By DANA POLAN
Duke University Press Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-4410-0
Watching The Sopranos
Over a period of a month and a half, in final preparation for this volume, I watched all the seasons of The Sopranos in order from start to finish. I'd seen all the episodes numerous times over the years since the show began in 1999, but I'd never viewed them this close together, as a veritable single entity. In fact, I could have watched the seasons at a faster pace (10 or so hours a day would have got me through it all in a week!), but I had other things I also wanted to do with my time, and this balancing of entertainment and life seems itself to hold a lesson about fandom, about what it takes to be committed to a popular long-term television series, and about the ways we work to find spaces for our chosen cultural pleasures in our everyday schedules.
In any case, by compacting the viewing of the series as best I could into my own schedule, I wanted to see, in fact, if the many episodes of the show (86 altogether) formed a coherent totality: that is, if they created that organic unity so beloved of classic commentators on aesthetics. Indeed, many influential critics of The Sopranos specifically compare it to great novelistic works of nineteenth-century fiction, with the implication that the show indeed finds a unifying coherence and specifically does so at the level of narrative. For them, it is the logical unfolding of a story and the taking up by its characters of assigned places in that story that tightens the individual episodes of The Sopranos into a large-scale saga.
I wouldn't take my own experiment to be definitive, but what struck me, in contrast, was that the compression of the episodes into a relatively short viewing period actually seemed to lessen the impression of an overall narrative arc more than strengthen it. True, as the series winds down toward the final season and as important characters die and some important issues get resolved, there is sometimes the sense of a governing narrative logic that has taken over individual actions and given them meaning as integral parts of a whole. As noted in my prologue, by season 7 (the last), war had developed between the New Jersey gang of Tony Soprano and the New York gang of Phil Leotardo. Things had sort of been building toward an ultimate confrontation, and there certainly was some impression of narrative purpose and destiny here. With the piling up of deaths in the episodes of the last season, the fictional universe within the show became less peopled with key players in the plot, and this itself no doubt leads to a logical compression in which one plot line, one interaction of characters (the two important, last-standing gangsters, Tony and Phil), gains priority.
That should not be underestimated. Clearly, the degree of audience outcry over the final episode's ultimate lack of complete resolution, even with the killing of Phil earlier in that episode, says something about viewers' investment in hoped-for closure.
But neither should the role of narrative in the pleasures of The Sopranos be overestimated. To my mind, it's revealing that so many different endings were guessed at by the fans of the show in the days leading up to the finale: Tony would go into witness protection, Tony would be shot dead, Tony would go to prison, one of his children would die, one of his children would inherit the life of violence, and on and on. Each of these might have closed the narrative, but their sheer multiplicity and diversity suggests that none necessarily was the dramatically logical ending, the one that structurally would close the show in a way that seemed rightly meaningful and would cast its significance over all that had come before.
A quick contrast with one of The Sopranos' acknowledged antecedents, Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, might be instructive here. In The Sopranos, Mafia members venerate The Godfather, not so much as a guide to their own behavior as, rather, a bit of popular culture, however close to home, that they quote from and analyze (for example, Soprano lieutenant Paulie Walnuts explained how "Francis" framed this or that shot for maximum dramatic effect). In fact, The Godfather exhibits a tightness of narrative logic that gives it a sense of the tragic unavailable to the epigone gangsters of The Sopranos, who live in a more farcical, more undisciplined, much more fallen and confused world than that of the Coppola film. The distance from The Godfather to The Sopranos is both that distance, that Tony explains in episode 1 of the very first season, from an older conception of the Mafia as dignified and high class, and that distance between a cinematic work that still offers belief in tragedy and a more recent, postmodern bit of television that sees everyday life as so permeated by popular culture that its characters become pale imitators of the prior model and everything takes on the quality of a wink-wink knowingness.
