Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
The first two seasons each have two arch-villains: one from the underground, another from the government. In the first season, Tony’s position is threatened by Uncle Junior and by Jimmy Altieri, who turns informant for the federal government. In the second season, the danger escalates on the government front as the primary threat comes from the subversive and patient Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, whereas the best the underworld can throw at Tony is the unnecessarily brutal Richie Aprile, the brother of the previous boss, Jackie Aprile Sr., who is released from prison. In Richie Aprile, as in Uncle Junior, we see another study of how not to attain and exercise power. Whereas Uncle Junior ate alone, Richie Aprile terrified everyone with unnecessary brutality, underscoring that being feared is not necessarily the same thing as being respected. Richie plots to unseat Tony Soprano, but his excessively violent nature makes potential allies reluctant to break bread with him. His plot is exposed to Tony by Uncle Junior, who correctly surmises that Richie is not respected, and Richie is then murdered by Tony’s sister Janice after he slaps her in the face – he dies because he doesn’t know when to employ violence and when to stay his hand. History furnishes us with many examples of the necessity for wise rule rather than brutality. The ideal King is equal parts Genghis Khan and Solomon the Wise – an Augustus or Charlemagne, who will utilize violence when necessary, and wisdom when necessary. Richie Aprile, unlike Tony Soprano and his brother Jackie Aprile Sr., is a one-trick violent warhorse. Not for nothing does Tony Soprano dubs his sinister eyes “Manson lamps.”
The far larger threat in the second season is the potential betrayal by “Big Pussy” Bonpensionero, Tony’s alleged friend and confidant, who is an informant for the federal government. Pussy serves here to demonstrate the damage that a traitor and rat can wreak on any clandestine organization, and the psychological difficulty of accepting that a trusted friend could be a traitor, even if the evidence is right there in front of our eyes. Tony only comes to realize Pussy is a rat in a fever dream caused by food poisoning, in one of the series’ most iconic scenes. Pussy is executed and his body thrown into the ocean, to sleep with the fishes.
The third season’s pacing is thrown off-balance, chiefly due to the death of Nancy Marchand, who portrayed Tony’s mother, Livia. A planned arc where his mother would testify against him had to be dropped. Instead, Tony’s position is threatened by Jackie Aprile Jr., the son of the previous boss, Jackie Aprile Sr., who bucks Tony’s authority by trying to become a mobster, and Ralph Cifaretto, a sociopathic mobster who causes trouble by himself, as well as encouraging Jackie Aprile Jr. to begin a life of crime – something that Jackie’s late father absolutely forbade and whose decision Tony Soprano honors. Here we see Tony suffering because of his own surrender to ‘Murkan morality. Instead of obliging the young man’s request to be given a chance to prove himself and earn a position in the organization, he forces him to attend medical school. That Jackie Jr. is not cut out to be a doctor is plainly visible to a neutral observer, but the wrong-headed idea that everyone should go to college has penetrated the thinking even of hardened Mafiosi. Once again, we see a conflict between the ways of the old country, which is on Jackie’s side, and the ways of America, a position now held by Tony.
Tony Soprano, the consummate alpha male with as many goomahs (mistresses) as he wishes to have, chews out and physically threatens Jackie Aprile, who is now dating his daughter Meadow, for hanging out at a strip club. The implication here is that being Tony Soprano is bad, whereas being a monogamous civilian with a normie job and a college degree is good. Jackie’s instincts reject this idea as he is an aristocratic young man seeking to leave his mark upon the world, but there is no organization ready to take him and mold him into a man. Rather, he is left in the charge of the sociopathic and spiteful Ralph Cifaretto, who goads him into shooting a made man. Jackie Jr. is then murdered, as the code of the mafia clearly states that killing a made man is death. The great tragedy here is that Jackie has the potential to be exactly the man Tony wants Christopher to be. Jackie Jr. is a young man in need of mentorship, he has the necessary ruthlessness, and unlike Christopher, has the intellect to rule and is free of addictions (outside of an overactive sex drive – a feature, not a bug, of powerful men, as seen in Tony Soprano himself). Jackie’s loyalty can be secured through the mafia’s apprenticeship and mentoring process and cemented with a marriage to Meadow, but Tony has to insist on shoehorning the young man into a position unsuited for him. The third season is thus, among other things, a tragedy of not understanding that a young man with the makings of leadership in him is a priceless jewel, not to be jammed like a square peg into the round hole of degreed professionalism. This misunderstanding comes from the wrongheaded modern cult of college, whereas following the ancient heuristics of the mafia would not have resulted in Jackie Aprile Jr.’s premature death and the resulting trauma for everyone involved.
