Dr. Melfi: “What are you afraid’s going to happen?”
Tony: “I don’t know! But something. I don’t know!”
The Sopranos, season one, episode one


Watching the long goodbye of The Sopranos has been a test, and for many of us a proof, of how deep the show’s hooks had penetrated. At some point in its long run it came perhaps to be taken for granted. Undeniably, during recent seasons, I had found myself carping about stasis, a hint of aridity, an aura of grogginess. Hadn’t all this gone on long enough? Hadn’t we spent enough time watching Tony Soprano and the crew conspiring in the back room of Satriale’s Pork Store, or trading lacerating verbal jabs at the bar of the Bada Bing club while the strippers in the background went through their changeless paces? How many times could Carmela swallow her misgivings after she and Tony once again quarreled and reconciled? Yet as the seventh and final season rolled out, I found myself inwardly whining—in the tones of an addict as helpless as Christopher Moltisanti’s fellow substance abusers in his twelve- Step group or Dave Scatino, the compulsive gambler lured to his doom in Tony’s executive poker game—“Why does it have to end?”

I used to wonder how it would have been to be a reader in the era of serialized fiction, when Dickens could keep an entire culture hanging on for the next installment, and ships arriving in America might be hailed, before anything else, with questions about how things fared with Little Nell. But even The Old Curiosity Shop only took a little under a year to unfold. The Sopranos began its run in January 1999, extending eventually to eighty-six hour-long episodes. Following it has been like watching a movie that lasted for eight years, with occasional intermission breaks for births, deaths, terrorist incursions, and wars that look to go on much longer than the series. (“You realize we’re gonna bomb Iran?” A.J. Soprano asked his father in a late episode.)

At the start The Sopranos had the piquancy of a new invention. Television had fostered a claustrophobia of hemmed-in expectations, a culture of flat character types and pat endings. The space into which The Sopranos inducted us had the messy picaresque randomness of the real world, yet every detail—every tune heard in passing, every remark overheard at the next table, every artifact glimpsed in the background of a crowded room—glistened as if singled out with obsessive mindfulness. In texture and form it seemed something altogether new to television.

The suggestion originally made to the show’s creator, David Chase, was to create a TV version of The Godfather, but he chose instead to rework a screenplay he had written years earlier. The concept, baldly recounted, might have seemed a gimmick with limited potential: a lower-tier New Jersey mobster, living an outward life of suburban ease but bedeviled by panic attacks, with great reluctance goes into therapy. In outline—portrait of a mafioso as midlife family guy harried by growing kids, status-conscious wife, and impossible mother, with criminal associates to provide outrageous laugh lines—it had the makings of a “cutting edge” sitcom, with darker elements (such as the fact that his mother and uncle might be conspiring to have him killed) satirically recalling a Dallas-style dynastic soap opera. In execution it rapidly became something consistently rich and surprising, and beautifully unfinished, perhaps unfinishable. It created its own operating principles as it proceeded, while convincing us that this was an actual world we had stumbled on.

There were hints at the outset of a breezily caricatural direction, accenting in broad strokes the disconnect between the nature of the hero’s livelihood (“waste management consultant” with a finger in a dozen rackets and scams, from illegal dumping and no-show construction jobs to sports betting and loan-sharking) and the nouveau riche trappings of his family life in West Caldwell, New Jersey (from the crates of Roche-Bobois furniture to the elaborate home theater where his wife Carmela would eventually watch Citizen Kane on the recommendation of the American Film Institute’s “Hundred Best Films” list). But The Sopranos moved rapidly beyond easy schemas. Chase’s pilot episode, a masterpiece of abbreviated exposition, staked out a teeming alternate world, a northern New Jersey of the mind populated by a score of characters of whom at least fifteen would have major continuing roles, among them Tony’s children Meadow and A.J., his malevolent and endlessly self-pitying mother Livia, his ineffectual and embittered uncle Corrado (Uncle Junior), and his malcontent protégé Christopher; and each soon took on independent life.

