The Sopranos
David Chase, 1999-2007

Given that it took me until 2011 to watch this — Elizabeth and I started about three months ago and watched all 86 episodes on a roughly one-a-day schedule, missing a few days here and there but catching up with multiple-episode days — I imagine that, incomprehensible as it might be to Bill Simmons, there might be others in a similar situation, and am therefore providing this spoiler warning.

The premise of The Sopranos is that the thuggish boss of the North Jersey mob goes to a psychiatrist to be treated for panic attacks and depression. Elizabeth said that one of the things she liked about the series was its acknowledgment that no one with even a scrap of humanity could spend day after day assaulting and murdering people without psychological consequences, but while there is a little bit of talk amongst the gangsters about being haunted by at least one or two of the people they've killed, that isn't what Tony Soprano's therapy sessions are about. He gives virtually no thought to his many victims unless they'd been close friends of his. He's much more concerned with whatever family drama happens to be plaguing him that week: conflicts with his wife, with his children, with his sister, with the sneering lump of geriatric hostility that is his mother. Lizzie also noted that one of the big takeaways of The Sopranos is how shitty the life of a mafioso is, but to me that's one of the takeaways of every mob story; here's what I wrote about Goodfellas:

[...] To me, this movie is the story of people who do brutal things, and as a consequence give up any sense of trygghet they might have, in exchange for... for what? For an apartment with tacky wallpaper in a terrible neighborhood in Queens? For the opportunity to walk into a club and immediately be given a front row seat to see Henny Youngman? For the ability to attract a trashy high school dropout as a mistress? [...]

Apparently this loss of trygghet is the focus of one of the two leading interpretations of the ending of the series, which abruptly cuts from Tony looking up worriedly at the sound of the bells on the door of a diner to black silence. There are hints in earlier episodes that suggest that we have just witnessed Tony's last moment of consciousness before being shot dead, but some contend that the truth is more subtle — that what we're witnessing throughout the scene is that Tony is going to spend the rest of his life seeing potential assailants in every restaurant booth, that he's going react with alarm every time his daughter enters the room. Fair enough, but how is this any different from any other point in the series? Sure, Tony has recently been targeted for a hit, but this has been the case before. Which, I guess, brings me to my main takeaway from the series.

I've complained in the past that television series, due to their open-ended nature, tend to be exercises in cycling away from and then back to an established status quo. Superhero comics are notorious for this sort of thing, going so far as to regularly bring back characters from the dead and even occasionally hit a cosmic reset button in order to go "back to basics." Stan Lee's notorious quote that comics are about not change but "the illusion of change" seems to be apocryphal, but it's a pretty good summary of the engine behind most comics and behind most TV shows. And much as I tend to roll my eyes at the "form = content" equation so beloved in academia, I do have to concede that there are narrative works out there that do take up their own restrictions as a theme. In interactive fiction, for instance, coding up good non-player characters is hard, so it's not uncommon to find works set in uninhabited worlds whose stories are in large part about the absence of people. The Sopranos strikes me as a similar case. "Mob boss goes into therapy" is an interesting premise for a story that could go in any number of directions, but "mob boss goes into therapy for eight years and nothing much changes, because it's an open-ended series and nothing much can change until it's finally canceled" narrows that range down a bit. For one, it means that the therapy can't be what you would call effective. It becomes a running joke: every so often Tony erupts that he's been coming to therapy for two, or five, or seven years, and hasn't made any progress. The show therefore becomes a meditation on someone — on a group of people, really — who prove to be incapable of real growth:

  • Tony Soprano does have some insights in his therapy sessions (e.g., that his mother's "tough love" was actually crippling abuse), and even a number of seeming epiphanies: a near-death experience that leads to him repeating that "every day is a gift," a peyote trip that makes him declare "I get it!"... but none of these insights or epiphanies seems to actually make any difference. Sometimes he'll change his behavior for a few days — a soccer coach he doesn't kill, a real estate agent he doesn't fuck — but these are just phases and never last.

  • Carmela "Caramello" Soprano, his wife, struggles a bit with the knowledge that her lifestyle is funded by blood money, and even leaves Tony for a while — though even then it's for having affairs, which her psychiatrist correctly calls "the least of his misdeeds." But this turns out to be just a phase, as she soon takes him back, having decided that she can put up with the mistresses after all — not to mention the body count — so long as it means a regular supply of Porsches and icies.

