20 years later, I finally watched The Sopranos. It holds up.
The Sopranos changed TV. This isn’t my uninformed opinion, this is a pretty widely shared view. It helped pave the way for the TV we know today, one that has long-developing character arcs, multi-episode conflicts, and characters whose actions one season affect their lives seasons down the line — and it helped turn TV itself into a respected medium. But just because something is groundbreaking, just because it paves the way for a better landscape, that doesn’t mean that it holds up after the fact.
I finally got around to watching the show 20 years after it debuted. With no preconceived notions or previous opinions, I feel like I got the rare opportunity to see whether or not the nostalgia was based in reality or merely good memories from a time when the rest of the TV landscape was barren. The Sopranos, much like its brash, aggressive, complex characters, holds its own, even as the world around it catches up.
A code, when it’s convenient
The mafia’s defining feature, at least in media portrayals, is honor. Expensive suits, a code of conduct, made men, omertà. It’s all designed to give organized crime an air of respectability, bring some order to the chaos. By providing this framework, it’s meant to limit crime and prevent wanton killing — especially of other made men — reduce inter-family theft, and keep one member from sleeping with another’s wife. Like real laws, it also allows a crime boss to properly dole out punishment in a way that doesn’t seem arbitrary. It’s a framework that Tony Soprano relies on to keep order in the family. Unless it’s just too inconvenient.
Part of the problem with living outside the law is that there are no laws. It’s a bit tautological, but it also makes this mythological code of honor easier to dismiss. And Tony finds himself needing to dismiss it quite often, as do the other crime bosses. These men lie, cheat, steal, and kill, and when their various codes get in the way of their primary purpose — making money — they’re happy to bend the rules. Tony Soprano protects Vito Spatafore (whose homosexuality in later episodes is a death sentence in the mob world) because he’s one of his best earners. Christopher Moltisanti gets preferential treatment for being a blood relative, as does Tony Blundetto — although both characters are ultimately killed for the greater good. On the other end, Tony breaks just about every rule in dealing with Ralph Cifaretto because he’s a massive pain in the ass, ultimately killing Ralph (who felt protected by his status as a made man) for killing a horse for an insurance payout.
Finally, the blood feud that plays out after Phil Leotardo takes over the Lupertazzi family is exactly the kind of revenge-fueled rampage that this code is supposed to prevent. But once it starts, once one person is killed out of line, the killings snowball. And since the code is merely a code, one that’s not backed up by legal precedent or law enforcement, there’s not much anyone can do to enforce it. The fragile balance requires all parties to be on board.
Of course, this dynamic works, and doesn’t feel forced, because these are terrible people doing terrible things.
Varying Degrees of Awful
A general thread that runs through the idea of plot development involves making bad things happen to your characters. Raymond Carver once said, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” A show about a mob boss gives the writers a lot of freedom to explore that plot device. The risk, of course, is allowing everything to take darker and darker turns that leave us with nothing but a bleak, desolate world that saps the enjoyment out of viewing. But The Sopranos masterfully balances these characters through, essentially, degrees of awfulness. While they’re all bad people, few of the characters are unleashed psychopaths.
Tony Soprano himself spends much of the six seasons wishing he was a better person. He doesn’t do a whole lot to try and better himself, although he makes an honest effort to stop sleeping with other women toward the end, but there is a sense that he might give up his place in organized crime if he could. He most certainly doesn’t want this life for his son. The Kevin Finnerty episodes at the beginning of season six give a little look into Anthony Soprano, the professional.
It’s this desire, however slight, that helps separate Tony from the criminals around him. While Tony’s personal life and “professional” life don’t have definite barriers (unlike, for example, Walter White in Breaking Bad), they often intersect without overlapping. His real family stays in the dark about where the money comes from, about what his friends and coworkers do, about where he goes late at night. They know, but if they were, say, questioned by the FBI, they wouldn’t be able to provide specifics. In many ways, this break allows Tony to maintain the fiction that he’s not really the monster the world sees him as.
