Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
The first time I watched The Sopranos in its entirety, in my early 20s, I was young enough and dumb enough to take Tony Soprano more or less at face value. I realized he was a bad person, but I realized it abstractly; his morality was less interesting to me than the mob story being told—whether he would kill Richie Aprille, or Ralph Cifaretto, or Phil Leotardo, and whether he’d emerge from each conflict as the alpha don of the Jersey mob. I was fully roped into the logic of his criminal world, reveled in his revenges and affairs and his simplistic thug’s philosophy, while mostly tolerating the other, “boring” stuff; the therapy, the domestic life, his kids. In this approach, I had a lot in common with hundreds of YouTube commenters, who can be seen today beneath every Sopranos clip arguing the merits of some hit or another, or extolling the codes by which these characters supposedly live. Simply put, this is a show that appeals on one level to people with testosterone, and testosterone tends to cloud over quite a bit of nuance.
That first time, I was watching HBO’s masterpiece the way you’re supposed to watch The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola, for all his artistry, wasn’t going too deep; you were meant to buy into the romance of the subculture. He wanted to fascinate the viewer, and he wanted the viewer to root for Michael Corleone. Part of the brilliance of The Sopranos is that you can absolutely watch the show on this same level. If that weren’t true, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful. The drama is riveting, the characters are funny, and you’re drawn into the nuts-and-bolts story of the New Jersey mafia.
But—big problem—this is not how you’re supposed to watch it.
These many years later, I just finished my third series re-watch, and maybe it’s because I’m older, or maybe it’s because four years of Trump have rendered me less susceptible to the charms of a sociopath, but this time around I viewed it more as a horror story. It was more brilliant than ever, don’t get me wrong, but the parts that I had ignored the first time around—the family, Dr. Melfi—resonated like never before. It made sense to me, finally, what they were really trying to say, and then it made me sad that I had so thoroughly missed the point the first time around.
In short, the lesson I took is that Tony Soprano and all his underlings are horrible people who have dedicated their lives to increasing human suffering, that any “creed” adhered to by a criminal syndicate is ultimately bullshit, and any charm or humanity they exhibit is either a put-on designed to manipulate, or a glimmer that will soon be snuffed by never-ending greed that drives them. They are the embodiment of capitalism’s dark side, and though the writers revel in having them humiliate the WASPs who play by the rules of the rigged system (if you see a character wearing a sweater, he’s about have his head caved in by a very angry Italian-American), they are nonetheless its grim foot soldiers, devoid of empathy and valuing nothing but violence and power.
Which brings me to Carmela Soprano, played by Edie Falco in a performance that seems to become more staggeringly brilliant with each re-watch. Tony is a sociopath, and as his shrink Dr. Melfi finally discovers after six seasons and several years, he’s an irredeemable one. Everyone he claims to love can be betrayed and killed in an instant, and even his family suffers. Carmela, though, grew up as a civilian. She knew what she was getting into by marrying Tony, and in fact she liked it. She liked the material benefits, the expensive house, the clothes and jewelry, but even on a visceral level she was attracted to the volatility and ruthlessness. When Tony loses a fight to his brother-in-law Bobby in the final season, he’s afraid Carmela will stop finding him attractive. She mocks the idea, but in fact watching him beat up another boy in high school was a major part of her initial attraction, and when Tony’s in the hospital with a gunshot wound, she weeps telling him how his physical power was a turn-on. She was somebody who wanted to take a walk on the wild side, and not just for the money.
But because she’s a civilian and not a sociopath, Carmela struggles with the trade-off. One of the most brutal scenes in the entire series comes when a psychiatrist she visits refuses to sugarcoat her lifestyle, or to indulge her with notions of compromise. And it rocks her to her core:
To me, this is the seminal moment of the show, and one of the few times when a character refuses to budge as he lays out the ethical and psychological consequences of supporting a man like Tony Soprano and enjoying the fruits of his blood money. We’re talking guilt, shame, and the corruption of your children. It exposes Carmela’s Catholic piety as a farce, because no one who claims to follow the lessons of Jesus Christ could spend even a moment enabling a mafia boss who profits from human pain.
Later in the series, Carmela breaks down when she realizes that although she made the choice to be with Tony, and accepted the devil’s bargain, her children never made the choice. By marrying Tony and remaining with him, she made them complicit. The results are predictable, and in their way tragic. Meadow, the eldest daughter, is bright and ambitious, but she ends a relationship with one man because he can’t rationalize away her father’s crimes. Inspired by the so-called “persecution” of men like him, she gives up a career in pediatric medicine to become a defense lawyer who, by show’s end, is clearly on the path to enabling white collar criminals. Like mother like daughter. A.J., the son, doesn’t have Meadow’s abilities; his anger, lack of a mission, and predilection for depression make him a callow, selfish person who veers between gauche materialism and suicidal ideation.
These are the lives Carmela has relegated them to, and while that may seem to give Tony a free pass, it’s the difference between the “good Germans” and Hitler. One of them is capable of knowing better, and one is an immovable force of evil. One had a choice, and it’s the person with a choice who holds the real power. You don’t have to stretch far to understand the larger implications of the metaphor, especially as we sit just days away from an election in which our own sociopathic Tony Soprano attempts to wheedle and bluster and bully his way into four more years of control.
Going back to my first watch, I thought of Carmela (when I thought of her at all) as a sympathetic figure whose relative good nature was being trampled underfoot. Maybe, once in a while, I recognized the contradictions of her enjoyment of the creature comforts; the blood money she reveled in, and the way an expensive gift from Tony would inevitably lead to a sexual encounter in a sad, gross trade-off. On the re-watch, I found her incredibly disturbing—someone who made a perverse choice, and then kept making it, day after day, year after year, to the detriment of herself, her family, and the world at large.
There’s a scene at the very end of the series, so minor that you can only find it on YouTube in the middle of another clip, where Carmela sees Meadow’s friend Hunter for the first time in years. Hunter was the screw-up, Meadow’s foil, who had been kicked out of college for partying. Now, Carmela finds out that she’s in the second year of Med School. When the knowledge hits, she can’t even feign politeness; her life is falling apart, she’s receiving her just deserts, and this adds insult to injury. Medicine was supposed to be her daughter’s path, the moral one, and she knows that on some level she’s to blame for the deviation. She simply can’t stand it, and retreats from Hunter before the full impact breaks her down. It’s a painful comeuppance—one of many—but as a wise therapist once said, “one thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told.”
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Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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