Written by Ana Beltschewa
In the pilot episode of The Sopranos (1999-2007), written by show creator David Chase, New Jersey mobster ANTHONY ‘TONY’ SOPRANO starts seeing therapist DR. JENNIFER MELFI due to a recent panic attack.
Throughout his first therapy session, Tony recounts his family life with his wife CARMELLA, teenage daughter MEADOW and son ANTHONY JR. He talks about his difficult relationship with his aging mother LIVIA, but also about his daily life as a criminal or ‘waste management consultant’ as he calls it. There is also his nephew CHRISTOPHER MOLTISANTI who does not take the traditions of the business too seriously, and his loyal associates SILVIO DANTE, PETER ‘PAULIE WALNUTS’ GUALTIERI and BIG PUSSY BONPENSIERO.
When Tony learns that his uncle CORRADO ‘JUNIOR’ SOPRANO is planning on killing a rival gangster at his friend ARTHUR BUCCO’s restaurant, Tony finds himself forced to blow up the establishment to save his friend’s reputation.
At first sight it appears unlikely that I would be able to relate to the story of a middle-aged career criminal, but Chase creates a world so authentic and accessible that I found myself immediately drawn in. Himself a New Jersey native of Italian descent, Chase gives this story his unique voice by portraying his home state in the way he experienced it, which not many had seen before. His intimate knowledge of the setting enables him to create the everyday world of Tony’s ‘post-industrial empire’ (p.5) in which I can immerse myself. I can see myself sitting under a Stella D’Oro umbrella sipping espresso (p.15), eavesdropping on Tony’s conversations or rubbing shoulder with wiseguys and politicians at Vesuvio’s (p. 17).
Chase also draws on his own experience with therapy to capture the atmosphere in Melfi’s office perfectly; there are no dramatic revelations, just silent awkwardness; I believe it when Chase says: ‘such is therapy’ (p. 4).
Chase’s choice to structure the episode around a therapy session is clever and allows us to alternate between perspectives; instead of witnessing everything from Tony’s point of view, we get to see what ‘really’ happened versus what Tony admits to the outside world.
What interests me in stories about the Italian mob in America, especially from the 70s onwards, is the way they reflect upon the American Dream, or its demise. The Sopranos offers a rather bleak assessment of the American dream, echoing the opening of The Godfather (1972), in which Bonasera seeks the help of Don Vito Corleone as American society has let him down. The best times are over, ‘eighteen million Americans are clinically depressed’ and Tony wonders: ‘what happened to society? Everything is broken down’ (p. 40).
Nearly twenty years later the story remains just as relevant; people are still shocked by the continuous decline of American society, wondering why each subsequent generation is ‘worse’ than the last. Just like Tony bemoans that Christopher does not take his job seriously enough (p. 10) and Big Pussy agrees that everything is changing (p. 15), Junior feels the same way about Tony’s generation (‘kids today […] we used to be recession proof’, p. 67-68).
Choosing this topic that has clearly stood the test of time is an effective way to engage us as an audience, but Chase also makes it a deeply personal issue for his protagonist. Tony yearns for the simplicity of his father’s generation where he feels people had standards and pride (p. 5- 6), and this is one of many indications of how conflicted he is. In fact, I believe Chase’s strongest suit is his ability to create characters so normal, yet layered and compelling, that it is hard to look away. Just like Dr. Melfi who cannot escape Tony’s influence when she accepts a table at Il Granaio Tony arranges for her and her partner, I find myself drawn to his magnetic charisma.
Tony is always the smartest guy in the room with a solution to every problem. A guy owes him money but cannot pay? Make him pay out phoney medical claims (p. 35). Arthur cannot be persuaded to close his restaurant in order to stop Junior from carrying out a hit? No problem, just blow up the joint (p. 63). Hence it makes sense that Tony is also a pathological liar, who has to hide how he is making his money from Dr. Melfi and most certainly from the law. He is a family man, trying to do right by his demanding mother (for example, getting her a CD player and arranging a place at an upscale retiring community, p. 20/36) and learning how to deal with two increasingly independent children (for example, being there for Meadow when she falls out with her mother, p. 60). But he is also a glutton with an appetite for good food and young women (p. 50 – 52). Most of all he is tragically sentimental, still holding onto the humiliations he experienced as a teenager (p. 18). He is the self-proclaimed ‘[…] sad clown – upbeat on the outside, crying on the inside’ (p. 41). I find it captivating to watch the story of a man who makes me reassess my understanding of right and wrong, especially since Tony is also extremely violent and has no problem with beating up a man who owes him money in broad daylight (p. 13). By humanising someone who would normally be the villain and turning him into the (anti)hero of the story, Chase paved the way for numerous character-driven television series. Without Tony Soprano, there would not have been a Don Draper.
Nevertheless, Chase’s New Jersey is not a place of hopelessness and gloom. On the contrary, no matter how dark the circumstances, Chase always finds the humour in the situation so that I catch myself laughing in the most inappropriate scenes. After Christopher kills ex-business partner Emil at the butchers, he turns to a severed lamb’s head hanging on the wall asking ‘Can you see him yet? Has he arrived where you are?’ (p. 28) and when he and Big Pussy later try to dispose of the body the whole scene turns into a skit. From the nonchalant conversation Big Pussy and Christopher have about Emil’s death (Christopher is offended that his initiative is not being acknowledged), you might think they are talking about just any odd sales deal gone wrong (p. 37 – 38).
In fact, the dialogue does more than entertain. Usually dialogue is about expressing what characters think or feel; in The Sopranos, however, almost every line is a lie, a difficult task for a writer that Chase masters with ease. When Toni tells Dr. Melfi he had coffee with a business associate he means he broke the guy’s leg (p. 12 – 13), when he turns to Carmella telling her ‘[…] you’re the only person in my life I’m completely honest with’ (p. 54), we know he is everything but. In fact Dr. Melfi encourages Tony not to tell her any details about his work, creating a narrative structure that makes it hard to understand the characters’ intentions (p. 11). But this is precisely what makes The Sopranos so great; it gives me a thrill to try and uncover the inner workings of this group of people: what is Carmella’s relationship with the priest, is Junior really going to hurt Tony, is Livia on Tony’s side?
Chase manages to create a constant sense of foreboding, which I find captivating as a reader. Tony admits to Dr. Melfi ‘[…] that’s what I’m full of dread about, that I’m going to lose my family. […] It’s always with me –’ (p. 59) and the morning of his panic attack, Tony has an ominous feeling that ‘the morning is too still’ (p. 6). Ironically we finish the episode with an image of the Soprano’s silent pool right after Junior suggested to Livia ‘something might have to be done about Tony’ (p. 68), seemingly confirming Tony’s fears. This is an extremely effective way to begin a series, which, other than a feature film, has to hold the audience’s attention for many hours to come. You never know what is going to come next, but you have to the urge to find out — and just like Tony, you can never really relax.