Throughout the third season, we are gradually made aware of “New York” – which is to say, the much larger Lupertazzi crime family based in the city, which exerts its influence on Soprano’s outfit. In this sense, we see that Tony Soprano is King of a relatively small kingdom who has to play very carefully to maintain his sovereignty. The Lupertazzi crime family is represented by Johnny Sacrimoni, aka Johnny Sack, who is always on the lookout for potential defectors from Tony Soprano’s family to even further weaken their position. Of particular note is the case of Ralph Cifaretto, who is hedging his bets and quietly meeting with Johnny Sack, especially after he beats a stripper to death, earning Tony Soprano’s ire. Tony punches Ralph, in direct contradiction of mafia code: a made man must never hit another made man. Johnny Sack intervenes on Ralph’s behalf, much to Tony’s chagrin. As in real life, small nations must suffer injustices and even traitors when great nations demand it of them. New York’s presence looms large over Tony’s kingdom for the entire rest of the series. As New York’s ambassador, Johnny Sack is the specter of hegemony, reminding the New Jersey crew that their destiny is not fully their own.
The fourth season sees Tony Soprano pitted fully against Ralph Cifaretto, who is now made a captain, and becomes the biggest earner in the family. Also, the hatchet seems to be buried between Tony and Ralph, and they start working together on a HUD scam, inspired by Carmella’s civilian cousin Brian. The show dispenses a few red pills about the nature of “urban housing” in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially the so-called “real estate black preacher.” Tony and Ralph team up with such a black preacher and a Jewish state assemblyman to create a fake urban development project and defraud the federal government, in a type of scam that helped bring about the 2008 financial crisis. It seems as if things are going swimmingly, but Ralphie makes an insensitive joke about Johnny Sack’s morbidly obese wife – specifically, that she’s having a ninety-five-pound mole taken off her ass. Johnny Sack finds out about this and wants to put out a hit on Ralph for the joke, but is reined in by his boss, Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. Johnny is furious and on the verge of carrying out an unsanctioned hit himself, while Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. implicitly urges Tony to whack Johnny. In one of the show’s closest calls, neither of the hits take place, but Johnny Sack is permanently soured on Ralph Cifaretto and the Jersey crew.
We also catch a glimpse of the hitherto pragmatic Johnny Sack defying his own boss for a point of honor, rejecting a proposal that Ralph be taxed instead of whacked. Johnny Sack, like most top wiseguys, isn’t in it for the money, he is in it for status, for power, and for the freedom that being a gangster brings – specifically, the freedom to not be insulted, in this case. It’s a glimpse of what will happen in the fifth season.
Carmine’s prioritization of money over honor will work strongly against him later on. When the Lupertazzi family enters a dispute with Soprano’s crew, Johnny Sack suggests to Tony that Carmine be whacked. The hit is cancelled at the last second, but this enmity between Johnny Sack and Carmine carries over into the fifth season, when the importance of protecting your subordinates’ honor is revealed in full. Tony strangles Ralph Cifaretto, allegedly over their co-owned horse Pie-O-My, which Ralph appears to have killed for the insurance money when his son is injured. However, there are subtle implications that the killing might be motivated more by Tony’s seething resentment. Ralph’s body is dismembered and buried, and the rest of the family speculates that Tony might have done it: “whacked a guy over a horse.” Once again, we see honor taking precedence over profitability.
Starting in the fourth season and then escalating, we see the federal government’s most dangerous attack on Tony in the entire series: the conversion of Christopher’s fiancée Adriana into an informant. First they try to manipulate her by having a young female FBI agent pretend to be her friend, but this ploy fails when Christopher hits on the supposed “friend.” The feds then arrest Adriana for covering up a drug-related murder which took place at her nightclub, the Crazy Horse. She is quickly turned and is feeding the feds what little information she has, but the real motivation is to get Chris to turn. Adriana is enticed into believing that she and Chris can “have a normal life.” Underscoring again the path of honor and freedom that mobsters take, Christopher is disgusted at the idea of “a normal life,” and this is well-portrayed in a scene where Christopher observes a middle-aged couple resembling him and Adriana: himself as a henpecked, skinny mess, and Adriana as overweight and trashy. When he learns of Adriana’s betrayal, he comes clean to his uncle Tony, and Adriana’s fate is sealed.
