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The Sopranos: The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti (Review)

The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti begins with a dream sequence. We’re not yet at the point where The Sopranos would spend an entire episode inside the head of one of its characters (okay, not literally, at any rate), but it sets a tone for the rest of the episode. The Sopranos attracts attention as an exploration of the American Dream, a look at what life is like in the shadow of all those expectations and aspirations, but it also feels like a black absurdist comedy.

The Sopranos could be one of the funniest shows on the air, and that grim sense of humour is pushed to the fore with The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti, where the unfunniest thing in the episode is the stand-up comedian working an ageing crowd.

It's a laugh...

It’s a laugh…

The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti has this ethereal feel to it, packed with images which are particularly ridiculous and absurd. There’s something so wonderfully over the top about Tony and Carmela removing their guns and weapons from various hiding places around the house, dressed in their wedding finery. It’s a lovely scene which plays the mob as almost white-collar criminal shredding incriminating evidence before a subpoena can be served.

Indeed, Junior even phrases the debate over their course of action in terms of business practices. “What are we gonna do? Close shop for a while?” There’s no sense that these are murderers or drug dealers or common crooks. Tellingly, most of the cast spend their time moving money or weapons, destroying paper work on a barbeque and worrying about computer drives. Even AJ had to destroy his internet browsing history.

Christopher's issues come to head...

Christopher’s issues come to head…

Tony and his associates don’t seem too worried about prison or court hearings. Primarily, it seems like they’re more worried about having their wealth confiscated and their standard of living diminished. Tony is upset when a Federal Agent accidentally breaks a bowl, suggesting the guy did it on purpose. He has to hide Carmela’s jewellery, not afraid that it might lead to criminal charges, but that it might be taken.

There’s something so procedural about the standard of proof Tony worries about. “They know we can’t produce receipts. You want them stealing this sh!t from us?” It seems more like a tax audit than a federal investigation, as if proof of a commercial transaction is all that’s needed to exonerate Tony and his family. Typically, Tony’s persecution complex works itself into overdrive, as he righteously moans about being unfairly targeted, and even takes offense to the fact that the FBI are relatively polite.

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

This purge extends all the way through the crime family, and pretty much confirms the passive complicity of Soprano nuclear family. “Boot your computer,” Meadow warns AJ. “The cops are coming.” Although Carmela has had a crisis of conscience over the way that Tony pays for her lifestyle, she’s a completely willing accomplice to the destroying of evidence. “What about your phone numbers?” she prompts Tony. “Here we go,” she sighs with some resignation, as if used to this by now.

While Carmela is arguably only doing what she can to protect her family, it’s telling how – despite her hesitation and unease in earlier episodes – she’s completely aware of where everything is in the Soprano household. Tony can’t remember exactly where all the money and the guns are, but Carmela can. She also distracts Livia so Tony can hide the guns and money in his aging mother’s apartment, another of the episode’s delightful black comedy sequences.

Christopher's driving ambition...

Christopher’s driving ambition…

Livia is in fine form here, a brutal subversion of the sense of “family” cultivated in mob culture. It exists when it needs to exist, between people who want it to exist. After all, Christopher’s immediate family has been largely absent from the show, with his uncle serving as a surrogate father while his mother is reduced a vocal cameo on her son’s answering machine. Livia is blood, but she’s shipped off to a home somewhere and only visited when it’s convenient to do so.

“You come here unannounced and I shouldn’t worry that something’s wrong?” she asks Carmela, despite the latter’s protestations that she’s just being nice. (Of course, Livia is only family when Tony and Carmela need her to be family, and the visit is just a plan to exploit the old woman.) Livia is similarly flustered by all this “family” nonsense, while Carmela ladles on the sap by referring to Livia as “mom.” Livia protests, “We just went to a wedding!” Clearly there is such a thing as too much family. Livia is also continuing to stir trouble, unperturbed by the fact it may get Tony killed.) (“God only knows what he said,” about psychiatrist. Going to get him killed.

Digging up the past...

Digging up the past…

Then again, it plays into how pragmatic and selective our characters can be. Tony takes offense at the FBI’s search, despite the fact that it was conducted politely and relatively cleanly. Allowing Tony to talk to his kids rather than barging on in with their warrant was a definite courtesy. Tony still gets angry over it. Discussing the contributions made by Italy to world culture, his assessment tends to lean heavily towards the favourable, overlooking any questionable moments in Italian history.

