[Marxism] Tony Soprano's American dream

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Tue Nov 6 06:06:26 MST 2007

Le Monde diplomatique
November 2007
The reality of Tony Soprano's American dream

`The Sopranos' television series, which extended over eight years 
to 86 episodes, began back in the 20th century, in January 1999. 
It felt like one long movie with intermission breaks for births, 
deaths, terrorist incursions and wars. The wars seem likely to 
outlast the show. by Geoffrey O'Brien

At the start The Sopranos had the piquancy of a new invention.
Television had fostered a claustrophobia of hemmed-in expectations, a
culture of flat character types and pat endings. The space into which
The Sopranos inducted us had the messy picaresque randomness of the
real world, yet every detail - every tune heard in passing, every
remark overheard at the next table, every artefact glimpsed in the
background of a crowded room - glistened as if singled out with
obsessive mindfulness. In texture and form it seemed something
altogether new to television.

The suggestion originally made to the show's creator, David Chase,
was to create a TV version of The Godfather, but he chose instead to
rework a screenplay he had written years earlier. The concept, baldly
recounted, might have seemed a gimmick with limited potential: a
lower-tier New Jersey mobster, living an outward life of suburban
ease but bedevilled by panic attacks, with great reluctance goes into
therapy. In outline - portrait of a mafioso as midlife family guy
harried by growing kids, status-conscious wife, and impossible
mother, with criminal associates to provide outrageous laugh lines -
it had the makings of a cutting-edge sitcom, with darker elements
(such as the fact that his mother and uncle might be conspiring to
have him killed) satirically recalling a Dallas-style dynastic soap
opera. In execution it rapidly became something consistently rich and
surprising, and beautifully unfinished, perhaps unfinishable. It
created its own operating principles as it proceeded, while
convincing us that this was an actual world we had stumbled on.

There were hints at the outset of a breezily caricatural direction,
accenting in broad strokes the disconnect between the nature of the
hero's livelihood ("waste management consultant" with a finger in a
dozen rackets and scams, from illegal dumping and no-show
construction jobs to sports betting and loan-sharking) and the
nouveau riche trappings of his family life in West Caldwell, New
Jersey (from the crates of Roche-Bobois furniture to the elaborate
home theatre where his wife Carmela would eventually watch Citizen
Kane on the recommendation of the American Film Institute's "Hundred
Best Films" list). But The Sopranos moved rapidly beyond easy
schemas. Chase's pilot episode, a masterpiece of abbreviated
exposition, staked out a teeming alternate world, a northern New
Jersey of the mind populated by a score of characters of whom at
least 15 would have major continuing roles, among them Tony's
children Meadow and AJ, his malevolent and endlessly self-pitying
mother Livia, his ineffectual and embittered uncle Corrado (Uncle
Junior), and his malcontent protégé Christopher; and each soon took
on independent life.

Incarnated by actors then largely unknown to TV audiences, as
brilliant a stock company as any ever assembled, they had on first
encounter the memorable force of gargoyles. But these were gargoyles
with curious depths, able to persuade us that they existed even when
the camera wasn't running. They spoke a dialogue so compressed and
inventive in its mix of tones and jargons that it sounded like a new
dialect, a poetically-charged speech welded out of obscenities and
banalities, misconstrued catchphrases and newly-minted messages from
the unconscious.

The show undertook to find how many variant aspects of each of these
characters could be revealed. We circled around them and studied them
from different angles, taking all the time necessary to contemplate
these clearly limited, yet somehow infinitely mysterious, beings. The
process could never really be completed except in death - and death
would arrive for many. But even after they were gone we would
continue to contemplate the precise alchemy of their role in the
Sopranos scheme of things. Their fate has been to escape from the
frame of the show, inhabiting a zone of their own in which their
choices continue to perplex, and their individual voices to haunt
sleepless moments, no matter what the words might be saying.

We knew them like family

Most of all I hear the lingering voice of Nancy Marchand, who died
after the second season but whose presence shaped the mood of the
whole series. As Tony's mother Livia, a monster out of Balzac,
manipulative, verbally abusive, endlessly self-pitying ("I wish the
Lord would take me"), she provided the foil in comparison with whom
Tony could look victimised, a well-meaning adult struggling to cope
with an irrational aging parent. I can still hear the grating
succession of ascending screams with which she delivered the line:
"Power? What power? I don't have power, I'm a shut-in!" Or the
soul-killing tone, as she approached death, of her parting words with
her grandson: "It's all a big nothing."

