THE ENDURING AND ETHICAL MEANING IN THE SOPRANOS
“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”
In literature and film, there is an archetypical character that is seen time and again: that of the power and money hungry character who ends up in a bad way. There is King Midas who preferred gold above all else, losing his daughter in the process. Similarly, Scrooge of Dickens fame is the rich miser who ends up at death’s door, only to be redeemed by ghosts who show him the light. And Lex Luthor, billionaire archenemy of Superman, wants to crush those around him so he can be king. Throughout, these characters are associated with bad ethics generally, and criminality specifically, when the character resorts to violence to achieve his lust for power and money. In other words, a villain in every sense of the word.
The mafia genre in film adds to the many layers of this archetype in its depiction of the ruthless criminal who robs and kills at will. Mob films have been popular since James Cagney first stormed onto the scene with the movie, The Public Enemy, starring an Irish American character who rises up in organized crime during The Roaring 1920’s. Like many main characters in mob movies to follow, Cagney ends up lying dead in a bloody pool. At the time there was such an outcry against the movie, with critics wrongly claiming that it glorified criminal life, that Cagney felt compelled to take up the role of an FBI agent in his next movie The G Men. Since then, the Mafia genre in film has only become more popular for directors to use. Two of the most iconic are Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas and Casino, and Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather saga.
Like the Cagney film, Scorsese and Coppola present the inevitable, miserable end of those that choose a life of crime. Who can forget the last scene in the final Godfather movie where Michael Corleone, having lost everything dear in his life including his precious daughter, dies, his hand dropping tragically, symbolic of the empty life he has lived. Similarly, we find the main characters in Goodfellas and Casino being hauled off to lifelong sentences in jail or brutally murdered; fitting ends, it would seem, for depraved human beings who led lives filled with selfishness and greed.
In television, it is The Sopranos, created by David Chase, that takes this idea and delves deeper into the heart and mind of the criminal mafia man in its portrayal of Tony Soprano, played brilliantly by the late James Gandolfini. Since the last cryptic episode went to black in 2007, The Sopranos has been surrounded by questions. Chief among these is—what exactly is the series about?
In a 2005 60 Minutes interview, Bob Simon asked James Gandolfini this very question, to which he replied, “The reason The Sopranos is successful, and I’ve said it before, it deals with children, it deals with parents, it deals with family, …and then you have to put certain things, to, to escalate it, and that’s the mafia part… and in a way that’s about family too, loyalty.” Family, yes, and loyalty too, perhaps, but to the observant viewer there is so much more.
Considered the greatest television series on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, this six-season saga of Tony Soprano and his family continues the archetypal idea of the doomed man of power, using among other things the raw depiction of violence and guttural human behavior found in mafia films. Yet the show stands out from the crowd by delving deeper into the constant double life that the criminal must lead, and the despair and mental anguish that inevitably occurs.
Unique amongst the mafia genre for showing that a life of crime is one of outward and inward agony, it is The Sopranos that attempts to look at what goes on in the mind of a person dedicated to corruption, thrusting the mafia figure into our collective psyche. But far from glorifying a life of crime, The Sopranos shows a bankrupt one filled with lies, murder, robbery, and complete disdain for anyone but oneself. Indeed, if looked at closely, what we see in the character of Tony Soprano is a cautionary tale of selfishness and greed, filled with gut wrenching death and despair for the mafia figure and his “family.”
I. “I got the world by the f#$@!n balls and I can’t help feeling like a f$#@!n loser””
Tony Soprano, Season 2 Ep. 6 “The Happy Wanderer”
In the opening episode of The Sopranos we meet Tony Soprano, a rising member of the Demeo crime family, assaulting someone over a past due gambling debt. He’s quick to resort to violence whenever necessary, but at times can come off as a lovable rogue (a feat achieved exceedingly well by James Gandolfini). Tony’s only joys are the physical ones of sex and food, and he is harassed by the demon of depression. Further along we learn that Tony suffers from intense panic attacks that cause him to pass out uncontrollably. In what develops as one of the central relationships in the show, Tony goes to see Dr. Melfi, a psychiatrist who tries to help cure him of these attacks, only to give up in the final season when she “realizes’ that Tony is a sociopath who has fooled her. Much can be said of this relationship, including the show’s commentary on the futility of modern psychiatry to really cure mental illness—and to quite possibly worsen the situation; but Dr. Melfi, played by the excellent Lorraine Bracco, skirts around the central, pulsating question underlying Tony’s mental difficulty: Are depression and panic attacks a consequence of how Tony lives his life? And taken further: is part of the usefulness of the show the honest portrayal of the pain Tony feels because of the monstrous way he makes a living?
Consider that at the heart of organized crime is massive contempt for people, and the world itself. Eli Siegel, the American philosopher and founder of Aesthetic Realism explained contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” When you have contempt, Siegel wrote, you take away the humanity of another person: “As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person” (James and the Children, 1968)
Robbing people, hurting people, killing people are presented with, at times, gratuitous, shocking violence throughout the six seasons of the show, yet the characters, portrayed brilliantly by a stellar cast, go about their lives acting as if “this thing of ours” is just something that’s done. Evil is portrayed as a chilling, everyday fact. Indeed, part of the greatness of The Sopranos is that it succeeds in showing that the contempt that causes the robbing and killing of people can dwell in the same heart and mind that is thinking of a daughter’s education.
