The Sopranos: A Survey and Highly Subjective Opinion (part 1)

After three months and six seasons, I have finally finished The Sopranos. Hailed as the greatest television series to date, The Sopranos is over 80 episodes long and I have to agree with the critics – it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. The characters are deep and complex, the storylines are fascinating and unpredictable, the direction is fabulous, the music choices aren’t only symbolic but complement the plotlines well, and the writing is superb. The show is rife with symbolism and although I don’t like to belittle the American television audience, television ratings demonstrate the trite shows people generally enjoy. Its interesting people enjoyed such a profound series.

The Sopranos is extremely violent and very crass at times. It’s racist, yet it’s not trying to demean individual races and ethnicities. Like All in the Family, The Sopranos investigates and exposes racism and bigotry, exposing its flaws and stupidity through racist actions and situations. The deeply imbedded prejudice of most characters is a defect, not something to celebrate. At the same time, characters like Tony Soprano are constantly learning, shedding their prejudices as the show progresses. This doesn’t mean the characters aren’t bigots, but they definitely grow throughout the show – especially Tony. Whether dealing with different ethnicities or sexual orientations, Tony becomes a more understanding person as the show progresses. However, I’m not saying that Tony Soprano isn’t a bigot, a sociopath, an asshole, and an all around bad person, but he does seem to be open to different interpretations regarding race, sexual orientation, or anything else along these lines.

Back to the violence – the show is one of the most violent pieces I’ve seen, with HBO’s amazing series Rome the only thing I believe surpassing it. People are shot, stabbed, strangled using a variety of methods, beat to death. There are suicides, car accidents, and more. My favorite violent scene involves an assassination where the victim is shot in the head and then the back tire of a SUV runs over his head, squishing it like a grape. It isn’t shown, but just like Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the sounds are more violent than the visuals (see the scene where Leatherface places a woman on a meat hook). The violence is realistic and very grim, many times highly disturbing. Like Rob Zombie’s depictions of death in his Halloween remakes, there are times when the violence lingers, horrifying the viewer and driving home the horror of murder. When a highly prominent character dies towards the end of the series, the scene wouldn’t end and was difficult to watch. Aside from this character (who’ll remain nameless since I try not to spoil things without warning) being my favorite, the intensity lingers and casts a shadow on the rest of my day. I can’t believe the death of a character on a fictional television series bummed me out so badly.

Normally I’m not a big fan of mafia stories. I like Goodfellas, The Godfather I & II, Mean Streets, and other movies of the sort, but what makes them enjoyable is that they end after a few hours. The Sopranos is well over 80 hours long, yet I was entranced by the series. There were nights when I could’ve sat in front of the television and watched the show for hours on end. I try to have a life so I only did that once or twice, normally watching a few episodes a week, but the desire to engage in a season for hours on end was difficult to subdue. The plotline, about a mob family in northern New Jersey, is very complex and relies on a variety of academic ideas: Freudian theories, discussions regarding ethics and morals, an exploration of American life following the September 11th attacks, and much more. Tony Sopranos’ relationship with his psychiatrist, Dr. Malfi (Lorraine Bracco), explores many of Freud’s theories and this relationship between Soprano and Malfi is very interesting. These therapeutic sessions between the two are essential for portraying Soprano as more than a violent thug; in fact, Soprano is a sympathetic character because of what he shares when with Dr. Malfi. There are many times throughout the series I was on Tony’s side, only to come back to a position of indifference or disgust for him because of a crude action. That’s what the writing for The Sopranos does: it blurs the line between good and evil, showing vicious and malevolent people as sympathetic and getting the viewer on the side of people capable of horrendous acts.

<Spoiler Alert>

The one complaint I’ve heard about The Sopranos is the ending. I’m attempting to discuss it without giving away anything, but I feel it’s impossible. However, without fully knowing the context it probably won’t make much sense. The final scene of the show ends abruptly, which left many people angry. People felt ripped off and even I felt that way for a brief moment, yet after thinking about the ending for a little while, I find it amazing. It was a big “fuck you,” to the viewer; it was also a way to end the show without having to give it a modernist ending, where things work out in one way or the other. The ending is actually very post-modern, and even though I’m sure that statement will place me in an elitist category (which I detest since I don’t believe I’m smarter than the average bear), I fully believe The Sopranos’ ending was appropriate for the era we live in. Many things in our world seem very inconclusive and though people discuss their lives in terms of a narrative (with a beginning, a middle, and an ending cohesively tying things together), that isn’t how things are. Events in our life can be very random: dying in a car accident suddenly, getting fired for no discernable reason, etc. That’s how The Sopranos ended, with no conclusion.

Yet, I feel there was a conclusion, yet it’s not what people expect from modernist narratives. Instead of a tidy ending, The Sopranos finishes with feelings – feelings of anxiety, of nervousness, of paranoia. The final episode is titled Made in America, symbolizing Tony Soprano’s empire, amassed over six seasons. He begins as a captain and ends a boss; a boss of an entire family. Yet for all the wealth gained over six years, he can’t enjoy it. The show asks what good is wealth when it can’t be spent. Can one squander a fortune when in a constant state of paranoid anxiety? Yes, Tony’s fortune was made in America, but the place he considers home is no longer open in the same fashion. His concerns are many: arrest, assassination, his daughter and wife’s safety, concerns of whether his son A.J. (who is an utter bastard) will kill himself. These worries plague him around the clock, never absent, for the rest of his life. To those who believe The Sopranos ended horribly, I disagree and ask them to explain how they felt during the last two episodes, when Tony’s primary concern is his life. What good is money when you’re dead?

