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.
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.