mythologizing-the-gangster-genre-in-the-sopranos
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), trapped by the gangster mythology.

‘The Sopranos’: Mythologizing the Gangster Genre

From The Public Enemy through to Scorsese, the Sopranos family knows how to pick a bad example to follow.

In a 1933 publicity piece for the film Blondie Johnson, Warner Brothers declared that, “The value of [gangster] films now is entertainment. Their priceless ingredients for future historians is their truth” (Inventing the Public Enemy: The Gangster in American Culture, 1918-1934, Ruth, 1996: 5). Yet, as optimistically profound and as cognitively dissonant as this promotional spiel appears to be, “truth” can easily be as fluid and as readily interchangeable a concept as “entertainment” when considering the role of fictional gangsters and their effect on society and culture.

For example, when Howard Hawks was directing Scarface (1932), he was allegedly approached by “gangland emissaries” from Al Capone who wished to ensure that the film didn’t blemish his reputation. One might understand any reluctance on Hawks’ part to continue, but the completed film still incorporated contemporary attitudes or truths that differed from those that the crime boss might want to have perpetuated; as the Police Chief states:

This fella Camonte [Scarface], he’s a colorful character? What color is a crawling louse? That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country, they think these big hoodlums are some kind of demi-gods. What do they do about a man like Camonte? They sentimentalize them, romance them, make jokes about them.

Irrespective of whether the events in the film were, to borrow a line from the preface to the film, “a reproduction of an actual occurrence” or not, the classic gangster, as he’s depicted within gangster movies of the ’30s, such as Scarface, Little Caesar (1931), and The Public Enemy (1931), in which he’s both culturally fascinating and repugnant is a fundamental part of the gangster archetype.

The gangster genre, however, didn’t just appear from some suitably dramatic, foggy back-street in Chicago. After all, Sherlock Holmes was fighting evildoers in celluloid as far back as 1900 (in the 45-second-long crime film Sherlock Holmes Baffled, released in 1903). To understand how this dynamic between history and fictional forms operates, it may prove useful to consider the following quote from semiotic theorist Roland Barthes:

The mythical signification […] is never arbitrary; it is always in part motivated, and unavoidably contains some analogy. [….] Motivation is unavoidable. It is none the less very fragmentary. To start with, it is not ‘natural’: it is history which supplies its analogies to the form. Then the analogy between the meaning and the concept is never anything but partial (Mythologies, Barthes, 1957. translated 1984).

History and its textual “analogies” can be seen influencing Scarface, as screenwriter Ben Hecht was a Daily News columnist, and other city papers, such as the New York Times, were keen to run articles or “stories” on the actual glamorous transgressors. For those films and television shows that followed, the accrued litany of fictional gangster stories themselves started to play an ever increasing part in their own production and orientation.

First airing in 1999 on HBO, David Chase’s fictional drama The Sopranos (1999-2007) focuses on the New Jersey lives of the titular biological family and their other family of gangsters. As much as Capone allegedly found himself threatened by fictional portrayals of the mobster type, by the fin de siècle, these modern (and occasionally post-modern) gangsters had several decades of genre motifs to liberally beg, borrow, or — more likely — steal from.

The worlds of the Soprano families are significant then, in that the fictional crooks and bystanders that populate the show aren’t only aware of their progenitors in a way that’s much more reflexively sustained than before, but also, through behaving in ways that are both motivated by the diegetic confines of their genre and as a simulacrum for reality, they respond and react to these same cultural influences in a fascinating, thrilling, and (on more than one occasion) idiotic combination of ways. With this article, I’d like to briefly examine this reflexive arrangement in closer detail, to consider how the myth of the gangster both informs the development of the genre, but also acts as an enabler or barrier for the protagonists themselves.

I should point out that discussion of the intertextual character par excellence (Christopher Moltisanti [Michael Imperioli]) will be limited in this article mainly because in an essay entitled “‘I let you be a part of my movie’: Christopher Moltisanti and the Development of the Gangster Genre”, I’ve already taken the liberty of comprehensively discussing Christopher’s numerous flirtations with the image of the Scorsese brand of gangster. As such, the focus of this piece will be more on the older generations within The Sopranos, and their own obsessions with the classic and modern gangster archetypes.

