People who write for TV shows, like Victorian novelists, get paid by the word. As long as the show gets ratings and makes money, it will go on. The Sopranos, like the loaf of bread Karl Marx famously talks about in the first volume of Das Kapital, contains almost as much sawdust as it does nutritious grain. The series, which ran for almost eight years, follows commercial, not dramatic logic. The story of Tony and Carmela Soprano, mostly played out after two or three seasons, had to be stretched out into six. At some point it makes more sense to read The Sopranos not as a novel, but as a collection of short stories, David Chase’s “New Jerseyans” to James Joyce’s Dubliners. The infamous final episode, where the screen simply goes black, and which has inspired so much debate, is simply Chase realizing he doesn’t have it in him to write anything as compelling as The Dead. So he closes out the series with a whimper instead with the “bang” that we expected.
The core idea of The Sopranos is the hostility of the elderly to the middle-aged, the dread people in their forties and fifties feel as their parents decline into senility and death. As the series opens, Tony Soprano, a portly New Jersey mob boss played by James Gandolfini, would seem to embody the American Dream. Not only does he have a mansion in North Caldwell, a devoted wife, and an Ivy League bound daughter, younger women fall into his lap like ripe apples from a tree. Unlike a stock broker, a dentist, or any other normal member of the suburban upper-middle-class, he gets to act out on his aggression with little or no consequences. If someone pisses him off, he can just have him killed. Yet Tony Soprano is not a happy man. His mother Livia and his Uncle Corrado, “Uncle Junior,” may be declining physically, but they have no intention of giving way gracefully to the next generation. In fact, they want him dead.
Nancy Marchand, who plays Livia Soprano, died in 2000 along with her character. Her performance as an emotionally withholding Italian American mother is the heart and soul of the series. Every scene between Marchand and Gandolfini rings true. James Gandolfini was a physically imposing man, well over six feet tall and just shy of three hundred pounds. Nancy Marchand was a frail old woman dying of lung cancer. The power dynamic between Livia and Tony Soprano is one sided. Tony is determined to have his mother’s approval. She’s just as determined to deny him. Watching Tony bring a box of Italian pastries to the nursing home where he has very reluctantly confined Livia and observing how she rejects the offering is a master class in good acting. Gandolfini swaggers in like a cat with a bird its mouth. Marchand’s initial expression is one of pure joy. They’re very good pastries, but Livia can’t allow Tony to see that he has pleased her in any way. Marchand turns off her smile like a light switch. Her body language becomes hard, domineering. Gandolfini, in turn, is deflated. You observe the forty-year-old man become a twelve-year-old boy. You can almost see the air leak out of his body.
The Sopranos never quite recovers from Marchand’s death, but it’s the dread of the declining, elderly parent that keeps it going for the next five years. Dominic Chianese, who plays Uncle Junior, isn’t quite on the same level as Gandolfini and Marchand, but he’s close. As Uncle Junior succumbs to Alzheimer’s Disease, we like Tony Soprano, wonder just how much of it is real, and just how much he’s faking. Modeled on the real life Vincent Louis Gigante, Corrado Soprano attempts to avoid a long jail sentence by feigning mental illness. Unlike Gigante, he is successful, but almost as if cursed by the gods for his deception, the play becomes reality. Shortly after pretending to lose his mind, he actually does lose his mind. He begins to wander through his neighborhood in his bathrobe. He forgets where he has hidden an enormous sum of money. Finally, he shoots his nephew in the gut, almost killing him.
If David Chase is a master at portraying the middle-aged and the elderly, he has little or no ability to write about people under thirty. Tony’s daughter Meadow is a kind of teenage girl who became drearily familiar in the 1990s, the wise beyond her years, straight-A student who serves as a hip foil to her square parents. Meadow’s character doesn’t develop so much as it fades from the series. The longer The Sopranos goes on, the less we see of her. Her boyfriends, in turn, are plot devices, not actual flesh and blood human beings. Noah Tannenbaum, who’s half black, half Jewish, and all privileged, Ivy League douchebag, exists mainly to demonstrate that Tony Soprano doesn’t want his daughter dating a “moulinyan.” Meadow’s next boyfriend, Jackie Aprile Jr. is a dim pretty boy. The man after that, Finn DeTrolio, a Columbia student and a “Wonder Bread Wop,” as Tony refers derisively refers to to overly assimilate Italian Americans, is the most sympathetic and complex of the three, but in the end, he remains a cipher. Finn casually “outs” Vito, a gay mobster, a betrayal that eventually leads to Vito’s torture and murder, but the show never considers the act on a moral or a dramatic level. Finn is never portrayed as a rat. He’s afraid of Vito. He thinks Vito wants to fuck him. That seems to be enough. As politically correct as Meadow can be, it doesn’t even lead to a fight. Their breakup is off screen. We never learn the reason why.
