The Sopranos: A Tragedy in Time and Place

Oh, has the world changed or have I changed?

The Smiths, 1986

James Gandolfini plays Tony Soprano. Image (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Rogelio A. Galaviz C.

The world twenty years ago, the year 1999, had more in common with 1979 than it does with the present day. In 1979 and 1999 you would use payphones, send letters, walk into a bank to get cash from a person and then purchase a newspaper with it. You might know somebody who could remember the second world war vividly, and you could get a job in a place that would give you a permanent contract. Broadly, today’s world is the opposite of all those things, but then, this is not an article about today.

‘The Sopranos’ was a television series that continued the long line in the American gangster genre. But it also started the long-form and serious television dramas now so prevalent on Netflix. It was two things simultaneously. It extended deep into the past and presented us with the familiar. But it also lived achingly in the present. It surprised its creator, David Chase, as much when he said in an interview:

“It occurred to me that this was not a period piece. ‘Goodfellas’ when it was made was a period piece made in the 90s about the 60s and 70s. The Godfather was made in the 70s, and it was about the 40s and 50s. I thought this [The Sopranos] is about right now.”

Since ‘The Sopranos’ was not a period piece, there was none of the positive nostalgia of The Godfather and Goodfellas for its own time and place. Instead, it contained all the paranoias of a living mind. So what was this present? Chase again:

“The kernel of the essential joke was life in America had gotten so savage, selfish — basically selfish — that even a mob guy couldn’t take it anymore. And he’s in therapy. He and his guys were the ones who invented selfishness. They invented ‘Me First.’ And now he can’t take it anymore because the rest of the country has surpassed them.”

So, ‘The Sopranos’ tells the story of America finally putting itself first.

In artistic terms, it is a tragedy. Tony Soprano and America at the turn of the century share the same classic and tragic affliction; misunderstanding the thing you treasure the most so it is becomes destroyed. Just like their hero, archetype Michael Corleone. Corleone misunderstands his father’s love of family so much he kills his brother to emphasise loyalty.

Tony Soprano is so intent on leading his family and crew back to the future of mid-century values that by the story’s end, in 2007, there are no young people left. His sons, cousins and nephews are all either written off, disowned or murdered and his crew of ageing sixties children is barren. And America herself, so keen to live up to its founding creed of personal freedom above all, forgets all ideas of communal good where individual problems could be shared and solved. Love breeds decay.

Likewise, the children of the next generation are all, at some point, eager to follow their elders, but misunderstand the entry points to gaining respect. There is no ladder. Tony’s son (Anthony Jr.) tries to earn the respect of his father by replicating the revenge he has seen his father applaud endlessly in The Godfather film when Michael kills Sollozzo in the restaurant. Jackie Jr. tries to make his own name by robbing a card game — exactly how his father and uncle Tony acted to earn their respect back in the day. Before both end tragically, the children are only capable of performing dramatic, sporadic and solitary examples of the braggadocio they see every day. Actually, all Tony Soprano wants his son to do is take off the hat and dark shades when inside a restaurant.

There are repeated inter-generational misunderstandings throughout The Sopranos. The younger generation always trying to replicate or take inspiration for the behaviour of their elders but always get it wrong. There is no industry, or church or restaurant or war or cause or television show or sporting event or tradition of any sort that, as the 20th-century tips over into the 21st, can bring common ground. Everyone is slipping away from each other. They don’t talk about it, which is nothing new. But there is no shared experience or referee to say: ’Don’t worry. Look, let’s concentrate on what we do share.’

The old ways of tradition and pride and code yawn with vast emptiness, if there was anything inside of them in the first place. People still live by and animate their code where a single punch from one ‘made man’ to another is more important than the murder of an innocent stripper. And afterwards, they await their prize from society for keeping their word, their code and for doing things how they know, with such certainty, their forefathers also would have. Silently they realise there is no endpoint or goal to their mafia code or the traditional values they pick and choose. Society gives them no prize. So they go home and microwave a sandwich in the dark.

The problem is that the strong and silent male stereotypes that prop up most American films and TV are defined by unachievable greatness. How can one person, like Tony Soprano or Michael Corleone, ever replicate Don Corleone’s majesty at the start of the trilogy, the day of his daughter’s wedding? We never see any doubt. We never see him look himself in the mirror, be chastised by his daughter for being racist, or raise a hand to a woman. We idolise the past and try to replay it in the present. Clearly smart, Tony goes to therapy. He complains about what he sees in the world and laments that it cannot be how it was. But as a psychopath, he cannot change and only knows how to pretend ‘normal’ when he reenters the world. He cannot use introspection to change his behaviour. We know he is trapped.

The Sopranos show men who look older than they are and loathe the changing world as much as they are confused by it. Hip Hop music is noise. Chain coffee shops culturally appropriate the classic Italian espresso and count every bean on a computer making themselves impossible to extort (at this time you need to wear a suit to be corrupt — like at Enron). If only these gangsters were woke enough to write a blog post, they could get our sympathy or gain social credibility. When the Soprano crew go ‘back’ to Italy for a business trip, they find authentic Italian cuisine and culture just as foreign as anything they complain about on MTV.

Their world is cruelly distilled to them every moment they realise they can, no longer order a steak to a hotel room at midnight, only know how to cook with the microwave, or must endlessly answer their new ‘mobile’ telephone. They misinterpreted what they loved and what made them great, and these things then decayed and died. The Sopranos belong nowhere. Just like everyone else.

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Contact Luke at luketmurphy@hotmail.co.uk or follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/Luketmurphy

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