Empty Nest Syndrome
US: 21 May 2006
Dr. Melfi: What is it about those ducks that meant so much to you?
Tony: It was a just a trip to have those wild creatures come into my pool and have their babies. I was sad to see them go [crying].
Dr. Melfi: When the ducks gave birth to those babies, they became a family.
Tony: That’s the link… I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my family. That’s what I’m full of dread about. It’s always with me.
—“Pilot”, The Sopranos (Season One, Episode One)
Christopher: Makes me nervous, this stuff. We should wait to decorate until after the baby is born.
Kelli: Again with the superstition?
Christopher: Remember the penguin movie? How you cried? You sit on an egg for months. One little thing goes wrong, and you’re left with nothing.—“Kaisha,” The Sopranos (Season Six, Episode 12)
Punctuated by whip-smart, often salty humor, The Sopranos is also permeated by violence, uncertainty, and dread. The first season opened with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) visiting Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) because of debilitating panic attacks and depression. He explains, “I’ve been thinking that it’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end, and that the best is over.”
By Season Six, Tony’s fear seems realized. The Jersey and New York families are declining in tandem; the highest levels of leadership have imploded, and the seconds-in-command (Silvio Dante and Phil Leotardo) don’t have the chops to fill the vacuum. Tony and his associate Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli) are in the midst of “identity crises,” Carmela (Edie Falco) is haunted by ghosts from the past, and on both sides of the Hudson, the next generation grapples with the legacy of crime passed down by their parents. Like Carmela’s abandoned spec property, the dueling mafia houses are in shambles.
The season kicked off with the kind of shocking twist that fans relish: in “Members Only”, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) lapsed into dementia and paranoia, shot Tony and left him to die. The remaining episodes of the season’s Part One (Part Two will air in 2007) charted Tony’s dreamlike coma, subsequent recovery, and return to the fold. Episode 12, “Kaisha,” ended with an aborted death threat and an uneasy truce between the families, disappointing fans who wanted more of a spectacle to tide them over until January.
David Chase has been anticipating the end of his crime family saga since the first episode, so it’s not surprising this last season is melancholy. Although Part One contained a few missteps and one throwaway episode (“Luxury Lounge”), The Sopranos remains the most psychologically perceptive and philosophically inquisitive series on television. With the show’s twilight upon us, it’s fitting that Part One’s finale was more somber and apprehensive than action-packed.
Tony, so vivid and multilayered, was left reexamining his choices. While in his coma following the shooting, he asked, “Who am I? Where am I going?” and imagined an alternate organized-crime-free reality for himself. As a “precision optics” salesman who wound up at the Crystal Monastery, Tony was suddenly in a position to see himself more clearly than he ever has before, and to change his life for the better.
Upon leaving the hospital, he told his sister Janice (Aida Turturro), “From now on, each day is a gift.” And for a while, he appreciated the blessings in his life, especially Carmela, who nursed him through his recovery. In business, he was also thoughtful rather than reactive, diverting a potential crisis with New York because, he said, “Truth be told, there’s enough garbage for everyone.”
But the problem with a reformed Tony (much less a comatose one!) is that he’s less exciting to watch, and I’m not surprised that some viewers felt ambivalent about his journey toward redemption. Though part of me wanted him to be saved (what a disappointment it was when he started cheating on Carmela again), another part missed his old ways. Before Season Six, he indulged every one his appetites—all of them insatiable. He ate, drank, and fucked with gusto, all contributing to his “bad boy” charm.
Such enthusiasm has drawbacks. Since the start of the series, the character (and the actor who plays him) gained at least 50 pounds, and he came to realize that his physical infirmities cost him the respect of his crew. To reassert his dominance, he beat up the strongest of his associates, Perry Annunziata (“runner-up, Mr. Teenage Bloomfield,” played by Louis Gross), in front of the others. Tony’s plan worked, but afterward he escaped to the bathroom and vomited up blood. The point was clear: after the shooting, he no longer had the stomach for the life, physically or psychologically.
When one of his captains, Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli), was outed at a gay bar, Tony again faced his old attitudes. On the one hand, he exclaimed, “God bless, à salut, who gives a shit? I got a second chance, why shouldn’t he?” On the other, Tony knew Vito’s sexuality was bad for business because most of his associates are macho homophobes. Unfortunately, some choices in this storyline—like Vito’s leather get-up at the gay bar and the revelation of his “knack” for antiquing—veered into stereotype. It was a surprising blunder for The Sopranos, which usually gets the details just right.
