In June of 2007, HBO viewers slapped their remotes against their palms and slammed the sides of their TV sets: The series finale of The Sopranos had cut to black mid-scene, and they wanted to see how it ended.
That creator David Chase’s modern spin on the mob drama had in fact ended, with the cut heard ’round the world, was part of the episode’s, and the series’, enduring genius. The Sopranos, which nabbed 21 Emmys during its run—including three for its star, the late James Gandolfini—never settled for simple patterns or uncomplicated characters. Instead, Chase and company elaborated a style of storytelling that felt risky, bold, profound, suspenseful, even moving, setting in motion a decade of sterling cable dramas that came to be called the Golden Age of Television. The Sopranos is, arguably, one of the two or three finest TV series ever made; it is also, undoubtedly, one of the most influential.
With the advent of the prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, we’ve decided to celebrate the series with a list of the 15 best Sopranos episodes:
From the arc of the title sequence, following Tony Soprano on the winding road home, to the motif of birds flocking together, “Pilot” presages the path of the subsequent 85 episodes: the fear of dissolution that shadows the act of building a family, whether made of blood ties, business ones, or both. As Tony describes his life to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in the aftermath of a panic attack, his words set against images of mob violence and domestic strain, The Sopranos establishes its protagonist’s stressors—Carmela (Edie Falco), Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), the kids (Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler), his mother (Nancy Marchand)—without losing sight of their own inner lives, setting up its kaleidoscopic portrait of kinship in no uncertain terms. It’s terrifically funny: “You’d think I was Hannibal Lecture,” Tony says, mispronouncing the name. It’s clouded with dark portents: As Christopher (Michael Imperioli) commits a murder, the gunshots are spliced with images of doomed gangsters. But the episode’s defining feature may be its vein of nostalgia, a poignant twist on convention that sets the series on its brilliant course. “I feel like I came in at the end,” Tony confesses to Dr. Melfi, though whether he’s referring to the Mafia’s heyday or America’s is left unstated. “The best is over.” —Matt Brennan
Violence in The Sopranos is often excruciating to watch—partly in response to the idea that violence in the mob is fun or cool. The fight between Tony and Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) in “Whoever Did This” is one of the dirtiest fights in the series. There is no fade to black or cut away, and the camera focuses on Ralphie’s bloody face after Tony beats him to death with his bare hands. It’s brutal, and Tony himself gets sick afterward. This episode is about facing consequences and truly seeing what you did (especially when it’s chopped up in the bathtub), even if you can’t admit it. —Rae Nudson
So meta: The Sopranos is a Hollywood show about mobsters where one of the mobsters is trying to break into Hollywood. This episode is humorous thanks to the stunt casting of real celebrities (hi, Jon Favreau!) and inside baseball jokes, like a script with a logo for United Talent Agency (company co-founder Peter Benedek is David Chase’s agent, and he would also cameo in the series). But it also hints at more: Christopher so badly wants to be taken seriously and be a screenwriter, but none of these people see him as anything more than a walking stereotype. —Whitney Friedlander
No other show has so effectively done a dream sequence. The first half of “The Test Dream” feels a little like The Sopranos’ version of Eloise at the Plaza, with a lonely Tony treating himself to a night in the legendary New York City hotel—complete with room service and a prostitute. He falls asleep, and the second half of the episode shifts into a surreal dream that never feels hokey (despite a cameo from Annette Bening and a scene with Tony atop a horse in the middle of his living room) and manages to perfectly capture that eerie tone most dreams take on, where it feels close to real life but a few things are slightly off. It even works in some common nightmare situations (all of your teeth falling out, returning to high school only to discover you’re not prepared), and ultimately, Tony awakens to find out that his stress dream was more like a premonition: His cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), has killed Billy Leotardo as revenge for Angelo getting whacked, opening the Soprano crew up to the wrath of Phil Leotardo. —Bonnie Stiernberg
