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Jarett Figlin discusses depravity & the American dream.
The media we consume can be a means to vicariously experience emotions through fictional characters. The anger and hostility we so often bottle up in our daily lives can rear their ugly heads without consequence as we watch fictional characters enacting violence and hatred upon one another. This is part of the surface level draw of films, books and TV series centered around the mafia. It can be deeply cathartic to watch people so far from our social expectations engage with each other according to their own very different rules. Real mafia figures such as John Gotti and Al Capone gained near-heroic status not simply because they organised what people viewed as benefits to the community, but also because those who did behave within societal constraints wished at some level they could be like these figures. If the ideal of the mafioso can seem liberating to those stuck in mundane lives, it is no surprise that media centered around the mafia has become so popular.
David Chase’s acclaimed TV series The Sopranos (HBO, 1999-2007) could reasonably be lumped in with this trend, but that would be to miss what elevated the series above other such works. Alongside its style, dialogue, and characters, The Sopranos was willing to be about something – often several somethings. Nearly every facet of the series necessitated contemplation about the wider world of which the Soprano crime family was a microcosm. It did this primarily through creating a certain affection for characters the show would simultaneously depict as immoral. While the characters of The Sopranos are fictional, the world they inhabit is not, and if the depraved members of the Soprano and Lupertazzi families seem far-fetched, they may have more of a connection with the landscape of modern America than one might realize at first glance.
The Sopranos publicity image © HBO 1999-2007
‘Sometimes We’re All Hypocrites’
Despite the connection the audience is likely to form with the various personalities within The Sopranos, one would be hard-pressed to find any member of the family who one could consider a ‘good person’. After all, their business is exploitation, and business is booming. Many of these characters hold lofty ideals about America being the land of opportunity, about pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hold the American dream in the highest prestige. The irony of this becomes apparent. If these violent, hateful, racist, homophobic people are not perfect representatives of the modern American dream, then who is? The characters of The Sopranos are the embodiment of capitalism in its purest form. They all enjoy exuberant success, but at someone else’s cost. The sad truth is that many a modern American utilizes lofty rhetorics about opportunity and individualism to distract themselves from the responsibility they should feel for the subjugation and oppression of others. It is far easier to claim that homeless people are ‘lazy’ than acknowledge that they inhabit a system that failed them so that others could succeed.
‘Sometimes You Tell a Lie so Long You Forget When to Stop’
The Soprano family is but the purest distillation of the upper class, and anyone who does not fit the mold that the upper class has set cannot achieve their success, no matter how hard they work. In one of the most tragic arcs of the show, nowhere is this sentiment more prevalent than in the fate of Vito Spatafore (played by Joseph R. Gannascoli).
Spatafore is many things before his untimely demise at the hands of Lupertazzi family boss Phil Leotardo. He was one of Tony Soprano’s best earners, as well as one of his hardest workers. If anyone deserved a fast track to success, it was him. Unfortunately for him, this success was not meant to be, as he was also gay. This fact, once discovered, led to his fleeing New Jersey and being disowned by his friends. People who he’d grown to consider family were disgusted at the mere thought of him as a gay man – and a successful mafioso at that! This led to him, upon his re-emergence, having to pretend his homosexuality was an illness and that he was cured of it, even to Tony Soprano, who acknowledged how good a worker Vito was. But the mafia ideology as represented in The Sopranos is not unlike that of society at large: if someone doesn’t fit the preconception of the powerful of what a successful person looks like, then success is not for them. Unfortunately, in both the show and the wider Western world, a successful person in the eyes of the decision-makers is still largely a straight, white man. The saddest part about the story of Vito Spatafore is perhaps that even with his success in the family, he could never truly be himself. His only options were to either repress who he was to experience material gain, as meaningless as that is, or to embrace who he was and face being ostracized by everyone he’d ever known.
This dilemma occurs far more often than many would like to believe – and not only when it comes to sexuality. Huge numbers of successful Americans have had to hide their Jewishness. Almost any early Hollywood production was likely to have a Jewish person at the helm in some way or another, but at the time few would have admitted their ethnicity. While many would like to believe that the world at large would accept a gay person leading a modern workforce, the likelihood of such a person having to shield their identity in order to maintain opportunities is far higher than most would care to admit. Just as Tony’s crew gets to decide who succeeds and who does not in their syndicates, the elites of real society decide who gets to succeed and who does not; the sad truth is that the decision-making process is essentially the same. The core of it is always that those who are different from the decision-makers do not succeed. One needn't look far to see who does embody the ideals of the elite: Tony Soprano himself.
‘A Good Guy, Basically’
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), in essence is a character who lives in death. Nearly all of his success can be attributed to some loss of life that he has caused, directly or otherwise. Even the lives of his crew, and his family, hang in the balance, waiting for Tony to play judge, jury, and executioner. That being said, evaluating what kind of person Tony is can lead to some painful revelations.
From the very beginning of the series, Tony Soprano is far beyond the point of redemption. Apart from the innocent people he has physically hurt, and those he continues to hurt, he constantly lies. He humiliates or shuns his loved ones for minor satisfaction (as shown through his various goomahs, or mistresses), and shows no empathy to anyone apart from babies and animals, as noted by his therapist, Dr Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in one of the final episodes of the show. He is, essentially a sociopath: he feels no remorse for his actions so long as they benefit him, and he puts business above all else. He is also a deeply traditional man, not only in his beliefs but in his dedication to them. He embodies the spirit of the mafia more than nearly any other character in the show. So long as he is helping his family, both blood and otherwise, all is okay, he thinks.
The reason the audience cares about Tony is that his goals are noble, and despite his actions, he is not an outright evil figure. Tony does what he does not because he believes it's right, but because he believes that the ends justify the means. The issues present when considering what exactly are his ends, or the ends of the elite that he represents; and the ends are simply power – the maintaining of power, and the gatekeeping of power. Though he claims to care about his family, Tony simply wishes to maintain his power at all costs, crushing his opposition, no matter how familial, whenever he must.
Tony continually seeks help for his psychological issues throughout the series. However in the end Dr Melfi and I came to the same question: What would help even look like for Tony Soprano? He certainly will never become reformed, taking solace as he does in his lofty ideals to assuage his own responsibility. But in terms of reforming the family, a change in leadership would not help either. The rigid means-ends beliefs Tony holds have been so deeply ingrained into the family that in order for its systems to be reformed, a total shift in how the structure is viewed would be required. Corruption can only be mended if people become aware of it. The parallels here to American society are apparent enough that I needn’t expound on them further.
This is what makes the ending of The Sopranos so effective. The cycles of violence, both from the families, and between them, are nowhere near ending even when Tony Soprano is no longer in power. This is simply how the families would continue to exist unless unrealistic action was taken to reform it. Every character in the show lives a depraved existence. So from the moment he first drives out of the Lincoln Tunnel in the pilot of the show, Tony Soprano is doomed. It is of little importance, therefore, who exactly causes the downfall, as much as it symbolizes the fact that an existence as compromised as his, just like a system as compromised as ours, is doomed to failure. When finally Tony Soprano sits in that booth, playing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey on the jukebox, it represents the culmination of something that had been brewing long before Tony took the reigns, and will continue to fester long after his downfall.
© Jarett Figlin 2023
Jarett Figlin is studying psychology at college. He has a passion for existentialist philosophy and political theory, and applies these passions to musings on art, history, and the world at large. Thank you so much for reading!