Last week we learned of the death of acclaimed actor James Gandolfini. I was a fan of much of his work, especially his recent roles in the films In the Loop and Killing Them Softly. But like most of the world, I thought of Gandolfini as the character he played for eight years on HBO – Tony Soprano.
I thought I’d pay tribute to him in this space by revisiting “Pie-o-My,” an episode from Season 4 where Tony goes to the racetrack and learns he has a knack for the horses.
The episode is named after a horse, in this case one that belongs to Tony’s underling Ralph. Besides being the captain of one of Tony’s crews, Ralph is also Tony’s nemesis. He’s insubordinate and unpredictable. But he earns a lot of money so Tony suffers him gladly.
Throughout the show, Tony develops strange affections for and connections with various animals. His therapist believes they are stand-ins for his own family. When Tony goes to the track (much of the episode is filmed at Aqueduct) to watch Pie-o-My run for the first time, he is immediately taken by the horse and the thrill he gets watching her run.
Tony doesn’t own Pie-o-My, but he demands that Ralph kick up the horse’s winnings to him as payment for the “advice” he gives the horse’s trainer. The advice is absurdly made-for-tv (“leave a little in the tank for a late run”), but even still it is obvious that the whole exchange is just a power play between Tony and Ralph. Tony believes that he deserves the money because on one hand whatever belongs to his crew belongs to him. On the other hand, he believes that Ralph doesn’t care for the animal as much as he does.
Eventually Pie-o-My falls ill and Ralph chooses to pass Tony’s number on to the vet rather than deal with it himself – an act of passive aggressiveness likely brought on by Tony’s constant shakedowns. Tony races to the stable in the middle of the night to talk to the vet and to sit with the ailing horse.
It is this final scene in the episode that I am the most moved by. As a lover of horses, I think the image of a horse lying in the stable is extremely powerful. Horses are large, majestic animals. To see a horse lying down, especially one who is sick, is a jarring sight. Something so powerful shouldn’t be so vulnerable, yet here Pie-o-My lays. Sitting next to her is fearsome mob boss Tony Soprano. He’s worried about her. He pets her neck and reassures her. He looks out the door of the stall. It is raining outside. He sighs. He takes out a cigar and lights it up, settling in for a long night. We recognize that Tony intends to stay with his horse. It’s a tender moment, and it is interrupted by a goat.
Earlier in the episode, we see the stable goat when Tony and his crew are touring the stables. Hesh, the friend who sold the horse to Ralph, explained that the goats settle the horses. Goats can calm a horse’s nerves so that it won’t be stressed and anxious before racing. Many people don’t realize it, but like many popular American idioms, “get your goat” also comes from horse racing, referring to the way gamblers would once swipe rival horse’s stable goat before races.
The goat enters the stable, startling the emotional Tony. He sees the goat, looks off in the distance, and he grins, knowingly. He seems put at ease by the goat. He looks at Pie-o-My, who is also calm. We then see the three of them in the tiny stall together. Three animals, and it isn’t clear which is soothing which.
It is a powerful scene where we see a rare moment of non-violent, unmanipulative compassion from Tony Soprano. It’s also an incredible feat of acting in that there isn’t a single line of dialogue spoken and that Gandolfini’s co-stars are a prone horse and a squat goat. Yet somehow in that single moment he conveys everything we are supposed to know about his character’s state of mind and place in the world. It is marvelous. It is a wonderful thing to have on film and it is a damn shame that we won’t ever get to experience it from him again.
To horse racing fans who haven’t watched “The Sopranos,” give this episode a shot. Despite my spoiling the ending, there also are a few scenes at Aqueduct and a cameo by jockey Aaron Gryder. And even though we never get to see her again, Pie-o-My factors heavily into the show’s storylines both between Tony and Ralph and then later between Tony and his captain Paulie in a strange story about a portrait of Tony and the horse.
For now, just enjoy this final scene from Pie-o-My.