Incarnated by actors then largely unknown to TV audiences, as brilliant a stock company as any ever assembled, they had on first encounter the memorable force of gargoyles. But these were gargoyles with curious depths, able to persuade us that they existed even when the camera wasn’t running. They spoke a dialogue so compressed and inventive in its mix of tones and jargons that it sounded like a new dialect, a poetically charged speech welded out of obscenities and banalities, misconstrued catchphrases and newly minted messages from the unconscious.


The show undertook to find how many variant aspects of each of these characters could be revealed. We circled around them and studied them from different angles, taking all the time necessary to contemplate these clearly limited yet somehow infinitely mysterious beings. The process could never really be completed except in death—and death would arrive for many. But even after they were gone we would continue to contemplate the precise alchemy of their role in the Sopranos scheme of things. Their fate has been to escape from the frame of the show, inhabiting a zone of their own in which their choices continue to perplex, and their individual voices haunt sleepless moments, no matter what the words might be saying.

Most of all I hear the lingering voice of Nancy Marchand, who died after the second season but whose presence shaped the mood of the whole series. As Tony’s mother Livia, a monster out of Balzac, manipulative, verbally abusive, endlessly self-pitying (“I wish the Lord would take me”), she provided the foil in comparison with whom Tony could look victimized, a well-meaning adult struggling to cope with an irrational aging parent. I can still hear the grating succession of ascending screams with which she delivered the line: “Power? What power? I don’t have power, I’m a shut-in!” Or the soul-killing tone, as she approached death, of her parting words with her grandson: “It’s all a big nothing.”

We came to think we knew them like family—if a family was something always unsettling, held together by habit and fear and desperate wishful thinking. The comforting familiarity of a well-loved television presence became, in James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, a play of beguiling masks luring us only deeper into indeterminacy. To be charmed by him (he made it easy) was to be conned, with a good chance he was equally duped by his own devices. Possibly he meant it wholeheartedly when he told Dr. Melfi: “I’m a good guy basically…I love my family.” By the time we got to the end we had seen a thousand Tonys—sheepish, serpentine, commanding, calculating, lecherous, self-pitying, savagely sarcastic, tenderly paternal, fatuously self-pleased, teary-eyed over an old radio hit, racked by paranoid mistrust, exploding in feral rage—and seen one switch to another in an instant. Guileless self-revelation was not a possibility, least of all in a psychiatrist’s office. He had so many of him to choose from.

Tony’s compartmentalized psyche—crosscutting between mob business, family life, and the transcendence he sought variously in Canada geese, peyote visions, or reenactments of World War II on the History Channel—provided a center so sprawling it could be mistaken for the whole. The mere sight of him padding yet again in white bathrobe toward the refrigerator evoked a disheveled Wotan worthy of a show whose capacity to extend and savor its transitions could seem Wagnerian. But the secret of The Sopranos was the exhilarating density and noisiness of its digressions. Around the core group—Tony, his immediate family, his crew—were secondary and tertiary rings of characters with varying lifespans but often equally indelible, some nearly seizing control of an episode or a season (the suave psychopath Richie Aprile, the depressive car dealer Gloria Trillo), others surfacing only for as long, say, as it took them to get beaten half to death for trimming the wrong person’s hedges.

The populousness of The Sopranos was of a piece with its ample scope and its dizzying mood swings. This territory thick with mobbed-up construction sites and toxic waste dumps turned out, unaccountably, to be a wonderland: not precisely Alice’s domain but one likewise filled with magical locations (Bada Bing, Vesuvio’s, the pork store), dream states and alternate realities, parodies and non sequiturs, ordinary objects turned menacing or disorienting, and devastating jokes that popped up in the midst of social rituals as arcane as the Queen of Hearts’ croquet match. Every episode was saturated with allusions—to movies, songs, history high and low, scraps of every creed and cult, the common store of rumor and misinformation—a backbeat of information that might be relevant or meaningless. (Where else would we find a mob guy taking to heart the self-help mantra to “feel the fear and do it anyway”?)

It was a show that came with its own built-in annotation. The philosophical enforcer Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) sentimentalized about taking his mother to see Man of La Mancha— “Richard Kiley stared at Ma the whole time he was singing ‘The Impossible Dream'”—not long before murdering one of her nursing home friends who caught him stealing her savings from under the mattress. A.J.’s struggle to complete a high school term paper (“The entire point of Melville’s Billy Budd, it seems to me, is to show how mean humans can be to each other, especially when living in cramped conditions”) precipitated a delicately calibrated family symposium on the possible connection of Melville’s novel to what Carmela called “this whole gay thing,” complete with a reference to Leslie Fiedler and a bad pun from Tony to end the discussion: “He must have been the ship’s florist—Billy Bud.”


