I think it’s possible to make the argument that The Sopranos can be read as that illusive “great American novel”, just handily divided into eighty-six chapters and televised as opposed to written. Sure, it’s a show about the mob, but it’s also a compelling examination of the disillusionment festering at the heart of the American psyche. Tony might be a New Jersey mob boss, but most of his problems aren’t too far disconnected from those eating away at the American middle class. (Hell, I’d argue that it speaks volumes to the Irish psyche and probably many other nationalities as well.) As such, across the crucial first season, Chase and his team of writers seem to lay down and establish the core themes, allowing Tony to confront and explore just one of the many gnawing insecurities eating away at any middle-class father. In College, Tony wrestled with the idea that his daughter might discover who he truly is, while Pax Soprana explores the notion of impotence and insecurity – some times literally.
Even watching these opening episodes, it’s clear how uncomfortable Tony is in his situation and how resentful he is of those around him. He is the local mob boss, even if Junior officially has the title. He holds the local neighbourhood under his thumb. Nobody seems to question him, he always gets what he wants. He feels relatively secure, as much as one can be secure in organised crime. His family never wants for anything, and he lives a remarkably comfortable, if not luxurious, lifestyle. And yet all Tony does is to whine and complain and to lament his circumstances. That’s not to suggest that he isn’t under a tremendous amount of stress, as any successful professional is (even if they only face a professional death, rather than a literal one, if they screw up), but Chase wonders if all Tony owns is worth that stress and that frustration.
Throughout the series, Tony seems to long for a more peaceful existence with less responsibility. Throughout the season, he returns time and again to the image of a the man selling patio furniture on the motorway, perhaps using it as a justification – even if it seems unlikely that, had Tony gone to college, he could have had another professional career. Here, Chase and his writers return to the animal symbolism, with Tony reflecting on the tranquil existence of a bunch of horses. “I envy them,” Tony states. “No problems, no guilt.”Tony would of course, go on to invest in a race horse himself, and it’s interesting how Tony generally seems to have more sympathy for animals than for people.
Perhaps animals are easier to deal with, or perhaps he feels a stronger connection to animals. He seems to rationalise that he never had free will in pursuing his line of work, that it was either destiny or nature that led him to his current situation. In fact, Tony tends to project a lot of himself into these animals, rather than into other people. He obviously saw the ducks as stand-ins for his family, and sees the horse as a stand-in for himself. Perhaps that’s because his profession tends to require a lot of brutality towards people, to the extent that he is unwilling to humanise them to any real degree. It’s interesting to think about.
Of course, Tony tends to project outwards, rather than actually dealing with any of his own issues or insecurities. Confronted with his own impotence, Tony is very quick to blame his prosaic. “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with me!” he insists, despite feeling it’s important enough to merit discussion, albeit only after ignoring it a while. As usual, Tony doesn’t tend to take honesty especially well when it conflicts with his own interpretation of events. “You know, not all impotence is a result of medication,” Melfi assures him, prompting Tony to get a bit belligerent. “You sayin’ there’s something wrong with me?” To Tony, the problem isn’t with him, it’s with the rest of the world.
And, of course, like far too many parents and spouses trying to support the economic needs of a middle-class family, he spends far too much time with his work. Of course, in Tony’s case, his work is his “other family”, but it makes for a potent metaphor. While trying to provide materially for his family, he neglects them emotionally. “Maybe you’d like to spend the rest of our anniversary with him?” Carmela goads him after he disappears during their anniversary dinner. Indeed, he only notices her when she compensates for his lack of interest by over-spending, again illustrating that Tony seems to consider his family primarily in fiscal rather than emotional terms. Melfi sharply notes this. “You noticed her, which might have been the point.”
Of course, Tony’s literal and medical impotence is reflected by Uncle Junior’s more metaphorical impotence. Despite seemingly waiting his life to play mob boss, and immediately getting properly suited for the role while playing the part of loving patriarch, it’s soon revealed that Junior is ultimately completely ineffective as the head of the family. The mob isn’t a military organisation where all orders come from above and are followed on principle. It’s a business, and it follows the money from the ground up. At one point, Junior seems to mirror the character of Vito Carleone in The Godfather, as he tries to do right by his paisan. On finding out the man’s grandson died of a drug overdose, he laments, “See what I said I said about this poison? The kids shouldn’t touch it.”
It rather pointedly references that famous decision by Vito Carleone not to involve his family in the drug trade, a decision that demonstrated that – while still a criminal – he was a man with some sense of virtue in a compromised world. Junior’s gesture is, on the other hand, revealed as completely out of touch. The mob sells drugs because they make money, and that money feeds up the food chain. Junior’s decision to punish a drug dealer for the death of his paisan’s grandson is a decision based on principle, but it has no place in a criminal enterprise. Practicality and pragmatism win out, as it seems that they must.
