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The Sopranos, Part I

[1]2,513 words

Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here [2])

It’s been twenty years since it premiered, and twelve since it concluded, so we can now claim with a dose of certainty that we have a historical perspective on it. Yes, folks, I’m talking about The Sopranos, David Chase’s crime drama that redefined modern television. Ditching the episodic format for season-long sagas while still presenting slice-of-life vignettes centered around Tony Soprano, The Sopranos made such hits as Breaking Bad, The Shield, and The Wire possible.

However, it is the opinion of this author that none of the now standard dramas on HBO and other networks can even come close to the grandeur of The Sopranos. No television show has even been so vivid, so lifelike. Part of this is because the series treats television as a visual medium to a much greater degree than other such dramas, and therefore is less exposed to the risk of wooden dialogue. Another reason is the superb chemistry of the ensemble cast. Not without a knowing smirk will I point out that, with a few exceptions, the cast is ethnically homogeneous. It is all eye-talians. Even its creator, David Chase, is Italian; his original family name was DeCesare. And yet another reason is that Chase wasn’t afraid to create characters who were genuinely larger-than-life. There’s something to be said about having been embedded in a community, unlike those other nerds writing for HBO. Men like Tony Soprano, “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Paulie Walnuts, and Uncle Junior actually exist. Flamboyant, bombastic, and effervescent wiseguys might offend the sensibilities of the dainty Anglo, but such men are real, and their indomitable will prevails. The enduring success of The Sopranos is a testament to man’s desire to venerate and honor strength and the strong.

Before I get into the meat of the series, let me deal with a few possible low-IQ retorts which might crop up.

Firstly, glorification of gangs and violence is not necessarily a bad thing. Men venerate and honor strength. If, for example, the state were on their side, they would venerate and honor the soldiers of the state. We see this in the success of movies like American Sniper, which is thin, thin gruel, but appears today as a feast in the desert. Absent venerable men serving the state, men will venerate anyone with strength and a willingness to use it. When Murray Rothbard said that the state is a gang of thieves writ large, he neglected to mention that a gang of thieves is a tiny state. The core competency of either a state or a gang of thieves is power projection [3]. Enter gangsta rappers and mob bosses. In this sense, gangsters are soldiers and gang bosses are kings. The Sopranos is therefore, among other things, a study of power at the highest levels. However, since the Mafia mystique is quite different from that of the state, we are given a more honest appraisal of the nature of power than we would get from a biopic about a President.

Secondly, ixnay on that “Italians are not white” bullshit. Like all Mediterraneans, Italians belong to the white race. A problem arises, however, when Northwestern Europeans transition into racialist thinking, but retain the old us-versus-them dichotomy. They correctly recognize that Italians are not Northwestern European (or North Sea people), and mark them as “not us,” but erroneously apply the rhetoric of racialism, thus labeling Italians and other Mediterraneans as “not white.” The same applies to “Slavs are not white,” and the nineteenth-century “Irish are not white” contentions. The distinction between Italians and Northwestern Europeans – and specifically Anglo society – is quite important in The Sopranos, but it is neither helpful nor true if it outgroups Italians as non-white.

The Sopranos’ central conflict is the tension between Tony Soprano, family man, and Tony Soprano, “family” man. Our hero attempts to be a modern American father while maintaining his link to the criminal underworld. He has to juggle the responsibilities of a mob boss and those of a familial patriarch. Much of the conflict arises from the cultural incompatibilities between his two families. The Mafia is a vector of Deep Europe, a creature of the Mezzogiorno, that impoverished and war-ravaged southern half of the Italian peninsula: a proto-state in which a gang of men grouped together for mutual protection has been transformed into an organization capable of projecting its will outward.

The Soprano family is a modern American one, including a bratty teenage daughter, a slow-witted teenage son, and a mouthy wife with legal immunity from traditional disciplinary action. Big Boss Tony is pussy-whipped and disrespected by his children. His wife openly cavorts with and flirts with the local priest, something which amuses Tony but is a blatant challenge to his patriarchal rule. He is impotent when dealing with his children, in particular his teenage daughter Meadow, to whom he looks for his moral center and redemption, while she burns coal with a half-Jewish, half-black college student poetically named Jamal Ginsberg [4] (Tony refers to him as “the Hasidic homeboy”). She also engages in Leftist activism and works with Muslim immigrants. Rather than rule, as is his duty as father and patriarch, Tony Soprano allows his wife to overrule him and coddle his children. It’d be easy to blame Soprano for being weak, but he has, as the children say, a Freudian excuse: He witnessed the systematic emasculation of his father by his narcissistic and downright evil mother throughout his childhood.

