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The Ducks Have Left the Pond

A HUGE MAN is on the pool patio outside his house in New Jersey. In the close-up, Tony Soprano’s face is creased with effort on its various levels and terraces. He is wondering where the ducks have gone. Is he reflecting that they must have left for the winter, or has it occurred to him that he, too, might be subject to divine will? Why hast Thou forsaken me? It helps that the face belongs to James Gandolfini. It is massive. Even at only a first visit to the show, the viewer will already have realized that Gandolfini, who can so easily fade into the background in his movies, looms immensely on television. From Get Shorty you can barely remember him: he was just a failed torpedo that John Travolta threw downstairs. But in The Sopranos he is a magnetic mountain, pulling toward him all legends of haunted loneliness and seismic inner violence. Charles Laughton looked that size in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In I, Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, his cheeks puffed with makeup, is eaten alive by his old-age worries about whether his family is up to inheriting the empire whose dizzy limits were set by him in the sly power of his vigor. Gatsby wondered what the green light was worth if it could not give him Daisy. Holden Caulfield wondered what happened to the ducks when the pond froze over. You don’t have to contemplate Tony’s hulking yet tormented image for long before realizing how futile it is to trace the show to its origins, as if the fact that its basic narrative device is a straight lift from the movie Analyze This were somehow proof that The Sopranos is not sui generis.

Of course it isn’t. It’s got everything in it, including all the Godfather movies except the bad scenes in Godfather III when the plot goes so haywire you get time to wonder about Al Pacino’s hairpiece. Characters in The Sopranos can play all the characters in The Godfather movies. Loafing at the Bada Bing or outside Satriale’s Pork Store, they quote Godfather dialogue by the yard. They can do that without crashing the vehicle because they’re in a bigger story than the one they’re quoting. Anyone who sat through the action-free story line of Rubicon will testify that when the leading characters started referring to Three Days of the Condor, the show was doomed, because the viewer could not recover from the enforced reminder that the show wasn’t a patch on the movie. It was three hours of the condor at the very most. The Sopranos is at least three Godfather movies plus The Magnificent Ambersons and Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Not that it has all that much sheer spectacle. But it does have inner scope.

The Sopranos is so capacious that it can sabotage itself and still keep your devotion. Tony’s liability of a sister Janice, as played by Aida Turturro, is such a flake that she made some viewers switch off. Those many millions of us who stayed loyal weren’t just fascinated by the post-hippie fecklessness of Janice’s disaster-strewn curriculum vitae—I especially appreciated that she was still drawing insurance checks for carpal tunnel syndrome acquired from her not very strenuous period of actuating a coffee machine—we were fascinated by the effect she had on Tony. She enraged him, and usually when people enrage Tony he gets rid of them. They end up bumped off, cut up, and sunk in the landfill. But he can’t do that to members of his immediate family. There is no real limit to his power, but there is a limit to his ruthlessness. In this respect, he’s a bit like us: or so we would like to think. (We would like to think that our omnipotence is reined in by moral scruple.) In the Brian de Palma movie Scarface, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) doesn’t hesitate to ruin his sister’s happiness. Tony Soprano does hesitate, even when we, his audience, are mentally egging him on, aching for the moment when he switches his huge capacity for violence to the necessary task of eliminating this pain in his butt, but also sadly aware that he will once again talk himself into accommodating her crazy needs. So there she stays, making our hearts sink from week to week. And we stay too: eloquent testimony to the show’s psychological grip.

