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Tony Soprano and his wife Carmela live next door to Bruce and Jean Cusemano, a well-to-do Italian-American couple who earned their way into their rich, suburban New Jersey neighborhood through Bruce's lucrative medical practice. At a dinner party, the Cusemanos' equally wealthy friends ask about the Sopranos. Do they know them? What are they like? What have the Cusemanos seen? Bruce indulges his guests by telling them about the box of Cuban cigars Tony gave him recently, about the way having a gangster as a neighbor can keep down neighborhood crime and raise property values. Tony Soprano may be a criminal, but he's also a celebrity. He fascinates the Cusemanos and their guests. They may not want to associate with him, but they want to know everything about him.
Just like the Cusemanos, many of us watch The Sopranos every week. We're fascinated by them, involved with their convoluted lives, addicted to their unethical behavior. We love to watch them hang themselves with their own rope. The show is a fluke, a dream, a runaway hit-even its stars thought no one would ever watch it. But here we are, four years later, and TheSopranos has millions of regular viewers.
The Sopranos is much more than a television show about a Mafia capo whose incapacitating panic attacks drive him to a psychiatrist's couch; it is a psychological cauldron of incongruities, paradoxes, and borderline self-destructive behavior. The contradictions faced by its characters are representative of the American disposition and culture at this early moment in the twenty-first century-their issues are the issues with which our entire society is grappling. In many ways, The Sopranos represents our Jungian dark side, the accumulating clog in our collective septic tank that will ultimately stink up our lives both personally and as a civilization unless we confront it head on.
In one sense the lives of the typical Sopranos viewers are all very deceiving. With a bright economic outlook, life remains comfortable in our mostly upper-middle-class neighborhoods. We, like the Cusemanos, remain content to enjoy our luxuries and to speculate idly about crime and corruption that we imagine as part of other people's lives, not our own. Underneath, however, in the world Tony Soprano's basement represents, there lurks a murky swamp of conflicts built into the very structure of our personal and professional lives, conflicts so profound they compel us to ask some big questions:
• What has become of morality in American life?
• Who are our heroes? Do any still exist?
• Does work have any meaning for us beyond a paycheck?
• Why do our business and political institutions seem so corrupt?
• Why are so many American families dysfunctional?
• Why do Americans seem so preoccupied with sex, yet so troubled with sexual dysfunction?
• Why do we remain such a violent culture?
We can find some answers to these questions by examining the characters in The Sopranos and their interactions within the cultural context that constitutes their moral foundations.
The complicated characteristics the Soprano family members exhibit are the essence of conflict and contradiction, the spice of the show. Tony, the patriarch of the family, is a walking contradiction, a man who is never at home anywhere but who never leaves work, even when he is at home. However, he can't conduct business as would anyone else working at home; his fear of being spied on by the federal government compels him to conduct business in the basement, the only location in his house where he feels he has complete privacy. Otherwise, he takes business where it belongs-to his backyard, to the waterfront, to his strip club Bada Bing, to Artie Bucco's restaurant-none of which are "traditional" business venues. But in many respects Tony is a very traditional guy: he believes in strong family values and the importance of respecting his elders, adhering to the old-school Mafia rules, behaving with honor and governing his employees with a soft touch and an iron fist. At the same time, he also believes in punishing dishonor with death, in responding with swift and immediate vengeance to anyone who defies his business practices, and in collecting on his debts immediately-no matter what the situation. Tony is a liar, a cheat, a racist, and a bigot, but we like him nonetheless. He adheres to his own moral code.
Tony's wife, Carmela, is the classic unfulfilled suburban housewife, circa 1950s, craving both physical and emotional intimacy from Tony, longing for him to be closer to her and to his children. She tries fulfilling her unmet needs with ultimately unrequited affairs-with a priest, then a contractor. As the show has progressed, Carmela has taken strides to assert her independence and achieve her own sense of happiness. She attends sessions with Tony and his psychiatrist then begins to see a therapist on her own, who advises her to leave her Mob husband. Instead, she begins to stand up to Tony, forcing him to examine his behavior and taking more ownership of decisions that affect her and her family, decisions traditionally made by Tony. Of all the characters in The Sopranos, Carmela has undergone the most significant emotional transformation, from docile and unhappy to frustrated and assertive. It seems unlikely that she will complete the transformation by leaving Tony-Mafia wives just don't do that-but when you recall that The Sopranos began by teaming a Mafia capo with a female psychiatrist, who knows what will happen?
