[12 October 2011]
For the seven years it graced television screens, David Chase’s The Sopranos was a lightning rod for critical and intellectual debate. Issues of ethnicity, violence, guilt, family, addiction, history and identity traversed the show’s plotlines and audience. As one of the shows that helped redefine the American art form of episodic television, the pursuit and redefinition of the American Dream was a constant point of discussion and denigration. For many, success is signaled by a large house in the suburbs, nice cars, the ability to allow your children to grow up to achieve what they want; obtaining these goals, for the children and grandchildren of hardworking immigrants, will lead to a satisfying, happy life.
Of course this concept is incredibly flawed and at the end of the series, Tony and Carmella Soprano may have well-educated children, successful businesses and ostentatious shows of wealth, but they are no better for it and significantly less happy than when the series began. Disappointment is contiguous with unobtainable utopian ideals. It may be because the characters primarily seek fulfillment through material and sensual pleasures—itself shaped by the media, notably movies and other television shows—that they are rendered to disappointment. Characters such as Tony and Junior want control of their people and interests, to reap the benefits of being boss. They want to be like The Godfather, like Don Corleone, but seem to ignore the fact that Vito watched his son die and Michael lost his family and murdered his brother.
Power was all they had; despite all their material wealth they were never truly happy. Though their inability to obtain the perfect life is directly correlated to their Mafioso lifestyle, the larger metaphor regarding American unfulfillment and questions of identity transcend stories of mob life.
For example one, take a look at Tony’s friend from New York, Johnny Sac. When Johnny buys a new home in the Jersey woods, he sees it as nice investment for retirement, a place where he can relax surrounded by fields and forests. It’s an attempt to reconnect, to seek solace in nature. Initially, Tony and his gang welcome the presence of their friend and business associate, but soon Johnny’s move to Jersey is viewed as an attempt to encroach on the Soprano family’s territory. To a certain degree, as Johnny and Tony begin to pool their resources on projects, it appears to be true. Despite the two families bringing in more cash from larger operations, ties between them become increasingly strained, leading to overreactions on minor issues of disrespect and escalating accounts of double-cross and murder.
Moving into a big house in the suburbs does nothing for Johnny or his family’s well being. When he first moves to Jersey, his home is the only one in sight. A few years later, at the end of the show’s run, the woods have been leveled and replaced by nearly identical cookie-cutter houses. His sense of peace, of uniqueness, his ability to control his future has been removed and replicated. In the fashion of other mafia tragedies, he had it all for a little while before everyone else tried to get their piece. To the nature of capitalistic consumerism, everyone wants what everyone else has.
Conversely, Johnny enters Jersey surrounded by friends but leaves the world sick and alone, dying of cancer in a federal prison. He’s unable to enjoy what he has worked his life for, unable to even enjoy the love of his family, who are usurped from their home in a federal raid. All his work has been for nothing; his obtainment of his dream has been his downfall.
This concept pervades the series. Tony himself is the image of wealth through materialism and makes a point to maintain this image. In her book Blubberland, architect Elizabeth Farelly notes that even “Napoleon knew that empire alone wasn’t enough; it had to be obvious, glittering and palpable.” Tony owns fancy cars, a strip club, and a large house with an in-ground pool. He has lots of toys, women and power.
But he is never truly happy. He commands respect, but is never sure if people really like him or are just being nice to him because he’s the boss. He’s insecure. When an old colleague comments disdainfully about his clothes, he trades his untucked polo for a suit and tie. When people laugh, he thinks they are laughing at him. He does anything to establish his command in order to avoid being seen as a joke. How others view him is more imperative than how he views himself.
Beauty and success both dictate and are dictated by expectations. The establishment of these benchmarks—particularly those found in movies and television—is unrealistic and can only lead to unhappiness. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist Victor Frankl tells his audience not to “aim on success—the more you… make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than one’s self.” The fulfillment sought by the likes of Tony, Johnny and Carmela cannot be achieved through their accumulated wealth, and their desire to either achieve this goal or cling to materialistic ideals only increases their sense of emptiness.
Because of the nature of his work, Tony’s competing desires for harmony and power dehabilitate every aspect of his life. This is particularly true of his relationships. His children, his protégés—his attempts to help them are fruitless and often derail their chances at a normal life. He wants AJ and Meadow to chart their own course and succeed in a life outside the mafia. He wants them to maintain their innocence, their beauty, and perhaps their ignorance of his life.
On the other hand, he needs his captains to lose their humanity, to become callous. He wants Christopher, then Bobby, to step up so that they can take over his business. But in his eyes, they fail to do so. To a man who envies the simple joys of others, he is continually disappointed in his progeny. He offers words of encouragement, but his attempts at guidance and discipline break down into bouts of swearing or snide comments at their expense.
His and his wife Carmella’s attempts to provide their children happiness are based on expensive toys or school programs. He sabotages or discredits their relationships because of his inability to have a satisfying one of his own. Because Tony is not content with himself as a person, despite constant displays of his power as boss, despite his material wealth, he ends up ultimately being a loving but poorly qualified father and mentor. At the end of the series, AJ is one step away from depression and unable to support himself, Meadow is directionless despite her ambitions and education, and both Christopher and Bobby are dead due to their relationship with Tony.
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.