We came to think we knew them like family - if a family was something
always unsettling, held together by habit and fear and desperate
wishful thinking. The comforting familiarity of a well-loved
television presence became, in James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, a
play of beguiling masks luring us only deeper into indeterminacy. To
be charmed by him (he made it easy) was to be conned, with a good
chance he was equally duped by his own devices. Possibly he meant it
wholeheartedly when he told Dr Melfi: "I'm a good guy basically... I
love my family." By the time we got to the end we had seen a thousand
Tonys - sheepish, serpentine, commanding, calculating, lecherous,
self-pitying, savagely sarcastic, tenderly paternal, fatuously
self-pleased, teary-eyed over an old radio hit, racked by paranoid
mistrust, exploding in feral rage - and seen one switch to another in
an instant. Guileless self-revelation was not a possibility, least of
all in a psychiatrist's office. He had so many of him to choose from.

Tony's compartmentalised psyche - crosscutting between mob business,
family life, and the transcendence he sought variously in Canada
geese, peyote visions, or re-enactments of the second world war on
the History Channel - provided a centre so sprawling it could be
mistaken for the whole. The mere sight of him padding yet again in
white bathrobe toward the refrigerator evoked a dishevelled Wotan
worthy of a show whose capacity to extend and savour its transitions
could seem Wagnerian. But the secret of The Sopranos was the
exhilarating density and noisiness of its digressions. Around the
core group -Tony, his immediate family, his crew - were secondary and
tertiary rings of characters with varying lifespans but often equally
indelible, some nearly seizing control of an episode or a season (the
suave psychopath Richie Aprile, the depressive car dealer Gloria
Trillo), others surfacing only for as long, say, as it took them to
get beaten half to death for trimming the wrong person's hedges.

The populousness of The Sopranos was of a piece with its ample scope
and its dizzying mood swings. This territory, thick with mobbed-up
construction sites and toxic waste dumps, turned out, unaccountably,
to be a wonderland: not precisely Alice's domain but one likewise
filled with magical locations (Bada Bing, Vesuvio's, the pork store),
dream states and alternate realities, parodies and non-sequiturs,
ordinary objects turned menacing or disorienting, and devastating
jokes that popped up in the midst of social rituals as arcane as the
Queen of Hearts' croquet match. Every episode was saturated with
allusions - to movies, songs, history high and low, scraps of every
creed and cult, the common store of rumour and misinformation - a
backbeat of information that might be relevant or meaningless. (Where
else would we find a mob guy taking to heart the self-help mantra to
"feel the fear and do it anyway"?)

A show about everything

Emotional buttons were pushed with the expertise of a long-time
television professional. David Chase had worked in the medium all his
adult life - his earlier writing credits included The Night Stalker,
The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure. Despite his proclaimed
dislike of network television - "I loathe and despise almost every
second of it... I considered network TV to be propaganda for the
corporate state...[Northern Exposure] ram[med] home every week the
message that `life is nothing but great,' `Americans are great' and
`heartfelt emotion and sharing conquers everything' " (1). The
Sopranos thus had something of the quality of a palace coup, a
revolution engineered by an insider who, knowing where the fault
lines were, could evoke an emotional reaction all the better to
thwart it, divert it, or turn it into something grotesquely

Not all rebellions are youth rebellions. The Sopranos seemed to
retain at its core some early vision maintained and deepened in
secret through a long period of waiting, along with the anger
attendant on being forced to wait. Chase - who is Italian-American,
and who did grow up in northern New Jersey - is a child of the
sixties whose main object of study in college, he has said, was the
music of the Rolling Stones. ("I always wanted to be a rock and roll
musician much more than I wanted to be anything else.") He has also
cited as influences the plays of Shakespeare, O'Neill, and Arthur
Miller, and the films of Fellini (81/2) and Polanski (particularly
the absurdist crime comedy Cul-de-Sac). He has not been shy about
broadcasting his artistic allegiances; in episode two, one character
operated Bunuel Brothers Auto Repairs, while another spotted Martin
Scorsese walking into a nightclub and shouted out: "Kundun! I liked

The fact that Chase came late to the point of making The Sopranos
probably accounts for the impulse to make it a show about everything,
including everything that television had always left out: most
strikingly, the toll of age and the limits of the body, explored with
a detail that made the show a beauty pageant of the body in decline,
with a staggering number of scenes set in hospital rooms, retirement
homes and funeral parlours. Here, even gangsters were subject to the
most ordinary of physical sufferings and humiliations, and even a mob
boss had to worry about his health coverage.