Tony’s nephew and possible heir apparent Christopher is potentially an even bigger liability to Tony’s premiership, and therefore to the show’s narrative spine, than his batso sister. Christopher is played by Michael Imperioli, an actor with talent to spare—some of the spare talent, later on in the show’s evolution, was brilliantly employed in episodes he not only acted in but wrote and directed—so he won’t mind having it said that the basic equipment of his facial appearance tilts him toward the kind of role in which you wouldn’t give him a mad dog’s chance of remaining stable. Right from his first fits of anger in the opening episodes, and more and more every time he promises to straighten out, Christopher demonstrates that his hair-trigger impulsiveness is incurable: he will never get it under control. It isn’t a help that he lives in preconnubial bliss with the beautiful Adriana, whose only gift is for wondering why a fluttering of her eyelashes is not in itself sufficient to vacuum the carpets; but Christopher needs no help from her or anyone to turn any project into a screw-up. Even when he shifts his ambitions from crime to the arts, his instinct, when he encounters an obstacle in the music business—and the main obstacle, of course, is that he is without talent—is to run off and snort a hillock of cocaine, or pull a gun, or both. Most of what we know about Christopher, Tony knows too, sooner or later. And sooner or later Tony should have sidelined him. In Goodfellas Imperioli played a minor character who irritated Joe Pesci and therefore got shot in the foot: proof of the Pesci character’s uncontrollable impatience and unreliability. In The Sopranos, Christopher has those characteristics, and we would have been quite content if Tony had dealt with him by confining his role to sorting garbage, or just by killing the fool. But several seasons go by before Tony can face that Christopher might be a problem with only one solution. This time lapse would matter less if Tony were just exercising his usual reluctance to wreak destruction on his own bloodline. But there is a bigger consideration: Tony is also meant to be the man in charge of an organization, not just a criminal but a master criminal. Why, then, is he even contemplating giving the succession to a psychopath? Why can’t this king among wise guys be more wise?

Merely to ask the question is a sign of how expectations have been sentimentalized by the movies, and of how the box set, with more time to explore psychology, has done something to save us from the kind of uplift that lowers the IQ. Perhaps taking a tip from I, Claudius, which the show-runner David Chase saw when he was growing up, Chase makes Tony, his modern Augustus, cunning but not all-knowing. Especially Tony is not wise about the interior workings of those closest to him: a failing not uncommon among clever people. In the movies, when a central figure is set up to be smart, there is usually not enough time to show him being dumb. Tony Montana in Scarface is a rare instance, in the movies, of a far-seeing crime overlord who also behaves like a dolt, and even then we are encouraged to believe that he might never have put a foot wrong if the white powder had not eaten his brains. A much more typical movie big shot is the Godfather himself, Don Vito Corleone. As played in his youth by Robert De Niro, Don Corleone is smarter than anybody else. As played in his maturity and old age by Marlon Brando, Don Corleone is still smarter than anybody else, and in addition has picked up the habit of expressing his wisdom in epigrams, like Seneca or Marcus Aurelius. All over the world as you read these words, there are mediocrities sitting in midlevel offices muttering, “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.” (Actually we never see the old man saying that: but his youngest son Michael, another natural guru, remembers that he said it.) To hear the Don talking, one would think that the script’s basic assumption that the mob functions as an effective substitute for America’s defective system of justice might have something to it. After all, who, except the unjustly powerful, gets hurt by Don Corleone’s family, ruled as it is by his all-comprehending benevolence? And to whom else can the little guy turn, if not to the Godfather? In reality, there can only be a single answer to both questions: almost everybody gets hurt, and especially the little guy.

As John Dickie demonstrates in his excellent book Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian hoodlums, on their home island, were never dedicated to protecting the little guy against his getting soaked by the rich landlords; they were dedicated to joining the rich landlords in soaking the little guy even further. Considered from the viewpoint of social analysis, the great merit of The Sopranos, vis-à-vis the Godfather trilogy, is that it accepts this fact and shows how it works in the modern age. On the level of raw violence, the street gardener who has signed the wrong contract simply has his limbs broken until he signs the right one. If he ran out of limbs he would have his head broken: but it isn’t necessary, because he has already signed, or at any rate made the strangled noise that a hospitalized man in traction makes in lieu of a written agreement. Though outright mayhem happens rarely in the show—it doesn’t have to, because the mere threat is usually enough—when it does happen it usefully reminds you that a character like Pauley Walnuts, for all the linguistic charm by which he evokes his aging upper arms (“as wrinkled as an old lady’s cunt”), is essentially someone who will bend an innocent civilian to his will by beating him to jelly. On the more subtle level of mental torture, Artie the restaurateur, who by his gift for foolish investments has brought his enterprise to bankruptcy, is saved by a loan from Tony. Being saved by Tony ensures that he will be enslaved forever. Artie is a family friend but he is not family, so friendship earns him nothing except misery: he will have to keep smiling while he continues to let Tony eat for free. Once, Tony and his family ran up a tab that was only rarely paid. Now it will never be paid. Artie’s torment shows in his compulsorily merry face, and shows the true cost of being in the mob’s grip.