The fifth season’s central conflict is a succession war in New York following the death of Carmine Lupertazzi Sr., where his son Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. and Johnny Sack fight to become boss. Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. posthumously pays for his earlier failure to protect Johnny Sack’s privilege by having his family snatched from his son. Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. is universally considered to be a moron; “Brainless the Second” is his unfortunate nickname. Johnny Sack’s challenge to him is seen as meritocratic. However, it opens a giant can of worms in that it signals to everyone that the Lupertazzi family leadership is up for grabs, spiraling into ever-bloodier conflict in the sixth season. The war also increases the bad blood between the New York and New Jersey families when Tony Soprano’s cousin, Tony Blundetto, who has recently been released from prison, involves himself in the New York mob war: first as a hitman, killing a mobster named Joey Peeps for money, and then killing Billy Leotardo in a rage over the murder of his friend and mentor, Angelo Garepe. This would be dangerous under the best of circumstances, but Billy Leotardo is the brother of the feared old-school hitman Phil Leotardo. Leotardo himself, who sides with Johnny Sack in the war, has spent twenty years in the can and is seething with resentment over his missed opportunities while inside. Johnny Sack can barely restrain Phil, and Tony Soprano is forced to kill his cousin Tony B. in order to spare him from being tortured at the hands of the murderous Leotardo.
The character of Tony Blundetto is interesting, as he provides an insight into trying to “live a normal life.” When he is released from prison, he wants to make a career for himself as a massage therapist. He is initially employed by a Korean laundry service owner, who agrees to go into business with him. However, he faces a similar problem to what his cousin Tony Soprano faced some seasons earlier, when he was forced to pretend to be a legitimate businessman with an office at Barone Sanitation: civilian life is too boring, and civilians have to take shit from people. The problem with living in a society is that other people have wills of their own, and unless you can violently impose your own will on them, functioning in society requires compromise. There is no live and let live; humans are a strongly social species, and either we dominate each other or compromise with each other. A civilian also has no means of defending himself against the sovereign imposing his will. Therefore, we take shit from the government, and we take shit from people protected by the government. We take shit from our bosses and neighbors because it is detrimental to our existence not to take their shit. To be a civilian is to live life in a state of constant humiliation. Most people can make peace with this state of affairs, but a minority of us can’t. The only groups which have immunity from this life of servility are outlaws and aristocrats. Tony Blundetto is given a choice to live life in a state of servility or become an outlaw, with all the costs that implies. He chooses to return to a life of crime, because he finds this dangerous freedom preferable to the safety of a servile life. To be a mobster is to have sovereignty.
In the sixth season, Johnny Sack, having defeated Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. and secured his hold on New York, is pinched by the feds, and then breaks omerta in order to lower his sentence – but to no avail, as he contracts lung cancer and dies in federal custody. He is succeeded on the New York throne by none other than Phil Leotardo. Around this time, Vito Spatafore, a captain who succeeded Ralph Cifaretto as the DiMeo family’s top earner, is outed as a homosexual. He flees to New Hampshire and starts a sexual relationship with a fireman and short-order cook, but returns because he finds civilian life – even as a homosexual – quite boring. He returns to New Jersey and asks Tony Soprano for a position in the organization where he can still earn, but is killed by Phil Leotardo, who is his brother-in-law (Phil’s second cousin is Vito’s wife). Here we see a strong conflict between old warrior values and new values. To Phil Leotardo, there is no question about homosexuality: It is disgraceful, disgusting, and unforgivable, especially in a made man in his own family. Vito’s homosexuality is seen by Phil as a direct assault on his family, especially his cousin Marie and their children. More than that, Phil sees Vito’s continued existence as a threat to the cohesion of his organization. The ancient heuristics of warrior codes which survive to this very day as laws of the underworld are unanimous about the danger of allowing homosexuals to publicly take part in warrior clans. In contrast, Tony privately says he “doesn’t give a shit” and even entertains the idea of having Vito put in charge of a gambling or prostitution racket (as putting him back in charge of construction is inconceivable). Traditional values, however, carry the day with extreme prejudice. Vito is beaten until he no longer looks human, and a pool cue is pushed up his ass as a form of post-mortem mutilation.
