Born Under a Bad Sign: The Sopranos

This article contains spoilers

Last night you were flying but today you’re so low/Ain’t it times like these that make you wonder if you’ll ever know the meaning of things as they appear to the others, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers

– Alabama 3, ‘Woke Up This Morning’

As my weary Twitter followers will confirm, I am a serious boxset addict. For the past couple of months I have been watching all of The Sopranos and tweeting about the episodes as I watch them. The Man Who Fell Asleep has been doing something similar recently, live-tweeting Masterchef; the experiment has been quite a success, and he writes that ‘over the years I haven’t alienated too many followers by bombarding them with 80 tweets an hour that make absolutely no sense unless you are watching the same TV show as me.’

I think the difference is that a) The Man Who Fell Asleep is a lot more intelligent and funny than I am and b) he’s live tweeting a primetime show that other people might be watching, whereas I am live tweeting a drama that ended in 2007 and with which the average Twitter user might have only a vague acquaintance. So my Sopranos tweets serve little purpose other than to confuse and irritate my followers. Maybe I should join a book group or something. Oh well.

However, as I worked my way through the boxset, I began to get responses from a few HBO crime drama aficionados, who provided insights into the story and characters that I would never have considered. In particular, I’d like to thank @Finngav, @Citizen_Sane and the peerless @ComradeNosaj. The long rainy evenings have flown.

The show centres on the life of Tony Soprano, boss of a New Jersey crime family. He has sought help from psychiatrist Dr Jennifer Melfi after a series of debilitating panic attacks, so severe that they cause him to lose consciousness and fall over. Melfi treats the attacks with psychoanalysis, discussing with Tony issues around his life, family and friendships in an attempt to kill the anxiety at source. Tony can’t be entirely honest in these sessions, as Melfi has a duty to inform the police of serious criminal matters, so he often reframes, generalises, equivocates and hypotheticals when confiding about current tensions. The therapy is also hindered by Tony’s temperamental hotheadness. On many occasions he’ll lose his temper, storm out, insult or even physically threaten his psychiatrist.

The Sopranos is what the novelist Scarlett Thomas might describe as a storyless story. It’s striking how little the narrative makes sense. Tony’s world abounds with dei ex machina, MacGuffins and red herrings. As the killer says in ‘Apt Pupil’, ‘One thing just followed another’. The series finale is notorious for its lack of resolution. The show also has a strong surrealist element. Entire episodes take place in dreams or alternate realities.

Initially The Sopranos was praised for its quirky postmodernism. Tony’s crew quote The Godfather and watch it endlessly. The series even has an aspiring screenwriter in Christopher Moltisanti, one of the show’s strongest characters. Roadblocked on his script, and depressed at his failure to rise in the organisation, Chris complains to the eccentric capo Paulie Walnuts:

It says in these movie writing books that every character has an arc… Like everybody starts out somewheres, and they do something, something gets done to them and it changes their life. That’s called an arc. Where’s my arc?

Paulie explicitly rejects that concept: ‘I was in the army for a few years, in the can for a few more, now I’m a wiseguy.’

Although he does eventually become a made man, Chris never really gives up his dream of Hollywood success, and even produces a ludicrous slashgore choker with a villain based on Tony and a narrative that reflects their turbulent relationship. Tony sees Chris as the heir and successor his own son can never be. He invests huge expectation and sentimentality in the relationship, only to find that Chris, as a mafiosi, has been ‘the biggest blunder of my career.’ Restless, preoccupied and unreliable, Chris’s usefulness is further qualified by a reckless heroin and cocaine habit; confronted through a farcical intervention and shipped off to rehab, Chris never beats his addictions and is on and off the wagon for the rest of his life. Eventually, Tony and Chris are in an early hours car accident. Although both survive, Chris is hacking up blood, and fearful that he won’t pass a police drug test. That is it for Tony: tired of the younger man’s unpredictability and lack of focus, Tony pinches his nose so that Chris chokes to death on his own blood. No character arc for Chris, no great Shakespearian death scene, just an abrupt roadside murder.

Matt Weiner recently said of Mad Men that ‘one of the premises of my show is that people don’t change.’ It’s the same with his old series. Tony Soprano is a complex man whose problems have developed over many years. He has to deal with the fact that his mother never loved him, closed off his potential out from the mafia, and has actually tried to have him killed. Watching the series in retrospect, it’s heartbreaking to see Tony give up his time for Livia, all those little visits and gifts; he’s at his most thoughtful and compassionate with his mother, but it doesn’t help him. The convention is that age makes us wiser and more generous (in fact, in so many cases, people just become stupid and unpleasant) and Livia is a cold-hearted emotional manipulator, whose reflexive nihilism (‘It’s all a big nothing,’ ‘You die in your own arms,’ etc) poisons both her son’s and grandson’s lives.