A small detail-the scene where The Sopranos perhaps comes closest to having characters in its fictional world relive a situation from The Godfather's antecedent fictional world-is telling. While in a dramatic turning point from the film, Godfather Vito Corleone was gunned down as he bought oranges from a fruit stand in Little Italy, Tony Soprano is almost gunned down (in season 1) as he buys commercially packaged orange juice on a street in New Jersey. Appearing early in the run of the television show, this latter assassination attempt is much less consequential than the one in The Godfather (where Vito eventually dies of his wounds), is much less about ties to the romance of the old ways of life (tacky, mass-mediated New Jersey now is substituted for Little Italy), and is much more about the replacement of tradition-bound lifestyle by ersatz popular culture. Processed juice replaces real oranges, a television show replaces an epic film, a then relatively unknown actor (Gandolfini) replaces screen great Marlon Brando: in sum, postmodern allusion replaces a scene of tragic, dramatic originality.
There is a meaningfulness, a narrative rightness, to the trajectory in The Godfather, in which the cocky gangster son dies and the morally upright son who wanted nothing to do with the criminal world decides to take up the mantle and become the successor godfather to his imposing figure of a father. In contrast, The Sopranos is a structurally more sprawling work which flirts with narrative logic-for example, in season 6, the gangster's son A. J., like Michael Corleone, also tries to avenge his father (wounded by a senile uncle) but immediately screws up as he has always done-only to suggest that no path toward resolution is especially resonant and that little sense of meaningful tragedy can be wrought from its farcical, trivial, confused characters and the fallen world they inhabit.
Even as it comes, in the end, to tell its tale of ultimate battle (Tony versus Phil), The Sopranos emphatically does not conform to a model of tight and meaningful narrative coherence. Even the last episodes of the last season, where the homing in on the final confrontation of Tony and Phil should logically have led to narrative concentration and compression, exhibit many of the traits of narrative dispersion that had characterized The Sopranos across its many seasons. For instance, season 7 gave time, just a few episodes before the finale, to an inconsequential plot line about a minor character who at best had had a couple lines of dialogue in previous episodes and had never really mattered to any important primary narrative thread: Vito Jr., the son of Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli), a gangster in the Soprano Mob who had been killed because he was gay, had been reacting badly to the death of his father and eventually had to be carted off to an attitude-reprogramming camp in the West. Precious moments that might have been devoted to the battle of Tony and Phil were given over to this story, which added nothing narratively. But this was typical of the show: even as it should have been hurtling toward a startling narrative conclusion, The Sopranos took its leisurely time and went off into a discrete, disconnected subplot about this youthful character who mattered to no one.
Moreover, the Vito Jr. subplot, which came from nowhere and went nowhere, was itself derivative of another subplot-the story, in season 6, of how the recently outed Vito Sr. had tried to flee to the quiet of country life in New Hampshire when his gayness made him persona non grata in the Mob and then had been killed when he returned to New Jersey to see his family. Vito Sr.'s story was no doubt quite fascinating, but he himself had been a fairly minor player in the Soprano gang in previous seasons; as the show was winding down and the big question had to do with the overall survival of the Soprano gang in its rivalry with the New York Mob, the tale of Vito was an interruptive detour. In fact, much of the Vito Sr. story was presented as a veritable interlude-a time-out from the seemingly consequential big narrative questions that hung over the final seasons-with Vito exploring nature in New England, touring small-town Americana, and finding temporary romance with a gay New Hampshire firefighter (one series of shots of the two of them picnicking in the grass, the chubby Vito now a beaming cherub, seemed a comic version of pastoral painting). At the same time, this country interlude would itself be subject to disruption as the next few episodes of season 6 dropped the Vito narrative completely and kept it in fraught abeyance until its bloody resolution later on. It is, then, an additional confirmation of the ways The Sopranos incessantly gives itself over to detour and distension of narrative progression-even as the series would move into seasons that were supposed to be bringing things to an end-that the stories that thereby interrupted the Vito narrative themselves only vaguely returned to the supposedly overriding Tony/Phil rivalry and instead went off into new, digressive mini-narratives of their own.
