I’ve said before (and many far smarter individuals have said it before me), but The Sopranos really feels like a novel for television. You can see that approach most distinctly in the first season, where David Chase cleverly structures the show that we spend more than half the season getting to know the cast, and getting comfortable with them, before things actually start happening in any truly meaningful sense. Of course, things have happened. The restaurant exploded, Junior and Tony nearly came to a head, but the approach has really been first and foremost about defining who these characters are, before we really get into what they do.
Down Neck, halfway through the first season, is really the perfect example. Not much really happens. Sure, plot threads advance. Livia discovers that her son is seeing a therapist. We hear that Junior is really settling into his new-found position of nominal authority. However, the most significant beats of Down Neck are concerned with character. A large portion of the episode is an extended flashback focusing on a dead character, and the rest sees the family dealing with the possible diagnosis of Anthony’s Attention Deficit Disorder. Hardly what one might have expected from the halfway point in the first season of a mob drama.
Of course, The Sopranos is really a family drama at least as much as it is a mob drama. It’s the story of a father trying to raise his family in a hostile world. It just so happens that his job is running the New Jersey mob. Each and every member of the cast has been spotlighted and explored, which is really something this early in the game. We already understand the way that Tony’s mind works, or how Carmela thinks. We can see Junior’s fears and insecurities, and we are aware of Christopher’s reckless arrogance.
Down Neck focuses a bit more on the relationship between Tony and Anthony, but we’ve already got a basic sense of Anthony Soprano – probably the least complex member of the main cast. 46 Long and Meadowlands both suggested that the kid was (admittedly very slowly) coming to terms with his father’s profession. Here, he’s diagnosed with borderline attention deficit disorder. The Sopranosadopts an interesting approach to mental health issues and psychiatry – featuring, as it does, a psychiatrist as a central character.
Tony’s problems are often self-evident, he just refuses to acknowledge and to deal with them. The audience doesn’t need a degree in psychiatry to understand Tony’s complex mother issues or his base insecurities. While the show deconstructs the stereotypical ideal of the “tough guy”, or the “Gary Cooper” archetype that Tony brought up in the first episode – suggesting that we’d all probably be a lot better if we did try to talk through and acknowledge or dysfunctions. However, one also senses that Chase is a bit sceptical about the tendency to label and brand virtually anything as a psychological illness.
To be fair, it’s tough to know where the show falls on Anthony’s ADHD. The school psychiatrist explains, “But the thing is though, and it’s not just this one incident, Anthony sometimes has trouble following the rules; weighing consequences. At times doesn’t think before he acts.” In a way, that doesn’t seem too different from any other teenager. The psychiatrist even uses the hilariously politically correct euphemism “consequenced”to describe what will happen to Anthony.
On the other hand, Tony’s initial response to his son’s problems is hardly constructive. “All he needs is a whack upside the head,” Tony comments. It’s not clear if he’s dismissing the notion of ADHD completely, or refusing to concede that his son might have a problem. It’s a bit ambiguous exactly how deep Tony’s denial goes. He’s undoubtedly out-of-touch with his son and how to deal with an obvious problem, and the show refuses to except that the solution must lie at one extreme or the other.
Still, it’s hard to know whether Tony is just in denial or if has a valid point when he challenges the school psychiatrist who counts “fidgeting” as one of Anthony’s symptoms. “What constitutes a fidget?” he demands, mockingly. It’s actually something that I really like about the show – how much it leaves up to the viewer to really interpret and decide for themselves. While the show refuses to glorify Tony, I’ve had multiple discussions and debates with other fans about how sympathetic Tony is a certain points in the show. I think that’s a masterful touch. Rather than necessarily forcing us to see Tony a particular way, Chase and his writers instead construct the character and let their audience draw their on conclusions.
Down Neck features a rather extended look into Tony’s past. In particular, it makes several things explicit that had been fairly implicit until now. In particular, as Doctor Melfi outright states, “You said you liked the history channel. He who doesn’t understand history is doomed to repeat it.” It’s interesting that ‘understand’ is the operative word there. Cognitive understanding is a key part of the show. Chase repeatedly implies that Tony’s problem isn’t that he’s dumb – he’s actually very astute. The problem is that Tony doesn’t necessarily understand how or why things happen, or how or why he acts the way that he does.
Already, it’s a recurring device that Tony and his friends frequently use words in the wrong context or making up words in conversation. “This ADD thing?” Tony tells Melfi. “It’s probably all genetical.” Characters a liable to repeat one another and borrow earlier metaphors and examples rather than bothering to construct their own. Carmela likens Anthony’s problem to “polio”, and it’s clear that the disease sticks with Tony. Tony later uses the illness as an example in his conversations with Melfi. (He also returns, again, to the image of himself selling patio furniture off the highway as the only alternative to his mob lifestyle.)
Interestingly, Neck Down suggests that Tony picked up his verbal tic from his father. At one point, in a heated debate, Tony’s father refers to Livia as a “#!£%ing albacore around my neck!” It mirror’s Tony’s repeated malapropisms. Of course, that isn’t the only quirk or trait that Tony has picked up from his parents. Livia is quick to defensively accuse the cops of racial prejudice for arresting her husband. (All the more ironic because of the civil rights riots occurring.) Tony uses the exact same tactic at Anthony’s school, asking if other kids are undergoing screening. “The ones who aren’t named Soprano?”
