It’s not without good cause that The Sopranos is held in such high regard. David Chase’s show first aired back in 1999 and over six seasons and 86 episodes, it redefined the TV drama. The show was a true game-changer, pioneering the golden age of television that we still enjoy today. It also featured one of the all-time great TV characters in Tony Soprano, a conflicted family man torn between his two lives, played to perfection by James Gandolfini.
The Sopranos was an intricately plotted epic, filled with faultless performances and gripping drama. It didn’t shy away from the violent side of the gangster lifestyle, and these moments of violence sat in contrast alongside the day-to-day stresses of domestic life.
Throughout its run there were numerous moments that proved to be especially memorable. They range from the touching and poignant to the shocking and intense. These are the scenes which played a huge part in making the show the compelling saga we know and love:
*WARNING – HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD*
10. Big Pussy gets whacked – ‘Funhouse’ (S2 E13)
The death of Salvatore ‘Big Pussy’ Bonpensiero was always on the cards, but that didn’t make it any less powerful when the moment finally arrived. Pussy was one of Tony’s oldest friends and his betrayal clearly cut deep. His decision to turn informant for the FBI was a crucial part of the show’s second season and Tony’s growing suspicion was finally confirmed when he found his friend’s wire.
Every moment during the gang’s trip out on Tony’s boat drips with tension as we wait for the inevitable to occur. Watching Tony and his friends come to terms with what must be done never fails to resonate. It’s a brutal moment that showed just how unforgiving and violent the life their way of life truly is.
9. Adriana’s death – ‘Long Term Parking’ (S5 E12)
Adriana’s decision to turn rat loomed large over the show’s fifth season. When the pressure got too much and she finally revealed her decision to Chris, it gave him a huge decision to make. We soon realise though that he has chosen to stay loyal to Tony and consequently Adriana’s fate is sealed.
Under the pretence of Chris being in hospital after a relapse, she takes a fateful car ride with Sil and you could cut the tension with a knife immediately. As they detour into remote woodland, her slow realisation of what is really happening is haunting to see. When they finally arrive at a secluded spot, she desperately tries to crawl to freedom, but to no avail. Adriana’s death was another vicious reminder that in the world of The Sopranos, some things can never be forgiven.
8. Dr Melfi doesn’t ask Tony – ‘Employee of the month’ (S3 E4)
The relationship between Dr Melfi and Tony was a huge part of the show’s dynamic. Tony’s discussions with his psychiatrist provided us with a vital insight into his thought process and provide a neat counterbalance to his unpredictable and combustible work life. Dr Melfi is a moral compass of sorts, sitting outside of the world of crime within which Tony operates.
In season three, Dr Melfi is the victim of a horrific rape, but her attacker is released from jail on a technicality. After breaking down during a session with Tony, he asks her if there’s anything he can do to help. The tense pause as we await her reply is masterful. In that moment she has to decide whether to retain the moral high ground or take advantage of her patient’s power. It was a fascinating insight into Dr Melfi’s mindset and the crucial difference between her and her impulsive patient.
7. Tony kills Ralphie – ‘Whoever Did This’ (S4 E9)
Ralph Cifaretto was a thoroughly detestable figure throughout his time on the show. He was violent, obnoxious and a constant thorn in Tony’s side. In an earlier season we witnessed him viciously kill a young woman he was dating, a heinous act with immediately positioned as a man in great need of comeuppance.
That comeuppance finally arrived in this episode where the death of the racehorse Pie-O-My leads to him and Tony having a blistering row. Tony blames Ralph for the death of the beloved creature and the row soon escalates leading to Tony snapping and strangling Ralph to death with his bare hands. Not only did this mark Ralph getting his long-overdue just deserts, but also served to show once again just how ferocious Tony could be. Especially when you destroy something he loves.
6. AJ in the pool – ‘The Second Coming’ (S6 E19)
One of the most powerful and affecting moments in Sopranos history. This unforgettable scene in the show’s final season was the shocking culmination of AJ’s battle with depression. He’d grown increasingly sombre and apathetic as the final season drew on and in ‘The Second Coming’ he finally snapped and tried to take his own life in the family swimming pool.
AJ plunged into the pool with a bag over his head and cinder block tied to his legs and it looked momentarily like the unthinkable may be about to unfold. Just in the nick of time though, Tony arrives back at the house and dives straight into the pool to rescue his son. In the blink of an eye we see Tony veer from his usual tough guy persona to a regular desperate father. It’s a scene fraught with nerve-shredding tension. James Gandolfini showed his incredible range once again as he flawlessly conveyed the rage, confusion and utter heartbreak that Tony was experiencing.