Tony also carries a deep resentment for his sister, Janice, who got to leave home, travel America, take drugs and discover herself, whereas Tony had to stay in Jersey and deal with his mother and father. The responsibility shows. When we first meet Tony he is in his late thirties, but looks fifty. A fat bear of a man, his enormous stippled skull revealed by the rapid recede of his hairline, sadness and pain are etched into his features. Waking up alone and hungover in his strip club, the Bada Bing, after killing one of his capos, Tony staggers to the bathroom mirror in a Bing t shirt and stares into the face of an exhausted monster.

There’s a telling moment when Tony and his wife Carmela visit Janice and her new husband at their villa by the sea. Both Sopranos have made resolutions: Janice to commit to the domestic ideal, and Tony to appreciate the good things in life after recovering from a serious gunshot trauma. The visit starts off friendly, but ends in a uproarious drunken fistfight over a Monopoly board. The lie is that things change – the reality is that nothing ever does.

Another thing that becomes apparent is in how completely the characters are boxed in. Tony never feels at ease in non-mob company, whether it’s playing a round of golf with suburban white-collar neighbours, or putting in some executive time at his front sanitation company. Carmela, Tony’s wife, knows deep down that she has made the wrong choice. Impulsive sweeteners and a housewife’s leisure is meant as a trade off for Tony’s explosive temper and tacit infidelities, and for Carmela the tightrope becomes a harder walk by the day. Everyone outside the enabling world of the Soprano community tells her to get out. But when she tries to end the marriage, she finds that Tony has already met with the best divorce lawyers, creating a deliberate conflict of interest that makes it impossible for them to represent her. When Meadow announces her own engagement, Carmela bursts into tears; tears of joy, Med assumes, but truly provoked by the loss of her own life’s possibilities, and a fear for her daughter.

Chris’s girlfriend Adriana is caught selling coke, and is coerced into becoming an FBI informant. She attempts to ‘flip’ Chris – get him to testify against Tony so that they can start new lives in witness protection. Chris considers this at first: it’s only the sight of a working class family at a petrol pump, struggling with cheap overflowing luggage, that makes him realise the poverty of civilian life. Later, he comes to realise that he too is trapped. Having relapsed once again, Chris gets drunk and raves to his Hollywood contact – hapless TV hack J. T. Dolan – about his relationship with Tony and the terrible things he has had to do in the mob. J. T. cannot relate to any of this – ‘Chris, you’re in the Mafia!’ – and Chris shoots him dead, frustrated as much by his own imprisonment and his inability to communicate this as by J. T.’s indifference. Everywhere in The Sopranos you see doors closing. I tried to get out – but they dragged me back in.

And imagine what it must have been like to grow up in that family! Tony’s children, Meadow and AJ, are ostensibly protected from the business – Tony says to Melfi that he doesn’t want them living the life he’s chosen – but, by circuitous routes, both are sucked in. The Soprano townhouse is an eerie gilded cage. Family friends disappear and are never spoken of again. The heavy tension of dissipated arguments hangs in the air. There is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income.

There are many things to like about Tony – his generosity, his relative liberalism, his love of animals – but he is a violent sociopath, no more, no less. The characteristic of this kind of drama is supposed to be moral ambiguity, but there’s no real moral ambiguity in The Sopranos. The show is an exploration of what @ComradeNosaj described as the ‘solipsistic, corrosive nature of mafia life’ and how it ruins everything it touches. Almost every civilian Tony deals with is compromised in some way. Politicians, detectives, financial advisers, storeholders, restauranteurs – all are dragged into Tony’s orbit, and many pay a heavy price for it.

What’s notable about Melfi is that she never allows herself to become part of Tony’s world. Even when she is raped, and the attacker escapes justice, she resists the urge to ask for Tony’s help, even though he would whack the rapist in a heartbeat. Eventually Melfi comes across independent research claiming that the talking cure does not help criminals to reform, and may even encourage them to reoffend. Matt Weiner said that ‘One of the great revelations of The Sopranos for me was realizing that Tony Soprano’s psychotherapy just made him a better criminal.’ Realising that her association with Tony could discredit her forever as a psychiatrist, she cuts him off and walks away.

