What I am Watching: The Sopranos – finding new depth in a television classic

David Chase’s The Sopranos is heralded by many as the best television show ever produced – and I am not about to argue that. Unfortunately, during its original run, I missed huge chunks of the last few seasons due to not being able to afford HBO. (Younger people don’t know how easy they have with all the “alternative ways” of watching television.)

So, although I had watched all of season 6B,  I wanted to complete the series from start to finish. I also wanted to see how my over-35-year-old self would react to a series that I had originally watched in my late teens and early twenties.

Image result for the sopranos

The biggest takeaway from re-watching The Sopranos is how current it still felt. Like a classic piece of literature, it hasn’t aged. The dialogue is crisp, the narrative just as imaginative, and the cinematography equally urgent and nuanced.

After I got over how good the show still looked, I began to appreciate the things I missed while watching it as a younger man. At that time, I had only thought of The Sopranos as a gangster show – Goodfellas or The Godfather for the small screen. And with those expectations, I sometimes didn’t quite “get” some of the episodes or thought that they were lackluster for not giving us a payoff (Virgin Mary apparitions, Russian in the woods, or last scene of the finale, anyone?).

Being a bit older (and supposedly more mature), mixed with a couple of breakdowns, panic attacks, and some uncertainty about the future helped me to understand that The Sopranos was never really supposed to be about the mob, but about a man trying to make sense of his life in a chaotic world.

When making sense of this world does not pan out, Tony Soprano and company try to manipulate that which they cannot understand or control to their benefit by using money, influence, or deadly force. To them, it often seems that they’ve managed to put things right, but we, the audience, see the truth: the characters are stuck on an endless loop. I know I can relate to that cyclical feeling.

Something else that stood out to me is that The Sopranos didn´t play on twisty plot lines to move their character or narrative forward. This is a great contrast to other classic shows such as Breaking Bad, The Wire or The Shield, where the labyrinth created by the lead characters was only half as fun to watch as trying to figure out how they would squirrel their way out of them. This also shows how much David Chase was influenced by Twin Peaks, which also lets its characters float about (seemingly forward) in the mystery of their universe and surroundings rather than be impulsed forward by it.

As I mentioned, the characters in The Sopranos were masters at manipulation. They couldn´t fall into labyrinthine narrative traps because in their minds they were always in command of their surroundings.  Although, episodes like The Pine Barrens, where Chris and Paulie lose track of a Russian that they are supposed to kill in the forests of New Jersey, hints at unmasking this farse. It is one of the few times in the series where the lead characters stop to consider what meaning their lives have in the grander scheme.

Chase never allows for a complete unmasking, though. He likes his characters to continue believing in the fantasy they have created for themselves. In fact, it is when a character does lose his or her grip on managing their reality that they meet a bitter end – even if losing their grip means a chance at a “better” life. Vito Spatafore’s “coming out” arc is the best example of this. The closer he gets to his true self, the closer we know his violent end is.

The universe, here, is not friendly.

Furthermore, those characters that are most adept at living in the reality they have built for themselves suffer a fate worse than death – constant mental turmoil. The Sopranos was a true nihilist nightmare with the dream sequences spattered about the series to prove it. 

This show was also about the crushing weight of the pressure to keep up appearances while being forced to look inward for answers. It showed us its hand from the start as the mamma-duck who had been making a residence in Tony’s pool flies off with her babies and later Tony collapses, seemingly lifeless, on the floor. Tony wanted that family bond with his own mother, but he could never achieve it. He tries to build that perfect illusion of togetherness with his own family but fails miserably at every step. Yet, he fights to maintain that appearance with all his might.

Tony was not the only one trying to appear fine while he wasn’t. This theme was also present in the show’s other main character, America. Tony’s choices paralleled the changes in the nation.

The first couple of seasons of The Sopranos reflect a pre-9/11 nation which culminated in a capitalist feast of Super-Sized food and McMansions. Life was, by all appearances, good and every Muslim was not yet a potential terrorist. With expendable income on hand and no real external demon to combat, for a split second, some Americans began to look inward. No wonder New Age philosophy had such a boom during that period. Likewise, Tony, in search for greater meaning, may not have started yoga classes or bought magic crystals, but he did see a psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi – more on her at the end of this article.