As a point of interest, most of the examples in this article shall be drawn from season one of the show. This is because the frequency of intertextual references to the classic and modern gangsters tends to be higher in the earlier episodes across the six seasons (with Chris’ film choices coming more into play within later seasons); it’s as though it takes the New Jersey crew a while to work out who they are, before fully committing to their flawed roles within the narrative.

This task is all the more useful, perhaps, when we consider how much the gangster myth, which is both tried out and tested within The Sopranos, collides, echoes, mirrors, and merges with the realities of the “true” gangster. In 1969, for example, FBI surveillance tapes of the New Jersey family, the Decavalcantes, revealed nothing but “petty complaints about money, avowals of abject poverty, and all sorts of middle management disputes” (“The Sopranos: The Gangster Redux”, Auster, 2002: 10).

The Soprano crew also emulates this apparent difference in expectations of glamour. They frequently believe their own image — being extravagant and ambitious in their aims, such as buying large houses and trying to rise in society — but they’re always reminded that the reality of their situation is that they need money to pay for parents to be put in a home and children to go to college. Seemingly, more effort is always expended in trying to appease family conflicts than in building an empire for them to share. Indeed, this oscillating influence is reinforced by David Remnick’s report in 1999 of a wiretapped conversation in which a capo, also called Anthony, and an agent “commented on the similarities between local mobsters and Tony’s gang” (“Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film”, Pattie, 2002: 135).

Of course, not everybody within the gangster sphere is happy or content with the stereotypical image(s) of the mobster gangster figure. Echoing the Police Chief in Scarface, in The Godfather Part II (1974), Senator Weekler (Roger Corman) announces that “Italian-Americans are the hardest working, most law abiding patriotic Americans of our country. It is a shame and a pity that a few rotten apples give them a bad name.” Naturally, the Godfather of America Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), also decides to hide behind this damaging nationalistic façade, declaring that “being called before this committee an act of prejudice to all Americans of Italian extraction”.

The hypocrisy and equally overgenerous blanket generalizations are also found in The Sopranos. In one scene, Richard La Penna (Richard Romanus) — Dr. Melfi’s [Lorraine Bracco] ex-husband — is moaning to his family that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is “the reason Italian-Americans have such a bad image”; however, his more liberal thinking son Jason (Will McCormack) proposes two counterarguments that shrivel his father’s stance. First, “in our cultural history, mob movies are classic American cinema. Like westerns”, and so aren’t to be entirely confused with reality, and after all, “wasn’t that Italian anti-def dealie started by Joe Columbo? A mobster?” (“The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”).

The “mob movie” is blamed for defaming Italian-Americans, yet the films aren’t tantamount to reality; a reality, it’s insinuated, that could probably do with a little closer cross-examination itself once the fiction has been stripped from it. For example, at a dinner party held by Dr. Cusamano (Robert LuPone) in “A Hit is a Hit”, one guest announces: “some of the shit I see in the boardroom, I don’t know if I’d make a distinction”, to which Cusamano adds, “Bugging? Bribes? I don’t know. Sometimes I think the only thing separating American business from the Mob is fucking ‘whacking’ somebody!”

Life may imitate fiction, as the Soprano clan might think they’re doing; fiction may imitate fiction and reality as The Sopranos is doing; and reality may occasionally imitate fiction imitating reality (or fiction!), as Robert Iler, the actor who plays A.J. Soprano proved in 2001 when he was arrested for stealing from two teenagers. Yet, while somebody such as “The real Donnie Brasco […] praises the authenticity of The Sopranos” (“‘Coming Heavy’: The Significance of The Sopranos“, Lavery, 2002: xii), the conventions within the series exist primarily because they’re familiar to people as conventions of the gangster genre, and it’s this reflexive metatextual game, which consciously draws on past associations and foregrounds them for the viewer, that sets the tone for the show.

Yet, even within the diegesis of the The Sopranos, it must be noted, it’s impossible to fully solidify the primacy or legitimacy of one sub-type of gangster genre over another and how people may perceive them. A perfect example of this would be the comic incident between Tony and a therapist in the episode “Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office”. When the doctor asserts, “I watch the news like everyone else. I know who you are, and I saw Analyse This. I don’t need the ramifications”, Tony angrily appeals with “Analyse This? Come on, it’s a fucking comedy!”

