Just recently, in homage to the late James Gandolfini, I watched all six seasons of HBO’s crime drama The Sopranos for the first time. Originally running from 1999 to 2007, The Sopranos was the first television production conceived as a season-long “narrative arc” rather than a bona-fide “series” of self-contained episodes connected to one another only by the recurring characters of a regular cast—the model of the sit-com. (Ed.: Levi Asher insists that David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was first, and warns that any readers who mistake my claim for the truth might get their asses kicked in a bar if they repeat it. Although I can’t imagine Twin Peaks fans kicking the asses of Commonplace Blog fans, I think it’s only fair to record Asher’s dissent here.)
The police procedurals Hill Street Blues (1981–’87), NYPD Blue (1993–2005), and Homicide: Life of the Street (1993–’99) combined both methods, telling complete-in-themselves 40- to 45-minute stories while also incorporating a larger “narrative arc” that clamped some or all of the episodes together. And of course even sit-coms depend upon running gags or character quirks, which the viewers were expected to know ahead of time.
The Sopranos was the first, however, to use the “arc” as its principle of structure. Or, to say it otherwise, if David Chase had never persuaded HBO officials to introduce Tony Soprano to the American television public, there would never have been the later (and, frankly, better) dramas The Wire (2002-’08) and Deadwood (2004–’06).
It has been little remarked upon that the dramatic model behind The Sopranos is the soap opera. For six seasons Chase, Gandolfini, and company struggled against the soap-operish qualities of the Soprano family saga. Will Carmela sleep with Furio? Will Tony and Carmela divorce? Will Christopher make a honest woman of Adriana? Will Meadow and A. J. ever grow up and start acting like adults? It wouldn’t be too wide of the mark, in fact, to describe The Sopranos as a foul-mouthed soap opera with murders—sixty-five of them over the show’s eighty-six episodes.
In the end, though, The Sopranos is about Tony Soprano, the boss of a New Jersey crime organization. As Jeff Halperin says in the best thing I’ve read about it, The Sopranos is “about a single mind,” with ambitions to lay bare “the inner workings of a single person’s mind.” (In Halperin’s opinion, this ambition raises it above The Wire, which aims to “demonstrate the inner workings of society.” He could have added that Deadwood has an even grander ambition—to chronicle the rise of a civilization.)
Halperin’s account also has the advantage of explaining the controversial ending of The Sopranos. A smiling and relaxed Tony is meeting his family at a New Jersey diner when the screen abruptly goes black. What has happened is that Tony has been whacked. He never saw the hit coming, never noticed the hitman enter the restaurant and shoot glances at him, never noticed him go to the bathroom just like Michael Corleone in The Godfather as a prelude to a hit.
Chase was scrupulous (even overly scrupulous) in planting the clues. In the episode called “Soprano Home Movies,” Tony’s brother-in-law Bobby Baccalieri had reflected on getting whacked: “You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?” (Bobby himself is noisily whacked in the next-to-last episode, flopping around a model-train store before finally expiring in the middle of a store display with trains crashing off bridges and bystanders clutching their ears and screaming.)
To make sure the viewer gets the point, Chase included a flashback of Bobby’s remark (untrue in his case) early in the last episode. The screen goes black because Tony has been shot in the back of the head; he didn’t even hear it when it happened. The Sopranos ends when Tony dies, when there is no one left to whack. (Only Paulie Walnuts, of the original Soprano “crew,” remains alive at the end of the show.) As the anonymous author of the “Definitive Explanation of ‘The End’ ” says, “Once Tony is dead, there is no show. If Tony was to die it had to be the last moment of the series. The show ends where Tony’s consciousness ends.”
In an amusing effort to review all six seasons in twenty-five epigrammatic nuggets, Edwin Turner wrote a couple of years ago that he views The Sopranos as a “study in existential nihilism”:
The Sopranos starts off by borrowing the storytelling device of Portnoy’s Complaint. Tony begins his own “narrative arc” by addressing Dr. Jennifer Melfi in psychotherapy. He tells her about a pair of ducks, “from Canada or someplace,” which took up residence in his pool. They gave birth to ducklings and taught them to fly. “It was amazing,” he says happily. The scene shifts to the interior of his house where his family is having breakfast on his son Anthony Jr.’s thirteenth birthday. Tony comes in, chuffs his son, pats his wife on the backside, picks up an oversized bird encyclopedia. There is nothing to suggest that Tony is anything other than an ordinary family man until scenes of violence and meetings with “associates,” narrated less than candidly to Dr Melfi, identify him as a Mafioso.
“Do you feel depressed?” she asks without warning. “Since the ducks left,” Tony confesses. “What is it about those ducks that meant so much to you?” she asks in another session late in the episode. He begins crying. “When the ducks gave birth to those babies,” she points out, “they became a family.” Tony has a moment of insight:
Tony Soprano is not a tragic figure. His death, presumably, is violent, but the violence is not dramatized. A man’s death, as Roman Tsivkin has quipped, does not happen in his lifetime. For the tragic pleasure, though, it must occur in the drama. In the terms of The Sopranos, Tony may be a great man, but his fate and flaw and fall are not what The Sopranos is ultimately about.
As trivial as it may sound, The Sopranos is about the completion of its own design. Tony’s dread, enunciated in the first episode, is dissipated in the finale. Tony’s other family, the DiMeo crime organization, has largely been destroyed. Dr Melfi has terminated their therapy, saying, “I don’t think I can help you.” There is nothing more to tell. The “narrative arc” has been closed.
And to me, this accounts for both the dramatic success and dramatic failure of The Sopranos. On the one hand, its clear focus on a “single mind” and its strong narrative design are what keep you watching—they make, as the phrase goes, for good television. On the other hand, Tony Soprano is a miserable human being. He is a murderer and an adulterer without a conscience, the textbook definition of a sociopath. (That’s the reason, by the way, Dr Melfi finally concedes she can do nothing for him “therapeutically.”)
He has one moment when he appears to be on the path to something like redemption. Reconciled with Carmela after a nearly year-and-a-half-long separation, he rejects the sexual advances of a drug-addicted commercial realtor who is aroused by the deal they have consummated together. But the moment passes. Tony regrets his self-restraint and returns to his customary ways. The most horrifying moment in the series occurs just one month later, in the fourth-to-last episode, when he murders Christopher Moltisanti, the younger cousin whom he once loved like a son, smothering him after a car accident. Christopher’s death, he tells Dr Melfi, leaves him feeling relieved.
There is nothing, in short, to identify with in Tony Soprano. What keeps you watching is the narrative force, the technical expertise of eye-catching storytelling. After a while, though, The Sopranos begins to feel like a dependency, if not an addiction. Like Dr Melfi, you feel a growing uneasiness and hostility toward Tony Soprano. As good a filmmaker as David Chase is, he is unable to turn your moral sense until you begin to pull for the murderer, as you do, say, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.
The result is a dramatic spectacle. That it isn’t ninety minutes of explosions and fit young men defying gravity by leaping impossible lengths is a cinematic advance, I suppose, when compared to what Hollywood has been bringing to theaters in the years since The Sopranos first debuted. But the appeal is, in its genes, much the same. When the screen goes black in the final episode, you feel neither fear nor pity. Nor do you sit back and contemplate the meaning of existential nihilism.
No, you look for something else to watch.