What is the best dramatic TV show of all time? If you asked around, a lot of people would say “The Sopranos.” In many ways, the HBO original changed not just the course of its network, but of TV history. We likely don’t get the wave of critically-beloved dramas on cable networks if not for Tony Soprano and company. If we made a list of the best dramas, “The Sopranos” would be on there. What if we did a ranking of the 25-best “Sopranos” episodes? Well, it would look a little something like this.
The third season ends with an episode that uses a well-worn trope of television: military school. A.J., Tony’s troubled son, is expelled from school, so Tony wants to send him to military school to teach him some discipline. The episode also features a funeral on a Super Bowl Sunday, which has to be a bummer.
Pilot episodes are tricky. You have to establish a show’s premise, all its characters, and how they interact. Even great shows often have mediocre pilots. That’s not the case with “The Sopranos.” The show was strong right out the gate, establishing Tony Soprano and why he has started seeing Dr. Melfi, his therapist.
This is the penultimate episode of the show. Does the series finale show up? Keep reading to find out! Second-to-last episodes get short shrift when discussing a show sometimes because all the attention is on the true finale. That being said, “The Blue Comet” had to set the table for everything that would conclude the story and brought a few bombs and surprises of its own.
No this is not a crossover episode between “The Sopranos” and the cartoon “Home Movies.” This kicked off the “second half” of the sixth and final season, which debuted a year after the conclusion of the “first half.” Tony and his family celebrate his birthday, but of course, business gets in the way, as it often does.
After a couple of later episodes, we’re going all the way back to the first season. This episode was still establishing the juxtaposition between Tony’s professional life and his home life. Tony and his crew find out the coach of their daughters’ soccer team might move onto a different team, and they decide to do whatever it takes to stop him. For gangsters, that’s alarming.
A little bit of showbiz works its way into “D-Girl,” which features Christopher visiting the set of a movie. That means cameos for the likes of Janeane Garafolo, Sandra Bernhard, and Jon Favreau as the movie’s director. It’s fun to see Favreau as a director back in 2000 now that he’s helped to build the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also done the whole “The Mandalorian” thing.
The final season of “The Sopranos” had to do a lot of heavy lifting to send the show into the sunset. “The Second Coming” is dedicated to things unraveling for Tony as he deals with a mob war and personal strife. In particular, Tony has to deal with a harrowing moment involving his son A.J., an often-lampooned character who got a true moment of drama here.
“The Sopranos” did a lot of dream sequences, but this episode really went all-in on that. Tony, having been shot, spends the episode in what is effectively a coma fantasy where he’s a salesman rather than a mob boss. The dream-heavy episodes weren’t for everybody, especially the people who just liked the crime stories and mob violence, but “Join the Club” made the dream fans happy.
Tony’s relationship with his mother was a big part of the show, and also Tony’s psyche. Unfortunately, the actress who played Livia – Nancy Marchand – died during the show’s production. That impacted the show’s plans, but Livia’s shadow loomed over Tony for the rest of “The Sopranos.” That includes in “Amour Fou,” which focuses on Tony’s torrid relationship with a self-destructive woman named Gloria.
The first season of “The Sopranos” ends with Tony and Livia’s toxic relationship hitting a nadir. Even Dr. Melfi realizes how much damage Livia does to her son, even how as she is old and ailing. What’s so stark and striking about “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” is that its climax involves Tony planning to suffocate his mom with a pillow, and you wonder if he’s possibly justified in doing it. It’s monsters doing battle, but one of them is an old, enfeebled woman.
If your favorite thing about “The Sopranos” is the dream sequences, then “The Test Dream” is probably higher on your personal list. However, even for people who didn’t mind the dream sequences this one might test you. Tony’s dream takes up 20 minutes of the episode. That means nothing has to make sense, which we know can be frustrating. When done well, though, it can be evocative.
The marriage of Tony and Carmela is, needless to say, fraught. In fact, at the time of “Marco Polo,” they are on the outs and heading toward a separation. Then, in this self-contained episode, the two find themselves pulled back together. Is it a good idea? Assuredly not, but you can see why it happens for them in the nuances and details of “Marco Polo.”
This is the last time Livia Soprano shows up in person, and one last chance to see Marchand’s excellent performance in the role. There was also a surprising twist in the second-to-last episode of the second season of the show. We were led to believe that Tony and Richie Aprile were headed toward a drawn-out war. Then, something, or rather someone, comes out of nowhere to keep that from happening. Let’s just say Tony isn’t the only member of his family with a violent streak.
