boss of the Old School. When Don Vittorio finally arrives at the welcome dinner he turns out to be an invalid deep in dementia. Tony won’t being conducting business with him. As things unfold, it becomes clear that he’ll have to do business with Don Vittorio’s daughter, Annalisa Zucca. That’s right, a woman boss. Good looking, too. And a sharp negotiator.

Meanwhile Paulie is attempting to discover his roots, though one wonders just what that entails. At the opening banquet he turned down a Neapolitan shellfish entrée for spaghetti and red sauce – a choice which earned him the contempt of a pair of Neapolitan mobsters. There’s a wonderful post-coital scene in his hotel room where he’s waxing rhapsodic about the Old Country and the prostitute is unable to hide her utter lack of interest in such conversation. As for Christopher, he’s been shooting dope in his hotel room with Neapolitan junkies.

There’s not much going on in these two secondary lines of action, nothing of any consequence to the larger action, but both resonate with Tony’s more consequential dealings in a specific way: each of these men encounters Naples in a way that has more to do with him than with Naples. Chris is a junkie in Jersey and he’s a junkie in Naples. Paulie can’t see beyond his romanticized desires about the joys of authenticity. And Tony, he has trouble accepting the fact that he’s had to negotiate with a woman.

Meanwhile, back in Jersey, Pussy is meeting his FBI handler in a party goods store when he’s spotted by Jimmy Bones, an Elvis impersonator and made man. They improvise a cover story, but that’s not enough for Pussy. At roughly 36 minutes into the episode Pussy beats Jimmy’s brains out with a ball peen hammer, thus eliminating any chance that Jimmy would wonder about the guy he was talking with in the store.

Long before this, only ten minutes in, we saw Pussy’s wife, Angie, having a very elegant lunch with Carmella and Rosalie Aprile (widow of deceased boss Jackie Aprile). Angie confesses to her two friends that she’s fed up with the way Pussy ignores her, that she’s having an under-arm lump biopsied, that she’s considered suicide, and that she’s thinking of divorcing Pussy. All to an aria sung by Andrea Bocelli. A later scene reveals that the lump is benign. Still later, Carmella tries to talk her out of the divorce.

At the end, Big Pussy goes to the airport to pick up Tony, Pauli, and Chris and drive them to their homes. The episode ends with Tony’s arrival in the entranceway to his home.

That, minus a lot of detail and nuance, is pretty much what happens in the episode.

I see two general issues here: linkage between this episode and others, and resonance between plotlines. On the first, Tony’s trip arises out of his relationship to Uncle Junior, which is on-going. But the trip was not set-up in any earlier episode. There is, however, a fairly consequential way that the fruits of the trip extend forward into the future. As part of the deal, Tony got Annalisa to agree to sending one of her best men, Furio Giunta, to America to work with Tony (and, naturally, to look out for her interests). Furio will play a significant role in further episodes in this season and, so I’ve read, will become and object of Carmella’s desire in the third season (which I’ve not seen). The issue of Pussy’s work with the FBI was raised in the first season, without evidence, and, of course, remains an issue after this season. It is resolved in the final episode of the season when Tony searches Pussy’s house and finds his strap-on wire; Pussy is executed and dumped into the water. That action also eliminates any legal progress on Angie’s divorce, which was not mentioned after this episode.

The events in this episode are thus relatively self-contained, but not completely so. This seems typical of Sopranos episodes. Causal lines continue between episodes, but they are relatively weak – a judgment that could use further analysis and explication, but not now.

As for the question of a thematic relationship between these two broad streams of action, I think the closest link is between Tony’s actions in Naples and Angie’s in Jersey. Angie’s decision to seek a divorce is a major decision by any standard, but particularly by the standards of socially conservative Italian Catholics. This may be the late twentieth century, verging on the twenty-first, but divorce doesn’t exist in that world. That’s a world where men and men and women are women. The men provide for their wives and family while the wives devote themselves to the care of their children and the home; they do not have careers. They also tolerate their husband’s mistresses and prostitutes, though, as I recall, we don’t actually see Pussy with either. To file for divorce is to defy social norms. Angie is acting in a way that does not compute.

And so it is with Annalisa Zucca. While she seems to understand that her standing as boss is a bit odd, her associates don’t seem to have any problem with her being the boss. That’s just the way things are. Tony, of course, finds it deeply problematic. That’s not how things are in his world.

In both action streams we have a woman who is out of place, at least with respect to the standards of the North Jersey mob. I think this resonance, if you will, is real, but only of middling strength. It’s not clear to me that there is any other significant resonance between these two action streams.


This is the seventh episode in the second season; three episodes after “Commendatori.” I discussed it in my previous post and I do not intend to repeat everything I said there. One line of action follows Christopher Moltisanti as he follows his Hollywood dreams on the set of a Jon Favreau film shoot. There is another line of action involving Pussy’s collaboration with the FBI. This is linked to yet a third line of action involving Tony’s son, AJ, who is deep into adolescent angst. Pussy is AJ’s godfather and confirmation sponsor, thus linking him to the AJ stream.

These plotlines come together at the end of the episode, but not causally. The episode ends with AJ’s confirmation party at the Soprano house. As AJ’s godfather and sponsor, Pussy has to be there. And he is, wearing an FBI wire. The FBI is seeking information about a recent hit.

Christopher is there too; as Tony’s nephew and soldier it’s obligatory for him. But he shows up late (because he’d been taking leave of Hollywood) and Tony delivers an ultimatum: either he’s in (with Tony and the mob) or he’s out (in Hollywood or whatever). Chris elects to remain in. Thus, in a sense, this confirmation party is more Chris’s than AJ’s – Chris will propose to Adriana in the next episode.

