J.F.K. Symbolism on ‘The Sopranos’

[24 February 2011]

By Nathan Pensky

T.S. Eliot once compared the works of Shakespeare and Dante, writing that the work of the former is “more horizontal” and the latter “more vertical,” that Shakespeare’s plays represent a rich variety of human experience, as well as an evenness of literary achievement, while Dante’s poetry is narrower in characterism and theme, and given to aesthetic highs and lows. The distinction references the general movement through the history of Western literature from “objective” characterizations to “subjective” ones, from institutionally-defined characters to protagonist-driven abstractions of interiority.

While Eliot’s illustration is instructive in providing an X-Y axis on which to position literary characters in terms of their distinctions between the inner and outer life, it also requires highly esoteric literary knowledge. (Cultural elitism was always the tragic flaw of Eliot and his New Criticism cronies.) And while any modern, intelligent reader could perhaps sense the ebb and flow of the literary history underlying the post-modern characters they read, as well as in the culture in which they currently live, he or she would likely require extensive literary education to appreciate as much on the level Eliot requires.

It’s interesting to wonder where a like understanding of television, a much younger medium, would figure in the model of Eliot’s axis. The simplest way to answer to this question would be to assign a show with a strong protagonist in the vertical and a show with a strong ensemble cast in the horizontal, and then go from there. On this track, it would make sense to place a show like The Sopranos in the vertical, which plumbed the depths of its main character more than possibly any show in television history, and maybe a show like The Wire in the horizontal. Then one imagines “plotting” certain other characters within this “graph.” Archie Bunker, for instance might figure high on the vertical, if such was a measure of a character’s individuality, but also broad on the horizontal, if such was a measure of a character’s quality to represent his larger culture. A character like, Columbo, on the other hand, would create just as tall but a slightly skinnier graph. Somehow this is all reminiscent me of the exercise made at the beginning of Dead Poets Society that Mr. Keating called “excrement” but which I always thought was oddly instructive.

However, and wholly aside from television being a younger medium, it is also much more dependent on established cultural norms than literature. Much of the appreciation of what one sees on American TV would be lost to someone who was raised, say, in Japan or India, at least not without profound translation. While Shakespeare is still staged around the world and Dante read in every corner of the globe, a show like The Sopranos could prove difficult for viewers unfamiliar with many of the pop culture it references, or at least not quite as readily enjoyable without a culturally horizontal understanding in Eliot’s sense.

Eliot’s X-Y axis in terms of television is probably best characterized in a given cultural understanding of the material (horizontal) and a character or group of character’s dialectic negotiation within that culture (vertical). Western television characters are ever more colored by the highly insular existence of the inhabitant of the large city. Tales meant to highlight the individual are often characterized through themes of “the one against the many,” the many comprised of a multitude of citizens crowding around them on on all sides, yet remaining socially and culturally remote. Television stories rely on (and makes good use of) normative definitions of social behavior much more so than the literary “canon” of Eliot’s axis; it is a medium created by committee, appreciated by a large swath of a culture at a time, and often with the input of panels of television viewers to guide production. The comic transgressions of situation comedy are transposed against the norms of what is socially acceptable. Even cable television, which is afforded more leeway in depicting non-normative behavior, is subject to a rating system, and takes amorphous, malleable cultural norms for its subject matter, though often with a “twist,” as with programs like Weeds and Hung. Having no long canonical tradition, Eliot’s axis transposed onto television would, therefore, make use of established socio-cultural norms as its X-axis and entertainingly oddball behavior as its Y.

The novelty of idiosyncratic behavior cast against a socio-normative x-axis is used extremely creatively on The Sopranos. While David Chase’s mob microcosm includes brilliant commentary on the larger American cultural landscape, New Jersey is less a real place than an otherworld modeled in a grimly heightened pantomime to our own larger American one, yet always subject to the moods of the show’s main character. Using viewers’ general knowledge of their own post-industrial society, the show highlights Tony Soprano, a character on the one hand always hearkening back to more strictly defined cultural landscape, on the other struggling against the moral relativism implicit to that culture’s crumbling substructure. The good ol’ days of his father’s mafia provided a cultural alternative to a straight life at once working-class and counter-cultural; that his own generation of mobster, however, seems bound and determined to find its own alternative both troubles and enables him.

Meanwhile, the formal difference of cultural norms between his mafia world and our own are less described than referenced, and this, often comically or via pop culture; if Tony’s Y-axis of personality is plumbed through the lengthy analysis scenes with Dr. Melfi, the culture against which his behavior is meant to be understood is barely touched on, hinted at more than fully colored in. But The Sopranos lives and dies with Tony, this perhaps literally, which the controversial black-out of the last episode may attest to. Setting is defined by the length of Tony Soprano’s reach from his criminal underworld into suburban America, as well as by the contradictions of his “monster as American everyman” psychology.

Tony’s is not the only psychology shaping larger power dynamics and conflicts of “the one and the many” on The Sopranos; the idiosyncrasies of many of the show’s characters have far reaching implications. Thus while the “vertical” of our Eliot axis would apply only to Tony, the show itself, as a representation of the entire cast of characters, comprises more of a web of individual influence, where each character maintains narrative focus for a length of time, and the individual characters play key roles at all points. The Sopranos is less a series about a “mob” than a multitude of individual characters whose distinct voices and motivations are ultimately enveloped into an irrepressible conglomerate.

If anything unites the characters on The Sopranos, it’s that each struggles alone, and mostly unsuccessfully, against the cultural imperatives of the mafia tradition that came before them. Yet the show is defined by moments of unflinching individuality. Entire wars are waged based on the hurt feelings, rumors as petty and personal as Uncle Junior’s willingness to perform cunnilingus or the fatness of Johnny Sac’s wife, Ginny. These characters are highly sensitive for their being ruthless killers, both to each other and their own self-determined roles, and the interlocking strata of their world are pliable to the demands of personal psychology.

One very interesting “vertical” negotiation of larger cultural strata on The Sopranos involves the show’s use of recurring imagery of John F. Kennedy. As both a desired endgame to the American dream as well as the tragic flaw underlying that dream, the mythology of J.F.K. crops up on multiple occasions to show the self-contradictions of the show’s characters. Here are three particularly telling moments:

Season 5, Episode 7 “In Camelot”

The episode begins with Tony visiting his father’s grave where he meets a fellow mourner that turns out to be his father’s former mistress. Fran Felstein and Tony strike up an unlikely friendship, reminiscing over memories of Tony’s father, as a fun-loving wise guy. Shooting the breeze with one’s dead father’s former sexual playmate would seem odd to most, but extramarital affairs are characterized as being so ingrained in the mafia lifestyle that Tony takes such revelations in stride.

Highly relevant to Tony’s own life is the intergenerational “spoils” system of the mob lifestyle passing from mafia boss to the lower tiers, not the least of which take the form of access to the ever ubiquitous women. Not taking a goomar, or a mistress, can even seen as a weakness, as in the case of Bobby Baccalieri. While this system of sexual rewards objectifies said “women on the side,” being a mob goomar apparently also has its perks. Respect, money, first picks of stolen merchandise, and protection are these women’s own spoils. Thus, Tony recognizes the respect due in perpetuity to his father’s goomar and visits her often, bearing gifts (as is his habit for all visits at all times), seeming to even enact the emotional trade-offs denied him by his own mother. For a time all is well; Tony enjoys Fran as a connection to his father’s past and yet another reinforcement of his own deviant lifestyle. It’s not long before he realizes that Fran, and by association his father, was not so fun-loving as they seemed.

For one, Tony finds out theta Fran’s son was given his childhood dog, Tippy, when it could no longer be cared for by the Soprano family. This is a stark reversal of the spoils system as Tony understands it. Soon repressed memories of the actual circumstances of his father’s philandering rise to the surface, such as a pointed absence during his mother’s miscarriage. However, one image more than any other brings home the conflict inherent to Fran’s role as goomar. On one of Tony’s visits, Fran tells of her encounter with John F. Kennedy. Again her having such “encounters” is taken by Tony as a matter of course; such dealings are common of Fran’s type of person, which he himself supports through his lifestyle as well as through his owning a strip club.

Fran is sure to mention that her moment with JFK was before meeting Tony’s father, of course. But they had a definite flirtation; she claims to be the last woman the President was with before meeting Marilyn Monroe. Tony mentions that he owns a captain’s hat that was once owned by JFK, an artifact a faithful Sopranos viewer would have seen before, worn by Tony’s own goomar in a previous episode. On the next visit, Tony brings the hat for Fran to see, as if for some kind of demented “show and tell.” Of course, Fran displays all the easy emotion and ready validation Tony doesn’t get from his own mother and Uncle Junior, so why should he not bring this prize if it please her? Except when she sees the hat, she puts it on (as a lark) and breaks into a nightmarish version of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”

The sight of her shriveled face staring maniacally with would-be allure drives home to Tony the shallowness of her relationship with his father. Indeed, after the performance, he seems on the verge of one of his trademark panic attacks. But the audience is clued in to something even deeper, the self-loathing hypocrisy of a character that would reward himself for sitting atop an vast infrastructure of crime, where “rewards” take the form of the degradation of another human being. That this “reward” in Tony’s father’s life, as well as his own, only undermines the only redeemable aspect of that infrastructure, that of the close-knit social ties often referred to as “family,” is certainly apparent to the viewer, if not to Tony himself.

