Television

The Sopranos

Marisa Carroll

The problem with the Soprano family, as Bobby chided Tony, is that they "always go too far". It's also a primary reason the show is so compelling.


The Sopranos

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-04-08
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Janice (Aida Turturro): He just lost his wife. He had so much sadness, so much love for her, such complete and pure emotion. I felt unworthy to be in his presence. I was so moved by him!

Sandy (Joyce Van Patten): You saw in this man the things you want in your life: truth, love...

Janice: Yes. Somehow I have to find a way to move away from the darkness and toward the light!

Sandy: What does this man do?

Janice: He works with my brother, but he's not like the others.

Sandy: Janice!

Janice: Sandy, he's different. Believe me.

Sandy: [hesitantly] Okay.

When Janice Soprano set her sights on Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) in Season Four of The Sopranos, her therapist had reason to worry. Janice's past relationships with other Mafiosi did not end happily. Still, there was something different about Bobby. Yes, he was Uncle Junior's (Dominic Chianese) right-hand man, but unlike Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) or Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), he seemed to have a selfless side. He was a patient father, a doting husband, and the only member of Tony's crew without a goomara.

But Bobby's most significant difference wasn't revealed until the stellar first and third episodes of The Sopranos' Season Six, Part Two. When he and Tony (James Gandolfini) shared a heart-to-heart about business and family on their lakeside vacation in "Home Movies," Bobby revealed he had never "popped his cherry," murder-wise. Though Bobby Sr. (Burt Young) was a mob executioner (whom Tony dubbed the "Fucking Terminator"), he didn't want that for his son. Tony, on the other hand, was not spared "the big fat pain in the balls" by his own dad, Johnny Boy Soprano (Joseph Siravo).

In fact, it was Johnny Boy who assigned Tony his first hit, Willy Overalls, whose remains were dredged up by the Feds in this season's third episode, "Remember When." The paternal bequests of Bobby Sr. and Johnny Boy reverberated into the present, one ultimately undoing the other.

The problem with the Soprano family, as Bobby chided Tony in "Home Movies," is that they "always go too far." It's also a primary reason the show is so compelling. David Chase repeatedly re-imagines ordinary family scenarios -- like a weekend trip to the mountains -- in brutal, gangster terms. A father-daughter tour of colleges was sidelined by the strangulation of a mob rat in Season One; a wedding gown fitting included a discussion of the bride and groom's penchant for using a gun during sex play ("[We] take the clip out!") in Season Two; and a drug intervention devolved into punches and chairs thrown at the addict in Season Four.

Such signature exaggerations remain both hilarious and unsettling. In "Home Movies," a drunken game of Monopoly among Tony, Carmela (Edie Falco), Janice, and Bobby escalated into a fistfight between the two men. They broke windows and blackened eyes. Most importantly, Bobby emerged the victor. Like the proverbial elephant, Tony never forgets and he rarely forgives: in this instance, he reasserted his dominance, punishing Bobby by the most diabolical means possible. He ordered him to make a hit, thereby stripping Bobby of his father's legacy and poisoning the Baccalieris' past and future.

The juxtaposition between Bobby's dual roles as middle-class family man and newly minted killer became painfully clear in the episode's final, heart-wrenching sequence. When he returned to his Adirondacks retreat after the murder, the Drifters' "This Magic Moment" imbued the scene with both irony and nostalgia. As she entertained another family by the lake, Janice greeted Bobby warmly, the reflection of the setting sun on the water turning her body into a golden silhouette. She never looked happier or more beautiful. But the scene's idyllic quality was distorted by the audience's knowledge of Bobby's fall from grace: the image was as disturbing as one of John Currin’s suburban grotesqueries.

The themes of loss and dread carried over to the second ("Stage 5") and third episodes, as Tony and his Brooklyn associates Johnny Sacramoni (Vince Curatola) and Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) contemplated their mortality and their own legacies. In the past, Tony has justified his crew's sociopathic behavior by insisting that they were "soldiers," part of something bigger than themselves. By Season Six, this logic no longer holds. Mob mentors have been knocked from their pedestals, and Tony's might-have-been protoge are restless, rejecting their birthright. As the series winds down, Tony, Johnny, and Phil are realizing their criminal involvement guarantees them little honor and no glory.

This much is evident in the sagas surrounding Cleaver, the horror film produced by Tony's intended successor, Christopher (Michael Imperioli), which paints the mob boss as "an asshole bully," Johnny Sac's guilty plea from prison, which compromised his reputation in Brooklyn, and Phil's old-school adherence to the omerta, which makes him look like a patsy. Worse, the "life" has left them all with debilitating physical problems: Tony's gunshot wound, Johnny's stage four cancer, and Phil's coronary disease. In "Stage 5," Gerry Torciano (John Bianco), Phil's protoge explained the decline to Silvio in typical Sopranos parlance: "Johnny goes away, Phil's in the driver's seat, and his heart gives out. His heart... It's a metaphor, Sil. He lost his balls is what I'm sayin'."

The depiction of Uncle Junior's mental and physical deterioration in "Remember When" was the most poignant collapse among the top tier gangsters. Relegated to running puny card games in a psychiatric prison, Junior battled to hold on to his dignity as his freedom, power, and continence were stripped from him. In the episode's final scene, a lonely and wheelchair-bound Junior, once the most eloquent character on the show, had been effectively silenced. The end is indeed nigh.

There are six episodes left in The Sopranos, and there is no telling how Chase will wrap it up. During "Stage 5," Tony described Cleaver's plot to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), seeing its diabolical ending (which does involve a meat cleaver) as a revenge fantasy. Sadly, he surmised, "[Christopher] hates my guts. He wants to see me dead." When Melfi suggested he was reading too deeply into the plot, Tony disagreed. "I've been coming here for years. I know too much about the subconscious now." No matter where Tony ends up, it's clear he will be haunted by another legacy as complicated as his family's: the legacy of psychoanalysis.

In the pilot episode of The Sopranos, Tony voiced his ambivalence about psychiatry and expressed a longing to be like Gary Cooper, the hero who has informed his self-image and appeared in his dreams. He ranted to Dr. Melfi: "Whatever happened to the strong, silent type? He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do... Now it's dysfunction this, dysfunction that, dysfunction va fangul!" Although Tony has resisted therapy throughout the series, he always returned, whether to relieve his anxiety, understand the sources of his depression, or learn strategies for coping with his family and associates.

Melfi and the audience have wondered from the beginning if treatment could ever rehabilitate a character as hypocritical, impulsive, and violent as Tony Soprano. It's obvious that even the attempt at a "cure" has changed our antihero. Fruits from the tree of knowledge are costly, and after the first bite, there is no turning back.

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