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Simcha FisherNovember 05, 2021
Death is there from the very beginning of ‘The Sopranos,’ and it’s telling you something (photo: Alamy).Death is there from the very beginning of ‘The Sopranos,’ and it’s telling you something (photo: Alamy).

It’s one big memento mori, “The Sopranos.” You don’t realize it while you’re watching the series at first, because the show is so drenched in sex and food, gore and comedy, violence and pathos and banality. But death is there from the very beginning, and it’s telling you something: Just wait. It will happen to you.

The series has recently gained a whole new audience, almost 15 years after its finale on HBO. This is obviously in large part because of the recent release of “The Many Saints of Newark,” a feature film purporting to fill in some of the backstory of the lives of Tony Soprano and his kin. But the comeback is also due to something else: As the New York Times’s Willy Staley posited, younger audiences see themselves in Tony Soprano’s “combination of privilege and self-loathing,” or they see today’s America in the show’s portrayal of the ’90s era of decline and fall.

‘The Sopranos’ is ultimately about the day when Tony Soprano will not wake up.

Staley says the show was prescient in a way that sheds light on our specific timeline. But I think it deals with a theme that never stopped being relevant, namely, salvation. And did I mention death?

In the very first episode, Carmela Soprano, Tony’s wife, steps into the room where Tony is getting an MRI, hoping to find the source of his inexplicable collapses. In eight lines of dialogue that provide a primer to their marriage, Tony mawkishly offers a nostalgic olive branch, and Carmela quickly escalates: “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die!” Then Tony’s body, covered only by a hospital gown, is fed into the machine.

Sin and virtue are treated as a curiosity, and even the priests are willing to help that world view limp along unchallenged.

Carmela later retracts her furious words. But where Tony is going from Episode One on—and Carmela, too—really is the central question of the show.

It is not explicitly a religious question. The church appears mainly as a cultural and aesthetic force in the lives of the show’s characters. Sin and virtue are treated as a curiosity, and even the priests are willing to help that world view limp along unchallenged, as long as they get their manigot.

A Moral Force

In a sense, the most Catholic parts of the show are not the explicitly Catholic parts. Whether it’s the Holy Spirit (in the guise of that numinous wind that moves throughout the series) or something more amorphous, a moral force does press on the lives of the various characters, demanding their attention.

They are all constantly presented with choices: What matters more, business and efficiency or loyalty and family? When we identify what was wrong with the past, do we reject everything about it? If we see what was good about the past, may we hope to retain any of it? Once we understand why we do things, how culpable are we, and how capable are we of change? Once we realize we are wrong, how much must we give up to make things right? Anything?

Carmela is given perhaps the starkest moral choice of any of the characters (except for maybe Paulie Walnuts, with his cataclysmic vision of the Virgin Mary at the stripper’s pole): The almost prophetic psychiatrist Dr. Krakower tells Carmela, plainly and without pity, that she must leave Tony, must take no more blood money, must be an accomplice no longer.

Carmela’s insight goes dim when there is something she doesn’t want to know.

“One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told,” he intones.

You could see this scene as the show leaving a small marker, bobbing on the surface of the water, reminding the viewer: Don’t forget, wrong is still wrong. We may be humanizing murderers in every episode, showing them eating their sloppy pepper sandwiches and struggling with their teenagers just like anyone else, but murder is still murder. Death is still death.

Carmela leaves Dr. Krakower’s office stricken. She huddles on the couch at home, pondering these things in her heart. And then she finds a priest, a good priest, who gives her a softer message. He tells her that she should find a way to live off only the legitimate parts of her husband’s income, and that is how she will find her way. But soon enough, despite some dramatic side journeys, she makes her way back into the same old patterns.

The story is not any more complicated than one man’s brain.

Carmela is almost an inverse of the Lady of Sorrows, who endures so many awful indignities: Carmela takes away no good from her anguish; she only suffers. She feeds everyone and cares for everyone, and everyone comes to her for comfort. She listens to everyone, and with her deep, hollow eyes she sees through everyone, and she always tells people the truth about themselves. But when it comes down to it, she has her price, and can be had for presents and jewelry.

Carmela’s insight also goes dim when there is something she doesn’t want to know. It has been her life’s work not to see that Tony was capable of killing people—including his own loved ones and relatives. Carmela’s brittle manicure and spraddle-legged gait betray the terrible tension of keeping so much horror in check within her.

Her dalliance with real estate is more than just a way to build a nest egg. It is her answer to Tony’s impending, inevitable death: to pile up money for herself and her children. She knows that throughout her whole life, she has been building with rotten materials. But she also knows she can make the sale if she keeps pushing hard enough. It’s not just the house she’s building as her own project to sell, it’s everything.

Layers of the Heart

And this is how the show draws us in. It gives us the same choice: How will you hold all this knowledge in check? We’re going to show you so many things about what people are like. What will you do with the knowledge? How will you accommodate it?

