After about two years of watching it on and off, at long last I finished The Sopranos last night. The genre isn’t generally my cup of tea, but the series comes so consistently highly rated and recommended that it’s one I’ve always wanted to get to, despite not having seen a single episode live during its original run.
And it really is quite good, although with the steady rise in the general quality of filmmaking over the years, it may not be quite the home run that it once was. Especially at first, I found the series premise was hard to swallow given that Dr. Melfi appears to the least effective psychiatrist of all time, doing nothing more than reflecting Tony’s words back at him, and offering precious little helpful or actionable advice across six seasons worth of episodes. Seeing Tony’s crew as a gang of vicious mobsters who go around intimidating everyone and anyone took some suspension of disbelief as in many scenes where they’re meant to be running down and terrorizing people, the actors are so overweight and out of shape that they’re visibly having difficulty walking. The dialog was mostly fine, but stunted in many places, and if any crew of real murderers threw as many angsty fits at each other as the DiMeo family 1, they would have all offed each other in their first month of business.
But even so, The Sopranos manages to build an intricate storyline with few holes across 80+ episodes, and delivers a satisfying conclusion. It rarely forgets to develop a character, and arcs are long and realistically complex. Carmela leading a near idyllic suburban housewife experience by understanding what her husband does, but forcing herself to never examine it too closely. Junior initially feigning dementia for a lighter court sentence, but later succumbing to it for real – in small doses at first, but then then completely. AJ, born as the prince of the family, but living in such comfort as to never develop the backbone for crime or to lead the DiMeos himself, and the subconscious dissatisfaction with that manifesting all kinds of social ills. Christopher’s complex relationship with substances, falling in and out of abuse many times over before they finally claim his life (with a little help from Tony).
The Sopranos isn’t about crime or the mob, or about the Sapranos family. It’s a snapshot of a New Jersey gang universe during a particular period of time. Tony is the gravitational pull at the center which provides the framing, but details around all the edges are examined.
I found the final season to be by far the most interesting. Not only is it where a lot of critical action unfolds, but it’s the show’s thematic pinnacle as well.
Season six isn’t just the end of The Sopranos as a TV series, but in many ways suggests the end of the Sopranos as a family. There’s the obvious crises of the rivalry with the Lupertazzis and the impending federal case against Tony, but those pale in comparison the more overwhelming existential threat which is implied but not discussed – that the DiMeos are shrinking, and by the end of the season they’re already below the threshold of viability as a criminal enterprise. One-by-one we see Tony’s lieutenants fall, and without any realistic hope of suitable replacements.
The Lupertazzi family privately ridicules the DiMeos as “nothing more than a glorified crew”, and even if it wasn’t true before, by the end of the series it is. The final scene between Tony and Paulie is dramatic in a very subdued sort of way, as they sit in front of Satriale’s all by themselves (pictured above) – Silvio, Bobby, Chris, Vito, and Pussy all gone from the picture, and with Tony offering leadership of Carlo’s crew to Paulie because really, there’s no one else left.
The infamous concluding restaurant scene that cuts to black, leaving the ending ambiguous as to whether Tony is murdered, or just watching Meadow walk in the door, is a masterstroke in finales. Fans have written hundreds of long essays justifying one position or the other, and are still talking about it to this day. Personally, I don’t think it matters that much – Tony may indeed have been assassinated, but that could be considered a mercy in comparison to the long, slow unraveling of his family and stature as the DiMeo gang continues to fade, and he’s chewed through by the legal system.
A lingering question I had throughout the series is how much the filmmakers intended viewers to empathize with the characters on screen. Not only were they criminals, but mostly awful human beings to boot, and I personally found myself having trouble connecting with any of them, which meant that their eventual demise didn’t land particularly hard.
There were exceptions of course (I really liked Adriana, a motivated and well-meaning person, but hopelessly caught up in the wrong circles), but it was hard to care about most of them, and meanwhile I got the impression that the show was suggesting that I should feel attached to long running terrible-but-quirky characters like Paulie and Silvio.
So should you watch it? Famously, Rolling Stone ranked The Sopranos as their number one TV series of all time. Reading their reasoning, it’s partly because the show is good, and partly because it laid important groundwork for the future, especially for a new age of serials focused on telling big, ambitious stories:
What an inspiring, terrifying mess it is. The Sopranos ran away with this poll because it changed the world. Chase showed how much storytelling ambition you could bring to television, and it didn’t take long for everybody else to rise to his challenge. The breakthroughs of the next few years – The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – couldn’t have happened without The Sopranos kicking the door down.
For my money, it’s not number one, and probably doesn’t even break the top ten (notably, the Rolling Stone’s list leaves out a lot smaller productions, e.g. Patriot, and doesn’t include some of the amazing TV that’s come since 2016, e.g. Chernobyl), but if you’ve got the time, it’s well worth the viewing.