Mary Kay McBrayer
The 8 Best Kills on THE SOPRANOS... and Why They Sting
I've been telling anyone who will listen that all SIX seasons of The Sopranos are available to stream on Amazon Prime. I have been leaning into them very hard. The tag line that I made up and which I feel like they could have used with great success is this: The Sopranos is what The Godfather Part III wishes it was. It's the mafia, modern day--or almost--with legacy of the Old Country mixed in and lonely. The Soprano Family is unforgettable: all of them are terrible, and their amorality is so complete it's almost enviable. Don't get me started on their politics or parenting or misogyny or racism, either. The main, most memorable thing, though, are the deaths. Not EVERY death is memorable, of course. Someone dies in almost every episode. If we had to remember every single one, it would be exhausting and impossible. Like when Paulie goes to the seance, and the room is filled with people he killed. It would be like that.
Certain fictional deaths stick with us, and there are a few theories about why. "The Stinger" according to S.A. Bradley, author of Screaming for Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy, is "when a movie or TV show recreates a visual image that is indelibly linked to a real event... A good 'stinger' elicits the visceral emotions the viewer would feel if they were watching the real event, and it can pack an unexpected wallop... 'the stinger' is another allegorical tool that horror can use to comment on a current event or a social issue... When Horror is at its best, it can challenge both sides of an issue without insulting or boring the audience." I can't do anything but understand. I fully believe that the tenets Bradley outlines in his book of nonfiction are exactly what makes these Sopranos murders the most memorable, even if noir is only adjacent to horror:
visceral emotion is elicited
it comments on a current event or social issue
it challenges both sides of the issue without insulting or boring the audience.
Here we go. I'm going to explain how these eight murders are real stingers.
1. RICHIE APRILE
Season 2, Episode 10, "The Knight in White Satin Armor"
Hot damn. I never liked him. I didn't like Janice, either, though I UNDERSTOOD her. In case you've forgotten, Richie is the brother of Jackie Aprile, the Boss before Junior and Tony Soprano inherited the throne, so to speak. When Richie got out of prison, he went back to work for the Soprano Family, but like every entitled gangster with a lucky last name, he didn't deliver well.
Lucky for him, Richie dated Janice Soprano (Tony's sister) in high school, and apparently she somehow always carried a torch for him. (I DO. NOT. UNDERSTAND THIS. But that also resonates with my visceral reactions: how many friends do YOU have who date men totally beneath them? But seriously: he held a gun to her head while they had sex! I mean, try everything twice, but I really just feel like this is super dangerous and over the fucking line.) Anyway, he gets engaged to Janice, and this saves him from getting knocked off.
That is, until a normal spat with Janice brings up that Richie's son is a professional ballroom dancer, and he jumps to unnecessarily defend his heterosexuality.
Janice says, as a normal audience thinks, "So what if he is gay?!"
Richie punches her in the mouth and then sits down to the dinner she cooked him. And then Janice shoots Richie twice in the chest. Tony comes over and they dispose of the body by dumping it in the lake.
It's bad enough that Richie wouldn't support his son regardless of his orientation, even if it is unsurprising. As viewers, we like Janice's response even if we don't like Janice. Richie's response to her, however predictable, is shocking, so we watch, stunned, as she quietly gets her handgun--the same one that he HELD TO HER HEAD DURING SEX--and shoots him, pauses, and then shoots him again a la The Stranger. She reconsiders for a moment, and then she doubles-down on her decision. And I don't know if it matters to y'all, but my fist went straight up in the air as I screamed at the TV, alone in the room by myself, "Hell yeah, bitch!"
It's crazy, but his gross overreaction somehow merits Janice's response, and although the viewers would never react with homicide, if are going to rejoice in someone's murder anyway, it's best to rejoice in the murder of an abusive bigot, right?
2. SALVATORE "BIG PUSSY" BONPENSIERO
Season 2, Episode 11, "House Arrest"
This scene is a TOUGH one to watch. Big Pussy--or UNCLE Pussy, as A.J. calls him--has been trapped into informing on the Family by the FBI. He does as little as possible, avoids wearing the wire, sobs in Tony's room at A.J.'s confirmation. He's complex, lovable, very torn. The show uses Puss as our sympathetic villain. A big part of the audience of any gangster film resents authority (no matter how innocuously), and in many ways we live vicariously through the characters. I can safely say that I would never murder someone for not paying up their debts. I can also safely say I would not wear a wire. But what if I HAD to? To protect my family? Of course I would. On a long enough timeline, everybody snitches.
Nonetheless, Puss does the least informing possible. But the Family finds out. It takes years, but they sniff him out, and then they have to take care of it.
As a reminder, they (Sil, Tony, and Paulie) take him out on the boat, and it's only a few minutes before Pussy gets wise to what's going on. He knows what's about to happen. (It's a total homage to Tessio in The Godfather.) He's dignified. He makes jokes about the goomar he used to see, suggests tequila shots to make it easier on his friends, and talks about his acupuncture.
They all laugh good-naturedly before Tony asks, "Was any of it real?" They go on to have one of the most heartfelt moments in the whole show, each of them saying how he was a brother to him, full of spite. And then they shoot him to death.
What else could they do? All of them were trapped, and none of them wanted to do the things they had to do. No viewer blames Pussy for informing, and no one blames the Family for having to take him out. That's the Stinger, right? It's a bad situation all around, for everyone. And it's a situation that is totally avoidable, which they all put themselves in.
Season 3, Episode 6, "University"
Tracy is your standard Hooker with a Heart of Gold trope. She wants love. She's sexually exploited by Ralph Cifaretto and several other men who work at Badda Bing's, and she's a drug addict, so she's living a high-risk lifestyle, but she's gorgeous, and ultimately she wants companionship. She tries to befriend Tony--that's how lonely she is. He, of course, says that it's not appropriate (which is true, though his boundaries are usually way off) because she's only 20 years old. That's two years older than Meadow, Tony's daughter.
Ralph consistently mistreats and ignores Tracy, abandoning her at random to return to his girlfriend. Just to fuck with her, he baits her, leading her on into thinking he will take care of her and their child--oh yeah, she's pregnant with his kid, too. When she finally tells him off, she calls him a Guinea piece of shit and spits in his face, and in her thrashing, she finally lands a punch. She takes several hits and then says, "Does that make you feel good? You feel like a man?" and then he beats her to death, the final blows coming from him throwing her by her hair into a guardrail.
The rest of the Family comes outside after he's killed her and they all stand over her remorsefully. Tony gets in a fistfight with Paulie says, "That cocksucker was way out of line" referring to Ralph fighting with Tony (they're both made guys, but Tony's the Boss). Tony replies, "Twenty years old, this girl." Paulie hesitates, and then he says, "That, too." They roll her in a carpet to dispose of her body.
This death is one of the most memorable not only because Tony mourns his relationship with Meadow, but it's memorable to us because as much as we want to romanticize these gangsters, they let this shit happen. It makes us look at ourselves and examine how the hell we could enjoy watching these men be so terrible. How can entertainment that imitates actual crime--how sex workers and other women in high-risk lifestyles go missing and we dismiss it--but we keep watching. Tracy dies and makes us examine our own interests. Even Tony brings up her death in a session with Dr. Melfi. But we keep watching We have to. We have to see Ralph get his comeuppance.
4. RALPH CIFARETTO--fucking finally
Season 4, Episode 9, "Whoever Did This"
Fuck. This guy. Am I right? He is the absolute Worst. He has zero redeeming qualities. I'm positive the show kept him around just to piss me off personally, and after that episode with Tracy, the possibility of this guy's torturous death is the only reason I kept watching. Not the only reason. We get the small victory of watching Tony snake Ralph's goomar, but because he's a Made guy, Tony can't order the hit, even though he wants to. He even has to rationalize taking his property--please note that I am SUPER salty about this misogyny, but I am just going with it because for this show I had to suspend my righteous indignation A BUNCH of times. Anyway, to justify his own actions, Tony needs to find out if what the goomar has said about Ralph and his submissive sexual nature are true, and he does so by first asking Sil, the manager of Badda Bing's and Soprano Family consigliere:
"What do you know about his relationships with women?"