Tony's children also embody the same kind of contradictions. His daughter, Meadow, is an overprotected suburban child of innocence and entitlement, yet she continually comes face to face with the effects and implications of her father's criminal activities. She discovers information on the Internet linking her father to organized crime, and, in another episode, actually sees him being taken away in handcuffs. Meadow loves Tony, but faced with troubling aspects of his nature-as when he forbids her to continue seeing her college boyfriend, who happens to be African American-she has trouble reconciling her love for him with his flaws.
Tony's son, Anthony Junior, A.J., is an overweight, alienated adolescent whom Tony wishes would become a "real man." However, in Tony's world, being a real man means having the ability to break open someone's head, an act the gentle A.J. is unlikely ever to perform. Tony is forever wondering if his son could, would, or should be up to the task of running the family business. In an effort to teach A.J. some responsibility, he threatens to send him to military school, an effort that falls apart when A.J. begs his father not to send him to "that place" and begins having anxiety-driven fainting spells much like his father's. Perhaps as his son grows up, Tony will begin to realize that what A.J. really needs, the factor that he has been missing most in his life, is his father's acceptance. However, even though Tony knows from personal experience the ill effects of having a parent who is disappointed in his or her child, he finds it difficult to see past his own psyche and treat his son differently than he himself was treated.
Impossible to please, Tony's widowed and now-deceased mother, Livia, was a demon-possessed matriarch. Her enormous, lifelong resentment of her son was exacerbated when he moved her from her home, which she was no longer able to care for, to an upscale retirement facility. She felt so angry toward Tony that she put out a contract on him. Likewise, Tony's rage toward his mother has been palpable since the first episode; yet, he kept trying to please her, one of the factors that led him to experience panic attacks and seek psychiatric help. Ironically, Livia erroneously believed Tony spent psychiatric sessions denouncing her to his therapist-an approach that probably would have helped him make a true therapeutic breakthrough but which he has so far been unable to do to any significant degree.
Tony's sister Janice is only slightly less nightmarish than his mother. Her earthy sensuality and big mouth represent yet another contradiction, one aggravated when she takes up with a psychopath, Richie Aprile, a "made" member of Tony's crew just released from prison. When Richie punches her in the face, she shoots and kills him, then calls Tony. As her big brother methodically disposes of Richie's body, we begin to see how Tony has emotionally cleaned up after Janice his entire life.
Tony's Uncle Junior, a longtime mobster and sometime rival to his nephew, is just as believably insane as his sister-in-law, Livia. When Uncle Junior's loyal longtime girlfriend boasts about his prowess in performing oral sex, the news gets back to Tony, who ribs Uncle Junior about a bedroom activity that Tony and his macho cronies scorn as unmanly. Uncle Junior's humiliation and fury seriously deepen the potentially murderous breach between the dysfunctional relatives, and he, too, orders a hit on Tony.
Like his family, Tony's crew is made up of walking contradictions. Tony's young nephew, Christopher Moltisanti, an apprentice member of the gang, is also an aspiring screenwriter, a profession no real Mafioso could consider, given the importance of secrecy in organized crime. Yet when he is "made" in the third season, we see Christopher back off from his screenwriting aspirations and take up a mantle Tony has long held for him.
Another of Tony's crew, Pussy Bompensiero, represented perhaps the strongest link to the friends of Tony's youth, but when Pussy betrayed him to the FBI, Tony had him killed. Silvio Dante manages Tony's strip club all day-hiring and firing young women who often work as prostitutes-yet appears to have the most stable family life of any member of the crew. Then there is Paulie Walnuts, a murderer with a savage temper, who shows great warmth and tenderness toward his girlfriend and her children.
Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony's psychiatrist, has her own contradictions. She is attracted to and repelled by Tony. She possesses a profound sense of ethics, yet comes dangerously close to asking Tony to murder the man who raped her. Critics and psychologists have praised the relationship between Tony and Melfi, whatever its procedural flaws or dramatic license, as the most realistic portrayal of the therapeutic model in the history of television. And the centrality of their relationship reflects the real significance of The Sopranos.
American culture has long made heroes out of outlaws, gangsters, and mobsters, and Dr. Melfi's reactions to Tony parallel that troubling fascination. What is it within the American character that leads us to engage in such unhealthy hero worship? It isn't Tony Soprano who needs a psychiatrist-it's us! Back in the 1920s, reporters often asked Al Capone his opinion about the morals of America's youth, as if Capone were a qualified expert on moral decline. The popularity of The Sopranos indicates that not much has changed.