While Uncle Junior gets a titular second opinion about his cancer, Carmela is getting a second opinion of her own. Dr. Melfi sends her to a different therapist to discuss her marriage. This therapist effectively forces Carmela to confront her role in enabling her murderous, villainous husband. That’s hard for Carmela to do, but easy for Edie Falco to make compelling.
Joe Pantoliano’s Ralphie Cifaretto is odious even by the standards of “The Sopranos,” which is really saying something. The violence of “University” is harsh even for this show, and maybe a bit much for some, which keeps it out of the top 10. Poor Tracee took up with the wrong guy in Ralphie. It makes it hard to care too much about Meadow and her college boyfriend breaking up.
The series finale of “The Sopranos” was polarizing, to be sure. It’s a story that has been told over and over. David Chase decided to just cut the episode to black without any definitive closure for Tony. Many thought their cable had gone out. Others have spent years trying to “prove” Tony was assassinated by a guy in a Members Only jacket. In the end, we aren’t getting into the fan theories. We just think it’s a top-10 episode of “The Sopranos.”
“Whitecaps” is probably a favorite of the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” fans in the show’s audience. The longest episode David Chase ever did, this episode is focused on the tumult in the marriage between Tony and Carmela. It’s built around yelling and infidelity and a marriage that should never have happened in the first place but continues because, well, what else are they going to do? It’s emotionally brutal in a way the show is usually viscerally brutal.
Tony hides his emotions and stuffs them deep down inside. The entire reason he ends up in therapy is that he has a panic attack and is trying to hide it all away. However, Tony and his cohorts are willing to put it on the line to try and hold an intervention for Christopher, whose drug use has reached dangerous proportions. Would you believe this is the grounds for a particularly-funny episode?
Tony has killed, and had people killed, without blinking many times over. And yet, the death of Christopher in this episode is truly a stunner. You would think Tony taking peyote would be the standout thing from “Kennedy and Heidi,” but it’s instead of the aftermath of a car crash featuring Tony and Christopher. It would be the last moments of Michael Imperioli’s character’s life.
The fifth season of “The Sopranos” is the one that finally won the show Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys. Hey, the idea of non-network shows winning Emmys was still a new idea. There are a few standout episodes in season five, naturally, but “Long Term Parking” is the best of the bunch. It’s very much like a mob movie in miniature, but a particularly good one.
Of all the dream/hallucination episodes, “Funhouse” is the best of the bunch. It seems like a silly premise on its surface, as Tony is dealing with food poisoning, which leads to his hallucinations. And yet, amidst some laughs, there is genuine story development. Tony realizes there is a “rat” in his midst, and they have to go. And he learns that thanks to food poisoning. Only “The Sopranos.”
Tony Soprano loves animals. It’s maybe his only redeeming, humanizing quality. However, when his beloved horse Pie-O-My dies in a fire, that love for animals leads to a more typical Tony response: bloodthirsty rage. “Whoever Did This” is one of the more brutal episodes of “The Sopranos,” which is really saying something.
The Soprano family and Tony’s crew aren’t the only important characters on the show. There’s also Dr. Melfi, played excellently by Lorraine Bracco. This is a true highlight for the actress, as poor Dr. Melfi considers calling in a favor from her most-violent patient after she is attacked. It’s a brutal episode for the good doctor, but a great showcase for Bracco.
“Pine Barrens” is often brought up when discussing the best of what “The Sopranos” could do. Not just because it’s a great episode, which it is. It’s also a sterling example of how innovative and creative the show could be. “Pine Barrens” is a fairly-comedic episode built around Christopher and Paulie stumbling through the titular New Jersey region looking for a Russian gangster. It’s impressive how funny “The Sopranos” can be while also maintaining its intensity and darkness. This may be an atypical episode, but it’s also one of the very best.
Yes, this is only the fourth episode of “The Sopranos.” Guess what? It’s also the best. If you ask people about their favorite episode, a lot of people are going to say “College.” However, if you ask what episode is the one that first showed the potential for greatness in the HBO drama, it’s almost definitely “College.” It perfectly balances the two halves of the show, and of Tony. While visiting colleges around New England with his daughter Meadow, Tony spies a mob informant. Will he seek vengeance? If he does, what will that do to his family? It’s the crux of Tony’s existence and the best episode of this all-time classic show.