The Sopranos’s second-to-last episode is where, for lack of a better term, shit really starts to hit the fan. Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) decides to wipe out the DiMeo family by taking out Tony, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) and Bobby (Steve Schirripa)—effectively starting an all-out war. Agent Harris runs into Tony and informs him of Phil’s plan, so Tony orders a hit on Phil—but it’s botched, with the gunman mistaking the father of Phil’s Ukrainian mistress for Phil. As a result, we get one of the most striking death sequences of the series, as Bobby—sweet Bobby, the gentle giant—goes down in a hail of bullets while picking out a toy train. Silvio gets his outside the Bada Bing shortly after, winding up in critical condition in the hospital. Tony goes into hiding, after a stunning scene in which he informs AJ, who has just been released from the hospital’s mental ward, of Bobby’s death—and then lashes out physically at him after he starts to cry. (No wonder Dr. Melfi dropped him as a patient for being a sociopath). It’s a heartbreaking episode that puts all the pieces in place for one of TV’s greatest finales. —Bonnie Stiernberg
For a show that features so many brutal deaths and blow-up fights, The Sopranos also excels at slow burns and quiet, understated moments. “Soprano Home Movies,” which takes place mostly on a weekend retreat upstate with Janice (Aida Turturro) and Bobby to celebrate Tony’s birthday, has its fair share of big moments—Bobby and Tony’s drunken fistfight, Bobby’s first kill (assigned to him by Tony out of spite the morning after their brawl)—but it’s the small details—like the green Monopoly house stuck to the side of Tony’s face after the fight, or Bobby and Tony on a boat, musing about whether you even hear it when you get whacked, or the way Bobby returns to the idyllic vacation house after murdering a guy and tightly squeezes his daughter while “This Magic Moment” plays—that truly elevate this episode from good to one of the series’ best. —Bonnie Stiernberg
There are a lot of hard things to watch on The Sopranos, but Dr. Melfi’s rape is one of the hardest. The Sopranos focuses on the aftermath, and on Dr. Melfi’s bruised body and spirit. Dr. Melfi spends the series vacillating between believing she can help Tony and knowing she’s complicit in his actions. In “Employee of the Month,” she draws a hard line at what she won’t do when she knows she could ask Tony for revenge on her rapist, but doesn’t. Is there a single more devastating moment in The Sopranos than when Tony asks Dr. Melfi if she wants to say something after she breaks down in tears, and she says, “No?” —Rae Nudson
It’s the stunning conclusion of “Made in America,” the unexpected cut to black, that still, ten years later, leads to arguments: Was Tony taken out, or was he just paranoid? What of his wife, his kids? Does it matter? Was the choice to end it this way even any good? What’s striking now, watching it in tandem with “Pilot,” are the echoes of the earlier episode, in particular AJ’s sense that the “beautiful idea” of America has been subject to poison, ruin, rot. Like father, like son, the Soprano men confront the notion that the dream is dead, and attempt to tamp down, or flee, the dysfunction this causes. Alongside Phil’s ignominious demise—that brief, shocking interlude at the Raceway never fails to make my jaw drop—much of “Made in America” is mournful, terse, as if Journey’s call, “Don’t Stop Believin,’” had already fallen on deaf ears. Oh, and about that final sequence? It creates untold suspense from small talk, sidelong glances and the bell on the door before leaving us hanging—the last, best feat of a series that counts among the finest ever made. — Matt Brennan
After Uncle Junior shoots Tony in the stomach, The Sopranos wanders through Tony’s unconscious mind as he lies in a coma in the second episode of Season Six. It was daring, yet so typical of The Sopranos, to give viewers the opposite of what they thought they wanted. Instead of mob infighting or revenge on Uncle Junior, The Sopranos spends two episodes exploring the mind of its lead. “Who am I? Where am I going?” Tony says in his dream. This episode is an example of how you didn’t have to know where The Sopranos was going to enjoy the journey.