However, as we later learned in the recession years, many Americans were far from being financially stable (neither was Tony) and many that searched for answers did so superficially (as did Tony, for some time). Real hardship was too much for Americans and for the Soprano clan. Thankfully, after 9/11, everyone was handed a slew of external bogeymen to keep them occupied with something other than their own thoughts. The show mirrored this national mentality shift by switching from more introspective conflicts to more manufactured foes (post 9/11) for Tony and his crew.

In the end (i.e. subsequent seasons), however, Tony couldn’t run from his personal demons and Chase couldn’t run from his original themes, and the show’s focus returned to the failed attempts at the salvation of the heart and soul of every character. One wonder’s when America will come to that same conclusion.

In a way, The Sopranos is like the Seinfeld of dramas. It’s a show about nothing.

While the plot does move along, it is really inconsequential. After all, there are a hundred mob-movies out there with similar cliched story lines. What makes the show breathe are the character’s dealings with the “every day” (even if their “every day” is nothing like the average person’s) and trying to make it to the next “every day” with a semblance of purpose.

The Richies, Ralphs, and Phils of the world could have popped up on the show forever -and The Sopranos would have become that 20-season series we all wished had ended a decade earlier. But these antagonists only represent the moves on a chess-board-world that is more interested in the thought process behind those moves than the result of moves themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I recommend a rewatch of this show while focusing on the smaller moments. Forget where the Russians headed off to – they were never meant to be caught. Forget who might have been snitching from the start – there will always be a snitch to screw up a mobster’s plans. Forget who might have shot or not shot Tony as the screen goes black – his story is not that one. Watch it and think of your life, your missteps, your regrets, the similar type of people that constantly migrate in and out of your world, and your belief that tomorrow will be better. But also watch it while pondering one of the show’s biggest themes – people don’t change and we are less the agents of the chaos around us than the unwilling participants of a universe gone mad.

Tony Soprano never had a chance to be more than what he was because what we saw on the screen was exactly what he was. This truth can either enlighten you to the point where you will feel free of life’s shackles, knowing you are only in control of how you react to things around you and that your reaction can bring you peace or torment – or, it can depress you no end as you realize you cannot cheat fate and that your life today may quite possibly be your life tomorrow regardless of how much you think you have improved yourself and your surroundings. David Chase doesn’t give us the answer (as well he shouldn’t) but he poses the question in heavy New Jersey accents throughout the series run.

Below is my quick rundown and ratings of the seasons. 5 star scale. Some spoilers below.

Season 1 (5 out of 5)

The first season of The Sopranos lays out all that the show would explore as it went deeper into its run (including the importance of dreams). The Pilot is quite possibly one of the most well-executed first episodes of any series. A lot of times people will say, “give the show some time and you will warm up to it”. I believe that if you don’t like The Sopranos from the first episode, you will know pretty much how you will feel about the rest of the series.

Season 2 (5 out of 5)

The second season continues where the first left off. The focus here is a bit more on the growth of Tony’s crime syndicate, but it also spends considerable time dealing with themes of guilt, low self-esteem, and uncertainty. Christopher’s character growth is really the stand out this season as he tries his best to be his own man and show his uncle, Tony, that he is worthy enough to play with the big boys. Big Pussy also has his best moments.

Season 3 (5 out 5)

Yes, I have given everything five stars up to now, but that´s because everything is that great up to now. Season 3 could have been a break-it season due to the death of Nancy Marchand who played Livia Soprano, Tony´s mom. She had been such a great antagonist for Tony in the two prior seasons that it was hard to imagine where they could go without her as a villain. Enter Janice, who had already made her mark in season 2 but becomes a full rounded annoyance to Tony in season 3. More than the FEDs and other mob families, it is Tony´s flesh and blood that truly burden him. This is also the season that features the subtle (not-so-subtle) philosophical, Pine Barrens, episode. Season 3 is The Sopranos at its absolute pop culture peak. We also get Carmela and Tony in therapy together.