Even Tony gets ensnared by the faulty logic of thinking that his world view is entirely real (although that is also because he’s as self-deluded as any fictional gangster on their finest ego-trip). For him, “Outside it may be the 1990s, but in this house it’s 1954” (“Nobody Knows Anything”). Yet, Tony is disingenuous; as Ellen Willis comments, “It’s wishful thinking, and Tony knows it. What 1950s gangster would take Prozac and make weekly visits to a shrink?” (“Our Mobsters, Ourselves”, Willis, 2002: 3). Ironically, as Tony is idealizing the moral family ethics of a past era because he’s under stress from the possibility that his other family will “rat” on him, the notable 1954 gangster film On the Waterfront, is equally underscored with “the embarrassed special pleading on behalf of informers, deriving presumably from the fact that Kazan and Schulberg [the director and scriptwriter] named names during the McCarthy witch-hunts.” Tony is unaware that the gangster films prior to The Sopranos were motivated by history, just as his situation (the concern with indictments, for example) is also partially framed by both real life contemporaries and an evolving mythology that he can’t properly control.

Therefore, looking backward again to the classic gangster movies of Scarface and The Public Enemy also reveals some of the differences that have developed since the ’30s. Georgie (Frank Santorelli), the slightly simplistic bartender of the Bada Bing nightclub in The Sopranos, is involved in a scene that specifically replicates Scarface when he’s unable to operate the phone just like “Mr Camonte’s secretary [sic.]” (“46 Long”). Tony Soprano, too, is unable to behave like his namesake Tony Camonte. Camonte, with great amusement, recognizes his assistant as a comedy character amidst the bleak gangster world and is quite forgiving, whereas Soprano is less amused, proceeding to pick up the telephone receiver and bash the unwitting fool about the head. Although this scene in itself is comedic, the comedy seems to derive from its origins in Joe Pesci’s psychopathic Nicky from Casino, who twice impulsively beats people severely on the head with a telephone when they fail to comply with his demands.

Given that it’s natural for the gangster to want what he doesn’t possess, it’s unsurprising that he also has a history of going after things that he believes he can control. One illustration would be Nature, in the form of the horse. In The Public Enemy, a figure is horse riding before he is “thrown off in the park. Kicked in the head” and dies. Consequently, Powers tries to control nature by buying the horse for $1,000 and then shooting it. In The Godfather the detached head of a thoroughbred race-horse is famously used to scare its owner, current bedfellow and film studio producer, into accepting an offer he can’t refuse.

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Throughout the first four seasons of The Sopranos, Hesch’s stud farm is seen as an idyllic retreat from the city — until the mobsters’ activities render it into kindling. The horse Pie-O-My is a point of antagonism between the Boss and one of his Capos, where the horse represents a displaced power struggle between the two men. The Capo, Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano), tries to alter the nature of the gangster hierarchy by confronting Tony, but he does so by burning down the stables, killing the horse Tony loves. Returning the favour, Tony kills Ralphie, thereby once more demonstrating that the world is both beautiful and deadly in itself, but in the partially pliable hands of the gangster, it’s almost always destroyed by the violent impulses of man.

Appropriating past scenes and motifs, whether consciously or not, are a way of trying to reconfigure past assemblages to new ends. In “Boca”, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) replicates the infamous grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy, rubbing lemon meringue pie into partner Roberta’s (Robyn Peterson) face. For gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney), the gesture is a response to domesticity and a brusque solution to his sexual dissatisfaction and newly owned marital limitations. Junior possesses a comparable sentiment, but with a significant twist: his social dissatisfaction stems from the crew knowing how well (and through which culturally distasteful methods) he sexually satisfies his long-time companion.

When looking at Junior’s relationship with The Public Enemy, there’s also the issue of clothing. Clothing is a façade that countless gangsters use as props to mythologize themselves into something they’re not. In The Public Enemy, Powers is seen standing on a small pedestal being fitted for an expensive suit, yet he is still wearing his labourer’s cap, presenting an external appearance that’s as fractured as the schism within his own character: a man who aspires to be reformed but has to depend upon his underworld tactics, creating a bi-polar identity that resonates with tensions until it fragments later in the story.

Uncle Junior, on the other hand, is fractured in another way. He believes he’s become the new boss of the New Jersey crime family and, in a scene very closely echoing that of Powers, is being dressed for the occasion. Junior, however, isn’t the actual Boss; his nephew Tony is still controlling actions behind the scenes. Like Powers, who seems to be reprimanded for trying to be that which he’s not, at the end of the first series of The Sopranos we find Junior being used as a “lightning conductor” (“Pax Soprana”); he’s arrested for being the Boss of the organization purely because his appearance suggests that he is.

