Over twenty years since its initial release, and over ten years after its finale, David Chase’s groundbreaking and iconic HBO series “The Sopranos” is making a major comeback.
With the start of numerous podcasts featuring series alumni, and a prequel film—“The Many Saints of Newark,” penned by Chase himself—set to release early next year, “The Sopranos” has become suddenly just as relevant to a new generation of viewers as it was to those watching during the mid-2000s.
In honor of the series’ resurgent popularity, The Nevada Sagebrush is ranking the best episodes of the series—-or, more accurately, the best episode of each season. (Season 6 was split into two full-length parts, so that will be allowed two entries.)
While this is entirely based upon opinion, and it’s still important to watch these episodes with their full context (“The Sopranos” is serialized, not episodic), these episodes stick out as particularly notable, even in a series where every episode is near-perfectly crafted.
Also: minor spoilers ahead.
The first season of “The Sopranos” boasts some strong outings, and is generally a lot more humorous than following seasons. One terrific episode to highlight the series’ genius is “Boca.”
Though “College” is definitely seen as the favorite episode of the first season, being that it was a watershed moment for TV drama (Tony’s brutal murder of a former mob associate turned informant was a controversial move at the time), it’s “Boca” that exemplifies “The Sopranos” as a unique series.
The episode packs in humor, tragedy and some intensely poignant moments. The main plot line involving Tony’s daughter’s soccer coach, Don Hauser, goes to a rather predictable place. However, the outcome of this storyline shows a restraint the majority of more bombastic crime series wouldn’t have the maturity to exercise.
Season two of “The Sopranos” has a lot going on. The introductions of both memorable villain Richie Aprile and beloved supporting character Furio. The conclusion of Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero’s FBI plotline, and a heart wrenching storyline involving Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Davey Scatino, that reveals how morally decayed and sociopathic Soprano can truly be.
“Commendatori” is a terrific episode involving the crew’s business trip to Italy, where all characters wind up disillusioned in some respect. “Funhouse” really expands the series’s use of surreal dream sequences and features the death of a prominent character.
This aside, “D-Girl” remains one of the series’s most beloved and striking episodes. Taking a break from the typical mob action to focus on Christopher Moltisanti’s dream of breaking into the film business, the episode features Jon Favreau playing a parody of himself (among other Hollywood personalities) and a memorable guest role from Alicia Witt as the titular character.
A terrific mockery of show business makes this one of “The Sopranos”’s funniest episodes as well as one of the episodes that reveals Chase’s critiques of American culture as a whole, which can be found in the subtext of the entire show.
“Pine Barrens” (S3:E11)
Season 3 is one of the most important and incredibly dense of the series. “Employee of the Month,” “University,” “Army of One” and “Another Toothpick” are all stellar episodes, but “Pine Barrens” is perhaps the show’s most iconic and beloved single episode.
Following Christopher and Paulie Walnuts as they attempt to make a simple collection from a Russian man, it quickly devolves into a comedy-of-errors and the two wind up stranded in the frozen woods of New Jersey.
The entire episode is relatively self-contained, but the ambiguity of the Russian’s fate has led to immense debate among fans to this day, and the absurdity and pointlessness of the debacle is part of the point: “The Sopranos” is not a typical gangster show. It’s not about catharsis or grand arcs… like life, things sometimes just happen. No explanation. No reveals. No closure.
This episode was also directed by legendary actor Steve Buscemi, who later starred in the fifth season as Tony Blundetto.
No, not Christopher Moltisanti. Christopher Columbus.
While “Whitecaps” is perhaps the most dramatic of the season, with a series of intensely believable and vicious arguments between Carmela and Tony, it’s a more humorous entry that wins this slot—partially because in the final two seasons humorous episodes become rarer as the series makes its final descent into absolute darkness and morbidity.
Silvio Dante, Tony’s consigliere and owner of the Bada Bing front business/strip club, spearheads a feud with Native American protestors after said protestors demand the removal of a statue of Columbus.
The irony is palpable. Silvio and the crew mock the protestor’s claims of oppression and scoff at the removal of the statue, while clinging to ideas of Italian-American pride and themselves claiming oppression due to the historical (and nowadays practically non-existent) discrimination against Italians.
This juxtaposition and irony is prevalent in “The Sopranos,” but in this episode it is at its most blatant. Chase makes clear that these characters are comically un-self-aware and ignorant, as well as generally unempathetic and oddly self-pitying for a bunch of tough guys.
The episode also features a terrific and subtly funny ending scene, wherein Tony’s fixation on an idealized vision of American masculinity (“Gary Cooper, the ‘strong, silent type’”) is finally called into question, by Silvio of all people.
“Cold Cuts” (S5:E10)
Season 5 is yet another absolutely stacked season of “The Sopranos.” “All Due Respect,” “The Test Dream,” “Marco Polo,” and “In Camelot” are fantastic episodes.
But one that stands out in particular is “Cold Cuts.” It’s an undeniably tragic episode. It teases us with potential positive development for several pitiable characters, before they are inevitably dragged back down to their old behaviors and self-destruction. Or, as Silvio would say in his corny Al Pacino impression: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”
The episode is particularly notable for the emotionally brutal ending scene between Tony and his equally amoral and troubled sister Janice, and the ending song (the 1994 live version of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” by The Kinks) which is perhaps the series’s best choice of music—and that’s really saying a lot given “The Sopranos”’s soundtrack.
“Cold Stones” (S6:E11)
The first half of the final season sports some incredible entries: “Members Only,” “Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request…” and “Luxury Lounge” are all really great and highlight some side characters before viewers have to say goodbye permanently.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking arc of the season is that of Vito Spatafore. Without giving much away, there’s a serious revelation involving Vito which results in him going on the run from his crime family.
“Cold Stones” features the violent and horrifying conclusion to this arc and its subsequent aftermath, and for that reason remains one of the series’s most gut-wrenching and shocking episodes.
“Kennedy and Heidi” (S6:E18)
The latter half of the final season is truly incredible. The last four-five episodes are absolutely masterful and build anxiously to the controversial and oft-analyzed finale “Made in America.”
“Remember When,” “The Second Coming,” “Chasing It” and “Soprano Home Movies” are all fantastic, but perhaps some of the most emotionally brutalizing and morally dubious moments of the series come from “Kennedy and Heidi.”
The episode begins on a rather grim note and only grows more bleak from there. This is perhaps the episode that cemented Tony Soprano as a full-blown sociopath, having slowly devolved over the course of the series into a truly despicable and heartless monster.
The downbeat tone of the episode lays the groundwork for the final episodes of the series, and makes it clear that no matter what happens by the finale, things will never go back to normal for “The Sopranos” cast of characters.
If you’ve never seen “The Sopranos,” it’s time to start. It is undeniably one of the greatest TV series ever created, with tons of witty humor, subtle characterization, morally and ethically challenging characters, intricate plotting, and memorable moments, as well as its fair share of gruesome violence.
If you have seen “The Sopranos,” watch it again. Each viewing offers new details and complexities to be discovered, and is almost essential to fully grasping the show. And let us know if you agreed with these choices or what would be some alternative picks.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.