For example, in one episode, one plot detour involved Tony's restaurateur friend Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia) finding his business falling apart around him; this subplot became a veritable character study in its own right. Another detour in the episode gave time over to a short tale about how Paulie Walnuts had tried to skimp on a religious street festival he handled the finances and operations for in the local parish and then had had a vision of a chastising Virgin Mary (on the dance floor of the Bada Bing strip joint no less!). Neither tale did much to advance major plot lines even though they might be fun and fascinating in their own right. Moreover, it is a further sign of The Sopranos' unremitting breakdown of narrative logic that this episode, so given over to digressions about Artie and Paulie had itself, teasingly, begun with a moment of seemingly major narrative import: Tony's nephew Christopher, who had always had his ups and downs about his commitment to his longtime girlfriend, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), before finally setting her up to be killed when he discovered she was an FBI informant, now asked his current, pregnant girlfriend, Kelli (Cara Buono), to marry him. The problem was that Kelli had figured in no previous scenes and her very existence had never been brought up, so that the revelation that Christopher was now ready to commit to a woman and build a family had no context to it and seemed less a solid narrative line than the mock performance of story. Either The Sopranos would go off into irrelevant digression or jump into a major, new plot thread in a fashion so perfunctory that the narrative came undone.
When the last season of The Sopranos sort of got past all these detours, delays, and narrative decoys and did finally, in the very last episode, resolve the rivalry of Phil and Tony, this itself was stripped of epic resonances and could come to seem relatively inconsequential. Behind Phil's back, Tony brokered a truce with the rest of the New York gang so that the larger war simply ended. This negotiation of peace to avoid bloody action is in keeping with a show that, while often violent, is also about a belated, information-society version of the Mafia, where physical force is often replaced by the power of words: a well-placed whisper in the ear or well-timed cell-phone call. The Sopranos is oftentimes dramatic and exciting, but it also has frequently to do with a flattening of visceral excitement into chit-chat. The thrill of violent battle is emptied out.
Part of Tony's negotiation with New York involved his getting permission to have Phil killed ("whacked," in the show's parlance), but even the whacking that ensues in the last episode seems strangely anticlimactic. First, it is presented in a veritably low-comic manner: shot at a gas pump, Phil falls to the ground, and his own car comes out of gear and runs over his head while a bystander pukes from the shock of it. The very grotesqueness and weirdness of it all remove from the scene much of the monumental epicness that this final confrontation had promised to deliver. Second, the scene itself is literally anticlimatic, since it isn't, in fact, what ends the final episode of The Sopranos. As noted, The Sopranos would end by not ending: after Phil's death, Tony seeks a moment of calm with his family while a series of individuals in that diner may or may not bode ill for the future. This is an ending that combines the non-narrative regularity of anodyne family activity with the non-narrative singularity of a non-ending that ties nothing up.
Throughout its seasons, The Sopranos offered episodes that only minimally provided a story (for example, a notorious 23-minute dream sequence in season 5) or that told a story with no end (the infamous tale from season 3 of a Russian who escaped from the gang and whose fate remained unknown) or presented multiple stories that would move at various paces to their noninterlocking individual resolutions (which might exceed the boundaries of the single episode) or introduced new stories that had not been part of the original promise of the narrative logic and now sent that logic in unexpected directions, or even broke out of its narrative space to go into alternate universes (in season 6, Tony, having been shot and in critical condition, imagines for several episodes that he is a salesman who has lost his wallet and is stuck in a convention hotel in Orange County, California).
My compressed viewing of the seasons of The Sopranos suggests that the show is not so much governed by any overarching narrative logic as it is given over to the force of individual, resonant vignettes. No doubt, these can sometimes take on narrative form, and even extend beyond individual episodes or span seasons, but they operate, still, as discrete units that may contribute vaguely to a larger narrative trajectory but more centrally serve as moments of interest and delectation in their own right. In fact, the vignette can be as short as the furtive moment that flits up for an instant, pleases the viewer for this or that reason (for example, a striking composition, an absurd situation, a funny line of dialogue), and then fades as the next passing moment is offered up. Yet the moment can extend over time and still be experienced as a single, and singular, resonant unit. For example, it is certainly possible to come up with a symbol-by-symbol interpretative translation of the famous 23-minute dream sequence from season 5 into a list of themes and meanings, 2 but it is as tempting to treat the whole dream as a single, extended moment of bravura experiment, one in which this cutting-edge television series luxuriates in the suspension of its narrative(s) for the sake of sheer weirdness.
Excerpted from The Sopranos by DANA POLAN Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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