On the fifth-ever episode of HBO’s The Sopranos, titular patriarch Tony (James Gandolfini) strangles a man to death with a pair of cables. When the series concluded on an ambiguous note nearly a decade later, audiences were left emotionally bereft at the unknown fate of the man who perpetrated such hideous crimes.
Gandolfini himself left us soon after; he died of a heart attack in 2013 while vacationing with his family in Rome. He was discovered on the floor of their hotel bathroom by his then-13-year-old son, Michael, who is now set to reprise his father’s role in HBO’s upcoming prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark.
As one might expect, much of the conversation surrounding the new film centers upon the conspicuous absence of the actor who is widely credited with typifying the morally complex television protagonist, a character archetype that is now widely recognized to win audiences, accolades, and second-season renewals. Tony Soprano was a man who, despite piling awful crime upon awful crime and drizzling it with casual cruelty, nonetheless endeared himself to millions of ostensibly law-abiding Americans. Like his on-screen family and friends, the audience, too, without whom seven seasons would never have happened, number among his many enablers.
Don Draper of Mad Men followed soon after, and then Walter White of Breaking Bad, and then Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones. These roles, which occasionally veer into accidental parody–characters capable of cracking a joke, expressing remorse, and have a raffish charm– are winners among American audiences. No self-respecting television writer would present a script without one. Nor, it seems, would they be allowed to.
Though there have since been many imitations, James Gandolfini’s depiction of the New Jersey mafia boss and suburban father was the genuine article. A large man physically, Gandolfini’s absence seems to loom larger. Indeed, Tony’s likability among audiences is well-established. So too is his notorious womanizing, abuse towards others, and general unhappiness with his place in the modern world. But it is the last characteristic, it seems, that’s the key to understanding why audiences found him such an attractive persona.
The Sopranos, though clad in Mafioso overtones and the accents and attires of Godfathers Past (veering occasionally into near-metafiction, as stereotypes about Italian-America are openly discussed by the gun-toting, prosciutto-pounding characters) is a sympathetic, relatable American tale. It deals mostly with family dysfunction (and the occasional Freudian dilemma), and the plot is overwhelmingly driven by the mundane, quotidian frustrations of ordinary life: therapy, high school counselors, inconsiderate strangers.
Every situation in The Sopranos is one with which the viewer at home is intimately, infuriatingly acquainted. The difference? The man on the screen possesses unaccountable power and an unbound willingness to inflict it upon others.
Mild-mannered, polite, middle-to-upper-class audiences applaud as Tony bashes some criminal associate’s head in, unconsciously imagining themselves doing the same thing to some local bureaucrat–the asshole manager, or the guy at the DMV who kept asking you to spell your name (even though it’s only five letters), or that cop who pulled you over last week and searched your car because he swore he could smell something.
What many TV pundits don’t seem to understand is that the audiences aren’t rooting for a villain, at all. They’re rooting for a hero: the guy who is as fed up and dissatisfied with modern life as they are, but with the chutzpah to do something about it. How, Tony often asks, can a man be expected to raise children in such a world? A world without compassion? Without morals? Without God?
As his son Michael prepares to reprise his late father’s role in his film debut, The Many Saints of Newark, airing 1 October in the US, audiences will hope to see a flicker of the man who told them, among other things, to “remember the good times”. To cherish their family and friends. Isn’t that what we all live for?