Never Watched The Sopranos? Give This Episode a Try. Then Watch the Rest.

Slate's Culture Blog
June 18 2013 10:48 AM

Gateway Episodes: The Sopranos

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Jamie-Lynn Sigler and James Gandolfini

HBO

We’re just a few days from summer, the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.

When I belatedly got into The Sopranos, I cobbled together the dough to buy the entire season used on Amazon because the time elapsing between sending Netflix DVDs back and forth was getting unbearable. It was impossible not to revel in the show’s intertwined worlds of sweat-soaked violence and cushy suburban intimacy. The writing is exquisitely crafted and the characters are as deep and twisty as we all imagine ourselves to be. Granted, their problems tend to be more of the “How do I kill this guy who joined the Witness Protection Program?” variety.

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In Episode 5 of Season 1, “College,” our anti-hero Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) zip around the backroads of Maine on a visit to prospective institutions of higher learning while occasionally zooming into oncoming traffic to stalk a guy who ratted out some of Tony’s fellow mafiosi. Meanwhile, back in New Jersey, Carmela (Edie Falco), Tony’s wife, has a wine-heavy night that spirals into a (chaste-ish) sleepover with Father Phil, her spiritual adviser. Such is the world of the Sopranos, where danger and menace pad every scene like wall-to-wall carpeting.

“College” is a standalone episode, and most of its scenes take place between two characters with massive secrets on their minds. As Tony waits for Meadow to finish her interview at Bowdoin, the camera pans to a Hawthorne quote etched on the wall: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which one is true.” Thematically appropriate, that: This episode is about confessions great and small.

And those confessions cut to the heart of these characters’ inner conflicts—which is why “College” is the ideal episode for newbies to want to give the show a one-hour test-run. The biggest confession comes from Carmela, who admits to knowing her husband has done terrible things—but each of the main characters involved faces, in this episode, the nauseating guilt that precedes the release of coming clean. Even Meadow, despite her spot-on teenage eyerolling: She tried speed with her friends, she admits to her dad, “but it got too scary” and she won’t do it again, she assures him.

Tony, meanwhile, moves between the heart-bursting anxiety and aggression of his work and the relative humdrum of helping his bright daughter reach her preppy next step. The rat, who Tony stumbles upon inadvertently, is named Petrulio. Like a deliciously good hour-long film, the episode takes its time with the hunt after Tony spots him, cutting occasionally to Carmela’s night of cinephilia and religion with Father Phil.

“College” is most famous for the brutal resolution to that chase, but I savor the fragile lies and attempted cover-ups that are sprinkled throughout. “I left my watch at the hotel.” “Is there a commandment against eating ziti?” These fibs and evasions are what make the characters so recognizable to those of us who don’t kill for a living (or love someone who does). The Sopranos gets us to root, at least a little bit, for a ruthless bad guy to win so that his smart daughter can go to an Ivy League school and his wife can make sure there’s an excess of prosciutto in the fridge.

If you’re won over by “College” and sit down to watch the whole series beginning to end, you may eventually complain—as many did when the episodes first aired—that the last few seasons are not as good as the first few. But keep in mind that there really wasn’t anything like the series before it arrived. I would argue that there hasn’t been anything like it since.

Julia Furlan is the producer of Slate's Culture Gabfest.