RIP James Gandolfini, 1961-2013
RIP to James Gandolfini, who brought sensitivity and depth to the roles he played. I don’t think The Sopranos could have existed without him. He made me laugh and cry so often in that role, never more than at the end of The Sopranos, where I experienced what I could only describe as catharsis.
1. The Sopranos is widely considered to be the best TV show of all time, but you already knew that, right? I watched all six seasons over the past few weeks; although I’d seen most of the episodes over the last decade, I was never a regular viewer, and I certainly didn’t evaluate the episodes I saw through any kind of critical lens. What follows is hardly an in-depth analysis, but rather my thoughts on the show. There are spoilers.
2. Tony Soprano is a vile character. Hard to relate to. He kills his friends and even family members; he lies to his family; he cheats on his wife. He’s a bad guy. He’s not a hero. He’s not an anti-hero. He’s both protagonist and villain of a series that begs us to identify with him, to see in him the expression of our own throbbing id. The gambit pays off at times, but over the duration of the series identifying with Tony becomes exhausting, painful, depressing.
3. I’ll go ahead and submit that I view the series as a study in existential nihilism against the backdrop of American-Dream-as-flow-of-capital. To put it in the series’ own terms, life is “all a big nothing.” In the series’ final scene in a diner, we’re reminded that the best we can hope for is to enjoy the “good times,” to focus on those moments of peace and happiness with our families. But ultimately, the series suggests nihilism, the “big nothing,” a void signaled in its famous closing shot of extended, abyssal blackness.
4. To be very clear, Tony dies at the end. I do not think that the ending is ambiguous. Any other reading is unsupported by the arc of not only the episode’s internal logic, but the arc of the sixth season, and indeed, the arc of the entire series. Any reading that allows Tony to live is wish fulfillment.
5. Pretty much everyone dies in The Sopranos. Again, “big nothing.”
6. There are lots of scenes of people eating sandwiches in The Sopranos.
7. The Sopranos is a commentary on and perhaps rejection of psychoanalysis as a mode of therapy, yet it uses the techniques of psychoanalysis to frame its stories.
8. The Sopranos is a Oedipal drama. I might submit that any drama about a family contains some kernel of Oedipal tension, but The Sopranos is formally Oedipal.
9. The Sopranos aired from 1999 to 2007. That’s a long time. When viewed successively over a short period, the series’ gaps and seams show prominently: characters appear from nowhere, story lines disappear, and key plot points often have to be explicated through clunky exposition.
10. A cultural value of The Sopranos: the series documents the Bush-era zeitgeist.
11. An easy criticism to make about The Sopranos: it’s ultimately an exercise in style and tone rather than plot and character development. Its themes and motifs build and simmer, but they are not enriched by this process. Rather, the series’ themes and motifs swell like thick plaster, obvious, concrete, depressing. Again, The Sopranos can only point to its own nihilism, to its “big nothing.”
12. The show is depressing. I mean, watching the show is a depressing process. It normalizes murders, lies, bullying, and violence—that’s pretty bad—but what becomes especially distressing is that the Sopranos are always fighting with each other. They are usually angry or sad. There aren’t really too many of those “good times” to remember.
13. TVs are always on in The Sopranos, usually tuned to documentaries about war or war movies.
14. Some favorite episodes: “College,” “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” (season one), “Commendatori,” “Funhouse” (season two), “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” “University,” “Pine Barrens” (season three), “Calling All Cars,” “Whitecaps” (season four), “Rat Pack,” “Irregular around the Margins,” “The Test Dream,” “Long Term Parking” (season five), “Join the Club,” “Mayham,” “Live Free or Die,” “Soprano Home Movies,” “Made in America” (season six).
15. For years, I thought that the Comorra enforcer Furio Giunta, played by Federico Castelluccio, was played by Brent Spiner, who played Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Looking at pics of these actors, I do not understand my previous confusion. This comment is in no way germane to this “review.”
16. I don’t know if I’ve ever hated a character as much as I hate Paulie Walnuts.
17. Chris Moltisanti, played by actor Michael Imperioli, is probably my favorite character on the show. He too is vile—a drug addict, a thief, a woman-beater—but he’s also tender and funny. Maybe I just like Imperioli.
18. Steve Buscemi’s run on The Sopranos was pretty great, although it was part of a trope that the series leaned on too often—the guy-gets-out-of-prison-and-now-what? storyline.
19. Buscemi directed what might be the best episode of the series, “Pine Barrens.”
20. It’s easy to forget or overlook or understate the impact that The Sopranos had on HBO shows in particular and TV shows in general, but that impact should be noted here. Its formal elements either influenced or paved the way for the superior shows Deadwood and The Wire. It’s hard to imagine Mad Men without The Sopranos.
21. The early episodes of The Sopranos look and feel surprisingly cheap, perhaps in part due to the heavy use of canned music and an emphasis on longer takes. Plus, the need for exposition and character grounding leads to a kind of clunkiness. These episodes compensate with graphic violence and nudity.
22. Lots of strippers on The Sopranos.
23. You could argue that The Sopranos is a study in patriarchy, in patriarchy-as-capitalism.
24. One of the major themes of The Sopranos traces how women attempt to find agency within this strict patriarchy, a patriarchy that repeatedly objectifies, dehumanizes, uses, and discards women. Carmella, in particular, seeks to find voice in freedom, and her plan to do so invokes, again, the American Dream—the accumulation and sale of property. The flow of capital is freedom.
25. As a way of closing, I’ll return to the series’ final scene, probably one of the most remarked-upon moments in TV history (I cringe now at having written the execrable and odious phrase “TV history”). For me, the ending is unambiguous—the cut to black is a POV shift into Tony’s consciousness at the precise moment that he loses that consciousness forever. The ending is neither cheap nor gimmicky, but a formal masterstroke that corresponds to the series’ overarching themes of nihilism. This nihilism perhaps prevents the series achieving the cohesion of, say, The Wire, an equally dark series that takes capitalism as its major subject. The Wire proposes struggle itself as raison d’être. The Sopranos makes no argument for that struggle, finds no honor or humanity in it, instead shifting philosophical emphasis to “focus on the times that were good” against the face of a “big nothing.” The end of The Wire is a beautiful montage that suggests that even though history may be cyclical, this fact alone does not foreclose human agency. It is difficult to call the end of The Wire “happy,” but the series conclusion nevertheless suggests generative possibility: there might not be space for the viewer in that particular world, but David Simon suggests that that world will nevertheless continue without the viewer. In metaphorical terms, it lives. The formal device of the cycle-montage at the end of The Wire would feel cheap or even hackneyed had the series not earned it by establishing its threads years in advance. The end of The Wire shows us everything; it gives us the future. It is big everything, the perfect end for a show that attempt to measure the everything of one particular place. Similarly, the final shot of The Sopranos is formally and thematically appropriate. It gives us that “big nothing” that the series has repeatedly promised is ours to collect. The black thematizes the profound moral failures of its characters and dramatizes the loss of enlightenment and moral vision that permeates the family members in the final season. It’s a clever, elegant, and ugly way to end a very depressing show.