The mob dissolved

Chase's neatest trick was to make a show about the mob - a show that
laid out in gratifying detail the workings of scams and hits,
political connections and techniques of intimidation, internecine
manoeuvrings and FBI infiltrations - that constantly suggested the
mob was not what the show was really about. By assimilating the mob
into everyday life he dissolved it.

Tony Soprano was the gangster who lived on the other side of the
fence and sat at the next table in the restaurant, mingling in a
world quite sufficiently corrupt without him. He was not, in old
movie style, the outsider casting a sinister shadow over the American
family; he was himself the prime representative of that family. He
had grown up on sitcoms and seventies rock, and there were moments
when Tony and Paulie in the backroom of Satriale's metamorphosed into
Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton at the Raccoon Lodge on The Honeymooners,
or when Tony, launching one of his racist zingers, seemed a stand-in
for Archie Bunker of All in the Family.

Tony was a domesticated end-point for the romance of gangsterism that
looks to be America's most durable contribution to world folklore. It
was a romance fed by movies, not just the early classics with Cagney,
Robinson, and Muni, but the harsher and less poetic later movies -
The Enforcer (1951), The Brothers Rico (1957), Johnny Cool (1963) -
in which gangsterism was no longer a violent aberration but the
deadly norm, administered by unpitying accountants flanked by
expressionless hitmen in dark glasses. (Cagney's Public Enemy - a
Tony Soprano favourite - looked like a Miltonic rebel angel by
comparison.) The cycle culminated in Coppola's Godfather films and
Scorsese's Goodfellas, crucial reference points for The Sopranos.

Anyone growing up in post-war America - in the years between the
Kefauver hearings of 1951 and the RICO-driven federal indictments of
the mid-1980s - accepted the Mafia as a pervasive if largely
invisible presence. You could not penetrate very deeply into American
life, certainly not in cities like New York or Chicago, or along a
road like the New Jersey Turnpike, without bumping against its edges,
if only as rumour or apprehensive surmise. Every now and then bloody
confirmation was provided by a tabloid front page, of Albert
Anastasia shot dead in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton in 1957,
or Crazy Joey Gallo blown away at Umberto's Clam House in 1972. The
ruthlessness and sadism of mobsters (not necessarily Italian but in
this era usually assumed to be) provided stories for little boys to
frighten other little boys with, and for those frightened boys to
convert, perhaps, into secret fantasies of usurpation and revenge.

The Sopranos would play on our desire for access to forbidden
knowledge and offer a tour more exhaustive than any movie could
offer, not only of the secret lives of gangsters, but of their inner
lives - if, that is, gangsters turned out to have inner lives. Tony
Soprano would be seen from all angles - more thoroughly under
surveillance than any federal agent could hope for - as husband,
father, brother, lover, employer. We would see him fumbling for an
adequate answer when his teenage daughter asks him if he's in the
Mafia, or coping with feelings of depression and inadequacy. Brought
thoroughly into his world-view, we would perceive the straight people
on the fringes (like Tony's next-door neighbour Dr Cusumano and his
golf buddies, gawking like fans at the gangster in their midst) as
the truly alien presences.

