J.F.K. Symbolism on 'The Sopranos'

Nathan Pensky

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 in The Sopranos to show the self-contradictions of the show’s characters.

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:

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