Bad or misconstrued information bounced around in a world defined by random breaks, mostly unlucky. Anything that happened might turn out to be a kind of sucker punch; any exchange could tip into the farcical or the terrifying without warning. We might be tipped out of this world entirely, by way of the wounded Christopher’s vision of hell as “the Emerald Piper…an Irish bar where it’s St. Patrick’s Day forever,” or Dr. Melfi’s dream of Tony’s death, accompanied for no evident reason by a chorus of Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, or Tony’s prolonged coma-induced alternate existence as a precision optics salesman from Arizona who stumbled into an encounter with Tibetan monks (except that these were Sopranos-style Tibetan monks who played rough in defending their turf).

Any throwaway line could encapsulate a scarily decentered world. One night Tony walked into the back room of the Bada Bing and, asked by Silvio what was going on in the main room, replied: “Nothing much. Some asshole slipped on a lime wedge.” Gandolfini’s little grin at the memory of this offscreen pratfall—a tiny irrepressible twitch of private enjoyment—managed to be at once attractively childish and a window into depths of potential cruelty.


Emotional buttons were pushed with the expertise of a long-time television professional. David Chase had worked in the medium all his adult life—his earlier writing credits included The Night Stalker, The Rockford Files, and Northern Exposure. Despite his proclaimed dislike of network television—“I loathe and despise almost every second of it…. I considered network TV to be propaganda for the corporate state…[Northern Exposure] ram[med] home every week the message that ‘life is nothing but great,’ ‘Americans are great,’ and ‘heartfelt emotion and sharing conquers everything.'”1 The Sopranos thus had something of the quality of a palace coup, a revolution engineered by an insider who, knowing where the fault lines were, could evoke an emotional reaction all the better to thwart it, divert it, or turn it into something grotesquely different.

Not all rebellions are youth rebellions. The Sopranos seemed to retain at its core some early vision maintained and deepened in secret through a long period of waiting, along with the anger attendant on being forced to wait. Chase—who is Italian-American, and who did grow up in northern New Jersey—is a child of the Sixties whose main object of study in college, he has said, was the music of the Rolling Stones. (“I always wanted to be a rock and roll musician much more than I wanted to be anything else.”) He has also cited as influences the plays of Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Arthur Miller, and the films of Fellini (8 1/2) and Polanski (particularly the absurdist crime comedy Cul-de-Sac). He has not been shy about broadcasting his artistic allegiances; in episode two, one character operated Bunuel Brothers Auto Repairs, while another spotted Martin Scorsese walking into a nightclub and shouted out: “Kundun! I liked it!”

Chase’s having come late to the point of making The Sopranos probably accounts for the impulse to make it a show about everything, including everything that television had always left out: most strikingly the toll of age and the limits of the body, explored with a detail that made the show a beauty pageant of the body in decline, with a staggering number of scenes set in hospital rooms, retirement homes, and funeral parlors. Here even gangsters were subject to the most ordinary of physical sufferings and humiliations, and even a mob boss had to worry about his health coverage.

There was always a great deal of plot, and later seasons sometimes moved unavoidably in the direction of soap opera or cliffhanger, but plot was never the governing principle.2 The show was a collage of situations, a mapping of unstable connections. Christopher assassinating a Czech garbage contractor was no more or less important than Carmela eating popcorn while watching Field of Dreams with her almost too affable parish priest Father Phil, or Livia listening in barely contained hostility as a nursing home director extolled the benefits of a lecture on the novels of Zora Neale Hurston. A single episode could juxtapose a certain number of disparate elements, and the high pleasure was in the jarring elegance of the juxtaposition.