It’s something Meadow passive-aggressively alludes to when Tony takes umbrage at her mention of Lucky Luciano. “I just like history like you, dad,” she remarks, not quite voicing the none-too-subtle suggestion that it’s easy to selectively choose your examples. The reality is somewhat more complex, as Melfi’s ex-husband discovers when their family therapist reveals connections to Murder Incorporated. It’s not as simple as disguising numbers within numbers – as he attempts to do by accusing 5,000 mobsters of giving 20,000,000 people a bad name.

Game on...

Game on…

The show does run into a slight bit of a bump when it comes to the Melfi family. It’s not that the scenes feel fake or staged. I’m fairly surely that the Melfi family is probably a lot closer to the reality for most of the show’s writers and most of the audience than anything unfolding in the Sopranos household. And maybe that’s the problem. They’re just dull scenes of dull people intellectualising what the show has already hinted at and developed, instead of showing or expanding on those themes.

The entire dinner table conversation exists so that David Chase can make a series of none-too-subtle jabs at “the Anti-Defamation Lobby”, the members of the Italian-American community who had taken exception to the portrayal of the group in The Sopranos almost as soon as the first episode had aired. Melfi’s defiant “so go after Hollywood if you absolutely have to” feels more like arrogant posturing than sly meta self-criticism.

Somebody's about to get served...

Somebody’s about to get served…

The problem with these scenes is that they don’t tell us anything more than we already know. The show has already explored and probed the idea that depictions of Italian-Americans in movies tend to influence the way the community is perceived. (By itself as much as by anybody else.) That said, I do appreciate how Chase is willing to allow guest characters to challenge our regulars. Melfi’s ex-husband might be a jerk, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be right.

He raises the point that there comes a time when Melfi (and the audience) must move past relativism and accept the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil. Melfi might be able to rationalise her relationship with Tony, much like the audience might find him sympathetic and occasionally charming, but he’s still not a nice person. Chase has a habit of allowing guest characters (or rarely recurring characters, at any rate) to make the point, so as to avoid getting too deeply waylaid or distracted.

Tasty!

Tasty!

These moments of confrontation serve as a splash of cold water, and are an effective narrative tool. (Indeed, some of the more memorable episodes from later in the show’s run feature one-shot character getting screwed over by Tony and demonstrating that – despite his rationalisations – he is not a nice man.) That said, they don’t quite make up for the fact that Melfi’s family is – by far – the weakest thing about The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti.

Rather pointedly, and slyly, The Legend of Tennessee Moltasanti features shoutouts to both of the movies mentioned at the Melfi dinner table; the wedding/business conference combo recalled The Godfather and Michael Imperioli got to re-enact his own scene from Goodfellas, albeit this time he’s holding the gun.

Family time...

Family time…

Indeed, Christopher’s fixation on cinema serves as a nice vehicle through which the show can explore the somewhat awkward relationship that occasionally exists between Hollywood and the Italian-American community. The Sopranos often explored the gap between aspiration and reality, between the promises made when we are younger and the realities we face as we grow older. Tony’s frustration expresses itself through an affection for a very selective version of history. Christopher’s unease is channeled through film.

“I love movies, you know that,” he tells Adrianna. “That smell in Blockbuster. That candy and carpet smell, I get high off ’em.” It’s no coincidence that he doesn’t cite films themselves. It isn’t the work of a director, or cinematography or even the story itself. It’s the nostalgic ideal, the sensation as amplified through memory and associate. It’s the experience, rather than the object itself which drives Christopher’s obsession.

Who is next for the chop?

Who is next for the chop?

And it has an additional lure to the Soprano family member most fixated with becoming or accomplishing something. “The movies” represents the ultimate get-rich0quick fantasy, one which offers both money and acclaim. Not only do you get everything you ever wanted, you get adored for simply being who you are. It brings prestige and respect, the kind of things Christopher wants, without having to earn them. “I brought a script-writing program and everything,” he complains, as if that’s all he needs to be famous. “I can make my mark,” he vows.