And this, it seems, is quite accurate, as evident in the monstrous ordinariness of this quote from Sammy the Bull, notorious 2nd man to mob boss John Gotti:
“First time I killed, before I pulled the trigger, I wondered how I would feel. Taking a life and all that. But I felt nothing afterwards. I do a piece of work, and I’ve done it 19 times now, and each time I felt nothing. No remorse. Just ice.” (The Reluctant Don | Vanity Fair)
A life snuffed out, the humanity of a person taken away like it’s nothing, is, most people would agree, one of the great evils in the world. Its presentation in The Sopranos is intertwined captivatingly with the daily life of dinner, T.V shows, college applications.
That evil walks the stage is part of the timeless art of The Sopranos. Indeed, Tony Soprano is a cold, calculating killer, unrealistically going from crime to crime with impunity, always outwitting death and the Feds. In many ways The Sopranos has an unreal, fantasy-turned-on-its-head quality to it, evident in the reoccurring place of dreams in the series. One can even argue it’s a fantasy of unfettered contempt that most people want to act on but, for obvious reasons, cannot. David Chase explains this when he says, “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.” Made in America (The Sopranos) - Wikipedia
And this fantasy goes out and includes the seemingly easy way Tony makes enough money to support an upper middle-class lifestyle. In reality, the day-to-day existence of a life of crime is much different and more in keeping with that of a rat. Consider the following description from Organized Crime Pays (vice.com):
“In the American imagination, being involved in organized crime means living in beautiful mansions, having beautiful cars, and being surrounded by beautiful women. Nothing could be further from the truth. The life of a mafioso is horrendous, bleak, and almost monastic. What people don’t realize is that being a mafioso, even a boss, means living like a rat in a sewer. They are forced to hide the riches they have earned, risking their own lives and those of their relatives. They become fugitives, dwelling in tiny underground bunkers just a few square feet in size, and rarely see daylight or their loved ones. They understand, from the moment they go down that road, that it ends in two possible ways: Either they’ll be in prison, or their enemies will murder them.”
So if the depiction of a life of crime in The Sopranos is unrealistic, what then is it trying to show?
II. "What kind of person can I be, where his own mother wants him dead?"
The mythology of the mafia tries to make the case that you can lead a double life with no problem. The Sopranos, to its credit, shows you can’t. Episode after episode presents the routine violence Tony Soprano and his ‘family’ must resort to in order to maintain ‘this thing of ours.’ Increasingly, Death shows up in brutal scenes of violence--such as when Phil Leotrado and his henchmen duct tape Vito’s mouth in order to stifle his screams as they beat him mercilessly, or when Paulie and Chris murder an innocent waiter who they've stiffed out of a tip. Across the life of the show we witness how murder becomes the norm.
In total 93 people die over the course of six seasons (List of deaths | The Sopranos Wiki | Fandom). Tony Soprano himself kills eight; Paulie Gualtieri murders nine (both numbers of which would designate them as mass murderers). And Death is a symbolic presence in The Sopranos as in the time its revealed that Pussy Bonponsiere lives next to a cemetery as he’s cooperating with the Feds, foreshadowing what lies in wait for the ‘rat.’ As the show develops death is increasingly welcomed as a guest in the Sopranos family, used as a necessary tool at first, but gradually showing up more and more until, in the final episode, it takes permanent residence
The big question of the final scene in the Sopranos is—Does Tony die or not? Clearly Chase and company meant it to be ambiguous but consider that there may be another conclusion.
The tension builds by the seemingly ordinary things—a door, Meadow parking, a man wearing a Members Only jacket, walking in and then going into the bathroom; and lastly Meadow walking through the door and then the cut to black. We feel something violent about to happen but it never does—an uncomfortable feeling of impending dread.
Perhaps that's the point.
In other words, because of the life Tony Soprano leads, regardless of whether he is killed or not (and there is a good chance he will be) death will always be there, close by, haunting him and the ones he holds dear. David Chase, alludes to life and death circling each other ominously, masterfully, in the final scene of The Sopranos when he said,
"I had thought, for instance, that the sense of paranoia instilled in the viewer by the rapid editing style...used for the scene was shared by Tony himself — that ...the point of it all was to finally put us in the mindset of the main character, to make us realize, ‘This is how miserable it is to be Tony Soprano: to spend every minute of every day worrying about who could be coming through a door to kill you."
-Martha Nochimson, Vox, August 27, 2014.
Despite the technical artistry of the last episode, Chase himself was unsure about its meaning. He explained that,
“Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point. To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of The Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer.”
The spiritual question can be put like this—does a life based on violent and brutal contempt for people end up, if not in death, then one where it haunts your every minute, an everlasting hell on earth? Charles Dickens thought so when he described Ebenezer Scrooge as "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Here Dickens and David Chase agree with that illustrious Italian Dante Alligheri, whose masterpiece The Divine Comedy shows the everlasting torment for those who would follow a life of criminality. While more subtle than Dante, The Sopranos makes it clear with the consummate artistry that is found in timeless film that there is no escape from one’s crimes. Indeed, it makes the case that a person inclined to villainy will be haunted within and without until some resolution is found, a powerful idea found in the bible as well as Buddhism and many other religions and philosophies. Moreover, the immense popularity of the series shows that this message resonates with people. Here ethics and entertainment join in ways that are useful for peoples lives.
Avi Gvili has been an educator for 25 years in English and Computer Science. The award winning author of four books, he was named Staten Island's Best Writer in 2014 and again in 2015. In 2019 and in 2020 he was chosen as one of Staten Island's Power 100 for his political activism and publishing work. Avi is the President/CEO of Boulevard Books, a writer centered publisher dedicated to empowering authors with 100% royalty and complete creative control. Contact him at www.BoulevardBooks.org