The American Nightmare: Experiencing THE SOPRANOS

Following a first watch of the show, A. J. Black discusses his impressions after experiencing David Chase’s seminal Mob drama, The Sopranos

To me, The Sopranos is about the American Nightmare, as opposed to the American Dream.

The final episode of David Chase’s magnum opus about the New Jersey Mob which ran from 1999 through to 2007 on HBO is called Made in America, as if to underline how the larger than life central figure of Anthony ‘Tony’ Soprano, despite his Italian heritage and Mob family history, could only exist in the framework of American society. Even with a fairly sprawling cast of regular fixtures, within the Soprano family and without, it was Tony who encapsulated the broken promise of America in one deeply flawed, psychologically scarred, selfish and sociopathic individual. The series pivoted around the balance between being head of the New Jersey Mafia while trying to exist as the patriarch of a prototypical American nuclear family, and how these elements would come to often almost violent blows.

Chase’s series is constructed upon the idea that Tony, while representing ostensibly the quite cliched, Mario Puzo-definition of an Italian gangster—masculine, hard drinking, loves food, charms women etc…—was also intensely damaged as a human being to the point he reaches out and accesses therapy as a way of grappling with his own life and psyche, traditionally the kind of omertà-breaking move that would consign him to Mafia oblivion. The Sopranos only works so well because Tony needs to talk, to find an outlet for the filthy, ugly, morally vacuous existence he leads within a world of zero substance posing as important machismo. If Tony represents how America lost its way, became corrupted by cynical values of self-deception and mercurial self-interest, then it’s the American Dream week in week out in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi as much as it is a fairly low-rent Jersey gangster.

Having just turned two decades old, experiencing The Sopranos for the first time throws all of this into sharp relief, suggesting Tony Soprano was less an actualisation of America’s decay but more of a harbinger of what was to come.

Over the last twenty years, I have lost count of the amount of people who have greeted me, upon learning my name, with a hearty, Italian-American inflected “hey Tony!”.

It was only around ten years ago it became clear to me that the majority of the common reference points for this was The Sopranos, and specifically Tony.

For a long time, it felt like a series everyone else in the world had experienced but me (until last year, I long had the same feeling with Breaking Bad). Despite growing up watching cinema and television, The Sopranos for a long time has remained one of the seminal moments in small screen history that passed me by at the time of airing. I was busy watching bonkers escapism like Alias, 24 and Lost, none of which I regret, but being there week on week for The Sopranos must have been a hell of an experience.

As a result, I have always operated with certain misconceptions about what Chase’s show actually is. One of the primary criticisms of the series from a sub-section of fans was a deliberate lack of Mob action and violence (“less yakkin’, more whackin’” was a common refrain), but I was taken aback by just how little The Sopranos is actually about the Mob. Sure, most episodes are structured around Mob problems to solve, operating frequently as contained plays within a broader seasonal arc framework, but the meat of the drama was about Tony, his long-suffering wife Carmela, and their children Meadow & A. J., plus what that means for Tony in his sessions with Melfi. While the show would not work without the Mafia accoutrements, as the juxtaposition of American family values with shocking, amoral and violent Mob practices was key to Chase’s show, The Sopranos is The Sopranos because it’s about Tony’s inability to be a loyal husband or, often, a good father in touch with a healthy, emotional sense of well-being.

The other misconception came from just how the series approached Mob life and violence. The Sopranos intentionally lacks the mythological glamour of The Godfather or the showy glitz of Goodfellas (despite both being key touchstones) and present a pallor of sadness that frequently took me aback across all seven seasons. Though frequently laugh out loud funny, with the blackest of black humour in all the most inappropriate places, The Sopranos was often a mordant examination of pointless, nasty, even nihilistic violence with no end to the cycle.

Tony comes to find less and less joy in his life as a gangster as therapy, silently, works its magic on his mind and he destroys a catalogue of lives around him over the years in different ways.