"Well, he beat one to death." And that is why Sil is my favorite character. Because WHAT OTHER INFORMATION COULD YOU POSSIBLY NEED. Ralph is a huge piece of shit. Solved your mystery right there.
Nonetheless, Tony goes next to Ralph's former lover, Janice. Out of respect, Janice won't say. Then he pays her, and she agrees with the goomar: he's a masochist.
This all leads up to the episode when Ralph mourns the son he basically never gave a shit about, who is in the hospital and may not make a full mental recovery. In order to pay his son's doctor bills, Ralph sets the barn that houses Tony's racehorse on fire so the insurance will pay.
It's the final straw: Tony's life is going to shit, the horse is the only winner, and he (and me, too, obviously) have wanted Ralph out of the picture forever. The fucking audacity. Ralph tries to defend his actions by saying it was just a horse. Tony doesn't buy it, because it's not just a horse: this is a proxy fight which is really still about Tracy, which was about Meadow, and, to a lesser degree, his sister, Janice.
And it's not like Ralph just killed Pie-O-My. She burned. She was burned so badly that they had to put her down even after the fire of the barn was extinguished. Like Tracy, the horse was also rolled in a fabric and disposed of.
The never-ending fight between them when Tony finally has enough of Ralph's bullshit is suspenseful and satisfying and involves every kitchen weapon of opportunity imaginable: there's a frying pan, obviously. A chef's knife. Tony gets sprayed in the eyes with product-placed Pam, and then he chokes Ralph to death. As he does so, he says, "You killed her. You fucking killed her," and although we're supposed to think he means Pie-O-My, he means every woman.
After a moment of recovery, he calls Chrissy to help dispose of the body, and in the most satisfying turn of events ever, they chop him into pieces and put his head in a bowling bag. The bowling ball rolls down the stairs while they do it.
This death pulled my most visceral response because I WANTED Ralph to die, and I wanted Tony to do it, for Tracy, who wanted to be his friend. Afterward, I wasn't sorry that Ralph was dead, either, and that's a problematic place for a viewer to be in--it's never okay to kill someone, but to be GLAD of it? That's a problem.
Season 5, Episode 12, "Long Term Parking"
Except for... well, it's not Adriana's actual death that is most memorable--not to me. We all saw her death coming for a season at least: she was informing on Chrissy and the Soprano family for more than a year. Granted, she fed them shit, but that don't matter. They killed Big Pussy, their best friend, for doing the same thing. I felt like Sil being sweet to her as he drove her off into the country and shooting her outright was the kindest death, truly. It didn't even happen on screen. It was ALMOST dignified.
The scariest part about her death was leading up to it. She tries to come clean to Christopher Moltisanti, her fiance, who is strung out on heroin, and who has beat her before. I didn't know what to expect, but the extended scene of him choking her was unforgettable. He chokes her so long she nearly dies. The acting is so incredible, her eyes go red, he screams at her and she's totally silent, not even breathing. It's a VERY hard scene to watch. And when he finally releases her throat, and she's gasping for air, she lies on him, crying, wanting to be comforted. BY THE PERSON WHO JUST CHOKED HER.
This death is so memorable because it hurts. Adriana is nothing but loyal to Chris, she just doesn't understand exactly what she's doing, and she's been played as a pawn from the very first episode. We want better for her. We have always wanted better for her. She just didn't know how to get better for herself... or maybe that she COULD get better for herself. And isn't that so often the case? That's The Stinger with this death.
6. Vito Spatafore
Season 6, Episode 11, "Cold Stones"
Vito is a totally unlikable character--his only quality that merits any sympathy is that he's gay in a totally intolerant culture. When he's outed, he flees, and no one can blame him. (Except for his wife and kids and coworkers.) He tries to reenter the game in secret, but Tony won't have him. Within days, Phil Leotardo, the least tolerant of everyone, finds out he's back. He and his enforcers beat him to death with crow bars and then put a "pool cue in his ass." It's terrible, and the horror continues to unfold.
