Used primarily as a pejorative for any mean-spirited person, we’ve loosened our definition of evil. Traditionally, ‘evil’ carries a supernatural connotation. An evil person is in fact a malevolent, otherworldly force in disguise. Whether or not we admit it out loud, most people realize demons and evil spirits are intangible scapegoats. Evil is an attempt by shirkers to deny humanity its ownership of systematic cruelty, or at least an attempt to justify it. Alternatively, the concept of evil has been used to explain benign, but discomfort-inducing sexual proclivities, and to explain the prevalence of the anomalies threatening establishment. Evil was indeed responsible for such hell worthy trespasses as masturbation, homosexuality, and opinionated women. How strange that evil is always in direct opposition to power.
As established in part one, The Sopranos reaches a level of darkness no other series goes near. Perhaps that profound darkness comes from the The Sopranos having such a deep understanding of evil.
In a world as bleak as Tony Soprano’s, it’s unsurprising viewers find no shortage of loathsome characters to despise, which is one of The Sopranos’ greatest strengths. A strong, unlikable antagonist is an unmistakable sign of great writing. Nurse Ratched, Delores Umbridge, anyone? While characters like Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante are deeply immoral, they’re written and performed with a sense of endearment. Writers knew what quirks and mannerisms would make audiences swoon for cold blooded killers, and where may have fallen short, the actors portraying those murderers knew when to let their personalities shine through, re-humanizing the demons. But a number of characters are absent of nearly all appeals to empathy, level eleven bad in a world populated by tens. As easy to love as a piece of gravel in your urethra. They are the antagonists of The Sopranos.
How is it even possible to have a villain in a series populated by psychos? Let’s start with the least repugnant Sopranos villain and work our way through to the most toxic character of the series.
How can a woman beating, Beansie tormenting, Davey Scatino bleeding sadist like Richie Aprile be the least evil antagonist? Two words: “the jaaaackeeeeeeeet.” As someone who has the unfortunate disposition of being, maybe a bit too empathetic, I feel sorry for people easily, even terrible people. Worse, I get embarrassed for people when they make fools of themselves. Maybe this is just a me thing, but I think while Richie exhibits almost zero human moments throughout his entire arc as the undisputed main villain of season two, his gift of a certain jacket is met by Tony with indifference, and I find it fairly cringe-inducing. Later Tony outright insults Richie by giving the jacket away. However horrible Richie is, and Jesus Christ he is, the character of Richie conveyed to me as he stood next to Carmella, staring at the ground, that Tony’s insult hurt his feelings. Somewhere beneath all that narcissism, is someone capable of feeling humiliation. Sure, the only way he can get off seems to be by holding a real gun to a woman’s head during sex, (I’m not normally one to fetish shame, but goddamn) and he punches his fiancée in the face for mere suggestion his son might be gay, but I cannot help but relate to the emotional sting I know he feels from Tony’s rejection.
This is what The Sopranos does to people.
We’re shown Richie Aprile taking abject delight in running a pleading man down with his car, reversing and rolling back over the top of a now bleeding man, for Richie’s own sick amusement. Then right after, you’re made to identify with Richie on an emotional level. This is why the writing of The Sopranos is legend. Many people love The Sopranos, but writers really love The Sopranos. We’re envious. David Chase fucked with audience minds in ways no one else could. Sure, there are those who felt nothing when Richie’s feelings were hurt by the jacket incident, but that’s OK, because the writers on this show knew different people responded to different situations in different ways. If this doesn’t put you into a moral dilemma, something else will.
As far as characters go, Richie left a stain was a darker shade of red than much of the blood-soaked fabric holding The Sopranos together. We saw a thread of humanity a time or two, but those threads weren’t enough to make us feel anything but satisfaction when the taste of blood reminded Janice that some problems have simple solutions waiting just in the next room.
The first thing to know about Phil is that he’s actually rather principled, at times even patient. He could even be seen as merciful in a couple of earlier instance. Phil’s “principles” are exactly what make him so dangerous. His “old school” method of running things is cancerous to whatever potential modicum of progressiveness there was to be found within La Cosa Nostra. Tony, Silvio, Paulie, Johnny Sack, even the ancient, shorts-hating Carmine Lupertazzi are all remorseless killers, sure, but they usually pass on arbitrary violence if some kind of agreement or compromise can be made. They’re capable of being insulted and not killing, if the money is right.
Phil is unshakable.
Once he feels a principle has been violated, he retaliates. Conversation over. Even if it were shown that Phil was mistaken about being disrespected, it doesn’t matter, because Phil Leotardo would then be perceived as wrong, and that can’t happen. Phil Leotardo has no reasonable side to appeal to. While Carmine gave a no-go on whacking Ralphie after Ralphie insulted Johnny Sack’s wife, with proper financial compensation, Phil would never play any of that hippy bullshit. A capo named Vito turns out to be gay, Phil instantly wants him found and violently murdered, simply over dishonor. Nevermind that Vito is an incredible earner and a made guy. There’s never a hint of reason behind Phil, just pure hatred and “principles.”