This is a petty but essentially true level of reality that is nearly absent in the realm of Don Corleone, where the norms of behavior are set by his presidential forbearance. Protection rackets are barely mentioned. The Don won’t allow the family to go into the drugs business. He has an answer to anyone who objects: the true business of a crime family is to deal with natural human weaknesses, such as the need for women. Drugs are too dirty. The Don’s favorite son Santino, known to all as Sonny, quite likes the idea of moving into drugs, but Sonny—very believably played by James Caan as a sexual athlete with a muscle between his legs and another muscle between his ears—is impulsive and lacks a moral sense, and eventually pays for those failings with his life, inspiring his father not only to paternal tears but also to the silliest line in the trilogy, the line about how Tattaglia “could never have outfought Santino.” Since all the evidence of the script up to that point has indicated that Santino was so impulsive that anybody in America including his own mother could have outfought him with ease, we must conclude either that the Don is not so smart after all or that some of the epic story’s themes are not in touch with one another. The second conclusion seems the more persuasive. The governing notions that there can be an ethical crime empire and that it can be ruled by an all-wise wise guy refuse to add up either separately or together.

The Sopranos, less prone to filtering out the poison from the atmosphere that all must breathe in an ambience of potential but omnipresent violence, digs deeper into character, pushing on beyond the cartoon outline and probing the soul. In the Godfather trilogy, the mother figure is the revered presence who can’t be asked to face the prospect of Fredo’s death until she herself dies. After she goes, Fredo finally goes too, in that sad and beautiful movie moment out on the lake. But in The Sopranos, which is less like a movie, an ugly truth outranks a pretty image; and the mother figure is Livia, who is all evil. Quite possibly her name is a direct acknowledgment by David Chase of his debt to I, Claudius, in which the wife of Augustus, as played by Siân Phillips, is an elegant wit. The mother of Tony Soprano is a style-free scold. She is such a drain on the spirit that it takes us almost as long as Tony to figure out that she might want him dead, although we get a powerful hint of her wishes when she helps Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) to get the idea that a world without Tony might have its advantages. While taking note of the large area of psychology which is opened up by the mere possibility that Tony has a killer of a mother, we should step aside at this point and note also that the long exploration and development of such a character is something that only the long-form TV series has ever done; that no movie could ever do; and that it presents an actor, or in this case an actress, with the opportunity of a lifetime. In her previous career, Nancy Marchand was the go-to patrician performer for any role requiring poise, breeding, and distinction. Just by her screen presence she put you in mind of Kay Graham, Jackie Kennedy, and Queen Elizabeth II. In the TV series Lou Grant she was the newspaper proprietress who ruled Ed Asner with a scepter of crystal. In the movie remake of Sabrina she was the matriarch whose well-run realm made it plausible that the chauffeur’s daughter might once have sat dreaming in a tree, outside the family circle and looking in. Along with her distinguished early career on Broadway, all this history of polish and dignity came with her into The Sopranos, where she was asked to trash it for years on end. She rubbished herself triumphantly, keeping her stature but setting a torch to her personal charm. She ended up even scarier than Janice: something you would hesitate to say about Madame Mao.

