With the second episode of the show, we can see things beginning to settle into place a bit. While David Chase did a phenomenal job with the pilot episode – introducing threads that would pay off years down the line – here we get a chance to see The Sopranos settle into its groove. The series has been praised, quite rightly, as one of the great and defining television series, and many writers have echoed the claim that the series is effectively a “televised novel”, wherein each episode could be considered a chapter as part of a greater whole, with small patterns becoming evident once the viewer pulls back far enough. I’m not sure I entirely agree – I think that each episode does a phenomenal story covering its own ground while playing into larger themes and that each fifty-five minute show is more than just an idle chapter.
I think that’s what’s so surprising about jumping back into these episodes. It’s not just that Chase clearly has a well-defined vision of where he wants the series to go, and that he has a clear idea of the themes he wants to play into. It’s that each episode itself turns out to be intensely satisfying on its own terms, rather than merely serving as a building block. That’s not to discount how 46 Long plays into larger events – for example, Anthony’s assertion that his father is a hero is given a darker edge by the later revelation he doesn’t know what his father does for a living.
So we’re still adding texture to the world that Tony inhabits here, and visiting ideas that would be developed for the rest of the run. It feels a bit redundant to state that family is an important part of the show, what with the show carrying the family name of its lead character, and focusing on both Tony’s nuclear family and what is repeatedly referred to as his “other” family. In 46 Long, written by Chase, we get our first taste of Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano.
As with everything else in the show, Livia’s name is hardly coincidental. She seems to be named for another matriarch, a very famous and predatory one. The wife of Tiberius and the grandmother to Claudius, she was famously portrayed on the BBC’s I, Claudius as thoroughly Machiavellian. Played by Siân Phillips, she sought to assure her own immortal life by convincing her grandson to literally deify her. Here, Livia Soprano seems to be doing something quite similar. She knows how much trouble she’s causing and seems to delight in having her son’s undivided attention. There’s no way that she isn’t consciously manipulating events, and her conversations with Uncle Junior reveal her to be a lot more canny than she lets on.
Tony tries his best to look out for her, much like he does with his own nuclear family, even if he’s not sure how far that obligation extends in the modern world, with its ambiguities and uncertainties. Did he fail her by trying to place her in a home or by providing a home help? He’s aware of her manipulations, but that doesn’t change the familial obligation that he feels he owes to here. “She’s my mother,” he tells Dr. Melfi. “You’re supposed to take care of your mother.”It doesn’t matter that you don’t really like her, and she doesn’t like you. You do it because it’s your duty.
What always impressed me about Chase’s television show, and it’s inherent in the premise, is its superb and surreal ability to be about something, and yet actually be about something completely different. While most people would identify it as a mob television show, David Chase really crafts an exceptional family drama, just using the mafia as a means to explore the wider implications of family and the dysfunction of the American Dream. Christopher, for example, makes terribly stupid mistakes when he discovers that he doesn’t get everything he wants through the feel-good nonsense of “positive visualisation.” Rather than trying to earn it, he sets out to take it instead.
In exploring the American Dream, Chase returns – time and again – to the idea of racial identity in the United States, and the Italian-American experience. At what point do the mob stop being Italian-Americans and become just generic Americans? Sure, they might follow some of the customs of the old company, but they also picked up a few mannerisms from The Godfather, a distinctly American film. Tony might have the urge to connect with his roots and maybe even to return to Sicily, but at what point do they let go of their culture? Christopher and his friend visit a snazzy nightclub and venerate Martin Scorsese, the director who makes films about the Italian-American experience, while I wonder if they could point to any Italian films.
While the plot follows an attempt to recover a stolen car, the show takes the opportunity to allow our mobsters to visit a coffee bar, and discover just how Americanised Italian coffee has become. “We invented this sh!t and all these other @#$!s are getting rich off it,” Paulie observes of the Starbucks-esque coffee shop, a big and anonymous brand. The Sopranos themselves are drifting out of touch, as they discover at the rest home, when a staff member offers an old Italian proverb… in Italian. “What does that mean?” Carmela Soprano asks, so out of touch with her roots she can’t even speak the language of “the old country.”
Indeed, we see a that recurring piece of black humour here, with the cast interacting with another immigrant society, adopting the position of the natives. It seems that when dealing with his mother’s black maid, Tony is solely American, rather than Italian-American, and resorts to crude racism and stereotypes about drug use. Nevermind that Italian-Americans are an ethnic group that are just as prone to stereotypes or to racial caricatures, I find it interesting that the mob are so frequently contemptuous of those other minorities trying to make their own way through the experience of living in America.
All of these ideas will develop further, but I think that Chase articulates and sets them up quite clearly here. If The Sopranos set up the board, identifying the key players and the important roles, 46 Long effectively sets them in motion. There are a few strange moments (the opening pre-credits sequence, for example, which didn’t ever become a regular staple), but I think 46 Long offers a compelling example of what the show would become.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | american dream, arts, bbc, Carmela Soprano, David Chase, drama, hbo, Italian American, Livia Soprano, Programs, Soprano, Television, Television program, Tony, United States