Directed by Lorraine Senna Ferrara | Written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess | 51 min
You never blow yr trip forever
By Colin Hart
9.3 / 10
“Down Neck” is another fantastic episode of The Sopranos. You’re beginning to see a trend here, no?
Once again The Sopranos drains it from deep and this time it is done by way of deep character study. “Down Neck” utilizes flashbacks to Tony’s childhood to expert effect as we plumb the depths of Tony’s humanity. And since most of Tony’s depth-plumbing occurs when talking with Dr. Melfi, the therapy sessions in this episode are the best therapy scenes of the season so far—Tony and Melfi having an interesting existential exchange that tackles the main themes of the series.
“Down Neck” is very much an episode about fathers and sons, tackling questions of what makes us who we are. AJ continues to be a mischievous little rascal, stealing the church wine with his buddies before gym class. The whippersnapper gets expelled, the school psychiatrist proposing to Tony and Carmela that AJ may suffer from ADD.
Tony thinks ADD is more of a psychologists’ scam than an actual disease. He’s more focused on keeping his son away from a future in the family business. AJ already seems to know the truth, it appears. This prompts Tony into thinking about his own childhood, when he first found out that his dad was in the mafia.
Cue Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and segue into 1960s flashback. This is where the episode finds its magic. We get to see a far younger Tony, just about AJ’s age, and I assume the scenes take place sometime around 1967, though they have the look and feel of 1957. The flashbacks provide David Chase and the writers the chance to unapologetically bask in the show’s early influences, with the tone and rhythm of Goodfellas out in the open.
Still, the flashbacks throughout are fantastic and add a certain nostalgic richness to the episode. The presence of Livia and Johnny Boy in their prime is what adds the real meat. Joseph Siravo plays Johnny Boy as a classic gangster both charismatic and proud—a little stereotypical too. Laila Robbins does an excellent job portraying the young Livia, taking all the hysterical bitterness we see in Nancy Marchand’s performance and channeling it into a younger and ultimately more venomous version (“I could stick this fork in your eye!”)
Tony ponders over the time he witnessed Uncle Junior and his father beat a guy up in the middle of the street, and then a later incident where he watched as Johnny Boy and several of his associates were arrested at a carnival. Tony thinks about these times, thinks about his parents’ volatile relationship and the reality of his childhood, thinks about AJ, and talks about it all with Dr. Melfi. These ensuing discussions are the most interesting and stimulating that the therapy scenes have been so far.
The main theme, or at least one of them, of The Sopranos is that, fundamentally, people never change. Even when offered an alternate path, we remain stuck in our ways. Tony and Melfi discuss fate and freewill, how we are changed by our parents and the circumstances with which we’re raised, and it’s just so interesting to see them dialogue back and forth—Tony taking a cynical view and Melfi remaining open-minded. She tells him that we do have a choice, we can change what our future holds. Tony voices a different opinion: you’re born into this shit. You are what you are.
The conversations between the two in “Down Neck” hold great metaphysical weight, showing that none of the other Great Dramas could come close to The Sopranos when it came down to thought-provoking existentialism. One show that does surpass it, however: the surreal FX comedy Louie.
Elsewhere, the rest of “Down Neck” continues to be top notch. I’ve always felt that time spent with AJ could be spent better elsewhere, but his spotlight in this episode isn’t as forced as it was in “Meadowlands”. Thanks to being expelled and grounded, he gets to form an unlikely onscreen chemistry with Livia, part of his punishment from Carmela being to pay weekly visits to his grandmother.
It is here where AJ carelessly relays the crucial information that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist to his granny. At first in disbelief (“That’s just a racket for the Jews”), then in shock (“He goes to a psychiatrist?”), then in disgust (“He goes to talk about his mother”) at the news, Livia is the last person that Tony wants knowing of this. Only doom can come from such a thing, and I think young Livia will attest.
David Chase was also sometimes keen on taking the time during an episode to tackle a relevant social issue. In this case, the credibility of ADD is open for discussion. Tony, and thusly Chase, take the stance that ADD is just bullshit. Carmela ends up agreeing as well.
There’s nothing wrong with AJ. He just needs some better parenting, which is something Tony now remembers he never got. It leads into a fantastic final scene, Tony preparing a loaded ice cream dessert for AJ and himself, “White Rabbit” once again providing the soundtrack—a perfect closing metaphor for an episode about fathers and sons and strained relationships.
Like “46 Long” and its one-time-only pre-credits sequence, “Down Neck” is somewhat of a Sopranos anomaly due to its extensive use of flashbacks. Yet this uniqueness is what makes it such a fantastic episode of television and a highlight of this landmark debut season, showing just how deep and introspective The Sopranos was willing to go.
- I question the use of the flashbacks to “College” early in the episode. The cuts are quick and jumpy (“Are”— “Are you”—“Are you in the mafia?”), disrupting the flow, and it’s almost as if the writers didn’t think we’d remember the iconic events that happened only two episodes ago. C’mon man.
- AJ mentions the South Park series premiere “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” when talking with his school psychiatrist. AJ’s definitely the type of person that prefers early season South Park to any of the more socially-bent post-season five stuff.
- So apparently Michael B. Jordan has a small role in this episode. Interesting, I guess. I haven’t seen Creed.
- Possible Kevin Finnerty reference? “Maybe I’d be selling patio furniture in San Diego.”
- Another song used to great effect during the flashback scenes is “Mystic Eyes” by the angry, young Them—Van Morrison’s swaggerin’ early ‘60s garage rock band. “Gloria”, and some Van solo tunes, will be featured in later episodes.
- The clown getting arrested at the carnival alongside Johnny Boy is one of the funniest sight gags in the series.
- “I got dust up the crack of my ass and I’m starving to death.“
- “Is it a disease or a way for these psychologists to line their pockets?“
- “How come I’m not building pots in Peru? Because you’re born into this shit. You are what you are.“