He venerates the classic American ideal of a man being a man, visualised in the Western and Gary Cooper: “The strong, silent type. That was an American, He just did what he had to do”. Despite being charged at points as a show that glamorised Mob life, to me nothing could be further from the truth. I was often left reeling at just how empty and painful the realities of Tony’s life are, and thanks to the eternally magisterial performance of the late James Gandolfini in the role, you feel this emotional truth radiate from the character.

Another surprise came from just how psychoanalytical the series ended up being. This is telegraphed, obviously, from the Pilot—which does what any great opener does and thematically & tonally set the scene for years of storytelling to come—as Tony visits Melfi and their professional relationship begins, one that ebbs and flows over the years. Lorraine Bracco, who could easily have played and was considered for Carmela (Chase decided it was too close to her Oscar-nominated turn in Goodfellas), is tremendous foil for Gandolfini as the calm, measured yet also quietly vicarious and enabling psychologist.

She gets the absolute worst of Tony, who only stops short of revealing his terrible crimes (indeed in The Second Coming he dreams about revealing them to her), but weathers it with grace. Her standout moment, in Season 3’s Employee of the Month (one of the best episodes of the entire show), is when, following suffering a horrific rape, she refuses to enable Mob justice by electing to not tell Tony what happened & have her rapist likely executed, with a simple and powerful “No” which prefigures the first of two memorable cuts to black. It’s emotive and powerful stuff.

It also speaks to just how The Sopranos subverts conventions and refuses to bow to the audience’s own vicarious impulses. My wife and I—both experiencing this show for the first time with no knowledge of how it played out—both, I will freely admit, wanted Tony’s vigilante justice to come down to Melfi’s attacker. We expected it by this point, given we’ve seen Tony and his lieutenants murder people for far less, but Chase denies us of that complicity. We are not meant to align with Tony or his world.

Melfi, even in the face of American law and justice failing her, makes the right moral choice and refuses to play God as the Mob do.

It rests as one of many points where the audience have more information, globally, about these characters and their world do than any of them individually and is a great example of how The Sopranos, constantly, refuses to give us what we want, or what we think we want, what we’ve been conditioned by years of American storytelling to expect. In that sense, Chase takes more of a cue from the French New Wave and verite filmmaking he grew up admiring, allowing the characters and this world to anticlimax, to disappoint, and to move left when they were veering right, and it always feels natural.

If we become complicit in Tony’s crimes, we as an audience transform The Sopranos into a different entity. It becomes the kind of glamourised wish fulfilment of a life free of consequence and filled with avarice and thrills that is precisely what Chase wants to avoid, and wants us to see through. When Tony strangles a man in College, or savagely murders Ralphie (the great Joe Pantoliano) in Whoever Did This or when his sister Janice (a brilliantly narcissistic Aida Turturro) shoots dead her husband Richie Aprile (a quite terrifying David Proval) in The Knight in White Satin Armor or even when the show’s oft comic-relief Paulie Walnuts (a wonderfully profane Tony Sirico) kills an old lady for her money in Eloise, and on and on and on, we are meant to be repulsed.

We are meant to be reminded that The Sopranos is about an assortment of genuine psychopaths with no empathy, who live their lives by meaningless codes that have no alignment with ordered, rational society and lack any sense of grace or dignity. They are thugs, and Chase often reminds us so – whether it’s the bigger New York Mafia (a far more Corleone-esque set up) looking down on them, or the FBI haplessly cursing their frequent good fortune as they constantly fail to build a RICO case against them, or even Melfi’s own psychiatrist Elliot Kupferberg (a hilariously lugubrious Peter Bogdanovich, himself one of the great ‘70s filmmakers) and Melfi’s academic crowd vicariously watching the Mob violence from the sidelines with a cool, educated detachment like it’s a TV show of their own.

Everything is designed to highlight the depressing, savage futility of a life and world built on lies, money and murder.