I urge those who watched the show and believe its conclusion terrible should rethink their position. Yes, The Sopranos doesn’t follow the path of a modernist narrative, but that doesn’t mean its finish is bad. Look how Seinfeld ended: it followed a modernist path with a clear conclusion and people hated it. It’s difficult to conclude a show that reshapes the television lexicon, which is something Larry David and David Chase have in common. The vast cultural void that is television is highly dispensable, with many shows falling to obscurity quickly. A show like The Sopranos is a rare find in a sea of mediocrity and as such deserves to be remembered as more than a point A to point B serial but rather an intelligent journey through the human condition. Even though the subject matter is the mafia, it’s a great topic to study the duality of modern Americans – selfish on one hand, benevolent on the other. This duality runs through the entire series, giving more than a simple portrait of organized crime in America’s northeast. Instead it explores the evolution of the American dream in the early 21st century.

Part two of The Sopranos: A Survey and Highly Subjective Opinion coming soon.

3 responses to “The Sopranos: A Survey and Highly Subjective Opinion (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Abortions For All: 2010 in review | Abortions For All

  2. I did it! I finished The Sopranos! [Spoilers]

    I have to be honest, my immediate reaction to the climax was precisely this: What the fuck?!?!?

    Like so many I thought my TV had cut out or quietly imploded. I sat there, completely bemused. What does it mean? What can it mean? Why did it go black? What was the significance of Meadow struggling to park her car? The ‘Life goes on’ conclusion did cross my mind, but I didn’t buy it. Could Tony be dead?…

    After stewing in my own confusion, I resorted to some searching. What I found flip-turned my opinions 180 degrees. I read this:

    And I have to say I completely concur. Given the evidence of the scene itself and what little David Chase has revealed since, it’s clear that this is the intended outcome. Editing the cuts to lure the audience into a rhythmic pattern of POV then cutting it short with the darkness suggesting Tony’s death. The foreshadowing earlier in Season 6; Bobby’s comment and the shooting with Sil in the restaurant [which was confusing for a split second but truly a creative and imaginative scene].Wow. I was completely and utterly blown away by this once I understood it all. I couldn’t get it out of my head all night. When I watched it back for the second time having known the outcome, Bobby’s “Never see it coming” comment ringing in my ears, I found it very chilling. Philosophically speaking, that’s what I’ve always maintained death to be. Infinite darkness, nothingness. But to see it visualised like that. To see death through the eyes of the victim, that was special. It’s an ingenious ending. Truly magnificent.

    It’s obvious why it created hostility. Chase couldn’t have expected everybody to instantly clock what had happened. The shock value was part of the appeal. I’d rave about how good the show is in general but there’s no need, you’ve done it all. My favourite episodes still remain; Pine Barrens, The Test Dream, Join The Club/Members Only and Made In America… From what I can remember anyway.

  3. (Spoilers ahead)

    I don’t discount that Tony dies as the episode suddenly turns black – that’s a completely viable possibility. The conversation about death arriving without warning and having no idea it hits does foreshadow the series’ conclusion. I did think about that, but what I really got out of the series finale was a feeling. Like Sofia Coppola’s latest film Somewhere it’s not entirely about a linear narrative but instead capturing a feeling. The way The Sopranos’ final scene builds creates a level of anxiety where you are waiting for something to happen; you can’t look away and you can’t stop watching. The people coming into the restaurant can be there to kill Tony, or they can be there simply to eat – the episode is ambiguous on this point.

    After watching the finale I reminisced about the nervous and awkward stares people give each other when in public places. Just today I was sitting at a coffee shop and exchanged an awkward glance with a woman. I eventually asked her if I knew her since she looked a little familiar; I ended up creating an uncomfortable, but brief, situation. The last few episodes of the show build up the anxiety of Tony’s assassination but it’s possible that didn’t happen. Since we’re not given a real explanation of what happens with Tony, concluding the show with ambiguity, I felt the text could reveal whatever you want it to. I walked away feeling like Tony amassed this giant fortune and empire but can’t enjoy it. He’s constantly worried about Meadow being attacked by other gangsters, about his relationship with his wife, and about his son’s suicide attempt. He can’t go outside without looking over his shoulder at all times. Sure he’s rich and powerful but at what price? Its possible death is a reprieve from these feelings. The episode builds up to this heavy conclusion which many felt was inconclusive; I disagree.

    Another question is how do you end a show like The Sopranos? It’s such a powerful series, filled with academic qualities, existential probing, rich symbolism, and a wonderfully complex story. The characters are rich and inviting. It’s possible to love and hate a character at the same time. I hate Tony but also find him sympathetic sometimes; I like certain qualities about Carmela but also think she’s manipulative and vicious; Chris is a moron sometimes but very insightful and charismatic – essentially they’re all deep characters with multiple dimensions, much like real life. I don’t think giving the show a modernist ending is a step in the right direction; it’s relying on the conventions of television from the past, where The Sopranos is a departure from standard television fare. Giving a very postmodern feeling and conclusion is the only logical step for the series; otherwise it travels into the mundane and becomes generic.

    I’m really glad you like the way the show ends and enjoyed the series altogether. I believe it’s the best dramatic series of all time and only AMC’s Mad Men has rivaled The Sopranos in terms of quality and innovation. Even though Mad Men is an advertiser’s wet dream (a show about advertising in the age of product placement and integration) it’s an intelligent and multifaceted series – also created by The Sopranos’ Michael Weiner. What’s depressing about The Sopranos is how the actors are having a hard time finding work now that the show is done. The same thing happened to the cast of Seinfeld (another series that killed its medium) and it’s a shame that such talented actors are relegated to mediocre work because they accomplished so much on such a groundbreaking series.

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