Tony killing Ralphie felt destined, but in true The Sopranos fashion it caught the viewer off guard- not that it happened, but when and why it happened. It didn’t happen after Ralphie killed Tracee and it wasn’t because of his disrespect, not because he wet his beak too much or pissed off the wrong person so badly Tony didn’t have any other option. No. Ralphie was killed because Tony thought he may have killed a horse, and in the course of Ralphie’s denial of horse-murder, he disrespected said horse.
We know Tony loved the horse, and we know Tony did not love Ralphie. But that seems like an oversimplified recipe for murder even for a gangster. After all, Ralphie was a good earner. Tony had already had lots of trouble finding captains for Ralphie’s crew so replacing him would be difficult. Tony had spent two seasons of the show separating himself from prosecutable offenses of which murder is pretty high on the list, and on top of that, murdering a made guy creates infinite complications for Tony as a boss. So despite Tony’s hatred of Ralphie, he had tolerated him thus far under less complicated circumstances for far worse, and that hatred alone wouldn’t seem to be enough to flip the switch from tolerance to murder.
However, the other factor in the equation is Tony’s love for Pie-O-My, a subtler and more powerful emotion, more mysterious in nature. We know Tony has a soft spot for animals as per his love for nurturing his ducks in his pool in season 1. But the way he views Pie-O-My seems fundamentally different than why he loved his ducks. The ducks represented family nurturing and love, that which Tony was afraid of losing at the time. Tony loved Pie-O-My, but he did not nurture her or raise her or even train her, he came late to the racehorse party and inserted himself into it. But, in Ralphie’s absence as a horse owner, Tony often had to take care of the horse’s health issues, and he found himself cleaning up after Ralphie’s messes by paying doctor’s fees and being there when no one else was.
His attachment to Pie-O-My was borne out of Ralphie’s callous disregard for that which could not help themselves- a common thread in Ralphie. He was laissez-faire about Jackie Junior’s plight, even providing him with a gun rather than counsel him to avoid the gangster life and pursue college like Junior’s dad and Tony wanted him to. Ralphie beat Tracee to death after ignoring her and taking advantage of her. He made fun of Ginny’s weight behind her back. And his son was shot with an arrow playing in the backyard as Ralphie spent the little time he had with his child taking a bath and pedicuring his feet. On top of that, all of these situations, including Pie-Oh-My, had to be cleaned up by Tony. Tony dealt with the repercussions. Tony had to come down on Jackie Junior for his sins against made men (although he chickened out somewhat), Tony helped Tracee out with her son and had to get rid of her body, Tony got it stuck to him by Johnny Sack over the Ginny joke taking money out of Tony’s pockets, Tony had to separate Ralphie from his ex-wife’s husband in the hospital. Tony looked the burnt Pie-O-My in the face before it was dragged away via a chain and a tractor.
Over and over again, Tony came face-to-face with the callousness of Ralphie’s treatment towards those who could not defend themselves, but most of the time, it was someone else’s problem. Sylvio had to bear the loss of revenue due to his investment in Tracee, Johnny Sack had to live with knowing Ralphie disrespected his wife, Ralphie himself and his ex-wife had to deal with his son’s incapacitation. But when it came to Pie-O-My, that fell squarely on Tony’s shoulders.
So as Tony walked into Ralphie’s house, suspecting him of committing arson and killing Pie-O-My he was carrying with him all the instances of Ralphie’s carelessness and heartless actions that cost others so much and cost Tony as well. And Ralphie’s sin wasn’t that he killed the horse, it doesn’t even seem like he did, but that he didn’t care that it happened at all.
Meanwhile, Jason seemed to be on the mend, Ralphie was collecting the insurance on an ailing horse, and everything seemed to be coming up aces, once again, for the heartless bastard. Meanwhile, Tony was left to look the dead horse in the eye, to see that beauty and innocence destroyed. And he wasn’t going to let him off so easy this time.
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