That won't stop me from doing it, though, because The Sopranos is a show you can't help but talk about. I've watched the entire series from start to finish three times now. It remains my favorite TV series of all time (and I've seen most everything that you're "supposed" to see), and each time I find something new to love about it. I'm constantly transfixed by the show's subtlety, its humor, its bottomless subtext and its visceral intensity even in the moments when the guns aren't drawn. For that reason I'm offering up my take on the series' 10 best episodes, in chronological order.
WARNING: I'm going to attempt to keep this as low on spoilers as I can, but a few may slip in, so be warned.
"The Sopranos" - Episode 1.1 (1999)
"Funhouse" - Episode 2.13 (2000)
If season one was all about Tony the father and Tony the son, season two adds the dynamic of Tony the brother to that equation. It's easy to lose that with the powerful spectre of his mother Livia (played brilliantly by the late Nancy Marchand) hanging over everything, but it's definitely there, and it's nowhere more powerful than the haunting season two finale. On top of all the other stressors present in this episode, series creator David Chase decides to add food poisoning and feverish nightmares to Tony's troubles. The result is an episode that's not only one of the most powerful early uses of one of the show's enduring themes - the hostility of what's in Tony's own head - but also one of the most cerebral hours in series history.
"Pine Barrens" - Episode 3.11 (2001)
New viewers are often surprised by just how funny The Sopranos can be, and those that still doubt it after two and half seasons will certainly be convinced by the end of this installment. "Pine Barrens" is my favorite episode of the series, not just for its comedy, but for its contrasting of the comedy with the emotional tightrope Tony so often walked romantically throughout the series.
"Amour Fou" - Episode 3.12 (2001)
The final four episodes of The Sopranos' third season are among the greatest sections of seralized storytelling ever put forth in any medium, and "Amour Fou" is the crescendo. Of all Tony's many extramarital affairs, his relationship with the dark-eyed, troubled Gloria is easily the most compelling. Women are often attracted to Tony's savage nature, but no other woman was ever so attracted to the darkest part of it. The result is a clash of personalities that's among the most memorable in TV history, and among the most emotionally harrowing portions of the series.
"For All Debts Public and Private" - Episode 4.1 (2002)
It took me three viewings to figure it out, but I've come to the conclusion that the fourth season of The Sopranos is the best. It combines the emotional intensity and psychological tautness of the third season with tight plotting, compelling conflict and some of the best character work in the whole of the show, and this is where it all begins. It's an episode that changes Christopher's character forever, and it marks a significant moment for Tony as a leader, one that will continue to echo through the rest of the series.
"Whoever Did This" - Episode 4.9 (2002)
The era of Ralph Cifaretto was easily the show's most fertile in terms of compelling conflict, and this is the peak of that phase in Sopranos history. "Whoever Did This" is a portrayal of Tony at his most decisively savage, and in many ways it marks a breaking down of the structure that had ruled the last two seasons. The rest of the season is somewhat chaotic by comparison, which isn't without its storytelling rewards.
"Whitecaps" - Episode 4.13 (2002)
Each of The Sopranos' season finales was superb (yes, even the last one), but "Whitecaps" rises above the rest. I always saw the show as a play divided into three acts. Act one was the first two seasons, the era of Tony's battles with his mother. Act two was Tony's consolidation of power, and act three was his defense of it. This is the end of that second act, and it changes the dynamic of the show forever by bringing the one thing that always seemed eternal crashing down in the most memorable James Gandolfini/Edie Falco scene in the whole of the series. The Sopranos could have ended right here and it would have been satisfying in its way. Thank God it didn't, but this is still a textbook example of how to write an outstanding finale.
"Long Term Parking" - Episode 5.12 (2004)
A lot of people don't like season five (I'm not one of those people.), but it's worth it for this episode alone. The Sopranos had an odd knack for building up threads over months or even years and then elegantly clipping them all off with a single stroke. "Long Term Parking" might be the best example of this kind of mass resolution. You get a major character death, a piecing back together of something broken and the beginnings of the show's endgame all in one hour.
"Members Only" - Episode 6.1 (2006)
And now we come to the beginning of the end. "Members Only" is full of wonderful little touches of endings. It begins (just as season two did) with a montage of where the characters are now, and is topped off with a shot of Tony digging a hole that may as well be a grave. It ends with one of the biggest bangs (literally) in the series' history, and in between the stage is set for a final battle.
"The Blue Comet" - Episode 6.20 (2007)
I am not one of those fans that wishes The Sopranos series finale had ended differently. I thought it was a brilliant ending, but the episode that came before is what sticks with me most. "The Blue Comet" took all of the inter-mob intrigue that had been building for three years and brought it all to a head. It's the one episode of the series that ever genuinely shocked me, and the one that left me most aching to know what happened next. If that's not a testament to good storytelling, I don't know what is.