[In chronological order.]
“Funhouse” – 2.13
The many small and large ways in which Tony’s mistakes catch up with him on the show often are the most satisfying of episodes. His tendency to avoid hard choices, not confront things staring right at him, and run away from taking personal responsibility are some of his defining qualities. In the season 2 finale, a bout of food poisoning forces Tony into a state of repeated fever dreams that finally allow him to escape reality long enough to confront what he has known all season long: Pussy, one of his best and most beloved friends, is working for the federal government. The anguish that Tony (et co.) feel as they finally are forced to no longer deny the truth is painful to watch from beginning to end.
“Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” – 3.1
“Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood” is rare Sopranos episode that feels wholly unique in concept and execution. The season 3 premiere was told pretty much entirely from the point-of-view of the FBI. That decision led to as purely “fun” of an episode that existed in the show, as very few episodes since the pilot had embraced the sitcom sensibilities of people running things as much as this one did. And just when you think it’s all fun and games, the show forces you to look at how fucked up Tony Soprano is that he can look Patsy Parisi in the eyes and make him come to heel and say he will not take revenge on Tony for ordering the murder of his twin brother.
“…To Save Us All from Satan’s Power” – 3.10
This was the only episode of the show to be dominated by flashback scenes. Tony et co. reflect on their “former friend” and when he turned rat. It’s a wonderful excuse to spend some time Big Pussy and a healthy Jackie Aprille, but more importantly it’s one of a series of opportunities for Tony to grapple with his romanticism of the past and his desire for nostalgia. Tony often finds comfort in the horrors he commits by thinking fondly of the past somehow, and that comes into conflict here as he dwells on whether or not Big Pussy turned rat earlier than they were led to believe. That knowledge would not seemingly change anything for him, but he can’t help but seek it out.
Along with “College,” this is probably the episode that gets named the most often as people’s favorite (I have not done any research as to the veracity of that claim so just go with it). It basically plays out as a fucked up fairy tale that barely exists in the world of the show. While there are some strong B, C, & D stories (that are largely forgotten), the main deal with Paulie and Chrissy in the woods vs. The Russian is one for the ages. It leads to some of the best work of either actor in the show and probably is the peak of the show’s morbid comedy. A delight in every way.
“Whitecaps” – 4.13
There’s really nothing like the emotional payoff of re-watching The Sopranos and appreciating the slow crumbling of the marriage between Tony and Carmella. The culture of the world they lived in made divorce/separation seem like something that would be impossible to consider. That caused the eventual split in this episode to feel both sudden in the moment and the perfectly logical endpoint for them on subsequent re-watches. The release of emotion from Tony and Carmella were some of the most heartbreaking and depressing moments in a show that was all about greed and violence. Perhaps no other episode of The Sopranos captures better what really carried the show was the relationship between Tony and Carmella Soprano.
“Long Term Parking” – 5.12
The slow demise of Adriana over two seasons was one of the most torturous stories the show ever did. With the kind of end Adriana inevitably faced set in stone, the start-and-stop nature of how it played out made her actual death here feel quite unpredictable. After she gets cornered by the FBI, she and Chrissy have one final blow-up that sees both of them reach new depths of despair. Then just when it seems like Christopher has actually come to his senses about Adriana being the only good thing in his life, he does the ultimate act of betrayal and hands down a death sentence by giving her over to Tony. The most emotionally brutal episode of the show.
“Sopranos Home Movies” – 7.1
The final season premiere of the show brilliantly disguises the horror that awaits our surviving characters. Tony and Carmella travel to the secluded holiday home of Bobby and Janice. They get to have a weekend getaway complete with all the requisite pleasures of such an experience. Too much drink is had though, Bobby sucker punches Tony and then later actually wins a fight between the two of them. Tony’s inner child lashes out and makes Bobby kill a person for the first time. Just as Tony continues to reach “new heights” in his world based on all appearances, deep down his world was rotten and getting ready to leave everything around him in ruin.
“Stage 5” – 7.2
“Stage 5” was a lot like the majority of episodes of the final stretch in that it got to be a showcase/swan song episode for a beloved character. In this case, Johnny Sack said goodbye to this world. The work of Vincent Curatola was some of the most consistently brilliant work from the first season to the last, and he got to go out with a surprising amount of grace compared to the majority of his acting peers on the show. His constant shifting from hope to acceptance and back and forth captures perfectly the experience of dying from an illness when by all rights you should have many years to go. All the while, Johnny serves as a haunting future for Tony: the government taking everything, your “friends” feasting on your weakened state, your family stripped of its power and assets, and a young death. Also, this episode had CLEAVER.
“Remember When” – 7.3
All series long, Tony justifies his mental state by constantly comparing how much worse things are now compared to the mythical past he chooses to remember. While the show always had fun at point out Tony’s self-delusion when it came to this idea, it waited until there was only a handful of episodes before delivering its most stinging rebuke to it. Junior Soprano is trying to recapture a part of himself by running an “Executive Game” in the institution he’s living in. The environment he’s running it in though exposes the toxicity of him though. Paulie and Tony then are forced to go on the lamb due to the FBI digging up the bones of Tony’s first execution. Tony’s original sin forces him to both confront his past and transfer his frustration on Paulie, a character that has always seemed stuck in the past. It’s small scale character driven storytelling that The Sopranos did best.
“The Second Coming” – 7.7
So many of Tony’s mistakes and errors in judgement, both big and small, are coming back in a big way in this episode, and it obviously all comes to a head with the devastating scene where AJ attempts suicide only to be saved in the family
of ducks’ swimming pool by Tony. Tony loves AJ obviously, but he failed him as a father in countless ways. That is not to say Tony is solely responsible for that. Our crimes against people are the result of so many things building to that moment. Tony loved AJ as best as he could and much better than Johnny Boy loved Tony. But his best put AJ on a path where he could only ever feel lost, confused, and like a failure. All of Tony’s attempts to help AJ over the years failed because Tony did not have the tools to meet his needs. It’s absolutely tragic and damn near resulted in the loss of his son here.