WHADDYA GONNA DO?
SPOILER ALERT: It’s lights out for the Mob hit that revolutionized television. MAURICE YACOWAR Sopranos expert speculates on what’s about to go down
Like Keats’s Joy, The Sopranos popped back this year — just to say goodbye. Tonight it ends. The Sopranos is the first American TV drama with Shakespearean scope and resonant detail. Against Romeo and Juliet’s three-hour traffic of the stage, Chase took 86 hours to develop his characters, relationships, themes. It all concludes tonight at 9 p.m. on the Movie Network. How will it end? This I can safely predict: Chase will prove unpredictable. But last week’s episode left some key questions.
Phil Leotardo has Tony on the run. Can Tony stay brutal and lucky enough to escape both Leotardo and the feds? Having alienated his loyal Hesh and killed his beloved Chris, now he has lost his closest aides, Silvio and Bobby. Has Phil spared the wavering Paulie for his own purposes? Tony’s near-death experience brought him spiritualism and conscience but he has recovered from all that.
Tony lost his faithful therapist when Melfi realized his seven years of therapy only made him a more effective gangster. As her mentor, Dr. Krakower, warned Carmela in III, 7 — the midpoint of the original five-season structure — to tolerate Tony is to enable him. From that point the question “What’s Tony?” gave way to “What will we do about him?” Our response to Tony exposes how moral we really are.
Carmela acknowledged his evil, but stayed for its luxuries. Even after dumping him she took him back. Will their children’s rebellion hold firmer? Not since Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s sons Ricky and David have we so ardently watched a couple of American kids grow up on TV. Meadow sank into Carmela’s denial when she defended the Family, losing Finn. AJ transcended his family’s values to woo Blanca. But when she left he slid back into Family violence. Now they’re cowering with Carmela.
Tony’s family lives out the viewer’s moral test. We reveal our ethical fibre in our response to Tony. We’re drawn to Tony’s Bad Boyish charm and the sympathy he grabs just by dominating the screen. Can we appreciate his humanity yet retain the moral conviction that keeps him abhorrent?
Only one character has been able to do that. Krakower didn’t know Tony so his judgment came easy. Only Charmaine Bucco of Vesuvio’s has been solid enough to know Tony and to reject him. Having saved her Artie from emulating him, last week Charmaine was the friendliest she’s been in years, as she celebrated Meadow’s possible engagement to a gangster’s good son and her switch from pre-med to “constitutional law” (Carmela denies “criminal”).
Before the present panic, the drama examined how conventional male values abuse the feminine. Even the women — Pussy’s widow, Janice, Carmela, Livia — aspire to be ruthless like men. As for Tony’s boat, he calls her
The Stugotz (i.e., cojones, balls). Tony, Uncle Junior, the abusive Ralphie and the abused Vito, all the men except Bobby are afraid to show any sensitivity. In the first shot of the very first episode Tony squirms at the nude Woman sculpture in Melfi’s office. The skirt-chaser fears the feminine. Tony extols Gary Cooper’s strong silence but denies Coop’s softness.
As in Coppolla’s Godfather trilogy, the Mafia represents the unscrupulous greed of American capitalism and imperialism. Worse, here everyone lies compulsively, even to themselves. This melting-pot broils a stew of corrupt Puerto-Ricans, Colombians, WASPS, African- and Native-Americans, Jews, cops, shrinks, professors, doctors, priests, lawyers, businessmen, politicians and other pimps. With this spread, Chase defends the Italian-American community against equation with the Mafia. The few honest citizens include the black cop Tony destroys over a speeding ticket and the Jewish Krakower who declines Carmela’s blood money. But most of the positive figures are Italian-American, like the conscientious FBI agents.
Perhaps the dominant Soprano trait is selfishness, for all Tony’s lip service to “the old school.” As he has abandoned Don Vito Corleone’s community responsibility, his Carmela falls far short of Don Vito’s dignified wife Carmela. The gangsters pretend to live in The Godfather but they practise the pettiness, dissipation and betrayals of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas. Last week, ominously, as they planned to pre-empt Leotardo’s hit, Silvio and Tony sparred in slo-mo to the theme from Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
This exchange in Tony’s first session set the theme of America in decline:
Tony: Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.
Melfi: Many Americans, I think, feel that way.
Later Tony echoed President George Bush and VP Dick Cheney. Those not with him are against him. He is shocked that the lax dockyard security imperils his country but he exploits it anyway. Acknowledging the terrorist threat, he warns his FBI contacts about Christopher’s Muslim clients, but again his concern is selfish. Agent Harris reports Leotardo’s contract on him. The show might not end before a fat Soprano sings to the feds. The PBS documentary on the Iraqi insurgents AJ watched last week anticipated his own family’s retreat. Like the nation, the once dominant family is on the run.
AJ’s obsession with the apocalyptic Yeats poem The Second Coming two weeks ago hinted the whole country might “blow up real good” (that’s SCTV, not Yeats). But we already have Yeats’s “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.” The savage new culture destroying American values is Tony. Last week’s plunge suggests the cataclysm may be limited to Tony and his Family.
Yet some hope remains. As children grow up out of spite, perhaps Meadow and AJ will survive their upbringing. The most heartening character is Furio, whose love for Carmela converted him from killer to gardener. The brute came to admit the feminine. Having rejected Furio’s sensitivity, Tony is too base to sing soprano. Last week Carmela lost the luxury she chose over Furio, as Janice lost her life with Bobby and Uncle Junior his expensive sanitarium.
Whatever happens tonight, The Sopranos revolutionized North American TV. BS (also Before Sopranos) TV had nothing like its poetic potty mouth, dense scripts, pointed music, deeply rounded characters, feature film technique, and the complex themes you expect from The European Cinemah not the US Wasteland. It spawned HBO’s Love, whose adult concerns seeped into the networks.
Tonight’s conclusion is such A Cultural Event that the June 4 New Yorker saluted the show with its lead story and with the front cover, where a stolid Tony leaves Melfi’s office — and us — for the last time, into an ambiguous light.
Luckily, this masterpiece coincided with the advent of the DVD. We can keep watching it and we should. For in any episode we will always find new things. Like the best art, this drama will grow with us. The more we learn, the more this drama will reveal. So to the show a fond Ciao and — Thank you, David Chase. Maurice Yacowar writes fiction and film criticism in Calgary. His book, The Sopranos on the Couch (Continuum), analyses each episode up to the current season.