“The Sopranos” invites us into multiple layers of inquiry into the human heart: We not only watch the Soprano family, but the family’s therapists, and the therapist’s therapist, and at one point a whole party of the therapist’s therapist’s therapist friends, all looking and talking and interpreting and wondering what to make of the lifvese of these fascinating people who steal and kill for a living. And then we, the viewers, do the same.

Tony wants what most men want. Not just sex and power and gabagool, but a little appreciation.

That first scene where Tony is fed into the MRI machine? It’s not just a foreshadowing, it’s a tell. We are going to take a little peek inside this man’s brain and see if we can’t figure out what’s going on in there.

The truth is, our layers of inquiry show that the story is not any more complicated than one man’s brain. The show is about the mafia, but only circumstantially. Tony wants what most men want. Not just sex and power and gabagool, but a little appreciation. One exhausting episode culminates in Christopher Moltisanti and Furio Giunta grinding up the body of Richie Aprile. But the real bathos comes after Tony has finished mopping up after the bloody corpse in his undershirt as the sun rises. At this point he has also had to clean up, metaphorically, after his narcissistic mother, his suicidal ex-mistress and his unstable sister yet again. He returns home to find his wife in another cold rage, sarcastically threatening suicide if he refuses to take care of the kids’ dentist appointments and tennis clinics while she’s in Rome. “Hey, hey, I saved the world today,” swells the music, and even though you know so much of this mess is his own fault, you want to give the poor man a hug for taking care of everything once again.

And we are left to mop up the aftermath of what has just happened to our hearts. What kind of accommodation did we just make?

‘Til Death Do Us Part

Somehow we come to a place where Tony’s choice to sell Mr. Caputo’s poultry store in their old neighborhood in Newark so that a Jamba Juice can move in feels colder and more stinging than the scene where he mercy-executes his own cousin, Tony Blundetto. This is what the show does to you. You know what the real moral laws are: murder is wrong, always; we must not root for barbaric criminals. But even if the message is delivered in stark terms, we can’t receive it, any more than Carmela was able to receive the judgment from Dr. Krakower. Instead, we are counseled to find some middle way, to seek out some kind of balance, to keep ourselves engaged without becoming too contaminated.

And we truly do. This is the genius of the show, that it is possible to achieve this balance. Six seasons of perfectly paced brutality and compassion never let you forget who these people are and what they really do. And yet the success of “The Sopranos” is partially because the show is, as Staley also said, funnier than most shows that bill themselves explicitly as comedies. And it succeeds because it has the courage to end in the only possible way such a show could end, daring to baffle and outrage so many viewers with one final invitation to see clearly what the show is about.

Six seasons of perfectly paced brutality and compassion never let you forget who these people are and what they really do.

In the final few episodes, Dr. Melfi, Tony’s therapist, decides once and for all that, yes, Tony is a sociopath, and therapy is just helping him hone his skills at manipulation and deception. She dismisses him abruptly, and he furiously tells her that what she is doing is immoral.

I am inclined to agree. I think Tony does get better during the show. He does make some movements toward self-awareness, and probably weathers his son AJ’s meltdown better than he might have otherwise. Because of what Tony has accomplished in therapy, in one of the weirdest love scenes put to film, he decides not to cheat on Carmela just one time. Instead he ends up reeling around his kitchen in a stupid rage, to his wife’s disgust, suffering under the torments of a budding new conscience. We also see him fighting to change the mafia script when he holds back and lets the police deal with the pedophile coach rather than rubbing him out. Tony is reachable.

Tony is not a great man, but is he worse than most men? Is he? I don’t know!

But it would take an act of heroism for him to break out of the life he inherited. (Which is not to say it would be impossible. His unconscious is apparently capable of imagining it, in the absolutely brilliant coma episodes featuring his doppelgänger, Kevin Finnerty.) With his family history, with his upbringing, with the burdens and expectations he carries, with the way atrocities are thoroughly normalized by his crowd, what would it take for him to break away from that life and do something completely different? Tony is not a great man, but is he worse than most men? Is he? I don’t know!

What I do know is, like everyone in the show, he is given the chance to at least try. He is given chance after chance to do better, and even by his own standards, he does fail. He chooses poorly. Strictly speaking, his loathsome nemesis, Phil Leotardo, is in the right: Tony has become an ineffective boss, and should be taken down. But that is not what the show is about. The show is about the day when Tony Soprano will not wake up.

I am not swayed by arguments that the final jarring scene is some kind of reprimand to the viewer, a slap in the face for erroneously sympathizing too much with a monster like Tony. I think arguing about “what really happened” is missing the point.

Throughout the show, and more and more frequently at the opening of each episode, the first thing we see (echoing the view of the MRI machine) is Tony asleep in bed—and then he wakes up. He wakes up. He wakes up. He wakes up. And one day, we’re prompted to imagine, he will not. One day his eyes will not open. It doesn’t matter how.

The abrupt and ambiguous ending tells me that it doesn’t matter if Tony gets killed at Holsten’s or not, if he is killed by a hitman or in jail or by cancer or whatever. The point is, sooner or later Tony Soprano will die. The point is, sooner or later everyone will die. But first, everyone gets their chances.

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