Page 2: What Would The Godfather Do?

A crucial difference to Uncle Junior’s unknowing predicament comes in the scene from “46 Long” when a truck full of stolen, expensive suits materializes. Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), a gangster, has put on one of the designer jackets and in front of that hoary trope of a symbolically fractured mirror recites his Al Pacino Godfather Part III (1990) impression: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again”. Where Uncle Junior wanted to look like a “real” gangster but unconsciously appropriated the metaphoric baggage from a fictional classic gangster, Silvio explicitly desires to look like a modern movie gangster (also echoing the scene in Goodfellas, where Henry Hill, as a child, is dressed, in his mother’s words, “like a gangster”) and for the moment he avoids all negative repercussions as a consequence of this reflexively foregrounded, textual knowledge.

“… I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over.”

Although the classic gangster may be an ur-text of sorts for the genre, for the gangsters within The Sopranos, The Godfather films are primarily perceived to be their own originative myth. Compared to the classic films of the ’30s, The Godfather films are considered “modern” in that they signify “an articulate and consciously conceived nonillusionistic cinema” (Dreams and Dead Ends: American Gangster/Crime Film, Shadoian, 1977: 6), which ironically, is possibly why Tony’s crew are so quick to believe in the realism of the film trilogy. If they can mimic the Corleone gangsters, then they’ll be like the Corleone gangsters.

In attempting to rely on a previous taxonomy of the gangster genre, however, the gangsters in The Sopranos misappropriate what they believe is their birthright. By this, I mean that the postmodern gangster in The Sopranos believes he knows how to behave like a gangster because he’s seen modern gangster films, but this simply is a false equivalency to their own predicament. In saying “gangsters behave like gangsters”, Tony’s crew make an error as they aren’t aware that they exist as an evolving product of the gangster genre; they’re part of a mythology that isn’t natural and is always in part motivated by a world knowledge exterior to their own. The Sopranos gang cannot control their own lives (not least because they are not actually real, lacking true agency); having intertextual knowledge doesn’t equal some kind of metatextual transcendence. To quote Henry Hill, “Everybody knew the rules”, except nobody bothered to explain how or why they work, or how can be changed, to the Sopranos, who are presented as a case study for the culturally competent viewer.

For example, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, states that in one of “the later Puzo books […] and Bella Mafia, I think they had the Mafia wife going to bed with the priest, and I thought ‘it’s so tacky and sensationalistic, so let’s invent a priest that she cannot go to bed with'” (Video interview with David Chase conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, 2002). Consequently, in The Sopranos, Father Phil (Paul Schulze) — who’s himself a film fan, using dramatic tools such as the rain-soaked pathetic fallacy to ingratiate himself to the housewives in his parish — fails to properly seduce Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) (“College”). He fails, not because he didn’t know the genre he’s consciously enacting, but because David Chase chose to explicitly change the rules of the game.

David Chase has also stated that “The Godfather is everything to these people …. It’s their Bible [….] The Godfather can be seen as something like a manifesto of strength and pride for Italian-Americans” (“Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film”, Pattie, 2002: 140). Unlike the classic gangster, which sits silently on the addled minds of the older generation of gangsters like Uncle Junior, The Godfather is repeatedly mentioned in The Sopranos. Silvio is proud of his Pacino impression, but other references, such as Christopher’s “Louis Brassi sleeps with the fishes” in the epsiode “The Sopranos” (corrected by Big Pussy [Vincent Pastore] to “Luca Brassi”), and Big Pussy’s reference to a “Moe Greene special [….] Moe’s eyes got too big for his stomach so they put a caliber in his eye” in “Meadowlands” (corrected by Paulie [Tony Sirico] to “in his glasses”), demonstrates that although gangster semiotics and intertextual referencing takes place, their manifesto is often misquoted, once more signifying a rupture in their ability to fully become the characters that they quote and the world that they wish to inhabit.