Also of note in the sixth season is when a now-senile Uncle Junior shoots Tony Soprano in the stomach, believing him to be his long-deceased enemy “Little Pussy” Malanga (not to be confused with “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero). Tony barely survives, and seems to drift into a sort of purgatory in his comatose state where he is forced to reevaluate his priorities in life. He wakes up, declaring that every day is a gift. Here is where the series shies away from the true implications of power: that right and wrong are just words, and that what matters is having the liberty and sovereignty of the aristocrat or mobster. Tony’s subconscious drills the idea into him that his life as the boss is morally wrong. He is subjected to a mock trial where his actions are decried, while the actions of his disobedient wife, his deadbeat son, and his Leftist daughter are celebrated. In short, we are treated to a metaphorical spectacle of Old World pragmatic morality being raked over the coals by New World liberal morality. Tony wakes from his coma and decides to treat every day as a gift, but as he later confides to his therapist, “Every day is a gift, but does it have to be a pair of socks?” Having surrendered his spiritual sovereignty, Tony finds even his new life boring and insufferable. Suffice to say, it doesn’t last, though the show paints Tony as evil for rejecting this herbivorous lifestyle.
In the middle of the sixth season, which is split into two parts, Phil Leotardo suffers a heart attack and decides to withdraw from mafia life, leaving the reins to his protégé, Gerry Torciano. However, due to the earlier precedent of the throne of New York being up for grabs, another contender, Doc Santoro, puts out a hit on Gerry and seizes power for himself. Although Phil initially agrees to work for Doc Santoro, Santoro humiliates Phil during a dinner meeting by literally eating food off Phil’s plate. All of Phil’s seething resentment and humiliation boils over as he gives his most intense line: “My family took shit from the ‘Murkans the minute we got off the boat . . . No more of this, Butchie. No more.” He puts a hit out on Doc Santoro, seizing power in yet another bloody struggle. It’s notable that Phil’s primary motivation is the desire to no longer be humiliated – not money or anything trivial like that. A good deal of Phil’s visual symbolism is centered on his resemblance to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. It underscores Phil’s nature as a rival king to Tony Soprano, a worthy antagonist, compared to the nickel-and-dime opposition Tony has hitherto been facing. Another aspect of this resemblance is Phil’s status as a vector of Old World morality, of old-school action and thought, to an even greater degree than Tony, who sadly has absorbed way too much of the ‘Murkan’s culture to be an effective king. Phil declares war on Tony after Tony beats up one of Phil’s men.
And here we arrive, at long last, to the root of Tony’s depression – he cannot be a king in a way which befits a king. The government, of course, tries to suppress rival protection rackets, and it is natural that every gang of rough men whose core competency is violence will compete with other gangs of rough men whose core competency is violence. No, Tony is cut off at the knees on the familial level by placing his faith in the women surrounding him, and at the moral level by giving in to modernity, trying to serve two masters: the old god of the mafia and the new god of liberal modernity. The new god humiliates and shames him, while the old god erases him in David Chase’s now infamous unending. It is notable that Tony manages to defeat Phil Leotardo by collaborating with FBI agent Dwight Schultz, essentially betraying omerta and surrendering his sovereignty to a member of the federal government. We can therefore understand Tony’s implied murder in the final scene as a rat’s punishment.
Comparisons are often drawn between The Sopranos and subsequent television dramas, including Breaking Bad, The Shield, and The Wire. I’ve never seen The Wire (and, to be honest, it doesn’t sound appealing), but there are notable parallel motivations between the main characters in Breaking Bad and The Shield, and Tony Soprano. All of them want sovereignty, but are hampered by modern ideas of morality. Walter White is age raging against the dying of the light, looking for an excuse to paper over will-to-power; Vic Mackey struggles to keep order in a disintegrating empire, even though that empire actively hates him and cannot do what needs to be done. But Tony Soprano has that most thankless of tasks: to be king of the ash pile, secure in his power, but power meaning little as he is spiritually enslaved by modernity. This is so despite the fact that he is one of the last vectors of an older, deeper morality, a promontory of Deep Europe into America: vast in time, boundless in intensity, pragmatic, dark, violent, and patient – a creature barely kept peaceful under a thin outward veneer of civilization.