This deliberate misuse, or new use, of our expectations about an actor is one of the features a long-form story can offer, because there is time to justify it, making us not so much think again as think more deeply. But here again, one shouldn’t grow starry eyed about the opportunity offered to an older actor to consolidate a career. A younger actor might feel stifled, and try to run. Rob Lowe probably saw himself in a trap when he played Sam Seaborn in The West Wing, and took the opportunity to become the headline act in The Lyon’s Den. He might not necessarily have been making the same mistake as David Caruso made when he left NYPD Blue. The switch might have worked out. The TV show that makes you famous doesn’t necessarily close out the future. Edie Falco was Tony Soprano’s wife Carmella right until the show’s last moment, and she went on to be the headliner in Nurse Jackie, where her background as the woman who dared to steal some of Tony’s money might even have helped her convince us as the nurse who combined a drug habit with her duties of care. In general, however, it must be said that a long role in a big show is hard to survive. James Gandolfini, after ceasing to be Tony, went onward to many projects as an actor and producer, but there is anecdotal evidence that he never really emerged from prison, and that he died in there, still troubled about the way the walls of fame—Tony’s fame, not his—closed in to crush him.

Once again, sentimental expectations threaten. One mustn’t suspect Gandolfini of being in mental turmoil just because he looked like it. He was an actor, and one of the essential components of Tony’s character was for him to seem always a little lost, even in the thrill of battle. (I think often of the day when he takes his daughter Meadow to view a school and leaves her for a while because he has just spotted an unpunished snitch whom he must kill. He doesn’t look as if he wants to do it. He just has to.) As played by De Niro and Brando, Don Corleone is all of a piece: we aren’t asked to imagine him in mental trouble: indeed, he draws much of his resonance from the flattering way he makes us feel that we ourselves, with all our mighty powers, might be in mental trouble for not being fully integrated like him, doing what he must and facing no psychic cost except sadness after one of his sons gets killed. As played by Al Pacino in Godfather III, however, Michael Corleone, the Don reborn, needs to talk to a priest, because he can’t quell the nagging question of whether murdering his own brother was right or wrong. But in one of the longest movies ever to have been a mile too short, there is no room in the script to explore the doubt. In The Sopranos, there is a time scale to match the slow scope of the main character’s war within himself. There are few big shoot-outs—the Godfather trilogy has a war in each movie—but there is room for Tony to do seriously what Paul Vitti (Robert De Niro again) in Analyze This does only on the level of comedy: open up to the shrink. Watching the show from season to season on TV, we spend years finding out that Tony has problems with his mother and father, just like us. Even when binge-watched, it’s a very gradual unfolding. But it’s a richly productive device, as even the psychiatrist Dr. Melfi becomes part of the wider examination of motives in the criminal panorama. Lorraine Bracco might not be funny like Billy Crystal, but she is fully human, and this fact turns out to be especially telling when she gets raped in a parking garage by some young lout so stupid that he lets her see his face. Later on, still traumatized, she happens to see that same face in a poster celebrating the Employee of the Month in a pizza house. She tells her fiancée that if she gave the name to Tony he would squash her attacker “like a bug.” She doesn’t. Those are the bare bones of a secondary plot.