You know who else had principles? Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, and he was the embodiment of death. The rest of the guys are repulsed by Vito’s homosexuality too, don’t get me wrong, and even express wanting him dead for it. It goes without saying he’s out of the family, but they seem content to just forget he existed. Tony even lies to cover for Vito. Tony is reasonable enough to be conflicted by the fact that gay or not, Vito did was a significant asset. It’s strongly hinted in therapy that given the choice, Tony would be willing to overlook his disapproval of Vito’s lifestyle and let him continue being awesome at his job. Strange as it may seem, that’s potentially a move toward progressive tolerance. Still appalling? Of course, but a move in the right direction is a move in the right direction, at least that’s how I see it. While it probably wouldn’t have happened anyway, Phil makes the prospect impossible. There is nothing to discuss. Sure enough, Phil pops out of a closet and watches with satisfaction as Vito is beaten to death. Then he sodomizes Vito’s corpse with a pool stick. Principles indeed.
Once Phil makes his way into a position of great power, he imposes his personal rage and frustrations on people he governs and works with. He sacrifices everyone else’s well-being, so his ego can be appeased. This society he belongs to had problems before him, but had managed to find compromise when possible. Once he took the reigns and started enacting his short-sighted, reactionary approach to leadership, everything came crashing down. He was a person lacking in leadership qualities, but sitting in a consequential leadership position. What’s worse, he was old and out of touch with any contemporary schools of thought, asserting a primitive, antiquated view of the world on the top of the world he was actually inhabiting. The ascension of someone like that only creates more war, and more unnecessary death.
Since we’re still talking about The Sopranos… I think, I guess it’s fair to say just about every death in the series was unnecessary, Phil’s genocidal actions just felt so clearly avoidable.
Phil was a despot, and in The Sopranos, despots get their heads crushed by a car tire in front of their grandchildren, which was one murder I didn’t find to be unavoidable.
Actually, it seemed downright appropriate.
In my previous article on The Sopranos, I explained how Ralphie Cifaretto beat a woman to death for no reason. Ralphie is the most depraved character on the show, at least in terms of visible actions. He’s almost too evil of a character and might be the most dementedly evil character of all time, and I’m not exaggerating. He’s completely unpredictable and becomes sadistically violent out of absolutely nowhere. He never shows a shred of remorse for anything he does wrong. Interestingly, the horrors to which he’s capable are rarely mentioned. Instead, most fans jump immediately to the low-hanging fruit of possibly having burned a horse alive (we never find out for sure), and beating a twenty year old pregnant woman to death (which he justifies by reminding everyone that she was in fact a “hoo-wah.” Or, “whore” if you don’t understand Jersey talk).
These are certainly terrible things to do, but what happened to Tracee, while deeply tragic and twisted, is not only not the most screwed up moment in the show, it’s not even the worst thing Ralphie did.
Did everyone forget what he did to Rosalie Aprile? After her husband died she started dating Ralphie, who began mentoring her son, Jackie Jr., into becoming a criminal. He outright encouraged Jackie Jr. to commit a robbery, and the robbery went very wrong. When the robbery went wrong, Tony Soprano gave Ralphie the option to let it all go, or to have Jackie Jr. killed.
Ralphie decided to have Jackie Jr. killed, because he was afraid if he didn’t, he’d look soft. Given the choice of letting it go, or murdering a person for an offense Ralphie personally encouraged, Ralphie went with the latter.
It. Gets. Worse.
After murdering her son, Ralphie maintained his relationship with Rosalie. She pined and mourned the loss of her son, while unknowingly lying right next to her son’s murderer in bed every night. Ralphie was utterly unmoved by any of this. Well, that’s not entirely true, once he tired of her annoying grief, he began cheating on her and left her, causing her to somehow feel even more alone. A recent widow, who also just lost her son, suffers heartbreak from being rejected by the murderer of her son.
That is some next level villainy, my friends.
The reason people go immediately to Tracee when recalling Ralphie’s awfulness is 1. It’s a brutal image set out front and is immediately shocking. It happens all at once. 2. What Ralphie does to Rosalie/Jackie is a bit spread out and therefore not as blatant. It’s not a single fantastic moment, it simmers. 3. Most importantly, I think what Ralphie does to Rosalie and her family is so grotesque, so unimaginably taboo, so darkly twisted, most people overlook it because they don’t want to comprehend something so dark. Not that they can’t, they’d just rather not.
Later, Tony and Chris dismember Ralphie in a bathtub, and deposit his severed head into a bowling ball bag, and nothing of value was lost.
As discussed at the beginning of this article, evil always seems to be in direct opposition of power, and how interesting that these ‘evil’ characters are in direct opposition to the most powerful person within the show, the undisputed king: Tony Soprano.
You hate these people because they’re awful, yes, but also because they threaten the established leader of the show. Tony is sadistic, manipulative, misogynistic, and an unrepentant murderer, but he’s comfortable. We’re comfortable with his leadership, and Tony being a great and powerful leader, Tony identifies evil for us to hate, so his cruelty can be justified, and to take the attention away from his own misdeeds.
In part three, we’re going to dive into the meatiest aspect of the show, Tony Soprano, and the equally important factors making him who he is. Strap in, because my next Sopranos article is actually going to get pretty dark.