Anthony Jr. or “AJ,” Meadow’s younger brother, is as much of a 1990s cliché as his sister. Chase has no interest in getting inside his head or portraying him as an individual. AJ simply reflects what Chase can glean from popular culture about what young men born in the mid-1980s are supposed to be like. First he’s the bratty younger brother, Bart Simpson to Lisa Simpson. Then, like a grunge-era slacker, he grows his hair long, gets a job at a Blockbuster Video, and goes to parties he can’t afford. After 9/11, he becomes a wannabe patriot. When he gets dumped by his Hispanic girlfriend – we have absolutely no idea why she’s dating him in the first place so we have absolutely no idea why she dumps him –and he becomes suicidal, Chase writes what’s probably the worst and yet most representative scene in the entire series. AJ goes out to the family pool. He ties a plastic bag over his head and a cinder block to his leg. He jumps in the water. At long last, we think, this tedious bore of a character is going to die a horrible death, but no. He changes his mind. He pulls the plastic bag off his head, and tries to swim to dry ground. Then Chase himself seems to change his mind. AJ can’t get out of the pool with the cinder block around his ankle. Maybe he’ll die after all. Finally, however, just as AJ is about to draw his last breath, Tony Soprano pulls into the driveway, hears his son’s cries for help, dives into the pool, and pulls him out of the water.
In other words, AJ is so uninteresting, we really don’t care if he lives or dies, and Chase knows it. Like the infamous “fade to black” ending, AJ’s suicide, then change of heart, then rescue, expresses absolutely nothing about his character. All it means is that Chase can write literally anything he wants, and his loyal fans will still talk about it on the Internet. The show has abandoned dramatic, narrative logic altogether. We, the viewers, have been completely subordinated to the marketplace. If you want to see what it looks like when a TV writer has lost all respect for his audience, you could do worse then Anthony Soprano Junior’s little dip in the family pool.
The Sopranos might just be the most violent TV show in history. After awhile, you begin to lose track of who gets his head bashed in, who gets whacked, who gets chopped up and who doesn’t. Just about the only thing we notice is that graying, overweight, middle-aged men always seem to win fights. Above all, The Sopranos is a middle-aged, white guy’s power fantasy. Two deaths, however, do matter. Christopher Molisanti, played by Michael Imperioli – Spider from Goodfellas – is Tony Soprano’s younger protégé, Jesse Pinkman to his Walter White. Adriana La Cerva, Drea De Matteo, is his fiancée. While neither of them is particularly interesting as an individual – Chase can’t write characters in their late 20s much better than he can write teenagers – they are key to the resolution of the series as a whole. When the FBI bullies Adriana into becoming an informant, it’s the closest The Sopranos, which ran during the worst years of the second Bush administration, comes to criticizing the United States of the Patriot Act. Adriana is engaged to a mobster but other than managing a mob controlled night-club, she’s not particularly involved in the world of organized crime. She doesn’t have much much to tell the government, and her FBI handlers know it. It’s all a big sadistic power game.
Molisanti’s decision to turn over his fiancée to Tony Soprano – her murder is by far the most horrifying one in the series – is a key moral choice. He has chosen his spiritual father figure, the patriarchy, over the woman he supposedly loves, but Tony, like Livia, can’t pass things off to the next generation. An aspiring screenwriter, and perhaps very loosely fictionalized stand in for Chase himself, Molisanti had become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and had very slowly and painfully managed to recover. A seemingly trivial incident – Molisanti sleeps with a woman Soprano once had his designs on – pushes the two men apart. Once Tony marks a piece of property it’s his, so he isolates Molisanti by publicly taunting him about his painfully won sobriety. How can you be a real man, let alone a “made” man, if you can’t handle your alcohol? After Molisanti relapses, Soprano uses it as an excuse to murder him. All throughout The Sopranos, the FBI has been most successful in flipping alcoholics and addicts. After a convenient car crash – car crashes become a tediously predictable plot device in The Sopranos – even more conveniently crushes Molisanti’s rib cage but leaves Soprano almost unscathed, Soprano blocks his one time protégé’s nostrils and lets him down in his own blood. Tony, like his mother, wants to kill his son. Unlike his mother, he succeeds.