But the psychological ramifications are manifold, and tend to put the viewer, and especially the male viewer, on the spot. We already know from previous episodes that Tony is attracted to Melfi. (Time has elapsed since the young Lorraine Bracco in Someone to Watch Over Me, one of the rare makeout movies ever aimed at adulterers, played a cop’s wife so attractive that not even Mimi Rogers in distress could tempt him away for long; but she’s still enchanting.) When betraying his wife, Tony’s usual choice of collaborator is a prostitute or a lap-dancer, but he also has hankerings toward the up-market and educated, an inclination in keeping with his nervous admiration for brains and taste. (Tony has no inkling that his wife, Carmella, sharing exactly the same frustrated hunger, will fall in love with the imported button man Furio simply because of his fine European manners: Furio might bring her a carefully chosen packet of Italian biscuits for a nice surprise, whereas Tony would be more likely to give her a stolen car.) Tony is grudgingly able to accept Melfi’s rejection of his advances, rationalizing her refusal of him as an assertion of her professional detachment. He finds it hard to believe, however, that she is not attracted to him: as a big, strong, and powerful man, he is used to the idea that any woman is attracted to him on some level. This assumption on his part seems arrogant until we realize that Melfi, if she does not find him attractive, does find his strength attractive. After the rape, her fiancée, a civilized civilian like you and me, can do nothing to help her except act as a listening post, and she can get a higher quality of listening from her own shrink, a multicameo role ably filled by Peter Bogdanovich. We are at liberty to guess—we are encouraged to—that she yearns for Tony’s powers of protection and revenge. This reference to the power relationships that apply (let’s say might apply) between the genders is a solvent for any fond beliefs we might harbor about desire having brains, and puts the substory in the same area as the rest of the show, which is the area of the jungle. No matter how refined she might have been in her current context, a woman propelled back to the original evolutionary environment is likely to look with favor on Tony if only to protect herself from all the other men who are like him but worse. You could even say that Lorraine Bracco has a right to find an alpha male. In Someone to Watch Over Me she almost lost one: the previously faithful cop husband played by Tom Berenger left her so that he could share high-tab percale sheets with the society princess who fell for him not solely because Berenger was, at the time, the most handsome actor in Hollywood, but because she was being hunted by a killer and needed a lover with some stopping power. That part of the story rang true. The romanticism was when he went home again. The Sopranos is notably free of the romantic impulse. Watching, we sometimes long for a romantic outcome, but we can give ourselves credit as realists for having chosen the wrong show to have watched.

Our tendency to take a romantic view comes from deep within us, and partly from a justifiable fear that the actual world is too raw to deal with. Whether art is better or worse for showing us the world’s horrors unadorned is a tricky question, partly self-answered by the fact that it can’t, beyond a certain point. If the screen were to show us the full horror of unrestrained violence, it would be impossible to watch. The Sopranos doesn’t cosmeticize the emetic reality of mob rule, but it does soften it. When Big Pussy meets his end on Tony’s boat, he is allowed his dignity. Ralphie, having asked to have his screaming voice silenced for seasons on end—the voice belongs to Joe Pantoliano, a ruthless expert at getting on your nerves—finally gets his, but while his ex-friends are cutting him up for disposal, he still provides us with one of the best grand guignol laughs in the show. Christopher, surprised, holds up Ralphie’s head of hair, never having guessed that it was a wig. Tony knew; but we know that not even Tony knows everything. He doesn’t know, and mustn’t know, that Carmella loved Furio. The success of the show can be measured by the intensity with which we hope he won’t find out; and yet we also can’t suppress the knowledge that Carmella is at least half a willing collaborator in Tony’s reign of terror, and that Furio, when out on a debt-collecting mission, is terror itself.

Even with this scope of psychological analysis, the show can’t give you the whole truth: but at least the truth is not violated. Enough of the crime family’s death dance of a way of life is evoked to make us worry about how it will be perpetuated: will Tony’s son A.J. ever be up to inheriting the leadership, and what if his sister Meadow flourishes as an honest lawyer and goes on to bring the whole organization to where it belongs, in court if not in Guantanamo? Actually, we know what Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) goes on to do: she goes on to be Turtle’s girlfriend in Entourage. But for the bingeing viewer that’s a familiar analgesic effect; a nice reminder that the character, whether threatening or being threatened, is only acting. When The Sopranos is holding us in its unrivaled spell, however, we have to be anxious about whether Meadow’s independence of mind—it’s almost a government advertisement for the benefits of education—will bring her into deadly peril. If she has only her principles to hold at bay the weight of influence that Tony might eventually feel called upon to wield, she has little chance. She will need a gun, like the one that Janice goes to find when Vic, exercising the made man’s traditional obligation when contradicted by a mere goomah, slaps her in the face. She shoots him dead. By our standards, he behaves better after that. But our standards aren’t what drive the story; and that was the gate of discrepancy that the show opened when it started. When it finished, not even the ending satisfied our expectations. We expected a shoot-out, but life just went on, such as it was. The message was that our expectations had been too much shaped by what the screen had previously shown us, which was now changing.