Tony’s relationship with his mother Livia is possibly the most psychologically intense conflict of the early seasons. Tony Soprano is a tortured man, torn between his sense of obligation as a dutiful son and his natural revulsion towards Livia’s evil and manipulative behavior. In another testament to the characters’ vividness, Livia Soprano is a chillingly accurate portrait of a narcissistic woman who spreads misery around herself in her old age. On the other hand, she dutifully informs her grandson Anthony Jr. that psychiatry is a racket for the Jews [5], so kudos to her. Female narcissism is centered around a woman’s beauty when the female is young, but as women age, they learn to use their frailty as a means of attracting attention. Livia presents a problem to Tony that defies solution, especially when she uses the burgeoning war between Tony and his Uncle Junior to carry out her own vendetta against Tony for putting her in a nursing home. If I were of that bent, I’d read into this behavior a metaphor for the Boomer refusal to bow out off the stage of history with dignity, insisting instead on doddering through their final years shorn of dignity and grace, earning for themselves the hatred of the young. But why should Junior care? He’ll die soon, anyway. Besides, he gave his life to his children on a silver platter!

Psychiatry, as it is portrayed in the show, is incredibly realistic. Tony Soprano has an anxiety attack. He is directed to see a psychiatrist. Given the choice of “two Jews and a paisan like me,” he picks Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She’s an attractive woman whose professional aloofness attracts Tony’s hunter instincts – he wants to have her. Melfi trots out that tired old bromide about “transference,” which is to say that patients develop romantic feelings about a therapist because the therapist is an open ear and a shoulder to cry on, which is mistaken by the patient as romantic openness. Nothing can be further from the truth. A virile man lusting after an attractive woman is the most natural thing in the world, and will happen regardless of her disposition. In fact, professional aloofness will only whet the man’s hunger. Personally, I have myself made the mistake of seeing an attractive female therapist for my own psychological treatment. Here’s a free piece of advice for you young bucks seeking psychiatric help: Get a male therapist or, if you can suffer their presence, an old woman. However, do bear in mind that psychiatry is indeed a racket for the Jews, or more precisely for the disproportionately Jewish pharmaceutical industry, as well as a social control method for the liberal world order.

Predictably, Dr. Melfi dopes Tony up something fierce on a cocktail of psychotropics to treat his depression, anxiety attacks, and sundry dissatisfaction. The underlying issue of why this wildly successful man – successful in every sense of the word – is depressed and anxious is something that dominates the therapy sessions and is indeed the psychological underpinning of the whole show. That the answer is as plainly obvious as the nose on our faces doesn’t faze the show’s creator, nor the characters, nor indeed much of the audience, because ours is a society predicated on ignoring the obvious and seeking out irrational and magical explanations for the consequences of ignoring the obvious.

Rounding out Tony’s personal cycle and bridging into his criminal lifestyle is his Uncle Junior, the given name of Corrado Soprano, his father’s brother and father figure. Masterfully portrayed by Dominic Chianese, even the all-powerful Tony Soprano “may run North Jersey, but you don’t run your Uncle Junior! How many fuckin’ hours did I spend playin’ catch with you? [6]” Uncle Junior is another one of those vivid, larger-than-life characters. Bald, bespectacled, unmarried in his late 60s, and biding his time to become the boss following the death of Jackie Aprile, Sr., Junior’s relationship with his nephew Tony is genuinely tragic. He is maneuvered into the position of boss by his nephew, who secretly holds all the power, following advice from Dr. Melfi on dealing with recalcitrant elders. When he finds out, Uncle Junior reacts as any king would when his power is compromised: retaliating with lethal force against Tony. Whereas Livia encourages Junior to kill Tony out of petty sadism, Junior legitimately sees Tony as a threat to his power and takes steps to protect his position. He is distressed when he gives the order.