Never mind that he has actual work to do. Never mind that he should probably be trying to stay out of prison. Never mind that he’s probably writing something that could land him with a life sentence were it used as evidence against him. “Babe, with these indictments, shouldn’t you put the script away for a while and get rid of evidence?” Adrianna asks. It’s no use. Christopher is so obsessed with appropriating the appearance of success that he doesn’t even wrap the fancy computer he got for the wedding. A computer he couldn’t even pay for.

Testing Chris' metal...

Testing Chris’ metal…

Listening to the news, he’s offended that he’s not even mentioned, despite the fact you’d assume a mobster would be glad he wasn’t being discussed. When a convenient fall-guy is mentioned, Christopher gets upset. “Brendan Felone? Associate? Soldier? F&%! you!” As Tony points out, all this is just stupid stuff, the kind of stuff that Christopher really doesn’t need if he wants to be a proper mobster. Then again, earning a living isn’t what Christopher wants. “I don’t wanna just survive.”

The Sopranos plays its dark sense of humour here as well, turning a small pastry shop into Christopher’s own fiefdom, and suggesting his appetite might be sated by a mention in The New Jersey Star Ledger. “He don’t make the rules here,” a pastry shop worker protests, as if the order of the queue in a pastry shop is worth all the bother. Christopher is sad and pathetic, the fact that the pastry shop is the only place he can assert his authority making him almost tragic. “Why the fuck would you give me a hard time and look at me like I’m nothing to worry about?” Christopher demands, a question which tells us pretty much everything we need to know about him.

Keeping Livia in the dark...

Keeping Livia in the dark…

Then again, this brings us to The Sopranos‘ commentary on celebrity – the public face of the American Dream, where fame and fortune are the highest honour to strive for. It’s hilarious to think that The Sopranos began airing the same year as Big Brother, just before reality television and all those terrible talent-search shows kicked off. If anything, the show’s exploration of the public’s fixation on fame and recognition seems rather tame in hindsight.

Even the mob, an organisation that kills and brutalises with impunity, is treated as nothing but a gaudy sideshow through which Christopher might earn his fame. The commentator on the news is identified as “Author of Mafia: America’s Longest-Running Soap Opera”, a book title which says a lot about how reality and entertainment are consolidated. When Christopher summarises the plot of Devil’s Advocate, he rather tellingly talks as if Keanu Reeves himself were the main character, not simply a performer in a role. (“Keanu’s a lawyer,” he explains, also probably pointing out where the film went wrong.)

It's hard to keep tracksuit of some times...

It’s hard to keep tracksuit of some times…

Movies aren’t like real life. It’s a little hypocritical for The Sopranos to lean so heavily on the point. For all the thwarted climaxes and subverted expectations, the show was itself a story. Christopher and Paulie, despite their lamentations, do have character arcs – even if they aren’t what the characters might expect. The Sopranos would not have become so popular had it just been a bunch of random stuff happening with for no reason, despite David Chase’s “slice of life” approach to it.

Still, it’s easy enough to take his point. Life doesn’t slot into convenient arcs. Life isn’t a screenplay with heroes and journeys. We all change, but our trajectory isn’t always what we might hope, or even all that elegant. After all “…and then Bob got hit by lightning” isn’t necessarily a satisfactory ending, nor “Jenni picked up some tuna” an adventure worth following for an hour. That’s life, though, and pining for some stronger sense of order is not going to make things better. All we can do, really, is just accept it – as Paulie seems to do. “I got no arc. I was born, grew up. I spent a few years in the army, a few more in the can.” Que sera sera.

It' just 'armless fun...

It’ just ‘armless fun…

Which suggests that perhaps the Order Sons of Italy and their Commission of Social Justice sort of missed with whole point of The Sopranos. It’s not really a mobster show. It’s a glimpse at American life that happens to use the mob as a vehicle to explore these ideas.

4 Responses

  1. Lovely review. Will you be doing more on The Sopranos? I’d be interested in hearing what you perceived to be Tony’s character arc. For me he just seemed to slide further into degeneracy and selfishness as the series went on.

    • I’ll be doing Boca on Thursday. Going to try to do one every Tuesday and Thursday in July. Maybe looking at doing it more regularly in November/December is people like them enough. Great show, and been meaning to do a proper rewatch.

      I had started watching it with my gran before she passed, that’s why I only got half-way through the first season.

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