In City of God (2002), in response to being called the Godfather, Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino) tells drug addict Tiago (Daniel Zettel): “Godfather my ass! Did I baptize your kids?” Yet one can’t help but feel that this synonymity is the desire of the gangsters in The Sopranos. Paulie has a car horn of Nino Rota’s signature soundtrack, “The Godfather Finale”, which literally announces his arrival into a scene in “Nobody Knows Anything” (so even then, Paulie opens with an ending), and when the football coach declares that Rhode Island doubled his salary and in offering his “daughter a free ride”, “an offer [he] couldn’t refuse”, Silvio, looking dismayed, exclaims, “Well, you haven’t heard ours yet!” (“Boca”). Furthermore, Tony is ridiculed on the golf course by his aspirational peers when it’s obvious he was only invited to explain one conundrum: “How real was The Godfather?” (“A Hit is a Hit”). Piling on the associations from home, Tony’s son also quizzes him, asking “There were all these guys at Uncle Jackie’s funeral [….] They were feds right? Like in Godfather I?” (“Down Neck”) Tony evades these questions (although whether he ever answers them adroitly is a matter for debate), but the films clearly play on his mind and within the brains of those that share in his world.

Referring to her husband, Carmela Soprano tells Father Phil that “Tony watches Godfather II all the time. [….] He likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily. III, he was like, ‘what happened?’” (“The Sopranos”). Arguably, Tony’s less enamoured with the third film because it’s the one in which the Corleones become virtually omnipotent: something that Tony can’t relate to and, when weighed down by the petty bureaucracy of mobster governance, is finding great difficulty in aspiring towards. By contrast, the decadently rich, carefree rapper Massive G (Bookem Woodbine) — who’s all about surface appearances and far more comfortable with reaping the benefits of self-mythologizing — happily states: “You people are all right. Godfather, I seen that movie two hundred times. Godfather II was definitely the shit! The third one a lot of people didn’t like it, but I think it was just misunderstood” (“A Hit Is a Hit”).

If the Sopranos crew intend to shape their world to more closely reflect The Godfather, then this is an especially precarious situation that they’re inviting in through the textual door. When Uncle Junior wants Tony killed for seeing a psychiatrist and having secret meetings at a “retirement community” (an act that itself draws parallels with the illegal land-purchasing antics in the rest home of Chinatown [1974]), in the episode “Isabella”, Tony finds his intertextual heritage violently catching up with him. Standing before a newspaper stand next to his car, in slow motion, the orange juice that he’s just purchased shatters from a bullet fired at him and Tony escapes after successfully battling his assailants.

There’s a parallel scene in The Godfather, where the Don has left his car to purchase some oranges from a fruit stall, except the people hired to shoot him succeed, and the Don is hospitalized. Tony looks favorable in this comparison — he’s a stronger man and the experience reinvigorates him — however, Tony still crashes his car and is hospitalized with a cut ear. The comparative amount of physical harm is minuscule, but Tony fails to realize that in attempting to replicate the positive aspects of The Godfather (from the gangster’s point of view), then there are textual consequences which aren’t so conducive to a healthy gangster lifestyle. Or, as Dr. Melfi (who is paraphrasing Italian philosopher George Santayana) puts it: “He who doesn’t understand history is doomed to repeat it” (“Down Neck”).

In trying to orientate his position in the world, Tony calls himself (only in the presence of his therapist) the “sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside” (“The Sopranos”), but this artifice of self-created identity isn’t entirely shared by others. For example, when Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) asks her father “Are you in the Mafia?” because she’s “seen the police come with warrants”, and “Did the Cusamano kids ever find 50 thousand dollars in Krugerrands and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?” Tony emphatically replies, “I’m in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you’re mobbed up. It’s a stereotype. And it’s offensive” (“College”).

In allowing a question to be asked about his business, but then lying about the answer anyway, this confrontation within the family sphere is very similar to the end of The Godfather, where Michael concedes to his wife, “All right, this one time I’ll let you ask about my affairs, one last time”, and then denies having had his brother-in-law killed (when, to be blunt, he has). Luckily for Tony, who asks about Meadow’s friends: “They seen The Godfather right?”, Meadow replies, “Not really. Casino, we liked. Sharon Stone, the ’70s clothes, pills” (“College”). The intertextual knowledge of Meadow (and her friends) is lacking as she fails to recognize the parallel scene with The Godfather. Instead, as a part of the younger generation (like Chris), she’s more focused on the aesthetic, surface appearance of the gangster world (and later develops her own pill problem — also like Chris).

