The Sopranos at 25: top ten episodes ranked
This year marks the 25th anniversary of The Sopranos first being aired on TV. Since that first episode first graced our screens, the show has developed into one of the most praised and critically acclaimed television shows of all-time, with many people often giving it the title of the greatest TV drama of all-time. Now seems like the perfect time to reflect on David Chase’s mafia story and rank the best episodes of the show.
The Sopranos first aired on 10 January 1999, on HBO and ran until 10 June 2007. Spanning six seasons and 86 episodes, the show revolves around Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), a New Jersey mob boss as he deals with running his criminal organisation as well as struggling to balance this with his family life, both of which he reluctantly discusses and explores in therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) following a panic attack. The show also features prominent characters such as Tony’s wife Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) and his cousin and mafia protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) amongst various other family members, criminal colleagues, and adversaries.
10. College (S1, E5)
To kickstart the list we have an early episode of the show that laid the foundation for the rest of the show to come. This episode follows Tony and his daughter Meadow as they take a trip to view colleges that Meadow is considering attending. Whilst on the trip, Tony spots an ex-associate turned law informant who had gone into hiding. Tony takes it upon himself to kill the man whilst having to ensure his daughter is none the wiser. Tony kills the man by strangling him with a cord. Having the protagonist of a show kill another man in cold blood was not something commonly shown on TV at the time, indicating that The Sopranos was different. The episode perfectly balances the family drama and crime drama elements which the show was famous for, giving early fans an idea of what to expect from future episodes.
9. Whoever Did This (S4, E9)
This episode is packed with plot points and important events to the point where it’s hard to fit it all in. Firstly, this episode is the first example of Tony’s uncle Junior’s dementia which becomes an important plot point later on in the show’s run. The main focus of the episode is on Ralph Cifaretto, one of Tony’s captains and a character fans came to despise. Ralph’s son suffers a serious accident with an arrow and is hospitalised with brain damage and blood loss. An argument between Tony and Ralph leads to a fight where Tony kills Ralph by strangling him. As soon as viewers were allowed to feel some sympathy towards Ralph, he was violently whacked. This episode kept viewers on their toes and saw an end to a character fans loved to hate.
8. The Knight In White Satin Armor (S2, E12)
Season two’s penultimate episode features one of the most surprising deaths of the whole show. Richie Aprille was far too volatile to exist for the full show, often clashing with Tony on small matters. Whilst this isn’t the first time a character got whacked in The Sopranos, Richie’s sudden death marked the first time someone credited in the main cast was written off. This season built fans’ expectations to see Richie killed by Tony’s hand, yet it was Tony’s sister Janice, Richie’s fiancé, who fatally shot him following an argument over dinner. This episode solidified the fact that no character was safe on the show and that killing could be carried out by anyone.
7. Kennedy And Heidi (S6, E19)
One of the most discussed episodes of the show, this episode features the death of Christopher Moltisanti. While Christopher is driving recklessly with Tony in the passenger seat, he drifts into the opposite lane and has to swerve to avoid an oncoming car. They wreck off the road and Tony walks out of the wreckage with minor injuries whereas Christopher, who was not wearing his seatbelt is seriously injured with internal bleeding.
Tony suffocates Christopher’s nose, and he chokes to death on his own blood. This display of Tony’s true lack of remorse culminates in Tony taking a trip of self-discovery in Las Vegas where he seems more relieved than devastated. Christopher was lucky to last this long, yet his death was still a shocking and brutal moment. The episode is bold and hard and is a highlight of the last season.
6. Made In America (S6, E21)
The Sopranos came to an end with this explosive episode. It manages to tie up loose ends and send off various characters that fans had come to know and love all before reaching the infamous final scene. Phil Leotardo is also whacked by Tony’s crew after discovering his location and Uncle Junior is in a nursing home with late-stage dementia. However, the most memorable moment is the final scene which places Tony and his family in a diner with numerous suspicious-looking characters situated around them.
Meadow is running late to the meal and when she finally walks in, we see Tony and the screen cuts to black, all to the tune of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. Fans are torn between the cut to black implying that Tony was whacked himself or that Tony lived on after the scene, but the cut indicated that he could be killed at any point in the future. The finale and the final moments in particular are still discussed and debated today and the innovative way in which the show concluded is still shocking new audiences, displaying the true longevity of the show and its impact on viewers over the years.