It’s only really in therapy where the walls break down and Tony Soprano the family man is forced to look at Tony Soprano the “family” man, and he has to reconcile that he is, in fact, a bad person. He’s ultimately quick to end this introspection, going so far as to the threaten the therapist who helps him see it, but not before he gets a good, long look at Tony Soprano the gangster.
Almost everything the mob does is for show. The jewelry, the cars, the money clips, even the killings, they all send a message about power and respect. So do the houses, which are not only enormous at the highest levels of the family, but they’re in rich neighborhoods. Tony’s North Caldwell home puts his family next to the upper crust of society, with his ill-gotten gains putting him in the same zip code as doctors and lawyers.
Almost everything the mob does is for show, and that truth becomes painfully obvious when its members actually find themselves in the world of the rich that they work so hard to appear to be a part of. Tony goes golfing with his wealthy neighbors, and they spend the trip asking him various question about the Mafia and whether he ever met John Gotti. Chris Moltisanti fancies himself the next great Hollywood writer, but he finds that his meteoric rise through the Soprano family carries little weight with the likes of Jon Favreau and Ben Kingsley. Johnny Sack throws a lavish wedding for his daughter, only to be pulled away crying by US Marshals, who drag him back to prison.
Then there’s the reality that nothing they have is really theirs. Johnny Sack’s entire plea deal is based on making sure that his wife and daughter aren’t left with nothing. Tony often discusses hiding his assets with his wife, and he has a “legitimate job” in waste management, both for the health insurance and legitimate appearances. Carmela, in turn, wants her own investments as well as her own life insurance trust. In season one, while hiding guns, money, and jewelry from the police, it’s implied that even Carmela’s engagement ring is stolen.
Everything has a feeling of being on borrowed time, and there are enough reminders of this throughout the show to remind you just how fragile this façade is. Yes, the mob has money and power, both acquired through crime and fear, but when push comes to shove, when they’re forced out of their self-contained bubble, it all starts to feel like a ruse.
The only thing I knew about The Sopranos after twenty years was that people hated the ending. And it was one of the few things that didn’t age well. While the concept of cutting or fading to black isn’t necessary flawed, the biggest issue is that it felt pointless. There are various allusions present in the lead-up to the cut to black, including to the famous bathroom scene from The Godfather, but there isn’t a sense that anyone other than Meadow is walking through the door of the diner. It’s kind of a buildup to nothing. While it gives the viewer freedom to infer, it leaves us with too many possible scenarios and no definite roadmap.
The story of Tony Soprano was already over. A gang war had broken out. Most of the major players in the Soprano family are dead or in jail. The FBI, despite one agent’s appreciation for Tony’s help, is on his tail. He literally tells Carmela that one of his capos had flipped. A mob boss’s reign ends in death or prison. And in the previous few episodes, the borrowed time had run out. So, while the official ending may have been unsatisfying, the story was already over. The core of the family is dead. Tony is going to prison, if he’s not killed first. Meadow has escaped the family and done something with her life. Anthony Jr. never quite caught on to the fact that his family’s wealth is transitory and really hasn’t done a whole lot with himself. Carmela will join the mob wives whose husbands are dead or in jail. The final episode might have lacked closure, but the final season didn’t. Anyone thinking that this story had a happy ending was kidding themselves.
Driven by personalities
The depth of the characters is what makes this show (or any show) so great, but it’s also the fact that, despite everyone being more or less cut from the same mobster cloth, they all manage to have wildly different personalities and views — which leads to regular clashes that move the plot forward. Despite plenty of opportunities to let the show slide into an oblivion of horrible act after horrible act, characters’ self-preservation largely wins out. Right up until it doesn’t and the family is thrown back into chaos.
It’s not always perfect. There are a couple dream episodes which are a chore, the small explosions masquerading as gunshots wouldn’t fly today, and the FBI, while omnipresent, is less of an ever-present foe and more of a plot device. But other than the anachronisms of being filmed in the past, there’s little in The Sopranos that doesn’t fit in to today’s TV world. It’s one thing to be a trailblazer. It’s another to stand out on the trail you blazed.
I’m a freelance writer who uses the basics of fiction to inform my professional writing. For professional inquiries, you can reach me at anthonyjondreau.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Instagram at anthonyjondreau.