The Sopranos and the Sociological Imagination
Tony Soprano has his hands in all manner of financial scares, not all of which lead directly to someone being beaten or killed. Yet Tony's activities have far-reaching consequences and countless victims, even when they remain unseen. He sets up a junk stock to telemarket to elderly retirees but feels a genuine respect for the World War II generation being defrauded by his scam. He works closely with men who push drugs for a living yet despairs at the urban blight he sees around him. Many of the ills Tony Soprano sees around him are linked to his own actions, but he never draws the parallels.
Many Americans are confused about how to think about social problems. Indeed, American culture is biased toward individual personalities, individual cases, and individual rights, causing people to lose sight of society as a whole. The confusion Americans sometimes feel about the social ills of our era is shown in Twilight of the Golds, an off-Broadway play by Jonathan Tolins, later made into a movie. Every Sunday, Mrs. Gold tells us, she sits down with the week's issues of the New York Times and spends all day reading them. When she finishes, she feels overwhelmed by all the information she has absorbed; she has no way to sort out what it all means.
The sociologist C. Wright Mills described the nature of Mrs. Gold's confusion decades before the play was written, remarking that ours is an era of uneasiness and indifference, a time when people experience their personal lives as a series of traps. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mills warned against the dangers inherent in celebrity worship, mass-media addiction, militarism, criminal and unethical behavior among the nation's leaders, conformity, status-seeking behavior, bureaucracy, and alienation. That prophetic list reads like a description of America today.
Mills believed that ordinary people, including those in the media who often interpret the world for us, lack a sociological imagination-the ability to see the interrelationship of their own lives with the historical period and society in which they live. A mode of critical thinking that helps us understand how social problems affect us personally, the sociological imagination allows us to conceive of the relationship between seemingly private, individual troubles and larger social problems, to understand that responsibility belongs not only to individuals but also to communities, religious organizations, media outlets, advertisers, corporations, and government entities.
Personal Troubles and Social Issues
Tony Soprano is a man beset with problems, not all of which can be solved in therapy. His disastrous relationship with his late mother, for instance, might be worked out with Dr. Melfi's help. However, his tendency to take violent shortcuts to achieve his goals may not be resolved by taking Prozac and confronting his feelings. C. Wright Mills argued that our personal troubles, our feelings of being trapped and manipulated, our marital and career fortunes, our goals and our tools for achieving those goals, are sociological in origin and consequence. This is what Tony does not understand. To use the sociological imagination, we must learn to interrelate the structural causes of social problems, major trends, private troubles, and public issues that occupy our everyday existence.
According to Mills, personal troubles "occur within the character of the individual and within the range of ... immediate relations with others; they have to do with [the] self and with those limited areas of social life of which [one] is directly and personally aware." Personal troubles lie within our immediate environment, our family, workplace, school, religious organization, or neighborhood; our perceptions of personal troubles and our solutions for resolving them also lie in this environment. For example, if two college roommates quarrel and decide they no longer wish to room together, each can resolve the problem by finding a more compatible partner; most college campuses have a place to post "seeking roommate" notices. Thus, the problem can be resolved within the immediate environment of the college campus. Social problems, on the other hand, are of a dramatically different nature.
Consider unemployment. If, in a society of over 100 million workers, the only people who are unemployed are those who refuse to work, that is a personal trouble. The cause lies within the character of individuals who have chosen their unemployed status. If, however, that society suffers massive layoffs as businesses downsize and move factories overseas in search of cheap labor and of other financial advantages, sociological forces take over. No amount of counseling or punishment of errant workers will resolve a crisis of permanent recession cycles. No amount of headlines lauding the 94-percent employment rate will soothe the 6 percent out of work.
Excerpted from Tony Soprano's America by DAVID R. SIMON with Tamar Love Copyright © 2002 by Westview Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Contradictory Sopranos and Us||1|
|2||Tony Soprano and the American Dream||13|
|3||The Sopranos and the Higher Immorality||35|
|4||Tony and the World: The Global Economy, Organized-Crime Syndicates, and Narco-Terrorism||59|
|5||Lies, Entertainment, and Alienation, Soprano Style||79|
|6||Tony Soprano and the Crimeogenic Department Store||109|
|7||The Sopranos' Family Life ... and Ours||145|
|8||Everyday Life in Tony Soprano's America||177|
|9||Solutions to the Crises of Tony Soprano's America: The Real Meaning of Tony Soprano||207|