We were left always on the brink of a resolution—whether of plot, or character analysis, or ultimate significance—that never quite arrived. Instead there were suggestive ellipses and asymmetries. A show that in some ways spelled out everything, in language more eloquently obscene than television had permitted, hinged finally on the pauses in between. The effect was above all musical, and each episode was capped with a piece of music—or a chunk of expressive silence—not so much to sum up the proceedings as to provide another ambiguous gloss. Chase pursued, in each episode, the pleasure of a different sort of ending, that of hanging unresolved in a state of rapt frustration, enjoying the patterns as they warily stopped short of coalescing: a paradise of disequilibrium.3


Chase’s neatest trick was to make a show about the mob—a show that laid out in gratifying detail the workings of scams and hits, political connections and techniques of intimidation, internecine maneuverings and FBI infiltrations—that constantly suggested that the mob was not what the show was really about. By assimilating the mob into everyday life he dissolved it. Tony Soprano was the gangster who lived on the other side of the fence and sat at the next table in the restaurant, mingling in a world quite sufficiently corrupt without him. He was not, in old movie style, the outsider casting a sinister shadow over the American family; he was himself the prime representative of that family. He had grown up on sitcoms and Seventies rock, and there were moments when Tony and Paulie in the backroom of Satriale’s metamorphosed into Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton at the Raccoon Lodge on The Honeymooners, or when Tony, launching one of his racist zingers, seemed a stand-in for Archie Bunker of All in the Family.

Tony was a domesticated end point for the romance of gangsterism that looks to be America’s most durable contribution to world folklore. It was a romance fed by movies, not just the early classics with Cagney, Robinson, and Muni, but the harsher and less poetic later movies—The Enforcer (1951), The Brothers Rico (1957), Johnny Cool (1963)—in which gangsterism was no longer a violent aberration but the deadly norm, administered by unpitying accountants flanked by expressionless hitmen in dark glasses. (Cagney’s Public Enemy—a Tony Soprano favorite—looked like a Miltonic rebel angel by comparison.) The cycle culminated in Coppola’s Godfather films and Scorsese’s Goodfellas, crucial reference points for The Sopranos.

Anyone growing up in postwar America—in the years between the Kefauver hearings of 1951 and the RICO-driven federal indictments of the mid-Eighties—accepted the Mafia as a pervasive if largely invisible presence. You could not penetrate very deeply into American life, certainly not in cities like New York or Chicago, or along a road like the New Jersey Turnpike, without bumping against its edges, if only as rumor or apprehensive surmise. Every now and then bloody confirmation was provided by a tabloid front page, of Albert Anastasia shot dead in the barbershop of the Park Sheraton in 1957 or Crazy Joey Gallo blown away at Umberto’s Clam House in 1972. The ruthlessness and sadism of mobsters (not necessarily Italian but in this era usually assumed to be) provided stories for little boys to frighten other little boys with, and for those frightened boys to convert, perhaps, into secret fantasies of usurpation and revenge.

The Sopranos would play on our desire for access to forbidden knowledge, and offer a tour more exhaustive than any movie could offer not only of the secret lives of gangsters, but of their inner lives—if, that is, gangsters turned out to have inner lives. Tony Soprano would be seen from all angles—more thoroughly under surveillance than any federal agent could hope for—as husband, father, brother, lover, employer, analysand. We would see him fumbling for an adequate answer when his teenage daughter asks him if he’s in the Mafia, or coping with feelings of depression and inadequacy. Brought thoroughly into his world-view, we would perceive the straight people on the fringes (like Tony’s next-door neighbor Dr. Cusumano and his golf buddies, gawking like fans at the gangster in their midst) as the truly alien presences.

Women would humanize him: this faint promise hovered over the early episodes. The domesticated gangster inhabited a world in which, for once, women had equal dramatic weight. It was with his wife, his daughter, his sister, his mother, his analyst, that Tony engaged in his deepest struggles. Two of them—his mother Livia and his odious sister Janice—were at heart killers like himself. His curse was to have been the whelp of Lady Macbeth, with a sister who did nothing to soften that legacy. But wife and daughter and analyst variously held out the possibility of a transformed life, a new way of being. This was revolution: gangster movies consigned women to the roles of trophies, trading chips, or victims, and not uncommonly all three at once (if they were not mothers, characteristically unassimilated to American ways and given to bouts of regretful weeping). The force of these Soprano women made iridescent the masculine monochrome of the gangster genre; surely we must be in the realm of sitcom, or soap opera, or a romantic miniseries like The Thorn Birds (although Father Phil made a comically weak substitute for Richard Chamberlain’s conflicted priest).

