*DISCLAIMER* This show has gratuitous language, violence, and nudity are all very prevalent. Also a graphic depiction of a rape. Not for the faint of heart.
We’ve reached another bittersweet milestone: we reached the conclusion of the seminal HBO television show The Sopranos. This is the third HBO show we’ve watched all the way through, following Sex And The City and The Wire. SATC was a fascinating insight into the mind of the modern New York woman and The Wire completely broke down commonly held beliefs and notions about how the modern American City operates as a social institution. The Sopranos is an intensely deep look at a smaller social institution: the modern American Family. It is weighty, dramatic, and at times intensely violent and sexual, but the themes of family, respect, and loyalty are compelling and moving. Incredibly interesting and engaging television program.
The show follows Tony Soprano’s rule as the head of the New Jersey mafia. Tony is married to Carmela and they have two teenage children, Meadow and AJ. The show starts with Tony, a captain in the DiMeo crime family, suffering from crippling panic attacks. He decides to try therapy, an unheard-of decision within the Italian mafioso culture. Tony comes a generation that respects stalwart, dedicated men who can handle problems on their own without needing help. The Gary Cooper, “strong, silent type” man is referenced multiple times throughout the series. From here, the story follows Tony’s dealings as captain and eventually boss of the family.
This is the most succinct way to describe the show. At its root, the show is about a family and the deconstruction of the American Dream. The generation of Italian Americans that are under the lens of this show are not the original family immigrants. Most are twice removed; it was their grandparents that originally came from the Old Country. Their ancestors immigrated to work towards the American Dream: work hard in America, land of opportunity and prosperity, and you’ll achieve success. I’m not sure when this culture stopped believing in this dream, but somewhere along the generational timeline, a group of young people decided to take the easy way towards getting what they wanted. In their minds though, crime is not the easy way to success, it is just another route fraught with perils, hardships, stresses, and occasional joys just like any other. That’s what is so interesting about this show. Obviously the viewer sees this crime family operating and the despicable things they do, but as you watch, you begin to empathize with these characters. Not necessarily justifying the morality of their actions, but at least the motivation behind them. It doesn’t matter how hard you work as the owner of your community’s local pork shop, you will not, most likely, achieve grand financial success. And that’s where the viewer’s empathy is born. If Tony has found an alternative route to success, why wouldn’t he take it?
This raises another important question. Is the American Dream actually the American Myth? We see Artie Bucco, childhood friend of Tony’s, work hard at his family restaurant, trying not to buy into the mob lifestyle, and yet where is his realization of the American Dream? He continually hits obstacle after obstacle. One can argue that many of these come from being associated, however crime-free, with Tony. But really, Artie is just a man who is trying to make an honest buck and can’t seem to make it happen for himself or his family. So what is it that these characters are fighting so hard to achieve? At one point, Tony is attempting to solve a serious contention between the New Jersey and New York families, and pleads with the New York boss to put the matter to bed. He tells his rival boss that they have a job to do, and this beef is keeping them from doing their job. It’s keeping them from putting food on the table for their families, which is the ultimate goal at the end of the day for these men. Looking back at Artie, he managed to achieve that goal, yet still wasn’t happy.
Ultimately, this is a sad show. We saw broken people wandering through a crime-filled existence, without really knowing what they’re trying to attain. We see a traditional nuclear family, husband/wife/daughter/son, completely break down due to infidelity, selfishness, deception, anger, no communication. We also see this family from a more generational vantage point, and see how sinfulness can permeate relationships and how it can be transmitted genetically from parent to child. We see cycles of anger, self-pity, and depression link generations and we just want to yell at these characters to break out from the mold set by their parents. This aspect of the show especially has led to many long conversations trying to decipher the generational mysteries about our own families.
I do want to address the controversial last episode. I was reeling from it. I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head, just mulling over what happened and how to interpret it. What’s weird is that I actually knew how the episode ended many years ago when I foolishly read an online review of it after it premiered. *mild spoiler?* What I was not aware of is how abruptly it occurs. Really, not much of a spoiler, but what does happen definitely resonates with the viewer. It takes awhile to shake off that last episode. Which proves, if nothing else, it was well made. It’s odd though, that these characters don’t achieve redemption. This show ended differently than a show like The Wire; that wrapped everything up nicely, even if it wasn’t a happy ending for most characters. It at least had a sense of finality to it. The Sopranos ends in the opposite way. Things aren’t tied up, there isn’t some grand redemption moment for Tony, or for anyone for that matter, and there isn’t a sense of resolution. Only a sense of repetition. Things will continue to go on as they always have with different faces, only slightly morphing as the Italian Americans continue to climb further from the roots their family tree.
It’s a powerful show. Tony is a man who does deplorable things, yet we empathize. You don’t think you will, but you do. At least I did. And I never would’ve thought the show could do that to me. In my review for The Wire, I stated it was the best television show I’d ever seen. Still true? The Sopranos is certainly punching in the same weight category. The Sopranos has depth, and something that resonates with the viewer. I think, in the end, the show makes us ultimately compare ourselves with Tony. “What an awful guy. I’d never do such things.” Yet as we slowly begin to justify his deeds, it shows us how much of our own sin we sweep under the rug, just as Tony does. And this is where the real power of this show comes from. By turning the floodlights onto our own problems, we realize how much we need redemption and how dangerous an unredeemed life can be. Tony and his family certainly are an entertaining example.