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.
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.