The Sopranos

As The Sopranos enters its fifth season, it’s clear that things will not go well for New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini). He and estranged wife Carmela (Edie Falco) won’t reconcile. Their teenaged children, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) and A.J. (Robert Iler), will not mature to become emotionally healthy adults. New additions Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), “Feech” La Manna (Robert Loggia), and Little Carmine (Ray Abruzzo) might as well get measured for their body bags now.

That is, for the most part, how The Sopranos goes. If Tony is ever shot up more times than 50 Cent, few will mourn him: besides racking up a body count well into double digits, Tony is a philandering husband, failed father, and waffling mob leader. Yet, from the moment we first see him in Season One, fainting from anxiety attacks, infatuated with a family of ducks, and entering therapy, he betrays a human frailty that, beyond engendering sympathy, practically makes him endearing. We can recognize his anxieties and vulnerabilities.

No matter how rich his scams or complete his power grabs, Tony’s harried personal life is reminiscent of a long lineage of TV working schlubs; Ralph Cramden as Michael Corleone. The conceit of Tony’s therapy, the rageaholic facing off against the restrained Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), brings him down closer to our size. During the first episode of this new season, Tony’s mistress is channel-surfing and lands on The Prince of Tides. Tony watches with a child’s glee, channeling his own muddled attraction for Melfi through the movie, and ends up sending her a bouquet of flowers with a note signed “Your Prince of Tides.” The gesture is embarrassingly corny, but it’s vintage Tony. He may head New Jersey’s most powerful crime family, but he’s a sap.

Similar, mostly charming shortcomings apply to everyone in the series, especially Tony’s crew. Aging, jumpsuit-wearing mobsters, their petty deficiencies stand in stark contrast to their ostensibly tough exteriors. Tony’s heir apparent, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), is a recovering heroin addict with self-esteem issues; Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) kills nursing home patients to collect their mattress stashes; Uncle Junior (Dominic Chaise) is a hypochondriac who is now developing Alzheimer’s. Last season, Tony and New York mobster Johnny Sack (Vince Curatola) had a surreal talk about the negative impact of obesity on self-esteem. These gangsters are one step from a 12-step.

At the same time, like any good soap opera, the series thrives on the pulsating polyrhythms of its multiple storylines. As if to up the complications ante, Season Five began a full 16 months after Season Four ended. (Saturday Night Live recently lampooned this unusual scheduling gap, in a skit where the gangsters themselves all forgot the plot.) Yet, this potential problem is a boon for viewers: the DVDs for Season Four appeared a few months ago, so latecomers could catch up before the new season kicked off.

And it’s good to catch up: Season Four closed with Tony and Carmela’s furious argument that resulted in his expulsion from their house. The new season has eased off that explosion, settling into a slow burn initiated by the so-called “Class of ’04.” Inspired by the real life release of mobsters sent to federal prison in the early 1980s now coming out, Blundetto and Feech returned to the family. Blundetto, counter to expectations, wants to go straight, by becoming a licensed massage therapist. The career choice leaves Tony perplexed and a little embarrassed, especially as his long-absent cousin, also named Tony, is a lone voice of reason amongst the madness.

Among the affairs he attempts to mediate is Tony’s increasingly complicated relationship with Christopher’s fiancée Adriana (Drea De Matteo). Last season, the FBI coerced her into becoming an informant, for which she is now suffering severe stress. Adriana has always been enigmatic, a pretty girl aware of what her man does for a living, and willing to put up with his abuses and his addictions. Until now, she’s been a romantic, imagining a secure and well-adjusted future with Christopher. That dream is fast disappearing now. Though she and Tony did not act on a brief moment of sexual tension, it led indirectly to a car wreck and Adriana’s hospitalization, Tony’s return to therapy, and Christopher’s near murder.

While Adriana is steadily coming undone in an increasingly fascinating way, Tony remains at the center of the series’ many maelstroms. He once predicted his own demise to Melfi: “There’s two endings for a guy like me, high-profile guy, dead or in the can.” He paused, letting the pessimism pass, and continued, “There’s a third way to wrap it up: you rely only on family, you trust only blood.”

The problem is that Tony’s failed everyone, especially his own family, so many times that it’s hard to see how he might rely on anyone. Fundamentally selfish and insecure, narcissistic and arrogant, he’s not even aware of the FBI’s evolving case against him, or his henchmen’s own schemes. The Sopranos has focused on his delusions this season. In the first episode, when a bear wandered onto the Soprano estate and scared A.J. and Carmela, Tony ordered his henchmen to stand guard. By the end of the episode, he took a shift himself, so the final image was Tony in a patio chair, hoisting an AK-47 in one hand and a lit stogie in the other.

It’s a powerful image, yet a false one. He watches over a house he doesn’t live in anymore, waiting in vain for an ursine intruder when in truth, the only hairy, lumbering threat is Tony. He has destroyed his family and sown seeds of dissent in his crew. He just doesn’t see it yet. While his hubris recalls classic gangster tales such as The Godfather and Scarface, the series also finds resonance in the current Bush administration. Manipulative, distrustful, deceptive, but with a false, aw-shucks geniality: are we talking about Tony or Dubya here?

After all, mobster parables are American dream stories. The idea of a self-made leader, amassing unassailable power, mixes the Protestant ethic with Catholic grandeur. Gangsters real and fictional are dark Horatio Algers, celebrated with a mix of adoration and apprehension, fear and fascination. At the same time, the enduring moral of mobster tales is that unbridled greed leads inevitably to undoing. From Enron to Iraq, that lesson is ever cogent. While Tony might be as Joisey as they come, in dress and speech, his symbolism isn’t limited to the Tri-State area. And it’s important to remember that Tony, giving in to his own avarice and paranoia, is likely doomed, if not this season, then in the next, reportedly the series’ last. Contrary to his expectation, blood will not save him. Not from death or the can, and most certainly, not from himself.