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The Sopranos Part 1: No Redeeming Qualities

Tracee was not a bright young woman with a promising future, so far as anyone could tell. Her story is harrowing, but it bothers me particularly because I’ve known a few girls in my life who followed similar paths. Abusive upbringings, time bombs of repressed anger, seemingly destined for a new abusive relationship following the prior. She’s familiar enough. Not that I can justify the cigarette burns she inflicted upon her son, that’s on her, but I ultimately find her heartbreaking to watch. Tracee was searching for someone to make her feel safe, to feel secure, and perpetually settling for ones who make her feel the opposite. We’re all searching for a safe place, not physically, but safety in the trust of another person, someone with which we can share moments of unfettered vulnerability and know that exposure is handled with respect and confidence. She would never find such a place, instead she’d find Ralphie. Tracee was a stripper and a prostitute, with her primary function as being a human party favor for crooked cops and shady business men. The club owners viewed Tracee as merchandise, merchandise which needed maintenance. They’d fronted money for her to have orthodontal work. Perfection isn’t cheap, but it’s a sound investment.

Tracee skipped work for a few days to lay around the house with Ralphie, watching TV, having sex, joking around, and drinking Fresca. The idea, I assume, was that she’d show Ralphie how good of a girlfriend she was, show him how well she “took care” of him, and just maybe he’d tell her she could quit stripping and being fucked by strange men for a living. Worth a shot, I suppose. Silvio, one of the club co-owners, wasn’t pleased with Tracee’s truancy, and it didn’t take him long to find her hauled up with Ralphie. Silvio proceeded to drag Tracee from the home by force, following minimal intervention from Ralphie. Ralphie stood at the window laughing hysterically as Silvio stopped to slap Tracee across the face, slam her down onto the trunk of his car, and scream a reminder into her ear: “until you pay what you owe, that little shaved twat of yours belongs to me.”

The braces weren’t a gift, they were on her tab.

Later at the club after a long night, Tracee confided in Ralphie that she was pregnant. Ralphie told her he was going to make things right, take care of her, they’d get a little house. Tracee smiled and felt she’d finally found her safe place. Ralphie even told her he loved her. Ralphie followed the tender moment with a suggestion that if the baby is a girl, they’ll name her Tracee, this way “she can grow up to be a cocksuckin’ slob just like her mom.” Tracee hit Ralphie in anger, Ralphie hit her back. Then he hit her again, and again, until she fell. Then he methodically stomped her face in until she was dead.

The club owners, Tony and Silvio, were furious with Ralphie for disrespecting the club by killing someone on the property. That kind of thing in view of paying customers was bad for business.

Welcome to The Sopranos.

In creator David Chase’s world of La Cosa Nostra, violence is a handshake, women generally do not overcome adversity, gay people are murdered as a simple statement of disapproval, racism is just the way things are, excess is the minimum amount allowable, and morality is incidental.

These reprehensible truths present throughout such a heavily lauded series would likely be assumed by a non-viewer as depictions of “ugly truths” and “hard facts we all have to face.” Yes it’s awful, but it needs to be told so we can accurately portray this despicable social injustice. What a brave show. No, sorry, that isn’t the case. The sleaze of The Sopranos is largely gratuitous. How, then, is it still a good show?

Therein lies the genius of The Sopranos.

To watch The Sopranos, especially to binge watch it, is to descend into a relentlessly ugly world. The characters don’t journey to the depths of hell alone and self-contained, they take you right along with them, and you’re happy to go. It’s a personal journey.

There’s a lot of debate about it online, but I find The Sopranos carries a particularly hefty cynicism, albeit something of a nuanced cynicism. Tony Soprano isn’t a good guy, he’s irredeemably repugnant. Nearly every character on the show is an utter piece of shit, completely immoral degenerates, the entire pack, guilty of unimaginable horror either directly, in their complicity, or in their culpability.

Tony Soprano isn’t here to teach you life lessons; he isn’t the mob boss with the heart of gold. No one on this show is anyone’s friend. Absolute loyalty is demanded, expected, and non-negotiable, and yet, it’s almost never truly seen. Everyone gives way to retaliation at some point. And yet, these nightmarish characters are often likable. Some are downright lovable. I dare say any viewer watching The Sopranos from beginning to end will find themselves forgiving characters for dramatic misdeeds in prior episodes, and why wouldn’t you? You do it all the time in real life.

Most people have a racist relative they can’t just stop loving on a dime. Relationships are complex, we overlook serious shortcomings all the time because we can’t stop caring about someone, that’s part of being human. Some trespasses are worse than others, and some people are more forgiving than others, but reconciling your personal morality with the contrasting behavior of a loved one is a near-universal plight. How many businesses do we support for convenience and frugality, that treat people and/or animals as afterthoughts at best? Where are our firm morals then? The Sopranos recognizes this concept and cranks that up a few notches. Viewers will forgive Tony Soprano just about anything if it means they get to stay with him on his journey through life in the New Jersey mafia. They’ll cheer him on as he strangles an old acquaintance to death for turning informant and then chuckle as he immediately proceeds to go pick his daughter up from school, casually conversing with her afterwards as though he’d just spent the last hour or so playing a game of horseshoes with Beverly d’Angelo.

For an hour per episode, we play along; we become that evil; our morals for that hour become the morals of Tony. Of course, this man needs to be killed, he’s a rat, and Tony is a badass. And when things become too brutal, also like Tony Soprano, we’re conflicted. We question if this is where we really want to be, but it’s too late now, we’re in too deep. So we descend further into the series, powerless to the hold it has over us. Worse yet, how bothered we are by what we see is worth about as much as Tony Soprano’s flaccid guilty conscience, nothing. We wanted in, we’re in, and we’re getting everything that comes with the mafia lifestyle.