There’s something remarkably tragic about the character of Junior. Sure, he can be extremely brutal (he does order a murder here), but there’s a sense that he’s an old man coming to realise that his best years are behind him and struggling to come to terms with a world that has left his behind. “These guys today want to be buried in a jogging outfit,” he laments at one point. The only other elderly member of the Soprano clan, Tony’s mother Livia, warns him to be wary of the rest of the family. “Just don’t let certain people take advantage of your good nature, like they did to Johnny.”
The irony, of course, is that Junior finally finds himself in a position of authority only to find out that he’s largely impotent and can’t actually do anything. “You are still running things,” he’s assured, as we watch Tony running the family business while conspiring to give Junior the illusion of authority and control. How much Junior actually believes in this illusion is a matter for debate, as it seems quite likely he sees right through the farce, but simply can’t admit that he’s a powerless figurehead. He just goes along, because it’s expected of him – the same justification Tony uses to explain why he never found another career.
It’s amazing that I’m this far into the season without discussing Livia, the other elderly cast member. While Junior struggles to seem important and plays into the illusion of power around himself, Livia rallies vocally against her lack of influence, bitterly complaining about her current situation, relegated to living in a nursing home. Nancy Marchand brilliantly brings the character to life, and it’s a loss that she passed away before the show ended. Pax Sopranagives us a rather wonderful Livia moment where she whines and moans about her fellow residents, only to then check that they are within earshot.
Junior correctly surmises that Livia is passive aggressively conspiring against her son, seeking to punish him for daring to lock her away. “Boy, Anthony must’ve really got under your collar,” Junior observes, taking some small measure of satisfaction. “Admit it. You’re looking to crack his coconuts for putting you in here. “ Of course, like everybody else on the show, neither will actually talk about their problems or difficulties, and Livia will just try to turn Junior against his nephew. It’s amazing how brilliantly and tragically everybody seems to avoid talking with one another on this show, either refusing to hear or refusing to say something that is important, if slightly awkward.
Of course, that’s before we even get into the wonderfully complicated family dynamic between Tony and Livia. Melfi suggests that Tony is treating her as a surrogate for the women in his life. She explicitly mentions Carmela, but Tony immediately hones in on the Freudian inference. “You’re making me out to be some mama’s boy,” he rather aggressively insists. “That’s not what I said,”she states, and she’s correct. Of course, Tony’s mind probably went there reflexively when his psychiatrist mentioned his mother, but there’s an interesting dynamic between them.
Of course, while the series gravitates around Tony, there’s plenty of room for development of his supporting cast here. Indeed, it’s easy to forget about Dr. Melfi, who generally serves as a sounding board for Tony’s thoughts and ideas. Here we get the faintest suggestion about the woman herself, who has become the focus of Tony’s attention. However, Chase and writers do occasionally turn the focus back on to her, exploring why Tony seems compelling to her. After all, while Tony sought her out as a psychiatrist, she engages with him and chooses to continue with therapy even after he interferes with her life or after he makes a pass at her.
“Why do you have me as a patient ?” Tony asks. “Most legit people I know, they’d go 100 miles out of their way not to make eye contact with me. But you, you didn’t flinch.”While the line says a lot about Tony’s resentment for his legitimate associates, and his social insecurity, it also demonstrates that Melfi must on some level be fascinated by Tony. It’s a wonderful paradox about crime fiction, the fact that the leads are all shown to be horrible and flawed people, and yet somehow remain grimly compelling and engaging.
On some level, we root for Tony Montana or Michael Carleone, even though they are murderers and schemers. There’s a certain romance about the power and brutality that Tony yields, even to a rational and educated woman like Melfi. Despite all the violence we’ve seen him inflict, and we know that she must be at least a little aware of (for we’re never exactly sure how much he tells her), she is still fascinated by him. There’s a moment when he tries to kiss her where she seems to hesitate rather than pulling away immediately. “Do you think you could come back later this afternoon?” she asks, and he can’t. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened had Melfi not had the time to think the situation over.
Meanwhile, Carmela has fallen back into her old routine. After being all torn up in College about how she rationalises her husband’s crimes by taking his money, she goes on a spending spree here. She is back on perfectly normal terms with Father Phil, pretending nothing happened. Father Phil, for his part, seems like a bit of a dick. He’s almost predatory here, exploiting Carmela. (How appropriate, then, that College established him as a bit of a moocher.)
“Carmela,” he explains, “I don’t want to sound like religion is a cure-all, but I think if Tony would get more involved with the Church, it may help to expedite things in his therapy.” Father Phil might as well have dollar signs in his eyes. When Carmela suggests the possibility of divorce, arguably the one action that might help clear her conscience, Father Phil comes down hard against it. “Divorce is for the weak,” he tells her. It would also mean that his fundraising would be for nothing. “We reap what we sew.” Despite pretending to be a friend and confidante to the housewife, he’s very quick to lay the blame on, rather than to actually help her deal with her issues. “You’re not without sin in this, Carmela.”
College was perhaps the series firing on all cylinders, but Pax Soprana demonstrates that these themes and ideas are here to stay. Chase and his staff spent a sizable portion of the first season setting up the characters and situations, and now we’re seeing that set-up pay back dividends. We reap what we sew, indeed.
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