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matt zoller seitz

Seitz Asks: What Are the Best Seasons and Episodes of The Sopranos?

Seitz Asks: What are the best seasons and episodes of The Sopranos?
Seitz Answers:
Season six, and "College" (season one)

David Chase's The Sopranos has been on my mind recently for a couple of reasons: It ended its run five years ago this month, and it inspired some of the more ambitious dramas that followed, including Mad Men (by former Sopranos writer-producer Matthew Weiner) and Breaking Bad (which returns in July). 

Readers sometimes ask me to name my favorite seasons or episodes, so I figured I might as well commit them to print here. What follows is a list of ranked seasons, followed by a list of my ten favorite individual episodes.

FAVORITE SEASON: Six

For my top pick, I seesawed between season six and season one, which was much tighter and more structurally neat and also delivered that all-important Shock of the New. But in the end I have to give top honors to season six, with all its overt symbolism, dream logic, narrative cul-de-sacs, and other overreaching, the edge because it's just so damned immense and ambitious — so unlike anything that either The Sopranos or TV drama itself had ever attempted. Tony's sojourn into Coma Land; the eerie intimations of generational and societal decay; the explorations of characters trying to escape a life that won't let them go; the difficulty (and for some characters impossibility) of change; that knockout ending, which people are still debating (and trying to "prove"): The sum total is magnificent. I can't see wind blowing the trees in my backyard without thinking of that Ojibwe saying posted on a hospital wall: "Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky." And it has my favorite Tony Soprano quote: "They say every day is a gift. But why does it have to be pair of socks?"

The rest, ranked from greatest to least:

Season one: The aforementioned shock of the new. This is the most traditionally novelistic of any Sopranos season. Every incident and subplot builds inexorably toward the events of the last two chapters. This is also the season that contains "College," the most influential of all the series' episodes and a landmark in TV drama.

Season three: A smorgasbord, season three features intricate thematic patterning through the season and within individual episodes; compelling new characters (including Ralphie and Gloria and even Jackie Jr., a stubborn dimwit who grew on me during repeat viewings); envelope-pushing violence and perversity mingled with some of the show's sharpest bits of black comedy. All this plus "Pine Barrens." ("Guy was an interior decorator." "His house looked like shit!") There are times when the show seems to be pushing way too hard to shock us — when the Dr. Melfi rape episode "Employee of the Month," the bloodbath "Another Toothpick," and the soul-sickening "University" aired back-to-back, it was as if Chase were deliberately punishing viewers for enjoying the show, and perhaps he was. But all in all, it's impressive. And like other Sopranos seasons, it coheres with repeat viewings.

Season four:  At times, season four feels like the second half of a very long season three. It enhances or wraps up plotlines introduced earlier, including Carmela's flirtation with henchman Furio (symptomatic of serious problems in the Soprano marriage). Dr. Melfi probes more deeply into Tony's psyche than before; Uncle Junior succumbs to dementia; Christopher's drug problems jeopardize organizational coherence and require an intervention; Ralphie's volatile arrogance becomes impossible to bear. The season's last episode, "Whitecaps" — wherein Tony and Carmela face off — is a masterpiece.

Season two: I might have ranked this season last if I hadn't watched the whole thing again last year, during a week when I frankly should have been concentrating on other things. (Sopranos reruns will do that to you.) I was knocked out by its chutzpah: Slow and inner-directed, stressing characterization over all else, season two was so unlike season one that even devoted fans wondered if the show hadn't prematurely jumped the shark. But it all hangs together at the level of symbolism and dream logic: It's all building toward that extraordinary finale with Big Pussy on the boat.

Season five: The season that could most credibly be accused of wheel-spinning, season five isn't on the same level as the others, but it still boasts extraordinary episodes, performances, scenes, and flourishes. It's worth seeing just for the "Test Dream" episode, wherein the dream and "real" worlds dazzlingly intertwine, and "Long Term Parking," which for my money features the most horrifying death of any major Sopranos character. (That it happens off-camera makes it so more ugly somehow.)

My ten favorite episodes, ranked:

  1. "College" (Season one)
  2. "Pine Barrens" (Season three)
  3. "Kennedy and Heidi" (Season six)
  4. "Whitecaps" (Season four)
  5. "Funhouse" (Season two)
  6. "Whoever Did This" (Season four)
  7. "Soprano Home Movies" (Season six)
  8. "The Test Dream" (Season five)
  9. "Employee of the Month" (Season three)
  10. "I Dream of Jeannie Cusimano" (Season one)

What are your favorite seasons and episodes of The Sopranos?

Photo: HBO