I was a latecomer to The Sopranos, David Chase’s seminal HBO show largely credited with launching the “Golden Age” of prestige television. The story of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his Family (both literal and figurative) has become so ubiquitous to our culture that it feels both banal and daunting to first-time viewers. (Tip: HBO is offering the pilot for free in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary – it premiered January 10, 1999 – so it’s a good time to get started.)
But there’s another reason I hesitated. On a superficial level, The Sopranos presented itself as a show that prizes hardcore masculinity above all else. Our now-longstanding cultural obsession with male anti-heroes — from Breaking Bad’s Walter White, to Mad Men’s Don Draper, to Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister — can be traced back to the first time we see Tony walking down his driveway to pick up his newspaper in his signature undershirt and bathrobe combo. It’s the show fratty men use to explain great TV on bad dates.
The irony is that to consider The Sopranos a show by men, for men and about men is to miss its most compelling elements. Its genius lies in its sly ability to trick its viewers into watching a series that, under its tough guy guise, is really a careful consideration of inherited trauma, mental illness, toxic masculinity, and motherhood. Women are an intrinsic part of this story — from Tony’s fearsome wife Carmela (Edie Falco) to the looming shadow of his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), even several seasons after her death.
For the men of this show, women exist in five distinct categories: wives, who are to be respected and protected, and in turn are expected to (excessively) feed the family, raise the children, and quietly absorb the cutting emotional blows dealt to them; mistresses/girlfriends, usually independent and business-oriented, who get their own romantic date nights and financial perks, but should also never overstep; mothers, often deified, which makes their betrayals even harder to bear; daughters, whose purity is to be preserved, and intellectual pursuits encouraged; and finally, the so-called “whores,” the ones who are there purely for sexual satisfaction, and who should consider themselves “lucky” to have that going for them.
Those last two categories — the most strictly opposed — intersect in an explosive way in “University,” an episode that, for a woman viewer watching for the first time in 2018, delivered a gut punch. This sixth episode in the third season sparked immediate controversy when it aired in 2001 for its depiction of the brutal, senseless murder of a woman — one of the most violent scenes ever depicted in a show already notorious for going there. HBO reportedly faced angry viewers cancelling subscriptions, as women fans in particular objected to the constant gratuitous nudity, as well as the sheer scale of the violence depicted on screen. (Things have to be pretty extreme for the New York Post to run a recap headlined: “Did Sopranos Go Too Far?”) At what point does showing the violence perpetrated on a women outweigh the good done by the messaging? What are the limits of decency, and can we ever root for someone who crosses that line?
But it’s that very question that “University,” and The Sopranos as a whole, tries to answer.
It’s an entirely self-contained episode, in that it doesn’t really advance any of the plots unfurling during that particular season (ie. Uncle Junior’s stomach cancer; Tony’s passionate affair with Gloria; the tragic tale of Jackie Jr.). Instead, it delves deep into the core character traits and themes at the heart of the show: privilege, misogyny, and our own complicity in the violence lurking within these characters we’ve grown to love. It’s an episode that now serves as a prescient warning for the times we live in now – the times we’ve actually been living in all along.
“University” spotlights the lives of two women: Tony’s daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), in her first year at Columbia University, and Tracee (Ariel Kiley), a stripper who works at the Bada-Bing club, used as a front for the characters’ mob activities.
At roughly the same age, the two young women are on opposite ends of the Sopranos privilege spectrum. Meadow has every advantage: near limitless funds, the support of a loving family who lives less than an hour away in suburban New Jersey, and the freedom to choose her own future. Her sexuality is her own to control — “University” notably depicts her deciding to lose her virginity, having sex for the first time ever with college boyfriend Noah (Patrick Tully). But all these advantages have made her callous towards those who can’t cope in a similar situation. Meadow’s dismissal of her roommate, Caitlin (Ari Graynor), a girl from a small town who’s having real trouble adjusting to the pressures and stresses of college in New York City, mirrors the way her father treats Tracee when she tries to approach him for help after finding out she’s pregnant with his associate Ralphie Cifaretto’s (Joe Pantoliano) baby.
Already juggling the care of one small child, not to mention repressed trauma from her own upbringing, Tracee has no options. Her future is bleak, and her body's for sale out of necessity — even her braces, which she shows off with the enthusiasm of a young woman who has little to be proud of, are an investment by her boss, Silvio (Steven Van Zandt), who wants to ensure she rakes in more cash in the future. And since nothing in Sopranos Land is free, Tracee pays off her debt by working overtime in the VIP room, passed from man to man like a rag doll. What little solace she gets comes from Ralphie, a violent lowlife, and this season’s primary antagonist.
But despite their differences, both of these women face emotional manipulation and trauma at the hands of the men around them. Meadow, who so badly wants to believe that Noah is different from her gangster dad, ultimately realizes that he’s similarly unfeeling when he turns on a distraught Caitlin after pretending to want to help her. And Tracee, desperate for affection, is brutalized by Silvio (a character who’s portrayed as a more measured influence on Tony, and who’s genuinely sympathetic most of the time), humiliated by Ralphie, and ignored by Tony.
Episode director Alan Coulter further emphasizes the link between these two women – and also, to an extent, Caitlin — with a series of smooth transitions: when Tracee asserts herself and opens a door to leave, the scene cuts to Meadow entering a room. When Tracee is forced into a threesome by Ralphie, she leans down to perform oral sex on a cop, a moment that cuts to a distraught Caitlin raising her head up as she sobs. The use of The Kinks’ “Living On A Thin Line,” throughout the episode serves as another reminder of the precariousness of each woman’s situation.
Meadow ends the episode feeling fragile and lost, having placed her trust in the wrong man. Noah, who had seemed so supportive of both her, and even poor Caitlin, turns hostile after a setback at school. He coldly breaks up with Meadow, leaving her to run home to pick up the pieces. But at least she has a place to go. Tracee isn’t so lucky. In her one attempt at taking control of her own fate, she tries to challenge Ralphie , asking him what he’s got planned for her now that’s pregnant. His cruel dismissal is chilling, and for Tracee, it’s one slight too many. Their altercation ends with an enraged Ralphie bashing her face beyond recognition, murdering her in cold blood in the parking lot behind the Bing.
It’s the ultimate manifestation of the Margaret Atwood quote that routinely makes the rounds on Twitter: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them.” Her death is nearly unbearable to watch. But what truly makes this horrific episode emblematic of the series is the overall indifference with which Tony and the men around him regard women’s suffering, be it Meadow’s heartbreak, or Tracee’s agonizing death. We’ve come to know these men, root for them even — though the show never sugarcoats the violence inherent in their chosen path. We’ve laughed at Silvio’s lame Godfather impersonation, mocked Ralph’s constant goofy Gladiator obsession, and felt Tony’s softer side as a family man who really does loves his wife and kids. But what Chase is saying with “University” is that these aren’t men we can trust, no matter how endearing they can be. And knowing that, can we still watch them?
As viewers, their actions are a betrayal that echoes the one felt by so many women during the reckoning of the last year. As we’ve learned time and time again, Bad Men come in all shapes and sizes: they can be criminals and sociopaths, arrogant, mansplaining college film buffs, or high-profile celebrities.
In October 2017, amid the burgeoning #MeToo movement, Kiley — now a yoga instructor — opened up about playing Tracee in a post on her personal blog. She was proud of her character’s shocking impact on Sopranos fans, she wrote. Her experience on the show, though overwhelmingly positive, revealed something back then that women are still coming to terms with today: “It showed what I already knew about my worth as a young attractive woman in the eyes of many men. I was an object to be used and thrown away.”