High Stakes: The Aftermath of the Sopranos
I’ve been a follower of the Sopranos for many years. In the beginning, I didn’t have HBO, so I watched the episodes once they came out on DVD. I’m an organized crime fanatic, and a huge fan of The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Scarface, Donnie Brasco, etc. Naturally, last week was a huge moment for me as a follower of the Sopranos. I saw the finale along with everyone else, but it’s taken a little while for me to decide what it really meant, and my feelings on the show overall. Reading this article from New York Magazine sealed the deal, and I had to write about it.
I can pinpoint the moment that the show changed for me. It was during season 3, an episode called University, in which Ralphie beats his goomar Tracee, who is pregnant with his baby, to death in a parking lot over an argument about whether she should keep their child. The episode was told with the story of Tracee in parallel to Tony’s daughter Meadow, who were the same age. It was easily one of the most powerful in the entire series. I still remember that after the episode ended, I stopped and thought about where the series was going. Tracee’s death was the first completely “unjustified” act of violence on the show — before, the victims had been rats like Fabian Petrulio from College, or violent attackers like Mikey Palmice and Richie Aprile. Even Big Pussy had it coming.
Tracee was the first real “innocent” death on the show, but it wasn’t her grisly demise that changed things so much as the reaction (or lack thereof) of the other characters. It was also the last time that Tony showed real remorse for an innocent, and the beginning of his downward spiral. Throughout the remainder of the show, Tony became the “golem” — or, the sociopath — that he was afraid of becoming. Ralphie, Tony Blundetto, Adriana… His fall culminated in his murder of Christopher, who may as well have been his son. Sure, Chris was a disappointment, but his most serious crime was trying to distance himself from Tony.
I noticed something as the show continued. It became difficult for me to watch. It was harder and harder to root for Tony, even though he was set up as the protagonist. The things he allowed to happen, and did himself, were harder to accept. In the first season, the show was great fun, with funny characters and a chess game for a story line. As time went on, the stakes got higher and higher. As an audience, we started to realize that being a mobster was more about honor and Omerta — and the picture of the end continued to get more and more bleak. It was a lot like the arc in Goodfellas. In the beginning, it was all fun and games… and then as time went on, both Henry Hill and the audience started to realize what was really going on.
On to the finale. I can understand why people didn’t like the way it went out. I was expecting a bloodbath, or Paulie to stab Tony in the back, but I understand why David Chase made the decision he made. It took me a little while to accept it, but the open-ended finale was actually a fantastic piece of cinema. The tension was palpable throughout the entire episode, and we finally got the full picture of what it meant to be Tony Soprano. Every moment, every person that came into the frame, was a potential assassin. We finally were able to see that no matter how glamorous the mob life is, how nice Tony’s house and cars are, or how much cash he had tucked into bird feed in the backyard, the cost was just too high.
And yes, the abrupt black ending means that Tony is dead. If not in body, he’s certainly dead in spirit — dead inside, if you will, the textbook sociopath that so many people had “wrongly” (or so we felt) called him throughout the series. If you’re not convinced, read this excellent deconstruction.
The Sopranos is more like an epic movie than a television show. It meandered at parts, and definitely had some strange pieces that could have been taken out (Melfi’s drinking problem? Almost all of the first half of season 6?) Taken as a whole, though, it carried one of the most powerful messages of any show that I’ve seen.
It remains my favorite television show, and probably will for a very long time.