5. Whitecaps (S4, E13)
Whilst this episode is the least violent or deadly season finale of the whole show, it is perhaps the greatest display of the hard-hitting family drama elements that separated The Sopranos from any show before it. Tony takes Carmela on a trip to Whitecaps, a house he is considering buying on the Jersey shore. However, when one of Tony’s more frequent mistresses calls Tony’s house, Carmela answers the phone. Carmela becomes distressed and throws Tony’s possessions out of the window and they eventually separate in the episode (although this isn’t permanent) after Tony becomes violent towards her, but he does not cause her any physical harm. The acting and chemistry on display here from Gandolfini and Falco are at an all-time high and make for a harrowing display of the domestic life of Tony Soprano.
4. Soprano Home Movies (S6, E13)
The Sopranos split its final season into two parts with this episode marking the beginning of season 6B. Tony and Carmela visit Bobby and Janice at a lakeside cabin for a retreat. Tony and Bobby bond and they have a reflective conversation in the middle of the lake on life whilst also mentioning that Bobby had never “popped his cherry”, meaning that he hadn’t yet carried out a hit. After dinner, a drunken fight breaks out between Bobby and Tony. The episode concludes with Tony forcing Bobby to carry out a hit, and it’s a command more than a request. Tony’s ruthlessness is on full display here as he corrupts the only character to have a somewhat clean morale compass. The secluded nature of the episode creates warmth within the family but also helps to create palpable tension when things get heated between Tony and Bobby. It is also one of the most visually poignant episodes of the show.
3. Pine Barrens (S3, E11)
The Sopranos is without a doubt a hard-hitting drama with many emotional peaks, yet it managed to use comedy very effectively to break the tension in appropriate moments. Pine Barrens is perhaps the funniest episode of the show altogether. This Steve Buscemi-directed episode follows Christopher and Paulie as they try to kill Valery, a Russian who owed money to Silvio, after the collection went wrong. Following a scuffle in Valery’s apartment, they take him to the woods where he proceeds to escape and the two mobsters must hunt him down, but they end up lost and must be rescued by Tony and Bobby.
This episode ultimately adds little to the overall story of the show as a whole, but its individual brilliance cannot be understated. Christopher and Paulie’s dynamic is great to watch with the added comedy of being stranded in the woods with gags such as Paulie mishearing Tony say, “interior ministry” and believing that Valery was an interior decorator. Not many shows can strike such a good balance of comedy and drama as The Sopranos effortlessly displays in this episode.
2. Funhouse (S2, E13)
The final episode of season two is a masterclass in TV storytelling. It features Tony who is having fever dreams after a bout of food poisoning. In this dream, he encounters a fish on a stand which talks to him, acting as Sal “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. The visual metaphor harks back to The Godfather, one of many references to the classic mafia film in the show, as Sal says the fish either side of him are sleeping. He tells Tony he is an FBI informant. Tony then takes Silvio to Sal’s house and finds his wire. He then takes him to see a boat and go out to sea with Paulie. After a joke and a drink, Tony shoots Sal and dumps his body in the ocean. The Sopranos pioneered the use of frequent dream sequences in long-form TV with this episode in particular. It was a brilliant send-off to a beloved character and it established the show as the leading force in TV drama.
1. Long-Term Parking (S5, E12)
The penultimate episode of the fifth season features the most shocking main character death of the whole series. Christopher’s partner Adrianna La Cerva was forced to become an FBI informant after admitting to cleaning up a murder in her nightclub. She goes on to give information to the FBI and eventually tells Christopher. His immediate reaction is to strangle her, not a surprising character moment for him, before letting go and beginning to cry with her. Silvio picks Adrianna up to go visit Christopher in hospital, where he instead drives her into the woods and proceeds to shoot her off-screen as she tries to crawl away. Christopher later leaves her car in a long-term parking spot at the airport.
Her death was not a surprise as informants had not been treated particularly well up to this point yet the impact on the audience cannot be understated. This episode really helped to increase the dark and depressing theme and feeling of the last season as well as firmly solidifying Christopher’s loyalties to the family over his partner, something which he had struggled with since the first season. The Sopranos produced some of the greatest episodes of television ever and pioneered the TV anti-hero during its time on air. Long Term Parking narrowly stands above the rest as the crowning jewel of the show.