Of course, Tony isn’t the only liar within the Sopranos household. In The Public Enemy, a police officer pointedly states that “The worse thing is, [Powers has] been lying to his mother.” In The Sopranos, the mother’s the one that lies. From her humble attempt to alter history, declaring her deceased husband Johnny “was a saint” (“The Sopranos”), when by all other accounts he wasn’t, Livia Sopranos’ (Nancy Marchard) distorted truths grow exponentially out of control, taking in cognitive dissonance (“I don’t know that world”, she says of the world she has actively helped to create), manipulated murder, and feigned dementia all within her stride.

Although David Pattie has acutely observed that “It is not simply that there is no respect anymore; it is that the older generation — the Juniors, the Livias — are not worth respecting” (“Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film”, Pattie, 2002: 141), I believe we can go further in saying that by having contemporary figures that should represent the old mythology actually represent a mutated version that’s been channeled through contemporary genre developments, expectations are forcibly and drastically realigned within the diegesis, with the mythology of the gangster encouraged to develop, not in spite of, but because of historical forces being motivated towards distortion.

After Livia’s funeral reception in “Proshai, Livushka”, the viewer witnesses Tony watching the end of The Public Enemy. The closing scenes of the film depict the mother sitting by Powers’ bedside telling him “All of us [are] together again” and crying, followed by a scene in which Powers appears dead on the doorstop. Watching this, Tony himself begins to cry. Having misguidedly hoped that his mother was an expression of classic gangster film ideals due to her age, Tony (like the older Uncle Junior and the younger Meadow) makes the fundamental error of failing to update his understanding of the gangster genre based on more recent conventions. With the classic gangster of The Public Enemy, and also with the modern gangster of The Godfather, family harmony was the bedrock that was churned but resettled in one configuration or another by the closure of the narrative. In this new story, the mother always hated her son and she died while holding on to that firm belief. The possibility of familial reconciliation was an impossible dream of fiction made all the more tragic by its anticipatory generic precedents.

Given that The Sopranos is a television program,,it’s appropriate that discourses surrounding the myth of the gangster are articulated on the television sets within the fictional world, although they may not help Tony. Appropriately, opinions vastly differ on the discrepancies between “truth” and “entertainment” within the information presented. On a talking-heads news program, for example, Chris is informed that the “slaying of Soprano family associate Brendan Filone”, may have been “part of a power struggle”. Chris’ simple response, based on his own diegetic experiences, are summed up succinctly: “Brendan Filone? Associate? Soldier? Fuck you!” (“The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti”). Unlike Lefty (Al Pacino) in Donnie Brasco (1997), who watches nature shows about “hunter and hunted, predator and prey, endless cycle of nature repeated” (metaphorically suggesting that the gangster/FBI dichotomy is an active part of the natural order), the “factual” news casts only serve to highlight the textual discrepancies that arise from the mythologizing process.

At the end of the first season, a reverse situation occurs when the Soprano family are watching the television and Junior is arrested for the crimes he did commit. Tony’s immediate response in front of his children is to animatedly gesture, and awkwardly offer: “Look at that old guy, making him do the ‘perp’ walk! A legitimate business man!” Meadows’ curt reply is, “Dad, cut the crap” (“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”). There exists an obvious difference between all the portrayed realities, yet none of them, when shown on the television, has any greater currency towards a fixed truth.

In the opening scene of the first episode (“Sopranos”), Tony enters the cultural imagination with a pre-loaded awareness that the myth of collapse, as perpetuated by antecedent forefathers such as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando, is very much real for end-of-the-century gangsters such as himself. He tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi:

I’d been thinking: it’s good to be in a thing from the ground floor. I came too later for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over.

To which Dr. Melfi replies: “Many Americans, I think, feel this.” Although being a gangster, a mobster, or a fugitive from the law is a trade to which only a limited number of people may find themselves being beckoned, the anxieties concerning family, appearances, wealth, lifestyle, and general existential unease regarding a place in some grand scheme of things, may be equally keenly felt by those that watch The Sopranos. As the intertextual elements help the Sopranos family and their associates to navigate life (and explicitly warn of the dangers in blindly doing so), so too can the show reflect American, or more widely speaking, human, apprehensions in reality. For The Sopranos, the opening scene showed us that the best was actually still yet to come (with some lows thrown in to test the waters), but maybe, with some help from Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone, and Tom Powers, we can use the pleasures and concerns of fiction to help us with the reality of our own daily toils. The best isn’t over; like the gangster myth, it’s just metamorphosed into something different.

This article is dedicated to Dr. David Lavery (1949-2016).

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