“I Said ‘Zoo’ and You Came”

The Sopranos: Season 3, Episode 9

illustration by Tom Ralston

I want you.

Let me goo this candid confession up front, try to suss it out in abstracts. This process is, I confess, different from making meaning.

It’s easy languaging, that sentence. A subject sits, a predicate works, an object is. In grammar, we understand pronouns like we do cultural objects, as imagined solutions to real problems. Which is to say: we understand I and you as “us” but are—at least half-consciously—aware that I want you is a kind of renewal, an invocation more sacred and more profane than any prayer. The grammar belongs to something older and grander, a cosmic hearth, a solar corona, a blue lick of flame. Which is to say, we have all been I and we have all been you. We play parts. We recycle like water, I and you. But want?

It’s a verbiage that makes and masks a tension all its own. 

A syllogism: the what of wanting is to want—hereafter, let this phenomenon be “erotic.” The what of want is also to be wanted—hereafter, let this phenomenon be “thriller.” Therefore, want is the negotiation of get and have. It’s a power play.

A case study: the most erotic scene I’ve ever witnessed in a television show takes place in the Reptile House of the Bronx Zoo.

The blocking is simple, the camera unfussy, the goals of the characters very clear. Two people have found their way into the deserted dark, illuminated mostly by the ghost glow of a massive python behind glass. Their words are scarce. They aren’t here to make words. He moves her towards the glass, comes on with “you know snakes can fuck themselves?” And she says “give me your hand” and she guides it under the leather coat, under the rouge dress and “Oh Jesus Christ,” he says, a smile of hot joy and eyes that go haywire. There is an invisible teflon thread tying their gazes together; the pressure is enormous. It feels like any moment everything might snap outward, like we are in the deafened quiet before the teflon snaps and everything turns to shards of its former selves. Instead, the people lean. They kiss.

A door clatters in the no-space distance and they break apart for a hair fracture. Then they recombine in the Reptile House. They want in the space they shouldn’t. They want through the can’t. He flares his winter coat a little. They become enclosed. A zipper rasps. They come together. The space between their open mouths grows and overgrows. They do not close. A moan a sigh a gasp and then she says “Don’t move” with a flick of abruptness. This is a command. He doesn’t move, startled: “What?” In three bursts of saying (“see”) she makes (“if you”) him wait (“can not.”) The camera lingers on her looking for the can not then cuts back to him. He is doing the thing where his eyes narrow like a Great White and he’s either thinking of all the things the world has in it or nothing at all, no thing to think. And then “(gasps softly).” And then “(moans).”

The short scene where Tony Soprano and Gloria Trillo fuck in the Reptile House of the Bronx Zoo makes me cross my arms and dig my nails and squinch my legs. I sweat. I don’t know where to go with it but I will follow anyway. I know to start with, I want.

I want to think about this scene from the ninth episode of the third season of The Sopranos as a perfect expression of the erotic mode. It is a mood not inhospitable to certain tropical storms or the stepping neck-low manner in which hungry animals stalk prey. This is what it is to want. Erotics is distinguished from its cousins Affection and Care by virtue of a sort of inherent contradiction in its engine, a negotiation we feel in our fleshes as tension. In her book-length lyric of that tension, Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson explores contradiction as the essential component of erotics, hinging much of her argument on a fragment of Sappho in translation: 

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me

sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

Carson locates the alluring wrongness of “sweetbitter,” which is the literal translation of Sappho’s compound glukupikon. Does it mean “bittersweet?” Does it mean how we’re used to recognizing this feeling? Or is Sappho—and the flutter in our guts—up to something else? Carson goes on: “If her ordering has a descriptive intention, eros is here being said to bring sweetness, then bitterness in sequence: she is sorting the possibilities chronologically…She is not recording the history of a love affair but the instant of desire.” 

Have you ever had your limbs loosened? It is a violence that pools as relief.

I want to think about The Sopranos as a pool of tensions and reliefs. Its arcs are both opera, full of flourish and melodrama, and also pulp, nasty, brutish, short. It is commedia dell’arte that asks its capicola-huffing men and Everest high-haired women to perform gender at bazooka levels of subtlety, at once nastily participatory in norms and annihilative to them. It does the wiggly thing lots of groundbreaker texts do: The Sopranos is responsible for so much of how television came to mean television post-The Sopranos but is also a vastly stranger and more oleic text than so much of what it inspired. 

Part of this wobble is the frighteningly keyed-in commitment to a logical apocalypse. In six seasons we watch people we have great affection for perform monstrous deeds under the guise of providing for their families. The Sopranos follows the amassment and subsequent disbursement of power to its inevitable conclusion: crumbling, decay, loss, death, void. Its early seasons hum red and notate survival in spite of this inevitability; its ending seasons are butcher shops on conveyor belts. It eats itself dead. It’s the perfect parable for capital: how else would you describe the American experiment other than the designation “organized crime?”

Or, “You deprive yourself of nothing,” Gloria tells Tony, not in the Reptile House but a glitzed-out hotel room, later in the same episode. “You think I’m vain?” he wheels, slumped in the couch, eyes eyes eyes. “I think you’re wonderful,” she says. Anne Carson, voyeur in the closet: “One moment staggers under the pressure of eros; one mental state splits. A simultaneity of pleasure and pain is at issue.” Sweetbitter, we still lick.