Edie Falco’s Carmela, outwardly uncowed, carried the weight of that not quite fulfilled possibility. To be equal to Tony (who, notably, exempted her, along with his daughter, from the violence he was otherwise prompt to dish out) meant matching him in will and deviousness, on a manifestly unlevel playing field. Edie Falco made Carmela the show’s greatest character, as with each line she tested resistances, looking for unsuspected leeway within the well-appointed prison of her domestic life. She would deny that, of course, and she would deny everything, knowing perfectly well what Tony’s life was about—yet she could make us believe that it was freedom she was looking for. The great liberating energy of the early seasons was Carmela’s oblique and evasive progress toward her potential life, the real self for which all this carefully costumed and made-up performance was a dress rehearsal. If Tony’s numerous sexual affairs were always pointedly devoid of interest—since nothing affected him—Carmela’s handful of close brushes with desire, exquisitely frustrated, threatened a transformation that would truly devastate this world.

But she was finally the most disappointing character, since in the end she could not win out. Even when, after four seasons, she threw Tony out of the house—because of the girlfriends rather than any of the other misdeeds with whose details she let herself remain happily unacquainted—there seemed nowhere for her to go, aside from a brief affair with an academic administrator who gave her Madame Bovary to read, before finding her aggressiveness a bit too suggestive of her husband’s style. She could have found freedom only by leaving the series altogether; instead, after a decent interval, she accepted Tony’s embrace and resigned herself to the resumption of domestic life, a defeated woman. Freedom, in this second phase, meant asserting the intellectual independence to watch a rerun of a Dick Cavett interview with Katharine Hepburn on Turner Classic Movies. Until the end I entertained the faint notion that Carmela might finally blow Tony’s brains out, enraged perhaps to find that out of all the crimes she had closed her eyes to there was one at least that was truly beyond forgiveness—the dreadful execution of the reluctant snitch Adriana, the show’s most sympathetic character. But Carmela did not have the stuff of an avenging angel.

It was in those later seasons that the show seemed to become an anguished circling around masculinity itself, as if being a gangster were merely a metaphor for the insoluble dilemma of being male. In describing the separate spheres of men and women, The Sopranos had charted an apportionment of male and female roles and powers that was at root almost Islamist in its rigor. Early on we had been shown, for example, how the shamefulness in the mob ethos of a man simply rumored to have a flair for cunnilingus could lead to violence and death.

This was but prelude. By the time we endured, in season six, the long and painful saga of the outing of mob henchman Vito Spatafore, his flight to New England where he attempted to remake his life with a small-town fireman, and his inevitable murder, executed with a sadism commensurate with the horror “this whole gay thing” provoked in other mobsters, the show seemed almost to have exorcised the forceful female presences that once distinguished it. We were to be left with men battering men over the question of who was a man. Faithful to the forces it had set in motion, The Sopranos acknowledged that not even in this artificial world could there be any magical exemptions. The triumph of women, capable of turning gangster tragedy into domestic comedy, and representing the miraculous overcoming of ignorant force, had been the engine of the show’s stubbornly joyful undertone. Now all that was to be undone, so that we were left in the end with wreckage.

Humor by now was mostly gallows humor. The show had always been some kind of comedy. But that The Sopranos was reliably the funniest show on television never alleviated the unease that suffused its most casual transactions. Paulie, the ultimate hard case, was always scary and always funny, with his store of solemn platitudes, dubious health tips, and unexpected flights of theological speculation. (He figured that his multiple sins of murder and mayhem had earned him no more than six thousand years in Purgatory, Purgatory years being in any case very different from ours: “I could do that standing on my head…. It’s like a couple of days here.”) The scowling big-haired consigliere Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt) won us over with his imitation of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III before morphing into the unpitying executioner of Adriana. As if we were marks softened up by easy loans and unsolicited favors from the mob, irresistible wisecracks had greased our passage into one excruciating impasse after another, in a place more closely resembling Hell than Purgatory. Nothing like redemption appeared to be going on there.