5. Chris and Paulie get lost – ‘Pine Barrens’ (S3 E11)
It’s hard to narrow this entry down to one exact moment from this fan favourite episode, as its a glorious stand-alone tale from start to finish (directed by Steve Buscemi no less). The story follows Paulie and Chris as they find themselves lost in the frozen New Jersey pine barrens with a hulking Russian mobster named Valery.
The duo bickering and desperately fighting to keep warm is incredibly enjoyable, but perhaps the episode’s finest moment is their botched hit on their Russian comrade. The remote icy surroundings make for an eerily quiet backdrop as Paulie and Chris make Valery dig his own grave. His sudden attack on them and subsequent escape turns this chilling moment of grim mob violence into something borderline farcical. The Russian’s fate was purposefully left unclear and it went on to become one of the show’s great unsolved mysteries.
4. I heard the tapes ma! – ‘I dream of Jeannie Cusamano’ (S1 E13)
Tony’s relationship with his mother was always fairly strained. However, in this gripping first season finale, it reached unprecedented new levels of fractiousness. Also around this time, the rivalry between Junior and Tony was becoming increasingly heated. Consequently, when Tony is played a tape recording of the pair plotting an attempt on his life, he understandably gets pretty angry. We then see him storm into Livia’s retirement home, and even pick up a pillow with a wicked glint in his eye.
However, at the last second, Tony’s chance is taken away from him as Livia is whisked away by the doctors having seemingly suffered a stroke. As Tony viciously whispers at her “I heard the tapes, Ma.”, what really strikes isn’t the venom in his voice or the wider significance of this failed attempt, but the chilling smile on his mother’s face as she is wheeled away. A moment which marked a huge tipping point in Tony’s relationship with both his mother and his uncle.
3. Tony kills the rat – ‘College’ (S1 E5)
This episode in the show’s first season saw Tony and Meadow share some father/daughter time while they go visiting some prospective colleges. The strict separation Tony maintained between his family and professional lives came under threat however when by complete chance, in the small town where he and Meadow are staying, he spots a former mobster who turned informant and entered into witness protection.
After ensuring Meadow is busy elsewhere, Tony tracks the rat down and brutally strangles him to death with his bare hands. The cat-and-mouse aspect of the episode is excellent, but the real drama stems from Tony’s determination to keep his two lives separate. We see how violent and unforgiving he can be, while minutes later being reminded of his caring and nurturing side. It was earlier in this episode where Meadow also quizzed her father on his links to organised crime for the first time. These two vastly different moments both serve to highlight the unavoidable tension at the heart of Tony’s existence.
2. Carmella and Tony separate – ‘Whitecaps’ (S4 E13)
Tony and Carmela’s marriage was under considerable strain for some time but the years of infidelity and deceit finally reached breaking point in this explosive season four finale. The delicate balance Tony maintained between work and home life came crumbling down as the pair engaged in an explosive argument during which years of anger and pent up rage came bursting out.
It’s sad to watch the Sopranos’ marriage falling apart, and it’s the sheer intensity of the scene which really hit home. Edie Falco and James Gandolfini both quite rightly won Emmy’s as a result of their work here, both actors putting in blistering performances. Tony is far from the perfect husband and father, but we also know that he deeply loves his family. The domestic bliss he had desperately maintained for so long was shattering around him here though and nothing would ever be the same again.
1. The final scene – ‘Made in America’ (S6 E21)
The Sopranos’ finale may still divide opinion but regardless of what your take may be, it remains an unforgettable and vital part of the show’s DNA. The scene sees Tony and his family assembling at a diner in the aftermath of an uneasy truce. As Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ plays over the top, every second of the scene is shrouded in tension. Even something as mundane as Meadow parking a car and crossing a road. At any moment we fear a reprisal.
Tony is clearly on edge and seeing a potential enemy at every turn. It is this sense of uncertainty that lies at the heart of the show’s finale. However you may interpret the final moments where the scene cut to black, the point is that Tony will permanently be looking over his shoulder and will forever feel like a target.
The beauty of the show is that we don’t need to know exactly how it ends. It’s tense, it’s puzzling, it’s daring, and it refuses to give a straightforward answer. It may have frustrated some people, but this wonderfully ambiguous climax also ensured the show would forever maintain its special mystique.