This ninth episode of the third season of The Sopranos is a high before the crash. We know it will get worse, but for now, the stillness intensifies the tension. It starts with a gift. To give a gift, you have to wait. You have to watch. Tony gives Carm an enormous sapphire ring for her birthday, which she immediately registers as indicative of his guilty subconscious trying to cover something up. “Is there anything you want to tell me?” she asks. “About the ring?” he says, snorts. The ring is never about the ring. The show about North Jersey mafiosos isn’t about North Jersey mafiosos. The love affair isn’t about the love affair. Under capitalism, we cope and we cope and we cope and we never name the thing that makes us feel like sinking ourselves into thick chains and cement weights off a fishing boat in the Atlantic. 

The Sopranos is not a “thriller” by any formal definition. If anything, its pacing instincts, its inclinations to sprawl, make it feel like a serialized American Pastoral, sharing with that book’s author not only a locative Newark something (“as huge and dark and hideously impermeable as a great dynasty’s burial edifice has every historical right to be”) but also easy delights in the puerile and the inane. We may drool over James Gandolfini coo-throwing “you know snakes can fuck themselves” at Annabella Sciorra but we can’t hear it without remembering Tony and Paulie sitting in the back of the Bing just minutes earlier in the episode watching—inexplicably?—a nature documentary about snakes. Paulie brings up the dual sex organs, positing that that’s why you call someone you can’t trust a snake. Tony, skeptical, suggests maybe that has to do more with the snake in the Garden of Eden, providing temptation, an opportunity to sin in. Paulie, very soberly at this point: “Hey, snakes were fucking themselves long before Adam and Eve showed up, T.” 

There’s a few pieces to negotiate here, the first of which is that snakes do not possess both sex organs! Paulie is just wrong! Paulie is usually wrong! There’s the gross transphobic implication Paulie’s making, and the way Tony humors him, suggests a reasonable alternative. And then there’s the punchline, the turn that Paulie’s mental universe might be limited by very Catholic shackles but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in evolution. Mostly, there’s the mode The Sopranos operates in when it’s not machining its monsters into mouths of their own making, which is to say the mode of broad absurdism and affable humor. When I watch the ninth episode of the third season of The Sopranos (it’s called “The Telltale Moozadell”!) I gasp-clutch my heart at the absolutely demolished cookspace Ralph Cifaretto preps macaroni and sauce in, just sloshing tomatoes and oil all over the marble white of the countertop. And I feel a little flit in my chest like too much oxygen in a room when Chrissy gives Adrianna a nightclub as a gift so she can pursue her dream of booking and producing musical acts. This is sweet. This is the stuff we stay alive for.

Maybe Phil Roth said it best in that American Pastoral: “Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.”

I want to fixate on all these machinations because I believe them to be what make The Sopranos a thriller of existential proportions. It interjects its players—no heroes, no villains—into the damned and re-damning bargain between the systems that maintain and the humans that desire power. This bargain creates threads tauted to enormous tensions, tensions that are then exerted on the story’s players. Tensions create contradictions (“sweetbitter, impossible to shake off”) and so, we live knowing we will die. What an absurd thing, to want. What a thrilling thing, to live.

One of the many proposals The Sopranos navigates is that the notion of talk therapy is both an essential and deeply flawed apparatus for producing meaning in its speakers’ lives. Talk is the tongue of lovers and comrades, but talk is also the language of informants or betrayers; what gets said depends very much on who hears, and sometimes we tell ourselves stories in order that we do not die (yet.) I want to remember that in the ninth episode of the third season of The Sopranos, both Tony and Gloria engage in talk therapy, willingly lying to Melfi, who sees right through their lies. She knows that her clients’ budding relationship—passionate, magnetic, unstable, doomed—is another in a long line of coping mechanisms. She can’t do much about it: she’s accepting Tony Soprano’s money.

That The Sopranos has no real insight into talk therapy is not its fault: meaning is difficult enough, let alone meaning about meaning. The whole text of The Sopranos is a kind of exercise in confessing and telling, recognizing and contextualizing: here is the long sprawl story of Tony Soprano, a powerful man who is realizing in every moment he lives that he might in fact have no power over what happens in his life. We therapitize this story. We listen, we watch, we nod, we say “he’s doing that because of his mother, he’s killing him because of his family, he’s feeding the ducks because it is easier than admitting he is powerless.” When the show portrays heinous acts, we hide behind a hand’s splayed fingers; surely it doesn’t mean this? Surely it means for us to see such that we do not do as it sings? It artifacts a world! Still, the show rolls on, ending somewhere in the don’t blink stop void believing. What, then, does The Sopranos mean?

Meaning isn’t living. It’s only meaning. 

The function of Tony and Gloria in the Reptile House, then, is to provide a framework by which we might escape the perpetuation of limited meaning-making. It is imperfect, yes—we cannot watch without knowing the ends Tony and Gloria go and come to after this scene. It stings. But they’re just the bodies in the framework right now, an I and a you that will cycle and fission out of erotics and allow others like and unlike them to enter into this language. To be wanted is to continue. To want is to engage with the continuing. The erotic thriller—the sacred sting in pleasure, the great cosmic get-off as grunt—is a thoroughly imperfect architecture to live in. It possesses all the pieces of what afflicts us worst in this most present of apocalypses: abuse and obsession, greed and hoard, the enforcement and defense and militarization of power. We might inoculate ourselves rubbing up against such shards.

I want to propose that the erotic thrill of watching Tony and Gloria, even here among the wreckage done and the ruins to come, is to assert meaning differently than stories or parables or even frank and open conversations among lovers can. What things can’t we say or reason or articulate that might become apparent in each other? What gets written between bodies that remains inexpressible in wording? I want “I want” to become a political line, not because the sexual act is a radical one, but rather because our necessary radicalism is untenable without palpable, reproducible joy. Is this a contradiction? I think this is a future.