Who doesn’t love Tony Soprano? It’s almost impossible not to. No matter what he did, who he harmed or what mistakes he made, we found ourselves rooting for Tony. He was a likable guy really; funny, charismatic and the stresses of his job made it easy for us the viewer to empathize with him. In a lot of ways, we lived vicariously through him. Every time he beat up Georgie, who didn’t think about that annoying person in our life that Georgie reminded us of? Tony’s various girlfriends and sexual flings made us daydream about a life in which we were able to sleep with (almost) anyone we wanted. Tony’s lavish lifestyle and larger than life personality makes it easy to overlook his flaws. During my recent rewatch of the series, I made an effort to not get carried away with Tony’s charm and wish fulfillment but rather pay attention to his actions and the consequences those actions brought about. What I found this trip through the series was a really fascinating character study where David Chase and company were preparing us for Tony’s ultimate fate several seasons ahead of time in a display of exactly how masterful the writing of this series truly was.
Tony Soprano was truly a complex character. A high ranking mobster going to see a therapist right off the rip makes him a fascinating character and the more we learn about him, the more interesting he becomes. His family history and dynamic largely dictate the character and his actions all throughout the series. Tony aspired to be his father: respected, powerful, successful and yet plagued by issues stemming from his relationship with his mother. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Melfi to assist Tony in seeing his father’s share of the blame, Tony was too far down the road of father worship and only taking the parts of therapy he wanted and leaving the rest to ever change his outlook. Tony’s desire to please his mother and feel loved, a basic childhood need, was on full display in his choice of girlfriends. Carmela, his wife, was nothing like his mother. Psychologically, Tony had little to gain from pleasing his wife. Sure he loved her but by never truly healing from his issues with his own mother, he kept trying to replace her with these other women and always failing to overcome his issues through substitution.
You can almost view The Sopranos as being in two acts with a bridge in between: Seasons 1-3 show us the Tony we love and root for. Yes his flaws were there but there was a sense that he was untouchable in those early years, that no matter what happened, Tony could overcome it. Season 4 acted as a bridge between the two acts, where Tony’s actions began to have consequences. When he killed Ralph for example, it was one of the first times his leadership was openly questioned, a theme that would continue throughout the remaining seasons. Despite never acknowledging that he did it, everyone knew he did and we got to see his guys talk behind his back. Granted that probably happened a lot but it was new for us, the audience, to see things from that angle. Then of course the fourth season ends with Carmela leaving Tony, in an episode titled “Whitecaps”, easily one of the most powerful in the series. The tension had been building for quite some time between Tony and Carmela, including Furio contemplating killing Tony ever so briefly out of his unspoken love for Carmela. Tony also ends Season 4 on bad terms with Johnny Sack after refusing to carry out a hit on Carmine, which was the true beginning of a conflict with New York that would last up until the final episode of the series. Tony ends Season 4 more vulnerable than ever before, which leads us perfectly into the series’ final act.
Season 5, 6A and 6B show us a different Tony Soprano. He had been humanized more, felt less invincible and his actions had a lot more consequences that were on full display. One noticeable takeaway from Season 5 is Tony’s lack of relationships with women while separated from Carmela. We are shown Tony sitting alone in his deceased mother’s house a lot more than we see him with female companions. While he never aspired to be a role model husband, not being at home with his wife took a toll on him. The void that Carmela left in his life was made worse by his deteriorating relationship with Christopher. While there’s blame on both sides here—Tony wanted Christopher to stay clean without understanding the work that goes into recovery, despite being familiar with the “human condition” from therapy, as Christopher once points out to him. From Tony’s perspective, Christopher is distancing himself and with each relapse becomes more of a liability, not understanding that he had a part of the problem. The growing distance with Chris and Carmela mostly out of his life drives Tony closer to Tony Blundetto, his cousin who served 20 years in prison for a crime Tony was supposed to be a part of. On the surface, its easy to attribute guilt as why Tony Soprano does so much for Tony B, including protecting him from New York despite all of the problems it caused but loneliness is the overlooked factor here. Tony Soprano had been insulating himself more and more as means of protection from the Feds for a while now and without Chris and Carmela in his life, Tony B was next at bat. That sequence of events, bringing Tony B closer, protecting him and then ultimately killing him and not letting New York handle it, furthered the problems in his crew and set the stage for the show’s final conflict—Tony vs Phil Leotardo.
It’s amazing to me how much of Seasons 6A and 6B are about death. The “Kevin Finnity” episodes early in 6A are not a dream but rather a spiritual warning to Tony: It’s time to make a choice. Death is coming if you stay on this path you’re currently on—are you going to stay the course or are you going to change? Right now you still hold your own destiny in your hands but the sand is slipping through the hourglass. Tony seems to heed these warnings at first. With a new mantra of “Everyday is a gift”, Tony says he wants to see the world differently. Later in the season Tony follows up his mantra with “but does it have to be a pair of socks” in a conversation with Melfi and suspicions were confirmed: Tony was bored. He started chasing excitement again, gambling (which serves as a metaphor for Tony gambling with his second chance at life) and pursuing women. His personal relationships suffered with almost everyone in his life. We would see Tony contemplate killing Paulie & actually killing Christopher, both largely out of paranoia and ruin his relationship with Hesh over money. These are just a few examples.
While Tony was on this path, Carmela in the show’s final seasons was on her own path, one of self protection. The Sopranos showed us the empty promise over and over that widows and families would be taken care of but Carmela wisely didn’t believe it. She may have got back together with Tony for various reasons in Season 5 but Carmela was always planning for an untimely end, wisely, in another one of the show’s almost heavy handed uses of foreshadowing. I have no doubt that despite her heavy grief over Tony’s death in the series finale, Carmela was able to take care of herself and her family after Tony was gone. She had seen too many examples of what not to do to repeat their mistakes.
Season 6B was the final unraveling of Tony Soprano. Unable to make the changes he needed to make, the changes his subconscious attempted to guide him towards in his coma, Tony self destructed. Paranoia, isolation, rage and poor decision making lead to his death in the final moments of “Made in America”. David Chase and company gave us all the clues we needed to decipher the ending—look no further than Tony’s conversation with Bobby in “Soprano Home Movies” which is repeated in the penultimate episode and Silvio’s slow motion reaction in “Stage 5” when bullets start flying. We were being prepared for what this fade to black would mean. As obvious as it was that Tony was on a collision course with death, did anyone actually want the final image of the series to be Tony shot dead? We loved the guy, flaws and all. In the end, Tony chose not to change, the way that so many others on the show chose not to and self destructed as a result.