To save face, Tony has to agree with the torturous death, saying, "If I'd gotten to him first, net result would have been the same...." It's a power play, of course, but it makes us disappointed in Tony. And then the rest of the crew piles on because they feel like they have to.
The thing is, no one really likes Vito, He's pretty much the worst. He intimidated Meadow's boyfriend into a date, and he killed a random person for wanting to call in a car wreck. But he doesn't die for those reasons. He dies because he's gay. That's the part we can't reconcile.
The worst part of this death, though, is the aftermath. Vito's little boy reads the newspaper article about his father's death aloud to his little sister. Though Little Vito understands what he's reading, and what none of his family would tell him, Francesca asks, "I don't understand... Dad... wasn't a spy?" The layers of heartbreak in this murder are just painful: even though Vito was horrible, his death is survived by his suffering family.
7. Bobby "Baccala" Baccalieri
Season 6, Episode 20, "The Blue Comet"
I spent four seasons texting my friends, "If any of you son of a bitches lays a hand on Bobby Baccala, I'll kill you myself." He is, truly, the best among these characters, and although he is a gangster, I attribute my sentimentality toward Baccala to the Save the Cat trope.
The cat that Baccala saves is, of course, Uncle June. He even says to Tony when he escapes, "Sometimes I feel like I love Junior more than you do." Plus, Baccala is a family man, that's a little "f" family. He loves his wife, Karen, and then he loves Janice. He loves his children. He loves his model trains.
I spent most of the episode in which he and Tony fistfight on the edge of my seat, praying Baccala would make it out of the situation alive, which he does, saying, "When it's coming, you probably won't even hear it." And he doesn't. He's in a state of bliss, looking at a beautiful model Pullman car when Leotardo's enforcers sneak up on him and kill him. The sequence is even filmed in such a way that it's spliced in with a follow shot of the model train making its round, and then falling off the tracks when Baccala falls and crashes the tracks. It's beautifully paced, and its the most dignified of the deaths on this show. It's the way every gangster--hell, it's the way every PERSON wants to go: fast, intentionally, and doing something they love.
I didn't want Bobby Baccala to die, ever, but if he had to die, this is the death that I would wish for him.
8. Phil Leotardo
Season 6, Episode 21, "Made in America"
In the final season, Phil Leotardo squares off with Tony Soprano in an all-out war. Because Tony is our antihero, we know he will win, or at least that he will be the last to die, which means that Phil is a walking, talking target. It's the final showdown. I did not expect, however, for him to hop out of the passenger side, tell his wife he was going to make a phone call, and before he could finish his sentence, a hired gun unfolds into frame, and Phil gets shot in the head. That's good television. Phil went back on his word, too, and that means that he doesn't get a hero's death. He gets a sucker's punch.
His wife screams and jumps out of the car with their grandchildren in car seats in the back seat, and in her horror, she does not put the car in gear before she gets out, accidentally locking the children inside. The van's wheels have turned, and the car coasts slowly over, crushing Phil's head.
The aspects of this murder that makes it memorable are not just the implied gore and the element of surprise, but the kids. When he was sick in the hospital, Tony visited, and Phil told him that when he got out, he would take it easy, enjoy life, and living, and his family. He obviously didn't do any of that shit, so it makes sense that an added insult to his injury/death would be the van with his grandchildren inside it rolling over his head. It's in one sense, tragic, but in another, truer sense, lucky for those kids to not have that psychopath around--which is kind of the logic that Tony uses when he somewhat-mercy-kills Christopher after their drug-addled car wreck, so we have a nice homage to Tony's moral ambivalence, as well.
I ended on this one not only because it was the chronologically last in the series, but also because of the resonance with the F/family that we have throughout this show. The characters all think they can separate business and personal, but who among us actually does that, well?
The answer is no one. If you think you're the exception, I hate to be the one to tell you, but you aren't.
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