The Sopranos writers sure did have their fun with episode names. Who exactly are Kennedy and Heidi, you ask? They’re the teenage girls out for the late-night joyride that would have probably implicated them in the death of one Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli)—if Tony Soprano hadn’t finished the job for them. Granted, it was looking like Christopher would be taken out sooner or later (either by his “family” or by his own demons). And he was gravely injured after his reckless and intoxicated driving caused him to flip his Escalade when he swerved to avoid crashing into the girls’ car. But was Tony’s impulse decision to suffocate his once heir apparent a mercy killing? Also: Christopher’s final music selection? The Departed soundtrack. Subtle. —Whitney Friedlander
Carmela can typically be won over again by a big gift, but the new summer home Tony buys in “Whitecaps” isn’t enough to ease her anguish after hearing about not one, but two, of Tony’s recent girlfriends. Every so often, Carmela admits to herself what she knows: that Tony is a killer, a liar, a cheat. Usually, she backs away from the truth to keep living her luxurious life, but in “Whitecaps” she attempts to throw it all away in a thrilling, vicious moment of despair. It’s some of Falco’s best work in the series, and Gandolfini shows his range when he goes from faking innocence to truly terrifying when he lunges at her during their fight. —Rae Nudson
So much of The Sopranos revolves around Tony’s health: Panic attacks, depression, his uncle shooting him in the gut. But, in the second season’s finale, we learn that all it takes is a severe case of food poisoning for our anti-hero to realize that his oldest friend is a rat. It almost seemed like Big Pussy’s (Vincent Pastore) relationship with the law had gone unnoticed until Tony’s Godfather-esque hallucination sees him as a talking fish. This is in contrast to other shows, where forced exposition would have wasted time catching the rest of the crew up with what the audience has known for months. Instead, we simply see Pussy willingly boarding Tony’s boat and staunchly accepting his fate after receiving celebratory toasts and eulogies from the very men who would be sending him to his watery grave. —Whitney Friedlander
It isn’t exactly revolutionary to put “Pine Barrens” on this list. This episode isn’t just routinely touted as one of the best Sopranos episodes, it’s on lists of best TV episodes of all time, and writers Terence Winter and Tim Van Patten received an Emmy nomination and a Writers Guild of America award for their work. What makes it so great is that it gives meat and weight to something that could have been rather simple: A one-off episode in which, among other things, two of our favorite goodfellas (Christopher and Tony Sirico’s Paulie) get lost in the woods due to an assignment gone awry. (Check your temper next time, Paulie!) “Pine Barrens” is funny, which is something The Sopranos doesn’t always get enough credit for being. But it’s also a story that hints at themes of isolation and despair. —Whitney Friedlander
Only the fifth episode in the show’s inaugural season, “College” arrived at a time when viewers were still discovering the sheer genius of the Emmy-winning drama. Tony takes his daughter, Meadow, on a tour of colleges in Maine. While on the road, Tony spots Febby Petrulio, a former Mafia man turned FBI informant who is now in the Witness Protection Program. The only solution, in Tony’s mind, is to kill Febby, which he does with his bare hands. The juxtaposition of the innocuousness familiarity of a college tour against the viciousness of Tony’s business was stunning. It was the first time Tony killed anyone, cementing that, despite being the lead and a sympathetic character, Tony Soprano decidedly was not a nice guy. —Amy Amatangelo
I still get a pit in my stomach every time I think of this episode. It’s that moment when we go from Adriana (Drea de Matteo) driving herself away from the terror to awaiting her fate in Silvio’s car—the jarring switch from a daydream to harsh reality. It’s that moment where we think perhaps Silvio is just giving Adriana a ride to the hospital. That maybe Christopher did try to commit suicide. The impending dread we feel is confirmed by the menacing look that briefly crosses Silvio’s face. Adriana must pay with her life for colluding with the FBI. Her beloved Chris-to-phur not only did not save her, but instead conspired in her murder, dumping her suitcase in the water and parking her car at the airport (hence the episode’s title). We never see Adriana’s body, a rarity for the series—just Sil’s gun going off, leading many viewers (myself included) clinging to the hope that perhaps Silvio had spared her. But, alas, that was not the case. —Amy Amatangelo
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