Directed by Alan Coulter | Written by David Chase & James Manos Jr. | 56 min
By Colin Hart
10 / 10
Let me begin by saying that “College” is probably the best Sopranos episode ever, hence the perfect score. It’s the best standalone hour in the show’s run and while some later masterpieces may have better payoffs (season five’s “Long Term Parking,” for one), “College” is still the episode that works best whenever and wherever.
For instance, the best song on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below might be either of the final two tracks, “Vibrate” or “A Life in the Day of Benjamin André (Incomplete)”, but that’s because they come at the end of a (very good) sprawling and draining double album. But the actual best songs, the ones that are masterpieces any time you hear them, are the eternal pop anthems “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move,” even if the former duo have more emotional resonance.
Even though “Long Term Parking” or any of the show’s final four episodes may feature bigger rewards—emotional payoffs to stories that had been slowly building for years— “College” is still the one that you can take to someone and say, “this is what The Sopranos can do.” And then you put on your sunglasses, pick up the suitcase and leave the room.
“College” is also the first Sopranos masterpiece we had the pleasure of viewing—unless you’re watching the show out of order, in which case, what kind of human being are you? It’s the first time we see what this show is capable of, and, if you were there in 1999, what TV is capable of.
Which brings me to my next point: “College” is probably the best episode of television ever, hence the perfect score. Sure, the historical context also helps. “College” was a watershed moment for television as an art form, sort of like what Highway 61 Revisited—shit, maybe even Pet Sounds—did for rock music.
When you look at the other contenders for “greatest TV episode of all time,” there are only a handful of worthy candidates. “The Suitcase” from Mad Men is another self-contained masterpiece that is the absolute peak of character development in all TV. “Ozymandias” and “Felina” from the final stretch of Breaking Bad are two of the most exciting and tense hours ever, in TV or film. What other options are there? “Blackwater” and the Lost pilot and “Remedial Chaos Theory” are some second-tier contenders. And yet, “College” is still the best of the bunch.
Do I have to explain it? I don’t want to, but if I have to, I suppose I must, a little. It’s the type of episode you would bring to a random stranger on the subway and say, “this is what TV can do.” And then you put on your sunglasses and dance off the train, the random stranger staring at the dusty VHS you have just given them.
Then again, I could make the case for any one of those aforementioned Mad Men and Breaking Bad episodes too. “College” gets my vote more often than not, however, because it belongs to The Sopranos, which is better than both of those shows.
But then why not “-30-” or “Final Grades” or “Middle Ground”? Even though all three of those also get perfect scores and The Wire is possibly (probably?) better than The Sopranos, The Wire is a show that takes a different storytelling approach. Wire Creator David Simon chooses the television novel format and every Wire episode works best in the context of the entire season. You can’t just pick up and watch the spectacular season four finale “Final Grades” and expect to get the same resonance that you would had you watched the entire season from the beginning, with all the complex plotting finally paying off. (That’s why “Blackwater”—a standalone episode from another novelistic-structured show—is Game of Thrones’ single best episode)
“College” also gets my vote because it’s the “official” answer. Just like how Roger Ebert said Citizen Kane is the “official” answer for best film. Just like The Wire Season 4 is the “official” best season of any TV show ever. Just like the Chrysler Building is the “official” peak of art deco architecture. And just like Madden 07 is the “official” best installment in the oft-stagnant video game franchise.
These are the things that live on in legend and hushed tones.
“College” is a simple episode, really. Tony and Meadow are off in New England visiting potential colleges, while Carmela spends the night back in New Jersey with a priest. No other distractions, just two stories that build to volcanic climaxes.
Mere minutes into the episode, Meadow asks Tony straight up, “Are you in the mafia, dad?” It’s sudden and it’s the question we wanted Tony to address all along and it catches him by surprise. At first Tony denies it a little but he eventually admits the truth, telling Meadow she’s almost a woman now and it’s best to be honest with her. Not too honest, of course, best for Tony not to go into specifics. But it is something that we’re proud of Tony for doing. Even if the overall subject is inherently bad, Tony is being a good father by being truthful with his daughter.
Throughout the first four episodes of The Sopranos, we’ve mostly seen Tony as a pretty good guy. Sure, he used a telephone to beat the shit out of a man and, sure, he cheats on his wife with a smokin’ hot Russian mistress, but for the most part we’ve been witness to the kindhearted family man who loves his kids, the teary-eyed friend at Jackie’s deathbed and the emotionally open man during his therapy sessions. “College” is the episode that fully addresses the question: what kind of man is Tony Soprano? Golem or non-golem? Hero or antihero?
This manifests itself when Tony and Meadow stop at a gas station and Tony thinks he sees someone he used to know. The man in question is Febby Petrulio—a former gangster turned informant and now living in Maine thanks to the witness protection program. Tony recognizes him, but he needs to be sure. He tells Meadow to get in the car and then he speeds off, swerving through traffic in pursuit of the ratmobile.
This balance of family vs. Family expertly builds throughout the episode. Tony’s no longer concerned with visiting colleges for the time being—he’s focused on finding and confirming and then killing Febby. He’s forced to give up the street chase and pull into the motel, but once he gets the chance, Tony is immediately calling Christopher from the pay phone, telling him the details of the situation and asking him to run the plate numbers he managed to catch.
It is constantly raining back in New Jersey. Chris—the only other mob character in this episode—spends the night waiting on calls and orders from Tony. He has to keep running out to the pay phone in the street, standing in a torrential downpour and it’s like he’s in some sort of limbo. This is the symbolic metaphor for Chris’ series’ arc as a whole, actually. He’ll see the raven outside the window while taking the oath of Omerta in season three. He’ll always have a dark cloud above his head. Most of the time that dark cloud will be his drug usage, but it will be Tony’s influence upon him as well.
Elsewhere in Jersey, Carmela begins the day sick in bed. AJ goes to spend the night at a friend’s house and Father Phil Intintola, the friendly priest, stops by. Fr. Phil is a known schnorrer—like ‘golem’, another Jewish word, this one meaning a mooch—and he initially drops in solely because he wants to eat some of Carm’s baked ziti.
It is clear that Carmela and Father Phil share a mutual attraction for one another. Right from the moment Carmela runs to fix her hair when she hears the good priest at the door, it is evident. And the mood is just right too—AJ off to a friend’s house, Tony and Meadow out of town, the two of them sitting on the couch, watching The Remains of the Day, drinking plenty of wine.
Added to this, Carmela’s also angry with Tony for not letting on that his therapist is a woman (Dr. Melfi calls the home to cancel an appointment). “Why would he lie about it unless he’s screwing her?” she asks, and she’s justified in thinking so, even if it’s not true. Tony took the time to call Irina from the pay phone up in Maine, and Carmela is well aware of his infidelities.
She is fed up. She breaks down in tears while watching the movie with Fr. Phil and she confesses to him of her enormous guilt in being married to Tony. She admits that she looks past his mob affiliation because she loves the easy, money-filled life it has provided her with. Father Phil offers her Communion and—lost in the moment—the two are nearly driven to kiss each other. The moment is averted when the very drunk priest suddenly runs into the bathroom to vomit. He spends the night on the couch, the rain pattering on the windows. In the morning, the two will reflect on a night that felt sinful but where no sin was committed: “Of all the fanook priests, why’d I have to get the one that’s straight?”
While much of the greatness of “College” comes from Tony’s story, it can’t be forgotten that Carmela’s scenes touch on the sublime as well. Up until now, Carmela’s been portrayed as a shallow and privileged housewife. “College” is the first time we see her develop into a great and complex character in her own right. The storyline is so carefully written, each bit of dialogue played out for maximum effect. Edie Falco’s performance in this episode is quite possibly the greatest acting performance by a woman in TV history.
Tony lets Meadow go out with some friends she makes at the motel, so while she is getting crunk it frees up time for Tony to do some digging. After making more calls to Chris, he finds out where the guy lives and checks the place out. Without a doubt, he confirms that it’s Febby Petrulio, living comfortably with his own travel agency, a wife and a young daughter.
