Written by Frank Renzulli
When I watch The Sopranos, I play a game where I try to spell out some of Tony Soprano’s vocabulary in a way that captures his growly New Jersey accent. "Therapy," which he attends bi-weekly, turns into terrapy. "Christopher," his Hollywood-obsessed, cocaine-addled nephew, becomes Quistofuh. "Principal," the amount due to satisfy a gambling debt, comes out as pwincipuhl.
Calling The Sopranos a mafia show is a lot like calling Breaking Bad a drug dealer show – it’s technically correct, but it misses the mark on what makes the show great. Both series contrast bland suburban American life with the violence and brutality bubbling just below the surface: While Walter White is an (initially) honest man trying to be a criminal, Tony Soprano is a criminal who (occasionally) tries to be an honest man. Sure, Tony and his crew of gangsters steal things, kill people and play cat-and-mouse with the FBI, but they also live in ritzy cul-de-sacs, go to their kids’ soccer games and hang out with a few ordinary, well-to-do non-criminals in their social lives. The conflict between those two worlds is front and center in The Happy Wanderer, which is what makes it one of my favorite episodes of the series.
Tony and his crew are gearing up to host their annual high-stakes underground poker game, to be attended by a variety of wealthy out-of-towners and local wiseguys. During College Night at his daughter’s high school, Tony bumps into David Scatino (played by Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick), an old friend and the father of one of his daughter’s classmates. David, who owns a sporting goods store, is sick of the daily grind of selling tents and camping coolers and asks Tony to let him join the upcoming poker game. With a smile and a pat on the shoulder, Tony turns David down, telling him the stakes in this game are higher than he can handle:
”Davey, you’re a nice guy, I like you. Okay? But this game’s not for you. I don’t want to see you get hurt. These guys, they play deep.”
A few nights later, the poker game is kicking off in a suite at a seedy motel by the New Jersey Turnpike when David shows up, ready to play. When Christopher (Quistofuh) answers the door, David asks to speak with Tony. ”Yeah, you know me. I own Ramsey Sports and Outdoor,” he says, as though that’ll be impressive to a room full of millionaires and gangsters. Presently, Tony shows up and ushers David down the hall, telling him repeatedly to leave. ”I don’t do business with outside friends.” But David won’t take no for an answer. “C’mon Tony - I’m a big boy. You don’t have to explain business to me.”
Tony stares at him for a moment. We hear a semi woosh by ominously on the road outside. And then, wordlessly, Tony turns and leads David to the suite.
The name of this episode comes from a conversation Tony has with his terrapist, where he expresses his distaste for “happy wanderers” – people who go through life with a smile on their face, oblivious to all the misery and chaos around them. David is a happy wanderer: Cheerfully optimistic and only slightly less dorky than the other non-mafia characters on the show. After two seasons, we’re well aware of the dark things the other gamblers at the poker table are capable of, and when you see David sitting down across from them, you kind of start to hate his happily wandering ass too.
When the game breaks up the following morning, Tony wakes up to find that David now owes him $45,000. James Gandolfini won an Emmy for his performance in this episode, and you can really see why in his first scene with David after the game. David has been eaten alive at the card table, and when he sees Tony in the aftermath his first reaction is to start making small talk, inviting him to go for a schvitz. He’s desperately looking for the friendly, smiling Tony he’d been talking to at College Night, but that guy’s long gone now. Cold and seething, Tony tells David he’s got two days to pay up the full $45,000 – and if he doesn’t, 5% weekly interest gets tacked onto the pwincipuhl.
Days later, when David still hasn’t paid up, Tony goes to his sporting goods store and gives him a beating. Even as he’s getting punched in the face by one of his childhood friends, David is infuriatingly optimistic: “I’m gonna come back! My luck’s gonna change!” In later episodes, David is forced to raid his son's college fund and bankrupt his sporting goods store to make good on his debt, having happily wandered straight off of a cliff.
I love this episode because it's a story about a gangster destroying an honest man's life where the honest man is the bad guy. To be clear, Tony is by no stretch of the imagination a good guy – he's a boorish racist who kills people, breaks the law, cheats on his wife, and is a terrible father. But David, a husband and father himself, knew all those things about Tony. He didn't want to join the poker game in spite of Tony's darkness; on the contrary, he was desperate to get into the room because of Tony's darkness. He wanted to indulge his basest thrill-seeking impulses and walk on the wild side, so he gambled his whole family's future with no understanding of the consequences - even when he's forced to reckon with them.
For his part, Tony has zero internal conflict over collecting this debt from David. He doesn’t discuss it with his therapist, he doesn’t ask anybody for advice, we don’t see a long shot of him sitting on a bench by the ocean experiencing a crisis of conscience. This episode isn’t about Tony wrestling with his principles - ahem, pwincipuhls - it’s about a professional doing the dirty work that provides for his family. The fact that Tony even dissuaded David from playing in the game in the first place says a lot about Tony’s character – it’s like watching a cheetah repeatedly encourage a bloated, slow-moving gazelle hurry up and run away until finally eating it when it doesn’t take heed. When it becomes clear that David is hell-bent on destroying himself, Tony, a businessman through and through, figures that since somebody is going to profit from this man’s implosion it may as well be him. "A grown man made a wager – he lost. He made another one – he lost again. End of story!” Tony yells at his daughter late in the episode, in his only real moment of reflection on what he’s doing.
Sopranos showrunner and creator David Chase once said,
“Your hero can do a lot of bad things, he can make all kinds of mistakes, can be lazy and look like a fool, as long as he’s the smartest guy in the room and he’s good at his job. That’s what we ask of our heroes.”
Tony is excellent at his job – he’s a smarter and more cunning criminal than anybody else on the show. That’s what makes him fun and fascinating to watch – and what makes him bad news for all the happy wanderers oblivious to the predator in their midst.