Not quite fulfilled

Women would humanise him: this faint promise hovered over the early
episodes. The domesticated gangster inhabited a world in which, for
once, women had equal dramatic weight. It was with his wife, his
daughter, his sister, his mother, his analyst, that Tony engaged in
his deepest struggles. Two of them - his mother Livia and his odious
sister Janice - were at heart killers like himself. His curse was to
have been the whelp of Lady Macbeth, with a sister who did nothing to
soften that legacy. But wife and daughter and analyst variously held
out the possibility of a transformed life, a new way of being. This
was revolution: gangster movies consigned women to the roles of
trophies, trading chips, or victims, and not uncommonly all three at
once (if they were not mothers, characteristically unassimilated to
American ways and given to bouts of regretful weeping). The force of
these Soprano women made iridescent the masculine monochrome of the
gangster genre; surely we must be in the realm of sitcom, or soap
opera, or a romantic mini-series like The Thorn Birds (although
Father Phil made a comically weak substitute for Richard
Chamberlain's conflicted priest).

Edie Falco's Carmela, outwardly uncowed, carried the weight of that
not quite fulfilled possibility. To be equal to Tony (who, notably,
exempted her, along with his daughter, from the violence he was
otherwise prompt to dish out) meant matching him in will and
deviousness, on a manifestly unlevel playing field. Edie Falco made
Carmela the show's greatest character, as with each line she tested
resistances, looking for unsuspected leeway within the well-appointed
prison of her domestic life. She would deny that, of course, and she
would deny everything, knowing perfectly well what Tony's life was
about - yet she could make us believe that it was freedom she was
looking for. The great liberating energy of the early seasons was
Carmela's oblique and evasive progress toward her potential life, the
real self for which all this carefully costumed and made-up
performance was a dress rehearsal. If Tony's numerous sexual affairs
were always pointedly devoid of interest - since nothing affected him
-Carmela's handful of close brushes with desire, exquisitely
frustrated, threatened a transformation that would truly devastate
this world.

But she was finally the most disappointing character, since in the
end she could not win out. Even when, after four seasons, she threw
Tony out of the house - because of the girlfriends rather than any of
the other misdeeds with whose details she let herself remain happily
unacquainted - there seemed nowhere for her to go, aside from a brief
affair with an academic administrator who gave her Madame Bovary to
read, before finding her aggressiveness a bit too suggestive of her
husband's style. She could have found freedom only by leaving the
series altogether; instead, after a decent interval, she accepted
Tony's embrace and resigned herself to the resumption of domestic
life, a defeated woman. Freedom, in this second phase, meant
asserting the intellectual independence to watch a rerun of a Dick
Cavett interview with Katharine Hepburn on Turner Classic Movies.
Until the end I entertained the faint notion that Carmela might
finally blow Tony's brains out, enraged perhaps to find that out of
all the crimes she had closed her eyes to there was one, at least,
that was truly beyond forgiveness - the dreadful execution of the
reluctant snitch Adriana, the show's most sympathetic character. But
Carmela did not have the stuff of an avenging angel.

It was in those later seasons that the show seemed to become an
anguished circling around masculinity itself, as if being a gangster
were merely a metaphor for the insoluble dilemma of being male. In
describing the separate spheres of men and women, The Sopranos had
charted an apportionment of male and female roles and powers that was
at root almost Islamist in its rigour. Early on we had been shown,
for example, how the shamefulness in the mob ethos of a man simply
rumoured to have a flair for cunnilingus could lead to violence and

This was but prelude. By the time we endured, in season six, the long
and painful saga of the outing of mob henchman Vito Spatafore, his
flight to New England where he attempted to remake his life with a
small-town fireman, and his inevitable murder, executed with a sadism
commensurate with the horror "this whole gay thing" provoked in other
mobsters, the show seemed almost to have exorcised the forceful
female presences that once distinguished it. We were to be left with
men battering men over the question of who was a man. Faithful to the
forces it had set in motion, The Sopranos acknowledged that not even
in this artificial world could there be any magical exemptions. The
triumph of women, capable of turning gangster tragedy into domestic
comedy, and representing the miraculous overcoming of ignorant force,
had been the engine of the show's stubbornly joyful undertone. Now
all that was to be undone, so that we were left in the end with
wreckage. ________________________________________________________

Geoffrey O'Brien is director of the publishers Library of America and
author of Sonata for Jukebox: An Autobiography of My Ears,
Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2005, and Red Sky Café, Salt Publishing,
Cambridge, UK, 2005. A longer version of this article appeared in the
New York Review of Books on 16 August 2007

(1) "An Interview with David Chase" in Allen Rucker, The Sopranos: A
Family History, New American Library, revised edition 2003.

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