When Melfi brings up the morality of his job, Tony is very quick to deflect rather than to engage – a passive-aggressive trick that he learned from his mother. “Don’t talk to me about legitimate business,” he advises Melfi, veering wildly and deliberately off topic. “What about those chemical companies?” It’s even obvious that Tony inherited his paranoia and insecurities from Livia. When Tony discovers his son has ADD, he’s quick to think that it reflects on him. (With it being “genetical” and his defensive rants to Carmela.) When Livia discovers that her son visits a psychiatrist, she immediately worries about herself. “He goes to a psychiatrist to talk about his mother!”
Of course, the irony is that history repeats. The only reason that Tony doesn’t physically discipline Anthony is because Carmela forbids it, despite seeming to resent his father’s use of violence to punish him. “I mean, he used to whack us kids around a little bit… Yeah, the belt was his favorite child development tool.” At the same time, he also resented his father for favouring his sister over him. “Janice always gets everything she wants!” he protests. “She’s perfect!” Naturally, years later, Tony clearly favours Meadow over Anthony.
Still, as much as Tony seems concerned that his son’s dysfunction reflects on him, he does genuinely want to look after and protect his family. He is legitimately concerned that Anthony has inherited his impulses and his temperament, albeit without his wit and intelligence. “His father was the same way,” Livia remarks when she finds out about the incident at school. “I must’ve had another son who stole a car when he was ten years old.” Naturally, Tony’s response is to avoid talking about it, denial. “How many times do I gotta say this? I don’t want that kind of talk in front of this kid! The stuff is wrong and I don’t condone it!”
Tony is worried about Anthony finding out who he is – to the point where he avoids perhaps the best opportunity to explain his job to his son, instead fobbing it off with a half-hearted denial. Aside from Anthony’s ADHD, Tony is also preoccupied with his son discovering who he is. He’s still dealing with the fact that Meadow knows. Of course, Tony would never consider stopping, so any action he takes – other than an outright confession – is somewhat hypocritical. Tony refuses to acknowledge that he can’t have it both ways – he can’t keep his work and family so separate that they don’t contaminate one another, especially since his work is his family.
Of course, there’s also the recurring idea of the generation gap here. Tony has gone out of his way to make sure that Anthony and Meadow have had everything they ever wanted – everything he never had. And yet, somehow, it’s never enough. Christopher, Tony’s nephew, is perhaps the embodiment of the youthful sense of entitlement that this generates. The man has no patience for actual work. Look at how relieved he is to depart a picket line, a site where his role is explicitly not to work – Christopher is too lazy and entitled to even not workproperly.
He has all the money he could need, and yet he still steals from a FedEx truck in plain sight – the kind of stupid, poorly-thought-out crime that could send him away from longer than any of his brutal murders or beatings. “You did that in broad daylight?” Tony demands, taken aback by the sheer audacity of it. Chase repeatedly suggests in The Sopranos that this sense of impatience and entitlement is a generational thing. Maybe Anthony’s borderline ADD is just an expression of the same sort of lack of impulse control as Christopher’s crime.
In fact, Anthony is so spoilt that he is first impulse when the car blows a tire (because he didn’t do his chores) is to ring up and get somebody else to fix it. “Maybe we should call the Auto Club,” Anthony suggests, as Tony prepares to change the tire. Tony seems to consider this an affront, replying, “We change tires at our house!”In seeking to ensure that Anthony’s needs are met, Tony has ended up spoiling the kid, and leaving him completely unprepared for the real world.
In a way, the manner in which Tony has protected his family is ultimately counter-productive. After all, were Tony to pass away, who would protect his family? Carmela is certain formidable, but I’m not sure she could do it. Meadow seems to want to distance herself a bit, and I don’t see Anthony succeeding his father like Tony succeeded his own father. No wonder Tony is petrified about what happens to him after he dies.
Down Neck also lets us get to know Livia a bit better. Played superbly by Nancy Merchant, she’s a real piece of work. She passive-aggressively turns her grandson’s tortured visits into a way of teasing her fellow residents. She boasts, “He rode his bike all the way over to visit his grandma. How do you like that?”It doesn’t matter that he clearly doesn’t want to be there – as long as she can use him to belittle other people, it’s fine.
She’s a cruel, twisted and bitter old woman. We get a healthy dose of anti-Semitism when she reveals that – to her – psychiatry is “all nonsense! That’s nothing but a racket for the Jews!” Perhaps my favourite Livia moment occurs earlier in the episode, when Carmela decides to punish Anthony by forcing him to visit his grandmother. Of course, she’s in the room while she’s being used as a stick to beat her grandson. Her response is a delightfully understated and wonderfully sarcastic, “That’ll be nice.”
The Sopranos considers its first season on a role. There’s still a sense that we’re defining these characters and their world, but it’s set-up executed with such skill that we can’t help but get swept up in it.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | Anthony, Carmela, Chris, David Chase, Diegesis, Down Neck, FedEx, Gary Cooper, Janice, Jefferson, Jennifer Melfi, Junior, Junior Soprano, List of characters from The Sopranos – friends and family, Livia, Melfi, New Jersey, Soprano, Tony, Tony Award, Tony Soprano, United States