This is why The Sopranos is so keenly about America, because Chase makes a strong argument that the New Jersey Mob are simply, and opportunistically, making the best of America’s corrupt DNA.

The series often reminds us of the rich internal mythology of the show’s past, reflected in Tony’s calculating uncle Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano (Dominic Chianese, often stealing the show) or his manipulative, ailing and viperish mother Livia (a brilliantly cunning Nancy Marchand, who sadly died after the end of the second season, forcing her character’s premature death on the show). As America has been influenced by the actions of the Baby Boomer generation, so much of Tony’s warped psychology is framed by living up to the role he ends up taking when Junior is arrested and forced into house arrest, and thanks to his steady realisation that Livia never loved him, and even maybe wants him dead. “What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?” Tony mused.

The mother complex looms large over The Sopranos, as Tony sleeps with women who echo Livia’s traits (such as the damaged Gloria Trillo, beautifully played by Annabella Sciorra, who auditioned for Janice), transfers his demons regarding his mother onto Melfi and his wife (even his children, not to mention his intended number two Christopher Moltisanti, played with psychotic intensity by Michael Imperioli) and steadily grows more and more melancholy and depressed across the seasons as the therapy unlocks further realisations about the damage done to him by Livia’s neglect, the absence of his father and father figure Dickie (Christopher’s father), and the power of the Mob legacy and mythology that bears down on his role as head of the family.

9/11 has its own cumulative effect on the show’s psychology too, and perhaps Tony’s prevailing mood, happening between production of the second and third seasons, and having a deeper ripple into the fourth onwards. Characters lightly reference it. The FBI ultimately become more concerned with domestic terrorism and Al-Qaeda than they do the Mob, even quietly tapping Tony up for any terror-linked information at points, and as it cast a shadow over dozens of TV shows and movies of that era, it billows into The Sopranos in just how it displays the open fragility of America while Chase’s series has been concerned with the fragile underbelly, the morass of moral fibre fuelled by toxic masculinity and the corrupt immigrant experience which poisons the well of American society and discourse.

We might find Tony charming, in his own way, but we are willing characters like his wife Carmela (a tremendous Edie Falco, more than matching Gandolfini in the star stakes) to escape her violent, lying, emotionally abusive husband.

This becomes most apparent in the seismic Whitecaps, featuring the ultimate matrimonial confrontation between husband and wife. “Just for the record, I would have gone on with your cheating, and your bullshit, if your attitude around here had been the least bit loving, concerned, interested.” Carmela declares, desperate to free herself of this man. Only she, like most of the other characters, is trapped. Trapped in a cycle they cannot avoid, or refuse to learn and change from. Trapped in a world built on trauma, built on self-enforced lies and realities, built on greed and pain and self-interest. A world built on America.

Hence the sadness. Hence the melancholy. Hence by the time we reach Made in America, after so much exploration of the psyche, of American history and society through all kinds of mechanisms, through dream sequences and abstract imagery (take The Test Dream for example), through hints of a supernatural or spiritual beyond leaving signs and symbols for characters to interpret, through the cavalcade of popular culture references to films and television and music, after all the brutality and murder, after all of the incidental details it would take millions of words to explore (incidentally, check out Matt Zoller Seitz & Alan Sepinwall’s brilliant companion book The Sopranos Sessions for just that), we are left as an audience to wonder what it was for.

You can see how series writer Matthew Wiener bleeds this nihilistic cynicism and psychology into The Sopranos’s veritable successor Mad Men (which I’ve just started), as you sense Tony—and by extension America—is trapped in its own eternal purgatory, in that diner at the end of the series, as Chase unwinds an ending as ambiguous as anything we have ever seen on television while at the same time, potentially, meaning nothing of substance.

That sums up The Sopranos, in essence.

A show about everything, that meant something, something profound and deep and realised with a nearly unparalleled skill, that adds up to no specific conclusion, or realisation, or point of closure and clarity. The wheel turns. The American Nightmare continues.

Don’t Stop Believin’.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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