Watching The Sopranos for the 1st time, 15 years after
with something new to tell us about 2022, it's still the best thing 'on TV'
2022 is the year to see The Sopranos again (or for the first time) if you can manage it. The hall-of-mirrors claustrophobia of the tightly contained world is a maddening, helpful, and hopeful reflection of our own. The Sopranos ran for 6 seasons & ended in 2007, so you probably know this, but the general plot is this: a mafia crime boss & family man in New Jersey struggles with psychological fall-out in a continuous high-stakes environment.
The Sopranos is a community set apart from the broader world, mostly unmoored from mainstream America. They even have their own language, not quite Italian but Italian-adjacent, overlaid with two generations of prejudices and enmities. When Tony tries to warn off his daughter’s mixed raced boyfriend, his casual firmness about what he sees as an inappropriate relationship makes it hard for Noah to see the slur for what it is: ditsoon, the word Tony uses, isn’t really Italian-Italian. Originating among Italian-Americans, it’s a corruption of the word tizzone, which means a live coal — of course it’s incomprehensible to Noah (is it any consolation racial slurs find it hard to cross cultural lines? I can’t decide).
Tony Soprano, for all his force and power, can’t even communicate a slur effectively outside of his proper context — he’s diminished. The community which misshapes him is also the source of his strength. What is it, exactly, that we want to ask of him? What kind of person do we think it would be proper and achievable — even good — for Tony Soprano to become?
How can we communicate with people similarly isolated, similarly cut off, similarly excluded? Does it matter whose behavior led to their isolation? What’s possible? What would success even look like?
The claustrophobia comes from inescapable saturation. Michael Imperioli’s Christopher’s (a name I can now only hear in Drea de Matteo’s anguished rising whine) inner life is hallucinogenically rich. The poprocks rat-a-tat-tat-tat of 1930s gangsters is a continuous scroll of Christopher’s beau idéals, and when he’s driving alone the lighting creates a sepia tinted nimbus as if he’s backlit — or a saint.
Everything refers back to and reinforces the rules, customs, values, and ideals of this particular community. Christopher (“Christahfuhhhhr!”) attempts to break free but his internal GPS slaps him back.
Christopher wasn’t yet a made man but he was strong and vigorous and sure in his world, something he only really notices through contrast. When he ventures beyond he’s a baffled junkyard dog — it’s not enough, and no compensations of artistic success, even of fame, would be enough. He can’t separate himself from his view of the world he occupies — its context shapes & defines him. It tells him who he is.
We see in The Sopranos one price we ask people to pay, leaving old customs and false beliefs behind. That they are lies and crimes — things which should be easy to leave behind — doesn’t seem to matter. What does it mean to ask people to give up a contained & well understood system for living?
For The Sopranos justice is appropriately timed, individually dictated, and absolute, but this is true not only in the judge-jury-executioner role Tony must play. People of all types make choices that drive their fates to a Dantean degree. There’s a terrifying fairness to what happens to people.
Richie Aprile (the astonishing David Proval) foretells his fate with a Chekhov’s Gun, saying to Christopher: “I’m from the old school. You want to raise your hands, give her your last name. Then it’s not my business. Until then, keep your hands in your pockets.” It’s a code of behavior predicated on spousal abuse, and unsurprisingly it leads nowhere good — to death by gunshot after he almost cold cocks his fiancée. His destruction was baked in all along, but of Richie more than anyone it’s clear how tightly he must cling to his status and the protections of his family’s guild — they’re all that animate him. Without them he’d be truly nothing.
Richie’s culture killed him and it was still the best offer he was likely to get. His life wasn’t long, but it included status and a measure of success that made sense to him. In the absence of an alternative future which included those essential structural elements — status, connections, the earned swagger he thinks is honor, Richie’s life would be worthless to him.
Richie is a despicable human being, but he has values and he knows what they are. He has to — the way he earns his living reinforces and validates them every day. If one day Richie should pause, should consider an alternative; if Richie should alter one of the thousands of choices that reinforce his values? What then? But he doesn’t — it never comes up.
But what happens when someone does leave? The answer there seems complicated. Tony’s sisters both got out.
Janice suffers from long-term failure to launch. She’s been a failure in the external world, though she’s clearly cast about for substitutions for what she’s left — in between failures of petty criminality Janice has gone through religious awakenings. Whether she truly seeks to be born anew, fresh and clean and innocent, or if it’s another Soprano evasion, I suspect even Janice (or Parvati Wasatch, to give her chosen name) doesn’t know which is more true.
Barbara, the youngest, glides in for occasional command performances, just a slender ghost, severed from the world that animates her more forceful and vivid siblings — she is the best illustration of success The Sopranos offers us.
What do we offer people in exchange, when we ask them to abandon old ways, old beliefs, wrong ideas? In The Sopranos, or any similarly closed community, it’s a request to cut free from their reality and their source of moral authority.
That’s the biggie — when we when ask people to turn away from one moral authority — as in The Sopranos, or with a cult, because it’s leading them dangerous places — we had better be sure we have a compelling source of moral authority to offer in its place.
There’s a reason people stay in The Sopranos, even when they know the cost. No one gave them a good enough reason to leave.
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