The Sopranos is filled with gorgeous musical vistas and panoramas. Tony, recovering from a serious depressive episode, escapes an assassination attempt set up by the crotchety Uncle Junior, the whole thing played out to the sensual sadness of Tinderstick’s ‘Tiny Tears’. A mashup of Sting’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ accompanies the FBI’s attempt to bug Tony’s house, a decisive choreographed ballet of predation and deceit. And who could forget Chris’s heroin bender at the Feast of St. Elzear, cuddling a stray dog, marvelling at the trails of his fingertips to the sound of deep-throat blues.

The show’s trippy stylistics feed into its central preoccupation. One of Tony’s big breakthroughs in therapy is based on his guilt around his beloved cousin, Tony Blundetto (played brilliantly by Steve Buscemi, who does a great line in angry, frustrated losers). Tony B has been in jail for sixteen years for an armed hijacking, in which Tony Soprano was supposed to have participated. But Tony S had a panic attack, collapsed, and missed the operation; now, Tony has prospered in his cousin’s absence and Tony B has come home to nothing. The problem is not just guilt but a sense of precarious coincidence: if he had been present at the hijacking, Tony S would have gone to prison and none of his success would have happened. Tony Soprano’s life is a fluke and he knows it.

And how about that ending? By the final episode, Tony is facing potential indictments, including for murder; out at an ice cream place with his family, the camera tracks strange patrons. That ‘Members Only’ guy? The man heading for the bathroom, Godfather-style? How come it takes so long for Meadow to park her car? All Tony’s enemies have either been whacked or bought off, and yet there is a palpable sense of doom. You never see it coming, Tony says. The obvious interpretation is that Tony is about to be murdered. He looks up, into our eyes – and then that’s it.

@ComradeNosaj commented that:

The final scene in the diner actually does more to make you FEEL like Tony than any other scene the show did… this is mafia life, not being able to go to dinner with your family without keeping your eyes on the door or a pair in the back of your head. Unreal tension.

And @Citizen_Sane added:

I see it more as a representation of what Tony’s life is always going to be like… every time the door opens, any shifty looking character in a bar, the threat of death is a constant in Tony’s life. So even if this scene wasn’t his death, it will happen, and probably this way, some other time.

Not a morality play, or procedural drama, The Sopranos is a testament to the sheer scope and depth of the criminal genre, an exploration of the fragility of consciousness and of life itself.

2 Responses to “Born Under a Bad Sign: The Sopranos”

  1. paul murdoch Says:

    Yeah…I’m getting into the boxset thing…staying out the pub. Just done both Killings, series 3 of the Wire and I watched Borgen and I’m still on Homeland and the Bridge. Wire was peerless…enough said, but what surprised me was liking the Scandinavian stuff. Read a couple of Mankell’s years back, couldn’t get on with the Stig Larsen, tried a Jo Nesbo and, tbh, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Started the Nesbo on a train ride; it’s diverting enough but once I got home I had to persevere to finish it…but the TV stuff is brilliant…and nothing even happens most of the time. I’m feeling much better lately as well; obviously the lack of booze is part of it but Scandinavian television just seems like it’s ‘good for the soul’.

    Homeland turned out a bit of a crock in the end. Dunno if you’re watching it but I thought the bi-polar agent theme had potential…although I’m not sure what’s to be made of the current trope of women with mental illnesses or personality disorders in investigative roles…there was Salander, the woman from the Killing, Homeland and now there’s a female detective in the Bridge who’s clearly autistic. What does this mean?

  2. pocketapocketaqueep Says:

    I had to skim read/skip from about half-way in to your post because, though I brought the entire Sopranos boxset with me to Prague in January having bought it for £20 from the potwash lad at work a while before, I got half way through series 3, pretty obsessively, before deciding I ought rather to spend more time watching old Czech films and the like.

    Still, though I may not yet have finished it, I have also quite consciously been savouring it, and the Sopranos was one of the few boxed sets I got into as obsessively as The Wire a couple of years back.

    For me, I’m kind of glad most of the time that not everybody is watching it now and I’m coming to it years after the fact. I get to decide for myself, not walk into work or wherever and hear everyone passing around their own takes on things. It’s more like reading a novel, which is very much what watching a good television series has been since this show, which showed how it could be done.

    Either way, anyone who has watched it can agree that James Gandolfini made that role what it was, and though the Sopranos was very much an ensemble piece, the set-up (mafia boss sees shrink), which they may very well not have envisaged going on for so long, meant that the show would have lost all dramatic tension if he had not made it so real.

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