In this situation, Uncle Junior is an Emperor Tiberius figure. His claim to the throne relies on the deaths of everyone else, and seniority, but when he gets it, he is too old and bitter to enjoy it, instead “eating alone” – which is to say denying subordinate mobsters the opportunity to earn and hoarding all the profits for himself. He even comes with a sleazy Sejanus in tow in the form of Mickey Palmice – thankfully not portrayed by Patrick Stewart in a wig – who is Junior’s part consigliere, part buttonman, and part servile and insufferable ass-kisser. The conflict between Tony and Uncle Junior is part of the tension that exists in every hierarchical organization between seniority and merit. The two are different categories, and both must be honored if the organization is to survive – and sometimes they come in conflict. Should the reins be held by the obviously capable Tony or the vastly experienced Junior? The situation is resolved in a war which claims the lives of several mobsters and results in Junior’s installment as a puppet boss while Tony serves as the actual decision-maker. In this sense, Junior is as much a recalcitrant boomer as Livia, though he at least has a case for his right to rule, where Livia has none.

In the second season, we are introduced to Janice Soprano, Tony’s wayward sister who has spent the past decades as a West Coast hippie. She barrels into the family and starts causing trouble for everyone, from fomenting misbehavior in her niece Meadow to maneuvering to strip-mine Livia’s property by acting as her primary caregiver and chief beneficiary, while also mooching off Tony himself. We are treated to the spectacle of an ugly, middle-aged fat woman using her sexuality to seduce various violent and perverted mobsters in order to secure her material well-being. While she has the same Freudian excuses as Tony, she has none of his redeeming qualities. Anthony John Soprano, Sr. is a creature of intellect and will, in control of his violence – a king. Janice Soprano is a maelstrom of dysfunction, perversion, gluttony, and greed, wrapped in the false spirituality characteristic of low-functioning narcissists – not to imply that high-functioning narcissists are spiritual, they’re just better at faking it. Indeed, the narcissistic personality cannot conceive of a being or thing greater than itself, and automatically rejects any idea of God. Nevertheless, feigning religiosity is part of the narcissist’s mask of sanity. In Janice, we see a younger Livia of limited intellect. The old girl knew how to pull the strings of the most powerful mobsters in North Jersey, while her daughter is hapless in the face of such wannabes as Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto.

To finish our portrait of the Soprano family, we need to take a look at Christopher Moltisanti, Tony’s “nephew” (actually Tony’s second and Carmella’s first cousin) who is being groomed to take over from Tony as well as to be the insulating point man who stands between Tony and the DiMeo crime family. Tony’s plan to avoid either the can or the grave is to issue orders only through his nephew, relying on blood. It’s a great idea, as nothing can quite replace familial affiliation as a loyalty motivator – just as long as the trusted family member is not a moron who thinks he is living in a movie. As Donald Trump would demonstrate in real life, nepotism only works if your nephew (or son-in-law) is actually and exclusively loyal to you, and not a dumbfuck. Christopher is a competent button man and goombah, but as we follow his criminal career, we see him falling victim to the Peter principle and getting himself promoted to a position he’s not suited to handle. In fact, the show is in many ways a long litany of Christopher’s fuckups and Tony putting out those many fires until Christopher’s death in the sixth season. Christopher would like nothing better than to be his uncle’s right-hand man, but his true loyalties lie elsewhere: He is a slave to heroin and booze, and it shows. Christopher has his uses, but he is not leadership material. He’s not even an effective lieutenant. More often than not, he’s a liability. His fiancée, Adriana La Cerva, is a fine example of the model American woman: barren, obsessed with “independence” and business success, attractive and yet abrasive, an enabler for an abusive addict, and a fifth columnist for the state [7] in a very direct fashion.

If we understand The Sopranos as a study of power, then we understand that men like Christopher are common in aristocratic families. They are the undershoots and overshoots of the very narrow target: the leadership neurotype which runs in aristocratic families; the striving, highly intelligent, sub-sociopathic creature of indomitable will and pragmatic ruthlessness who nevertheless believes himself to be good and moral. Christopher is a failure in it that he doesn’t get the joke about the glamour of the Mafiosi, he lacks Tony’s intelligence and self-control, and doesn’t even have the required ruthlessness; his violence is intermittent, impulsive, and stupid, an overshoot of striving. Tony doesn’t realize this until the sixth season, and his reward is the thankless job of putting out Christopher’s many fires.