These plotlines are thematically linked by betrayal, of which there is a lot in The Sopranos. Big Pussy’s continued betrayal of the mob is the most obvious case. One might also consider AJ’s mishaps – the car wreck, smoking pot at his confirmation party, even his adolescent skepticism – as forms of betrayal. Then we have the trysts of Christopher and Amy which involve both of them in betrayals of their respective partners. The fact of Chris’s interest in Hollywood is something of a betrayal of his commitment to Tony, that seems to be how Tony thinks about it. And then there is Favreau’s use of a mob story that Chris told to him; he put it into a script without consulting Chris.

On linkage to other episodes, Christopher’s interest in film figured in at least two previous episodes, and was a major plotline in one of them, and it will return later in the series, though not in this season. As I’ve already intimated, Tony’s ultimatum at the end of the episode may also have been a factor in bringing him to propose to Adriana in the next episode. Big Pussy’s betrayal will continue to be a factor until his death in the last episode of the season. AJ, of course, will continue in the family as will his angst.


As I’ve argued in a previous post, “Boca” has two plotlines, one dealing with a sexually exploitive soccer coach and the other with Uncle Junior’s gossipy mistress. Each deals with the boundary between business matters and personal matters. In the coach plotline, Tony wants to punish the coach for his sexual transgression, but is persuaded from doing so. It’s not mob business. Junior’s mistress, unfortunately, has gossiped about his skill in cunnilingus. That’s not mob business either, but it’s not mob-approved male sexual behavior. Once that bit of information had made its way to Tony, who taunts Junior with it, Junior felt he had not choice but to end the relationship.

“Boca” is the most self contained of these three episodes. The soccer coach is arrested at the end of the episode and, as of the end of the second season, has not reappeared. Nor has Junior’s banished mistress, though Junior asked about her once during the second season. As far as I can tell, neither of these two plotlines was significantly prepared or signaled by incidents in prior episodes, though Junior’s decision to go to Boca was precipitated by looming indictments.

Logic of Juxtaposition

While these three episodes each incorporate different numbers of plotlines I suggest that each episode is effectively organized into two streams of action, with the overall structure of an episode being one of alternation between the two streams. That is to say, one’s attention moves back and forth between two streams of action.

This is obviously the case with “Boca,” which has only two plotlines. What about the three plotlines in “D-Girl”? I believe that the AJ line and the Big Pussy line function as a single stream with Pussy himself as the connection between them. Both are introduced early in the episode – AJ in the first scene, Pussy in the fifth, with 31 scenes in the episode – both recur through out the episode, and they are joined in the final set of scenes, all at AJs confirmation party. This stream functions in counterpoint to Chris’s movie excursion.

With five plotlines, “Commendatori” is both more complex than “D-Girl” but also, in a way, simpler. It is simpler because three of the plotlines take place in Italy while two take place in New Jersey. The episode thus unfolds by alternating between these two distinctly different locales. The two New Jersey plotlines both involve Pussy. He is the subject of one line – as FBI informant – and the object of another, his wife’s decision to get a divorce. As for Italy, Tony’s line is the most fully developed one; the scenes devoted to Chris and Paulie are just pendants on Tony’s line.

Having said that, it’s not entirely clear to me why I’m arguing that each of these episodes effectively alternates between two streams, rather than three, or five. I suppose that ultimately I would want to make a perceptual and cognitive argument, perhaps even an affective one, but I’m not prepared to do that now. In these three examples, however, it is clear that each episode has at least one plotline that runs from the beginning to the end. In “D-Girl” it’s Chris-goes-Hollywood; in “Commendatori” it’s Tony’s negotiations with Annalisa; in “Boca” each of the two plotlines runs through to the end.

Similarly, I’m unsure on the matter of thematic linkage among plotlines. I do think the linkage in “Boca” is strong – in general, “Boca” seems to be the most tightly organized of the three episodes. The connection I adduced between two plotlines in “Commendatori” – women out of place – seems possible, but it also seems a bit convoluted. The case of betrayal in “D-Girl” seems strong, especially if we focus on Chris and Amy, on the one hand, and Pussy on the other. But it is not at all obvious to me that inter-plot thematic relationships need to be ones of similarity. Why not opposition, or simply difference?

It seems to me that the critical issue is how these juxtaposed plotlines reveal the hearts and minds of the characters. How is character revealed and articulated? Through action, yes, and reflection too – remember, the series is grounded in the conceit of a mafia boss seeing a psychiatrist. But also through juxtaposition with other characters. Each episode seems to have a handful of characters in lead roles; we come to know them, and care about them, through their juxtapositions. How do you make comparisons among six characters? Are we taking the comparisons two at a time, three at a time? Such questions seem almost without meaning. We don’t really know how it’s done.

In arguing that each episode is composed of two streams of action, each of which may consist of one or more plotlines, I am simply asserting that there is a multi-level structure here. In talking about thematic linkage I’m arguing that we don’t have “raw” or “total” juxtapositions. Rather, we have juxtapositions with respect to some theme or issue. There is a logic to an episode’s structure of juxtapositions, but it is not the logical of causal relationships within a plot. It is something else.

Just what that is is not exactly clear. But whatever it is, it is what gives each episode of The Sopranos is overall structure. While I’m keenly aware of the fact the TV is a temporal art, that its narratives unfold in time, this juxtapositional logic feels spatial to me. It places different characters – their words, movements, actions – together in varying patterns and combinations, allowing them to resonate with one another. It is in those patterns of resonance that the characters are most fully revealed to us.


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thanks !

By on 08/01/09 at 04:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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