James Gandolfini: Remembering Tony Soprano's best episodes

It's been said many times already, but without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter Whites or Don Drapers on television today.

"The Sopranos" paved the way for future adult dramas unafraid of going against the grain of traditional TV conventions. The series reminded audiences and critics that the medium could also serve as an art form.

Much of the HBO drama's success hinged upon James Gandolfini'sperformance, as he convincingly portrayed a mafia don like we'd never seen before. Tony was truly a gangster of the post-modern era. He had to balance taking his kids to soccer games and going to therapy sessions -- all the while, running New Jersey's biggest mob family.

We're now paying respects to Gandolifini -- who died on Wednesday in Rome, Italy, at age 51 -- with a list of Tony Soprano's top 10 best episodes.

These aren't necessarily the best installments of the entire series per se -- you'll notice critically-acclaimed fan favorites like "Pine Barrens" and "Employee of the Month" are left out here -- but rather these are the episodes that best displayed the actor's talent to us -- as though we were a part of the "family":

1. "College," Season 1, Ep. 4 Gandolfini epitomizes what the series is all about in this road-trip installment. While taking his high school-aged daughter to New England to look at colleges, Tony crosses paths with an old face from the past who previously turned rat against the family. In between campus tours, Tony must lay down the fierce brutality of mafia justice. It's the first time we see the character commit an on-screen murder, and boy does he get his hands and shoes dirty. Who can forget Gandolfini's priceless look when the teenaged Meadow asks her father flat-out if he's "in the mafia." The actor at first says nothing, yet everything, in that priceless scene.

2. "Whitecaps," Season 4, Ep. 13 Gandolfini won an Emmy award (one of three he received during the series' run) for his work in this episode, and there's a reason why. The actor delivers a top-notch performance that should be studied by drama students for years to come as an example of fearless acting. In this Season 4 finale, things come to a head between Tony and Carmela (Edie Falco also won her much-deserved third Emmy for this episode) as the mob wife has finally had enough of her husband's countless years of infidelity. The blow-out argument between the two is so powerful that it starts to feel as if a real-life couple is calling quits.

3. "Proshai, Livushka," Season 3, Ep. 2 One of the great things about "The Sopranos" was Tony's interactions with his aging mother, Livia, played by Nancy Marchand. The mother-son relationship was dysfunctional at best. After all, Mama Soprano did order a hit out on her son when he put her in a nursing home, or "assisted living" community, as Tony liked to frequently remind her. When she died in this third season episode, Gandolfini stole the show with his mixed emotions toward her passing. The episode's title means "good-bye, little Livia" in Russian. Proshai, Anthony.

4. "Funhouse," Season 2, Ep. 13 After a night of bad Indian food, Tony has a series of seemingly bizarre dreams that allow him to realize that one of his best friends, Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensierro, has betrayed the sacred code of Omerta. Gandolfini pulls off a wide range of emotions here, as he shows us what it really means to be involved in "this thing of ours."

5. "Whoever Did This," Season 4, Ep. 6 We knew it was coming for a while, but it was still surprising to see Ralph Cifaretto's (Joe Pantoliano) graphic demise. Tony murders his capo with his bare hands over an argument that literally starts over a dead horse. Gandolfini's performance lets us know that it's really about so much more.

6. "The Sopranos," Season 1, Ep. 1 "I get a feeling that I came in at the end," Tony tells his shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), during their first therapy session in the series' pilot episode. In actuality, he was coming in at the beginning of an iconic TV series. With his charming grin and soft-demeanor, Gandolfini lures in both Melfi and the audience watching at home.

7. "Commendatori", Season 2, Ep. 4 Tony lets his proverbial hair down a little bit on a business trip to Italy, where he gets smitten with a female gangster. Gandolfini puts the charm on full force once again, showing us why so many women are attracted to the balding, overweight criminal throughout the show's run. The episode also has added significance now given that it takes place in the home country, where Gandolfini dead.

8. "I Dream of Jennie Cusamano," Season 1, Ep. 13 The plot of this episode gave Gandolfini the chance to deliver a powerhouse performance, and he certainly delivered. When the FBI delivers Tony with concrete evidence that his mother and Uncle Junior have been plotting to kill him, he reacts in some expected, and not-so-expected, ways. As Livia gets carted away after possibly suffering a stroke, Tony holds nothing back in front of the civilian medical staff as he confronts the matriarch about her monstrous ways.

9. "The Knight In White Satin Armor" Season 2, Ep. 12: The second-to-last episode of the show's second season was filled with scenes of action (like Janice taking an unforgettable stand against domestic violence) and memorable dialogue. At one point, Tony tells an old capo -- fresh out of prison -- that "those who want respect give respect," a phrase that has entered the American lexicon thanks in part to Gandolfini's stirring and somewhat frightening delivery of the line.

10. "Soprano Home Movies" Season 6, Ep. 13 This episode puts another twisted gangster spin on family vacations. Tony and Carmela join Janice and her immediate family for a supposedly quiet weekend at a lakeside cabin. "Soprano Home Movies" once again allows Gandolfini to deliver a complex performance and demonstrates how he was able to get ordinary viewers to sympathize and identify with a murderous cold-blooded criminal. Salute.

Tell us: Which episodes did we miss?

  • Ken Lombardi On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Ken Lombardi is an entertainment reporter for CBS News. He has interviewed over 300 celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks.

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