“Money, Shame and Reparation: A Moment from The Sopranos”

Curator's Note

Season three, ‘Another Toothpick’ and Tony and Carmela are driving home after a joint session with Melfi. It didn’t go well: Carmela is crying, Tony is speeding and a traffic cop, Leon Wilmore (Charles S. Dutton), pulls them over. Tony’s bribes are considered with contempt by Leon who threatens to call backup. Later Tony gets his political partner, the corrupt Assemblyman Zellman, to get the fine quashed. This moment takes place midway through the episode as Tony discovers that, as a result of Zellman’s actions on his behalf, Leon is now working at Fountains of Wayne, a garden/nursery store. Notice the contrast between the movement of character and camera at the beginning of the scene and at its end. Tony’s exuberant confidence in the space he walks through is underscored by his tapping on several ornaments with his birdbath pipe. By the end of the scene the camera is still and surveys Tony’s discomfort as the same pipe is handed back to him by Leon, a gesture that punctuates the end of their conversation. Notice also the garden statues in female form, which are prominent at the beginning and in subsequent shots. Perhaps they lead us back to the first image of show as Tony sits under the gaze of the statue in Melfi’s waiting room. What function do these mute forms have in the show as a whole – the sculptures, paintings, and other images (such as the twenty dollar bill that concludes ‘All Debts, Public and Private’)? What kinds of scrutiny do they suggest? As a racist mobster Tony’s high spirits continue with his mocking of Leon’s menial status which is so far from the authority and power he could muster earlier when he issued Tony the speeding ticket. Gandolfini gives Tony his best grotesque schoolboy grin as he enjoys how the tables have turned, that now it is Leon the shop assistant who must do his bidding. And Dutton’s superb cameo performance forcefully reminds us of the shame and resentment that is a product of enforced servility to the careless nonchalance of the wealthy. Leon’s boss, a ‘manager’ who looks barely twenty, interrupts Leon’s recounting of his demotion in order to tell him when he is allowed to take a break. The sting of the humiliation is palpable to Tony who is prompted to explain that he was not responsible for the severity of Leon’s demise; by the end of the episode he even offers him money, which is again refused. Does Tony do these things because he feels bad about them? Why does Leon refuse the money? What is the price of dignity?


I believe Tony does feel bad, but he also has a tendency to displace his guilt (e.g., when he learned that his former goomara Gloria committed suicide, he spent the rest of the episode trying to save his other friends). By this point in the third season, Tony has clashed with Meadow over her boyfriend Noah because he is part African American. Tony's guilt about Leon may be compounded by his guilt about Noah. So when he offers Leon the money, he's not only attempting to fix the damage he inflicted on Leon but also repair his strained relationship with Meadow. Perhaps that's why we see him navigating his way through idealized female sculptures? They could represent his beloved daughter.

I think that Tony did felt guilty here, which is one of the aspects of his character that made him so intriguing to watch. He frequently did feel remorse for the things that he did. (Thinking of Carmela and how she nursed him back to health in Season 6, for example, he was unable to cheat on her with real estate agent Julianna Skiff.) If Tony had no sense of responsibility at all for any of his crimes or transgressions, we might be able to write him off for his immorality or lack of insight. Tony does have a conscience, however, and these moments of guilt suggest that there may be something redeeming about him, something difficult to reconcile with his more vicious behavior as a "racist mobster."

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