  • Meadow "Maedo" Soprano, their daughter, seems as though she might escape her background thanks to her Ivy League education, but by the end of the show, while her delinquent high school friend is halfway through medical school, Maedo is still dicking around deciding what she wants to do with her life. While in the first season she had put Tony on the spot about not really making his living as a "waste management consultant," and had later even talked about getting into criminal justice as a slap at her father's career as a kingpin of organized crime, this turns out to be just a phase; by the end she is dating the son of one of Tony's underlings, defending the Mafia as part of her people's heritage, and is even talking about getting into law on the side of the defense, having seen how her father had been "dragged away all those times by the FBI" because that's "the way Italians are treated." I've read people arguing that The Sopranos is optimistic insofar as the Soprano children will at least avoid following in their parents' footsteps, but like her mother, Maedo has willfully chosen denial as a way of life.

  • Anthony "A.J." Soprano, Jr., the other Soprano child, is a sniveling fuckup who, after being dumped, falls into a depression and gets treatment that seems as if it might actually be good for him: he returns to school, starts getting interested in literature and current events, rejects materialism, and talks about making a difference in the world by joining the army (though, like all of A.J.'s career plans, this seems to mostly be a matter of fantasy, as he also talks of parlaying his military service into a job as Donald Trump's pilot). But his new-found maturity turns out to be just another passing phase, as once Tony hooks him up with a new BMW and a job at a low-rent movie studio, he's back to his old self.

  • Christopher Moltisanti, Tony's honorary "nephew," is (in addition to being a mobster) a drug addict who is forced into rehab and becomes seriously committed to sobriety... for a while. Every so often he falls off the wagon, or, more often, is pushed off it by Tony and the other mafiosi... then back to AA, then back on drugs, then back to AA, then back on drugs, phase one, phase two, rinse, repeat, until Tony has finally had enough of the endless TV show carousel and murders him.

  • Vito "Fattest Fuck" Spatafore, one of Tony's captains, is discovered to be a homosexual and flees to New Hampshire... for a while. All he has to do to keep from being killed — to live what in many ways is a better life, one in which he can live as an openly rather than furtively gay man, with a motorcycle-riding fireman who inexplicably loves him — is not cycle back to the status quo. I.e., don't go back to fuckin' New Jersey! But no: New Hampshire turns out to be just a phase, and he comes back home to be killed.

  • Dr. Jennifer "Melfi" Melfi, Tony's psychiatrist, seems to be the one person who does make an affirmative decision to make a permanent break from the status quo, as she bows to pressure from her douchey colleagues and, having her eyes opened by an article about how the "talking cure" only helps sociopaths become more effective sociopaths, dumps Tony as a patient (albeit on a flimsy pretext). But... she'd done so before. In fact, Melfi dumping Tony, or Tony storming out and vowing never to return, was a regular feature of the relationship between the two characters. So this seems like just another turn of the carousel.

This list could go on indefinitely. I find it interesting that The Sopranos has been heralded as inaugurating a golden age of television whose shows, The Sopranos among them, have been described as "novelistic." That isn't the word I'd use to describe the The Sopranos. The Sopranos is episodic. In fact, it tends to be the same episodes over and over: (a) guy gets out of prison and/or Miami, rejoins Tony's gang, turns out to be a loose cannon, needs to be whacked; (b) someone close to Tony turns out to be a government informant, needs to be whacked. But the word "novelistic," at least to me, describes a narrative that, in addition to whatever little epicycles may transpire within it, is marked by a broader story arc, generally involving characters and their relationships evolving. By that standard, even something like Frasier gets higher marks for being "novelistic" than The Sopranos. What The Sopranos wound up reminding me of was, of all things, Seinfeld, which famously operated on the principle "no hugging, no learning." There is a fair amount of hugging on The Sopranos, but no learning. And much as Seinfeld ended with the characters in jail for their "history of selfishness, self-absorption, immaturity, and greed" — much to the chagrin of many fans who'd been entertained by their pettiness — it seems to me that as The Sopranos drew to a close, the creators tried to draw the viewers' attention to the fact that, however much they may have enjoyed inviting these lowlifes into their living rooms, and however much the genre calls for stasis, 8½ years without learning is not a good thing.

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