Despite this failing, the thread tied into the show’s overarching six-season meditation on the complexities of self-identity. On the lam in New Hampshire, Vito found love with another gay man, Johnny Cakes (John Costelloe), but he ultimately decided to return to Jersey because he couldn’t hack going legally straight (the nine to five grind, early nights, no easy money). In his marriage and in the backroom of the Bada-Bing, Vito had to closet his sexuality, but in his relationship with Johnny Cakes, he closeted other fundamental aspects of his identity, like his criminal past and his longing for the life.
Vito’s dilemma suggested that self-identity is a dynamic negotiation of desires and priorities, many in conflict with each other. The stakes for Vito were especially high because he was surrounded by violent people limited to black-and-white terms; to them, Vito’s homosexuality eclipsed everything else, and the series exposed the hypocrisy and brutality behind their assumptions.
Despite all the agita dished out to Tony and Vito, the series did not lack its signature humor this season. The Sopranos is at its funniest when the characters’ criminal leanings clash with their bourgeois aspirations and trappings. Take the scene in “Mayham,” when Christopher pitched his latest movie to a group of potential investors. Of his horror-mobster hybrid Cleaver, he said, “It’s about a wise guy with a big mouth and even bigger dreams.” As the investors hammered out the logistics of the plot, their intimate knowledge of body parts disposal came in handy.
“Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request” was a comic tour-de-force. As the Sacrimonis finalized Allegra’s (Caitlin Van Zandt) wedding arrangements—from the visitors’ room of her father Johnny Sack’s (Vincent Curatola) prison—familial tensions came to the fore. Now, for my money, Johnny Sack and his wife, Ginny, have the most romantic relationship of any couple on television. (When Ralph Cifaretto made a crack about Ginny’s obesity in Season 4, Johnny was prepared to go to war to defend his wife’s honor.) Sensing Ginny’s stress over his incarceration and their daughter’s impending nuptials, he asked her to make sure she was eating enough. “Oh, no,” she replied with a wave of her hand, “I’m only eight pounds away from my goal weight and I’m going to fit into that dress.” Their other daughter Catherine (Cristin Milioti), gaunt and smoking a cigarette, snapped, “God! Can’t this family ever talk about anything besides food?”
The wedding itself, which Johnny was allowed to attend in the custody of federal marshals, was a gaudy affair that set the New York boss back $425K (“not including the honeymoon”). Carmela was so excited by the lavish meal, she beckoned her husband from across the ballroom with three little words: “Ton! The rollatini!” The reception ended on heartbreaking note, however, when Johnny Sack was handcuffed and led away by the marshals in front of his guests, humiliating Allegra and the rest of the family. The Sopranos has pulled off this tightrope walk before—humanizing its cast of gangsters while never letting them off the hook for their crimes—but never to such brilliant and crushing effect.
Like Allegra, Tony’s son A.J. (Robert Iler) repeatedly contends with his parent’s criminal background. Being the son of a mob boss has its perks, but it also comes with huge burdens, like a birthright of panic attacks and the pressure to live up to his father’s gangster image. One of the season’s most poignant scenes had Tony confronting A.J. after his failed assassination attempt against Uncle Junior. “I know your heart was in the right place, but [killing] is not in your nature,” he told his sobbing son. “You’re a good guy—I’m very grateful.” Although Tony has bemoaned A.J.‘s slight physical stature in the past, as well as his dismal career prospects (he dubbed A.J.‘s job at Blockbuster “the first stop on the shitbird express”), he and Carmela have struggled for six seasons to keep their son out of the business and free from harm.
By the end of Part One, after bouts of surliness, unemployment, and petty theft, A.J. seemed to be finding his own way in the world, so the kid might be all right after all. In Season Four, Tony explained to Dr. Melfi, “There are two endings for a high profile guy like me: dead or in the can, a big percentage of the time.” For the first half of Season Six, Tony managed to escape both possibilities, to this viewer’s relief. Even though some fans reported feeling let down by Part One, I bet most will return in January. Six seasons of superior writing and acting have led millions of viewers to care deeply about the fate of the self-described “fat fucking crook from New Jersey,” his flawed family, and crew of murderous associates. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’ll be sad to see them go.