Warning: Spoiler alert
In the end, it took me nearly ten years to watch it all. Why? Life. That humble sundry of change. Different suburbs, states, countries. Different friends and lovers. Commitment to a long-running TV series requires stability.
There was also the stench and stickiness of depression that hung over The Sopranos universe. The funk was everywhere. The show’s prickly creator, David Chase, suffered clinical depression in his teens. Asked if he had contemplated suicide, he responded “doesn’t everyone?”
Here was a depressive man writing a depressed character and planting him at the top of a very bloody mountain. The show became increasingly doom-heavy—death and dread everywhere.
There’s another reason it took me so long. There are very, very few—possibly no—likeable characters. Rich and distinctive characters, yes. But likeable or moral? Perhaps the sweet and guileless Adriana, who herself shuffles off violently.
Even the children of Tony Soprano are repulsive—Meadow transforms her liberal arts education into pieties and apologies for thugs. AJ, who provides such a heartbreaking arc late in the piece, reverts to the shallow brat he always was.
What of our crime boss’s shrink, Dr. Melfi? Perhaps, but so given to trusting the transformative power of therapy, she’s very slow to realise that Tony is unchangeable. Therapy has made Tony a better mobster, not a better man.
In Dr. Melfi’s social life she is surrounded by a choir of smug liberals who preach and preen but are secretly fascinated by her outlaw patient.
No, this is a cast of incurable hypocrites. In the show’s pilot Tony Soprano says this to his shrink:
TONY: The morning of the day I got sick, I been thinking. It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came in too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
DR. MELFI: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.
TONY: I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But in a lotta ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, whadda we got?
In another episode, Tony drives his brattish son to a local church and asks him to admire its craftsmanship. “They don’t make things like that anymore,” Tony says.
But it’s all bullshit. Tony grows increasingly sentimental as the show goes on, but it’s never exactly clear to us when things were supposed to have been better. Tony’s corpse-filled present is rotten, and the fallacy of a Golden Age cushions him. Critic Emily Nussbaum wrote that Tony’s sentimentality becomes a “poisonous nostalgia”. She’s right.
Tony is full of bullshit because he and his New Jersey crew aren’t interested in making anything, except money. They’re destroyers, not creators. Their impulses are deathly and dull. They’re piggish, lazy and greedy. They speak fondly of the American Dream and immigrants done good, but they’re parasites themselves. Tony’s admiration for craftsmanship becomes a horrible joke—a sort of impossible wish. He’ll never make anything beautiful and stable.
Then there are the televisions. They’re everywhere. Sometimes they reflect the dreams of those watching them, sometimes they transmit the cinematic influences of Chase. But mostly they’re just boob tubes, honey pots for the dull minds of these murderous imbeciles. It’s a recurring motif, fat mobsters passing the time with an old variety show, zombies waiting to be animated by the next job, the next promise of cash or violence.
In The Sopranos, television is just another totem of the moral funk that has settled into every nook of its universe. Chase himself had never had any love for the format—and TV was his career—once saying he “hated” it.
So why did I watch it? I’ll get to that, but it seems that I was unusual in holding these contemptible characters in, well, contempt. I heard it, Chase heard it—we all heard it from some fan. “Oh, but Tony’s a good guy. He’s just confused. He’s so deep and sad and guilty, he’s filled with humanity.” Likewise for the other sociopaths.
Chase grew confused and repulsed by our attraction to these nihilists. Whether we were conferring on these characters the same smug forgiveness that Meadow did, or whether we were vicariously experiencing the thrill of shredding the social contract, we grew weirdly close to monsters.
Dr. Melfi’s eventual abandonment of Tony was one of David Chase’s most muscular—and most moral—kinks in our expectations. Melfi fully realises that Tony is a monster. Of course he is. Why hadn’t she seen it? Hadn’t we seen it? Greedy, conniving, duplicitous, murderous. He was there all along. And the rest of his gang.
The final scene, of course, was the real kink in our expectations and it set fans off. In mob dramas we expect our denouement in crimson, but we didn’t get it this time. Instead we got a black screen. After wondering if my power had gone out, I grasped the magnificent, total, poetic eloquence of… nothing. You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?
Most viewers felt differently. A few felt that it was an act of perversion. Betrayal. They were, of course, waiting to see Tony’s brains blown out in front of his family and after having rooted for him this whole time. Chase was pissed:
There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony face down in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head. Or, on the other side, taking over the New York mob. The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly… The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.
So why watch it? The acting was remarkable, the writing supreme. The language could be funny or ordinary, developing its own mobster patois, a combination of tough guy talk and malapropisms. The show constantly surprised, spinning off smaller arcs that beguiled us before ending abruptly in a pool of blood or a witness protection program. The Vito arc, anyone?
But the twists and turns of The Sopranos wasn’t just good drama—Chase was constantly slapping our sympathy for Tony out of our hands. There was a moral insistency in this. “He’s evil, remember?” he seemed to keep saying to us. “Abandon your love for him.”
And yet, despite the evil, we were recognisable somewhere in that show. Tony’s home life gave us shocks of recognition, whether it was the ebbs and flows of his estrangement and intimacy with his children, or his toxic relationship with his vile and self-pitying mother (of course, this being The Sopranos, his mother tries to whack him).
It was a show mercilessly, bravely filled with death and depression, guilt and paranoia, but also barbecues and bills, bratty sons and broken curfews. There were meditations on the sublime, there were explorations of the sub-conscious. It was Shakespeare—both his comedies and his tragedies—and it was also soap. In real life, the FBI were not only watching it, but were listening in on mobsters who were watching it—and the mobsters were sure the writers had some wiseguy in on the inside.
The Sopranos was rich. Amongst the rivers of blood and money, there were genuine relationships brokered as much by love as distrust. And the relationships existed between a great, undulating mass of characters each inhabiting worlds and places lovingly, painstakingly detailed. I might not have liked anyone, but they were flesh and blood and they lived in real places. Chris Moltisanti could work just as earnestly on his film script as he could shoot dead a snitch.
I’m glad it’s over. Chase’s vision was, for all of the humour, as black as that last shot. It was powerfully and purposefully dark, but it was exhausting nonetheless. And the tug of that funk got stronger and stronger. Redemption would not be found here. That thing of theirs was already in motion, a sort of perpetual machine of nihilism. Tony Soprano was Ouroboros, and the rest is darkness.