There is no question that "The Sopranos" is the most influential dramatic television show of the past twenty years, and one of the biggest reasons that we're enjoying the unprecedented boom in quality television that we have now. It's not one of my favorites - mob stories never held much appeal for me - but I respect it top to bottom and enjoyed may episodes greatly. Below, my top ten episodes, unranked and ordered by airdate.
Moderate spoilers ahead.
"Pilot" - I was expecting "The Sopranos" to be a more comedic show after the pilot, which really pushes the mobster in therapy premise, and ends with a gun-toting Carmela. In retrospect some of these early antics look a little silly. However, the introduction of Tony is so strong, and creates the foundation for so much good character-building to follow. It's actually a little heartbreaking to see him back at the beginning, when we could still pretend he was a regular schmuck at heart.
"College" - Now here's where the show really started to pick up steam, as Tony and Meadow drive around Maine to tour a few colleges, and Tony takes it upon himself to execute a rat while his daughter's not looking. In addition to the fun of breaking a lot of narrative conventions left and right, this is where Tony's domestic versus mob obligations really clash for the first time, and we see the toll that it takes on him. Many point to this episode as a good gateway to the rest of the series.
"I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano" - The first season closes with lots of good plotty stuff as Tony's family troubles come ot a head, and they directly impact Dr. Melfi. I love how the subplot with Artie Bucco and the restaurant arson plays out. And Paulie and Christopher give us a brief preview of "Pine Barrens." If the series had ended here, relatively happily, it still would have left one heck of an impression. Fortunately it didn't, and we got to see the fallout play out over the following seasons.
"The Knight in White Satin Armor" - One of the best shockers of the whole series comes courtesy of Tony's sister, Janice Soprano, who has always been a severely underrated member of the "Sopranos" roster. This was the second-to-last episode of the second season, and may have started the trend of prestige shows building up to a big climax in similar fashion, setting off the fireworks in a penultimate episode and leaving the finale to tie up loose ends and provide a quieter denouement.
"Employee of the Month" - One of the last episodes where Dr. Melfi gets anything really interesting to do, as the show quickly backgrounded the "mobster in therapy" device, and the character became a peripheral presence by the end of the third season. This is a controversial one with some cringeworthy content, but it pushes Dr. Melfi into the kind of moral crisis I'd been waiting for since the first season. Lorraine Bracco gives it her all here, and makes Melfi's personal victory feel well earned.
"Pine Barrens" - Paulie and Christopher getting lost in the woods chasing a Russian goon has become one of the undisputed highlights of "The Sopranos." It's one of the most out-and-out comedic episodes, featuring wonderfully quotable dialogue, absurd situations, and Bobby Bacala's hunting outfit. The show didn't have the greatest track record when it came to comedy, especially where Christopher was involved, but when they did get it right, you could forget you were watching a show about lethal mobsters.
"Whitecaps" - My favorite episode. The lead-up the famous showdown between Tony and Carmela is so hopeful, and even idyllic when they're looking at the new property and discussing the future. And then there's the fateful phone call and James Gandolfini and Edie Falco go to town earning their Emmys - both won specifically for this episode, and it was so, so well deserved. The show had been building to this from the very beginning, and it was so satisfying to see everything detonate at last.
"Long Term Parking" - Poor Adriana. And poor Christopher. This was probably his last chance to get out of the business with his soul intact, but he failed to take it, and paid the price. The effectiveness of the ending hinges on the suddenness and cruelty of the events, along with the juxtaposition of it with Tony and Carmela's queasy reconciliation. Big kudos to the (mis)directing here too. I'd seen the climax out of context before, and didn't even realize it was coming until Sil turned into the woods.
"Kennedy and Heidi" - Yeah, it's the episode where *that* happens, but what stuck with me was really James Gandolfini's performance. The episode is really about Tony, and his mental state in the wake of committing a mortal sin. And it's terrifying to see him rationalize and justify his actions, finally turning to gambling and drugs to help him put any feelings of guilt or shame behind him as quickly as possible. It's impossible to pretend after this episode that Tony is anything but a monster and a menace.
"Made in America" - The notorious final scene is divisive, but it worked for me. I think you really need to watch certain earlier episodes to get it the way the creator intended. However, the rest of the episode is a winner regardless. We check in with all the Sopranos for a final time, seeing them repeating old patterns and turning away from hard choices. Has anyone learned anything? Has anyone figured anything out? Are they happy and do they deserve to be? It's a challenging, merciless goodbye.