Febby is aware that Tony saw him back at the gas station and is suspicious when he hears a car (Tony’s) leaving his house, so he also starts inquiring about. He finds the motel that Tony is staying at and waits in the parking lot with a gun. He sees Tony returning—with a very drunk and sick Meadow—the gun aimed, but he does not shoot. Perhaps it’s because Tony is with his daughter, or perhaps it’s because there is an old couple outside and he doesn’t want any witnesses. We want to believe the former, but it is in fact the latter. Likewise, we hope that perhaps the connections to family are enough to spare violence between the two. But Tony was only focused on one thing when he saw Febby with his wife and child, and that was correctly identifying him as the oath-breaking rat bastard.
Alan Couture directs the episode and makes prominent use of shadows and light-and-dark contrast, the two Tonys walking hand in hand. The writing and the editing—the tight pacing and the tension seen when Tony and Febby both search for one another simultaneously—is a big part of what makes this episode the bona fide classic that it is, along with the expert hand of Couture behind the camera. It has the feel, to me at least, of the Coen brothers’ great debut Blood Simple, the web between the characters drawing tighter and tighter. But to give this episode the comparison it deserves, Imma go art school on your ass: the chiaroscuro does for “College” what it does for The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.
Tony drops Meadow off at Bowdoin, saying he forgot his watch, giving excuses and tiptoeing questions. Febby, at his travel agency, hears a noise in the parking lot. Tony brutally garrotes him, merciless, remorseless. He walks across the lot, looking up at a flock of ducks flying away. It’s a haunting scene and it’s something that sticks in our heads. For Tony to kill this man for this reason, it changes our perspective on him. We didn’t actually believe Tony was going to do the deed until he did it.
While Tony waits for Meadow back at the college, he looks up and sees a Nathaniel Hawthorne quote adorning the wall: “No man can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.” It’s a perfect quote to recapitulate Tony’s main moral dilemma: to which family does he truly belong? I don’t think he even knows right now. The ducks flying away are the perfect symbol to capture this, both a reminder and a warning for Tony’s soul.
On the drive home, Meadow notices that his hands are bloody and his boots are muddy (unintentional rhyme, I swear). Tony brushes it off with fumbling excuses, but the conversation reaches a point where it seems like the truth is clear to Meadow. They exchange a very knowing “I love you” “I love you too” and continue driving.
Like it so often does, The Sopranos leaves us with a sublime low-key scene to perfectly cap the episode. Tony and Meadow return home and Carmela tells Tony that the priest slept over. Arguing ensues (“This is too fucked up to even comprehend”) until Carmela pulls out the chair (“Your therapist called. Jennifer?”) and Tony is immediately put on the defensive. The ending is nothing, but it is everything, summing up the entire episode in a beautifully understated fashion.
I hope I did it justice. This is the greatest hour of television of all time we’re talking about. It’s a tour-de-fucking-force of emotion and a powerhouse display of acting and top-notch in everything else—writing, directing, editing and all that behind-the-camera Parcheesi.
It’s important, yes, but it’s essential. More than essential. A perfect ten out of ten. It’s—how do they say on the steppes? хамгийн агуу.
- First mention of Svetlana, the one-legged blonde Russian who will play a pretty important role in season four.
- Irina—Tony’s Russian mistress—combines the phrase “knight in shining armor” with the song “Nights In White Satin”, by the Moody Blues (from their 1967 debut Days Of Future Passed), to come up with the term “knight in white satin armor”. It’s such an amusing and interesting turn-of-phrase that it would be used as an episode title late in season three.
- Jamie-Lynn Sigler was a pretty good actress, especially in the earlier seasons. Her acting ability made it possible for the show to delve into the lives of the Soprano children and stories like this, and this might actually be her finest performance on the show. This is also probably my peak point of admiration for Meadow.
- Tony talks about how he liked history in college. It once again plays into his idyllic view of the past.
- More mention of Scorsese films as Meadow tells Tony how her friends all prefer Casino to The Godfather, and Carmela and Father Phil talk about how Robert DeNiro was almost cast as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. Goodfellas is the film that The Sopranos is most indebted to, so it’s no surprise that the Scorsese name-dropping is frequent. Four of his films have already been mentioned by characters (Goodfellas, Casino, The Last Temptation of Christ, and, of course, Kundun).
- “Are you talking to me? Well, you must be talking to me. Or Barabbas here.“
- “Did the Cusamano kids ever find $50,000 in krugerrandts and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?“
- “What you guys do for 12 hours? Play, uh, ‘Name that Pope?’“