Season 4 (4.5 out of 5)

This is a moody season that splits some fans and it did take me considerably longer to get through it. Whereas I usually watched either one or two episodes a night through to season three (sometimes more), I tended to skip a few days between episodes for season four without feeling like I was missing anything grand. This season is all about family drama (aren´t they all) but it comes to an explosively emotional finale which showcases James Gandolfini and Edie Falco (Camila, his wife) playing off each other in an intense quarrel to end all quarrels. Carmela really shines in this season as she continues to reach for that one thing she can´t have despite all the material luxury surrounding her: emotional support.

Season 5 (5 out of 5 plus some)

This is probably my second favourite season behind season one. There are so many stand out scenes and story beats. One, Adrianna and Tony are suspected of having an affair and her stint as an informant comes to a tragic end. Drea de Matteo played four seasons of ditsy girlfriend/wife to Christopher, but she shows the full range of her acting chops this season. Two, Janice gets into an altercation with another soccer mom (not the first time she has been violent – check season two) and proves why she is the show´s best comic relief and has a personality nearly big enough to match Tony’s. But most importantly, Tony has an episode straight out of Twin Peaks in “Test Dream” where his wild dream journeys take up the bulk of the story. This season is full of setups for the last two seasons of the show and rolls along with pretty strong momentum. The Sopranos managed to push the envelope for a television drama numerous times before season five, but here it solidified itself as the cream of the crop twice over.

Season 6A (4 out of 5)

I loved the first part of season six. Again, it deals a lot with the subconscious, especially after Tony´s near-death experience. It gives many of its protagonists a different vision of life or even a way out … a chance to change. But this is only a setup for Chase´s nihilist view that nothing changes and people are destined to play out their roles in life until the bitter end. Yet, it is in this darkness that the heart of The Sopranos lies, not in the mob drama, which makes this season very important. Tony wants to be a better man, he wants to control his fate, as do many of the show’s other characters (most notably, Vito, a mobster who is struggling with coming out of the closet and trying to lead a “straight life”). The first half of season six is slow but it is essential to understanding the core of the show.

Season 6B (5 out 5)

The first half of season six dealt with the inner struggles of its main characters on the road to figuring out who they really were or who they could imagine themselves being in another life. It all comes to naught and the mafia story line takes centre stage as the noose tightens around Tony and his enemies´necks. The shocker comes from the death of one of the series’ regulars, Christopher, who Tony realizes will always be the same man he has always been (that theme again).

The last episode does a good job of clearing up any tangled story lines (or at least the ones that mattered) and the last scene stands as one of the greatest (or most infuriating) bits of television history. Having binged the whole series, thus taking it all in almost like a very long movie, I think it made sense to end how it did, though. We aren´t really supposed to know what happens to Tony next, in a conscious sense, because the entire series focused so much on his subconscious. If Tony survives, he will continue living the cycle again, if he wants to break the cycle … well, the show is pretty explicit about the only way that can ever happen. Except for one character …….


Dr. Melfi.

I didn’t speak much on her during this review but she deserves to be mentioned here in more depth. Her conversations with Tony are the core of the show. She is his surrogate wife, mother, lover, (and perhaps even) only true friend. Yet, she is truly none of those things as she manages to draw the line between professional and personal relationship pretty clearly in the sand.

She, in a way, represent us, the audience, the only ones who aren’t completely fooled by Tony’s antics. She cares for him because she sees his troubled mind, but like us, she eventually comes to realize that there is no fixing some things or people. She becomes one of the only characters who is able to walk away on her own terms – and, in a sense, the true hero of the show. The one who defeats the fates.

So, that is that folks. My next mission in life is to finally get through all of The Wire. Yes, it’s true, I have never seen it all – and I had a horrible time trying to get through the first episode about a year ago. I am currently done season two and will give you my opinion – especially as it relates to its Greatest Show of All Time-status and in comparison to my favourite cop show, The Shield (just rewatched that too and will have a review up soon). Until then, have a good one.

 


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