By the time the end approached, the first episodes already belonged to a different era. The songs the Soprano kids listened to were material for oldies stations, and the tea room at the Plaza, where Carmela and Meadow shared their traditional mother-and-daughter luncheon, had slipped into oblivion. We had watched the children grow up, and in the face of James Gandolfini, after nearly a decade under mercilessly intimate surveillance, could observe changes as deep-set and unforgiving as those in the face of a two-term president. The Sopranos provided an alternate reality for an era in which such a refuge was much to be prized. The collective brutalities of Tony’s crime family and its rivals could hardly compete with what was going on outside. (Tony Soprano’s own FBI nemesis was eventually transferred to monitoring al-Qaeda.)

It was disturbing to realize how much we did care about these people. Each of the final episodes was anticipated not so much with pleasure as dread, since each posed the risk of an unacceptable loss, as characters in whom we had invested years of attention were swept away. None of the characters in The Sopranos precisely resembled Little Nell, of course. That it was possible to feel so much on behalf of characters often devoid of the least capacity for empathy was a typical Sopranos paradox. As if to emphasize that point, the last episodes went out of their way to cast Tony and the rest in an ever more remote and unsympathetic light. The endgame obliged us to be stripped of any remaining illusions. Perhaps, to ease the pain of our disengagement, Chase felt we should be reminded that we had permitted ourselves to love monsters.

With a murder—of his drug-addled protégé Christopher—that erased years of apparent affection, Tony Soprano did his best to dispel any notion that he was capable of sustained moral self-examination—or indeed capable of grasping that the expression of feeling could be anything more than a form of expert mimicry. As for Carmela, she made clear at last her inability to acknowledge the bloodstained realities sustaining her life. The children seemed likewise to surrender listlessly to their fates. The once energetic Columbia graduate Meadow drifted from pre-med to law school toward marriage with another gangster’s son—and it already seemed her burgeoning career in criminal justice could be corrupted by family ties. The perennially troubled A.J. sank deeper into suicidal depression, even if he managed to miscalculate the length of rope necessary to anchor him to the bottom of the family swimming pool. The whole family seemed increasingly like the ghosts of people who hadn’t quite died, lingering around the kitchenette that gave them the fitful and uncertain sense of still belonging to the world. After years of reveling in the uncannily lifelike counterreality of The Sopranos, we found ourselves washed up at last in a domain of zombies. The despondent A.J. stared blankly at a television screen—“Whatcha watchin’?” “Nothing.”—while the doomed Christopher, unaware he had only moments to live, randomly switched stations on his car radio before settling for the soundtrack of—what else?—The Departed.

Once, a long time ago, when psychotherapy still held out redemptive promise, Dr. Melfi had given Tony life-enhancing advice quoted from Carlos Castaneda: “Live every moment as if it were your last dance on earth.” Now she was curtly sending him on his way as an untreatable sociopath, convinced finally that “they sharpen their skills as con men on their therapists.” Psychoanalysis had provided a theatrical platform for Tony to soliloquize, but now the show kicked away its defining framing device. What began as the story of a potential healing became the description of the last stages of an incurable sickness. The images themselves darkened, as if the sun were removing itself permanently from northern New Jersey. The appropriately apocalyptic literary reference point was Yeats’s “The Second Coming”—even if A.J.’s absorption in it led Carmela to protest, in a desperate attempt to restore a lost equilibrium: “What kind of poem is that to teach college students?”

No imaginable end—Tony killed, dead by mischance, in prison, or in the witness protection program—seemed a satisfying prospect. In the last episode, tantalizingly, event followed event with the promise of freshly evolving situations, just as if the conclusion were not in sight. Perhaps the show would not end at all. In a sense it didn’t. To the dismay of many viewers, a black screen—at the moment when Tony may or may not have been fatally shot by a hit man who may or may not have been there, as a jukebox song stopped on the phrase “don’t stop”—froze all further narrative development. Or perhaps this was a way of conveying that the show had already ended, perhaps a long time before. After all, was there any kind of ending that we had not already seen? In a sense it had all been nothing but a succession of endings. We could hardly complain that there hadn’t been enough of them.

This Issue

August 16, 2007