'The Sopranos', Dissatisfaction and The American Dream

by David Charpentier

12 October 2011


The Higher You Rise...

As he views these four family members with varying degrees of disappointment, Tony seeks solace through physical means. These attempts only succeed in extending his malaise. He buys a large television and sets up a home theater, but only ends up watching black and white war footage on the History Channel. He engages in multiple infidelities, seeking fulfillment through sensuality, but ultimately just performs mechanical motions. He gambles in an attempt to add drama to his life, as even the mafia intrigue has become blasé. His attempts to rise above, to be king, only make him feel more unsettled.

In contrast, Carmella recognizes that her material wealth does not bring her fulfillment, but she’s unable to remove herself from it. Coupled with Tony’s increasingly difficult temperament and frequent infidelities, she repeatedly attempts to escape and seek a more rewarding lifestyle. She fantasizes about other men, not out of sexual desire but out of a need to be understood, to be cared for and stand as an equal partner in a relationship. But she cannot leave Tony because even if she does love him, she fears him. And she fears a life without her things.

Despite getting rid of her jewelry and fancy clothes halfway through the series—her material possessions bought with blood money—at the end she has them back; she cannot let them go. They are her comforts, the things which have gotten her through the years, and they provide a sense of security. On a trip to Paris she seeks out elements of history, of heritage in museums and theater. She views the trip as a chance to reconnect with her ideals and passions. But the fondness and sense of wonder is short lived; she soon admits her desire to return home, to normality, to familiarity.

When Carmella finally does separate from Tony, she kicks him out of the house. She cannot completely divorce herself from the wealth she has become accustomed to. It leaves her vulnerable to Tony, to his desires and his controlling ways. In this way, her materialism is tied to her unhappiness. Her life is in conflict. Her attempts to buy happiness are merely distractions from the chain that binds her to the brutal mobster. The satisfaction that she derives from charity donations or projects exists because of the blood money she gets from her husband. Money brings little joys that get her through the day, but her need for material fulfillment has dampened her emotional satisfaction. In the end, Carmella exists in a perpetual state of conflict, unhappy with her life but unable to separate herself from her dependency on wealth.

The inability to separate aids in the creation of a false identity, a false reality where everything looks pretty but in actuality is broken. Carmela’s trip to Paris, her want of appreciation of art; Tony’s unsettled fondness for the innocence of children and the purity of nature; the consistent nostalgia for JFK’s Camelot; the pretense of devotion to the Church—these are all attempts at justification, of veiling desolation with splendor. The greatness of the Roman Empire, allusions to Ceasar and Cleopatra, Alberti’s notions of beauty in harmonious architecture, painting and sculpture: these contemporary characters attempt to facilitate a strong connection to their Italian ancestors and Catholic heritage.

Ancient Greek and Roman ideals of beauty, harmony and balance serve as the status quo for their American empires, an attempt to mask the ugliness of their business, relationships and consciences. Tony’s McMansion features faux columns—this is outwardly ostentatious, but for him they serve a purposed harmonious attempt to call back to his ancestry and equate himself with the splendor of the Caesars. Inside these columns, the hollow plaster houses automatic weapons and stolen cash—tools of business and death.

If beauty is truth, and truth is beauty, then The Sopranos’ search for material harmony is an attempt to either justify a criminal lifestyle or create a harmonious escape. Either way, it’s this false conception of reality that has brought abstruse dissatisfaction to so many. In Blubberland, Farelly notes that a world that measures beauty, popularity and material attributes as measures of success “requires a highly-developed tolerance of the inauthentic, and a number of equally sophisticated denial strategies.” Tony struggles to rationalize his unhappiness. He believes that with all his business success and legion of goomas he should be on top of the world. Despite undergoing psychoanalysis, he never gets that the root of his problem exists in his choice of lifestyle (lack of constructive fulfillment) and societal perceptions (money =wealth).

Farelly calls this quest for denoted elements of wealth McMansionism. She notes that the “McMansion is… one of the human animal’s many denial strategies,” a false product, a replica, a knockoff. There’s a diametric opposition between a man’s house and his identity. Home is the castle: its lawn, its shutters, its crown molding are supposed to represent the person who lives inside. But what happens when most homes look the same? The notion of popularity requires ordinariness, a sense of being relatable. Popular items, people and architecture may be well loved, but in the copycat nature of capitalism, they also risk losing their uniqueness, the individual aspects that make them special. Identity becomes trapped, unable to break from the mold, lost in a constant blasé of product and presentation. As theorist Richard Sennet notes, “McMansionism dulls our senses and blurs our brains by taking texture and detail from our material lives.” An addiction to materialism, of identity through physical, accumulated wealth risks cultural anesthesia.

Continuing on the concept of identity and fulfillment, Farelly notes that “in establishing the self as a separate objective entity, it encourages both individual conscience and abstract moral thought.” Tony is unable to separate himself from his job, Carmela from Tony, the McMansion dweller from his doppelganger neighbors in their twin houses. They establish identities defined by their circumstances, by popular media, and these are at odds with their true selves. The pursuit of this American Dream may be self-destructive if this separation of self and circumstance does not occur. 

We attempt to fulfill our right to make choices, do what we want, when we want, overload our senses and pacify ourselves. But at what cost to our selves? To those around us? To our environment?
As the last few highly debated moments of The Sopranos reveals, Tony can never stop looking over his shoulder. He has all this material wealth and charming façade, but can he enjoy it? Even sitting down in a restaurant and having a meal with his family is not relaxing.  He’ss constantly on edge, waiting for the hammer to drop, the bullet in his back. His work, his stress and his compulsion for material excess have consumed his every waking moment. Like Carmella, like Johnny Sac, and, yes, like Michael Corleone, Tony is continually pulled back into the turmoil of material wealth and emotional poverty.

The Sopranos’ portrayal of an American family, of the dueling pursuits of physical and spiritual, questions the principles of success distributed by governments and advertisers. The show is a harsh mirror reflecting the realities of our lives, challenging our means of existence and character. Tony may have all the trappings of the American Dream, but his family is anything but smiling.

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//Mixed media