Season 3, Episode 7 “Second Opinion”
Uncle Junior is a character often given to flights of fancy. Sometimes his little eccentricities are menacing, sometimes humorous. His frequent verbal paroxysms include: “Go shit in your hat” and “My nephew is a cunt hair away from ruling all of North Jersey… And I AM that cunt hair!” But in one episode, Uncle Junior’s singular behavior takes a turn for the sympathetic. Having been diagnosed with Cancer of the stomach in previous episodes, Uncle Junior seems intent on seeing a certain doctor, not because this physician has any great skill. In fact, this doctor seems fairly noninvolved in Uncle June’s recovery. Rather, Tony realizes that his uncle’s preference is based only on the doctor’s name, Kennedy.

Uncle Junior’s loyalty to Dr. Kennedy—at one point he tells the doctor, “You tell me to take a shit on the deck of the Queen Mary, twenty minutes later they’re hosing it down with disinfectant!”—is both oddly touching in its vulnerability and confusing in its reasoning. Uncle Junior’s generation of Mafioso was often legally hampered by U.S. District Attorney Robert Kennedy’s campaign to wipe out mob activity in America; that he would attach such romanticized ideals of medical acumen to a name that had spelled such trouble for him and his mob cohort is extremely telling of the show’s characters’ general willingness to embrace that which hurts them the most. Uncle Junior holds off contemplating at length the sickness that would destroy him by attaching arbitrary and oddly ironic meaning to his doctor’s name. Likewise, he only sees the bad in that which threatens him in the temporal sphere, mainly Tony’s own supersession of him as Street Boss. The maneuver is a defense mechanism that has far-reaching implications in Tony’s own life, including an intimidation scheme perpetrated on Dr. Kennedy later on in the episode, and in that of their shared mafia empire.

Season 6, Episode 18 “Kennedy and Heidi”
The name Kennedy comes up in the life of Soprano Family Captain, Christopher Molisanti, at a very telling moment, the end. The significance of the Kennedys bears no direct relevance to his generation of mobster; he and most of his crime cohort are markedly ignorant of their own history, except for romanticized stories of gun-toting pranksters, the mafia equivalent of the big brother who taught them curse words. Christopher’s “big brother” throughout the series has been Tony; he is not only a crime lord but a father figure who stands in place of Chris’s own dead father.

In a previous episode, “For All Debts Public and Private” (a reference to the phrase printed on American paper money), Christopher metes out revenge upon his father’s murderer, stealing only a $20 bill from his wallet, which he then clips to his mother’s refrigerator like a report card. Christopher always seems to exude “indebtness” to Tony, and to all that he represents, respect, money, an escape from a childhood of fatherlessness, a state tantamount to invisibility in the mob culture. Always protective of his place in the pecking order, always wounded, always unsure of where he stands—Christopher famously betrayed his girlfriend, Adriana, for Tony’s promise of a comfortable future. Christopher loves and hates Tony, the Mafia, himself. The promise of socioeconomic solvency, which to the viewer seems so tenuous and crime-addled in Christopher’s case, comprises the crux of his whole life. He wants to be a serious person, but he only knows how to cheat, steal, and murder.

The end of Christopher’s story is like all that came before. In “Kennedy and Hedi,” he swerves across a two-lane highway, high on drugs, reaching to adjust the volume of the stereo, which plays the soundtrack to the recent Scorsese film, The Departed. The title of that film proves prophetic. Tony yells for the passenger seat for him to watch out, but a car has already come in to view. The camera cuts to the other car, where from the dirver’s and passenger’s seat two teenaged girls emit an anti-climactically high-pitched scream. The teenagers’ car swerves harmlessly; this event is only a minor occurrence for them. Meanwhile, Chris and Tony’s car flips several times. The crash from their perspective spins into a surreal wash of violent color, the sound of metal on metal. The camera cuts back to the teenagers, who are unhurt. Should they call the police, the wonder aloud? No, they’d get in too much trouble. They call each other are Heidi and Kennedy. When Christopher’s car settles, Tony reaches for his phone to call an ambulance, but when he realizes that his nephew is profoundly injured, that the injury was sustained on account of Chris’s own reckless drug abuse, he decides to smother him to death.

Aside from the obvious plot development represented in the car accident, the moment’s thematic importance is that of culture clash. On one side of the street we have a couple of typically American teenagers, driving where they shouldn’t be, yes, but basically performing a harmless indulgence. On the other side are Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti, both pathological criminals, both deeply entrenched in a lifestyle that operates through the victimization of their fellow citizens. Yet the degree to which each side of the accident is harmed in the exchange demonstrates the stakes each side incurs in this equation. By playing it straight, or rather by being born within a part of their larger culture that has allowed them to play it straight, Kennedy and Heidi walk away from the collision virtually unscathed. However, Christopher and Tony are thrust into yet another struggle for life and death, one where they are set against each other, against themselves. The circumstances surrounding Christopher’s death are a profound example of an individual character reflecting and projecting vast thematic meaning in the greater scheme of things.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/135977-j.f.k.-symbolism-on-the-sopranos/