But while the audience doesn’t keep count of transgressions, David Chase does. The Sopranos is something of a masochistic experience in that the writers may give you some serious action and payoff today, but tomorrow they won’t. They will do this thing you ask of them, but there will also come a time to settle up.

ralph-painting
Ralph and Tracee

Chris Moltasanti, Silvio Dante, Paulie “Walnuts” Guiltiere, Tony Soprano, all four of these monsters torment and hurt and steal from and kill people at will, just for the sake of your entertainment, episode after episode, season after season. Then suddenly, Dr. Melfi is raped in a parking garage. It’s purposefully one of the more disturbing moments in The Sopranos and fairly graphic. Everyone who watches it is immediately upset.

Why?

Aren’t you entertained?

Don’t you like seeing innocent people being assaulted and tormented at the hands of a ruthless sociopath? Sure, the rapist is a fast food employee and not a mafia guy, but so what? Action is action and this is a pivotal moment in the series. Oh I get it, you’re ok with one kind of violence, but not the other. You’ll forgive Chris for beating the piss out of Adriana and killing her dog, but this is too far. Chris was high and upset, after all. Or maybe it was Tracee that was too far. Maybe all of it repulses you. The point here is, David Chase drives home one very important point, a hit is a hit.

The Sopranos tempts viewers with gratuitous sex and violence, objectification of women, deeply immoral characters through which they can live vicariously. It allows viewers to indulge in some sleazy, mafia-like behavior from the comfort of their couches, but that indulgence comes at a price, just like everything La Cosa Nostra provides, and from time to time, the writers reign in the viewer. Reminding us of what we’re watching and that these guys are a bunch of fuckin’ degenerates. This show isn’t going to give you what you want, not in the long run. Everyone wanted Dr. Melfi’s rapist to be avenged by Tony Soprano, but Chase didn’t appease them in that instance. Why should he? Isn’t one act of violence just as bad as another? Is Tony Soprano a hero who rescues women from mistreatment? Fuck no he’s not, Tony Soprano is a misogynistic piece of garbage. The only reason he’d have cause to avenge Melfi is out of some twisted sense of ownership over Melfi, or as a bargaining token to finally get her into bed. More to the point, even if Tony did avenge Dr. Melfi out of some altruistic sense of justice (of which Tony has none), would it make up for his previous atrocities? It objectively wouldn’t. How many children has Tony orphaned? Wives widowed? How many other Tracees did he facilitate the obliteration of? How many David Scatinos did he bleed dry and wear down to a little nub? How many Eugene Pontecorvos did Tony leave hanging by the neck in their fucking basements? What impact is one, or one thousand, good deeds going to have at this point on the countless lives he’s destroyed?

God, I love Tony Soprano.

What an absolute monstrosity of a human being, reminding of how impossibly full of shit we all are. The Archie Bunker we deserve. The Sopranos is hands down my favorite television show of all time. My second favorite is Twin Peaks, but it’s not even close. The Sopranos is my favorite television show by a solid nine light years. It’s my favorite because The Sopranos doesn’t coddle me and doesn’t really even like me. Whereas I love that Twin Peaks is brazen enough to defy the expectations of its audience, The Sopranos sees fit to tell me to out-and-out go fuck myself. David Chase isn’t afraid to call me out on my bullshit, to remind me that there is no legitimate reason to like anyone on this show. The Sopranos doesn’t condescend to make goofy attempts at redemption for murderers and rapists, opting instead to leave them as they are, knowing I’ll keep watching anyway, taking it in stride as Paulie brutally murders an elderly woman in her bedroom, or casually shoots a waiter to death, for no reason other than he just doesn’t have a lot of foresight. We will continue to watch even through Ralphie beating a woman to death simply for… I forget… why did he do that again?

This kind of absurdity is the essence of The Sopranos. It serves heaping lumps of sadism up on a plate and tells the viewer to dig in. Then it serves another plate, and another, and another, and when you’re tired and begging for it all to stop, it serves two plates. It’s the television equivalent of the gluttony murder in Se7en. Every time I finish The Sopranos I feel like I’ve just had my teeth kicked in.

The Sopranos desensitizes the viewer to violence, then resensitizes, then desensitizes over again, making violence absurd, comedic, hyper-realistic, tiresome, or casual until the viewer is afraid to get comfortable.

The Sopranos doesn’t really have an ending. It doesn’t need one. I’ve read analyses that say Tony definitely died, that he didn’t, that the audience was whacked. They aren’t important to me. What does it matter what happened to Tony? Or Carmella? Or Noah? The series wasn’t about poetic justice or resolution, it was about cycles of violence, compromises in morality, and the never-ending ambiguous torment of what probable danger is just around the corner.


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Written by Josh Lami

7 Comments

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  1. An excellent read, Josh. Love how you started with Tracee and Ralphie. Think I’ll start Season 1 again, it’s been a while.

  2. You nailed it. The Sopranos is also my favourite show of all time, (next to Twin Peaks, but I can’t set them in competition) yet I’d be hard pressed to say why. A few years back I was trying to persuade a friend to watch the Sopranos. He asked why he would want to watch a show about baddies? Despite being a really naive response I really couldn’t tell him. You just explained why perfectly and still we wonder. What is the fascination? It doesn’t have the glamour and cartoonery of a Tarantino, the grit and verite of the Wire or the relentless tracing of a man’s descent into evil of Breaking Bad or the historical social documentation of Mad Men yet still it is better than all of those. Really looking forward to reading more .

    • Thanks so much.

      I write a lot but unfortunately it doesn’t pay the bills so I keep a 9-5. One day, maybe that break will come. Till then I’m just happy for people to read my stuff.

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