Primary Show Runner: David Chase; U.S. (HBO)
Premiered: January 10, 1999; Ended: June 10, 2007
(This article is designed for people who have watched the entire series of The Sopranos. If you plan to watch the series in the future and want to avoid spoilers – you should stop reading now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
“I am the way into the city of woe. I am the way to a forsaken people. I am the way into eternal sorrow. Sacred justice moved my architect. I was raised here by divine omnipotence, primordial love, and ultimate intellect. Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me, and beyond time I stand. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
– Dante Alighieri, from “The Divine Comedy” c. 1315
The Sopranos begins as a rouse – a deceptive glamor. We think we are being told a story about redemption. After all, we open with a gangster, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) going to a psychologist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) for help. This attempt towards self-improvement gives us hope that this fundamentally evil man can change. This hope carries us through seven seasons – even as it becomes increasingly obvious that The Sopranos is about something else entirely.
It isn’t the first time we have been made to sympathize with the bad guys – the Godfather films being the first example that comes to mind. Vito Corleone, after all, didn’t turn to crime because he wanted to be a criminal or because he was necessarily a violent man. He turned to crime out of a desire to protect, and provide for, his family. Michael Corleone never intended to join the family business, so his decent into becoming a violent criminal is a tragedy.
Neither Corleone ever really enjoyed being a mob boss, while Tony never wanted anything else. He had a chance to go to college and leave North Jersey behind, but he dropped out in favor of pursuing “the Life.” Over seven seasons, we don’t watch him become a better man, just a more vicious criminal.
Throughout its run we were confronted with characters that were seduced by evil, and too in love with its spoils to turn themselves away from it. Tony B. (Steve Bucsemi) and Vito (Joseph R. Gannascoli) try to leave “the Life” but are seduced back into it, resulting in their deaths. For Carmella Soprano (Edie Falco), her rationalizations and denials increase throughout the series. Sure Tony may have killed people, but he gets her all those fine necklaces. Even the once street-wise Meadow Soprano (Jamie Lynn Sigler) is, by the end of the series, making the same rationalizations as her mother.
It should be obvious to the viewer that these people are only going to get worse as the series progresses. Tony especially is nothing more than a ten year old bully in the body of an adult man. He enjoys pushing people around, teasing people to their limits, hitting people in anger, and watching old movies with a bowl of ice cream and a smug look on his face.
But he provides. For his family he provides wealth. As long as they don’t question where that wealth comes from. For his men he provides the thrill of the gangster life, as long as they don’t cross him. For Dr. Melfi he provides a professional challenge. For himself he provides whatever he wants however he wants to get it.
He provides for the audience too. He provides the thrill of criminal violence and intrigue. He provides girls, guns, and gold. He provides just enough charm to like him and ignore what should be obvious to all of us. We see him make jokes, cry for his children, pour his soul out to Dr. Melfi. We think, maybe this time it will be different.
It’s never different, and that’s because The Sopranos is not a tale of redemption. It is a decent into hell. And Tony Soprano is the devil.
(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe