The Sopranos: Deconstruction, Nihilism, Fellini

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Part of why I haven’t been writing much this month is because of a) my job and b) I’ve been on a month-long Sopranos binge (which ended this weekend).

I was always hesitant to get into the Sopranos because of my rule-of-thumb: if my Dad’s really into I probably won’t like it. However, after chatting with Pearson Sound outside of his show at Bardot a bit back, he said he was really into the show and it sorta pushed me to check it out.

Weeks pass and I finally finished the show and, I gotta say: this truly is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.

First three seasons are really rough to get through, though. Which, I mean, three seasons is a lot. The writing was good, especially when it came to character development. But as far as plot goes, there were just way too many loose ends. Sub-plots would start and never launch. One that really stuck out was in the episode “Pine Barrens” (directed by Steve Buscemi) that had characters Christopher and Paulie going after this Russian dude in the forest. By the end of the episode the Russian guy escapes and the plot is set up like the show will go into a conflict with the Russian mob. But nothing comes of it.

A lot of aspects of the Sopranos are dated and almost like a fossil of late 90s/early-00s pop culture (A.J. going to a Mudvayne concert). That stuff was distracting, but at the same time, it created the realism aspect of the show which levels our reality as a viewer with the universe of the show, which both exist in the same reality (9/11, Bush-era politics, influence of horror films like Saw and The Ring).

I think something I had in mind when dragging my feet through the first three seasons was that The Sopranos was essentially the first turn-of-the-century drama. One that is serialized and whose pulse is on a series-long story arc. So I always saw it as the “first-trial” and a rough draft for more realized shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire.

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Funny enough, as the show progressed, I felt like it got better and better. Better in that it feels more like a drama we’d see coming out these days– one where every single action has a consequence. Those first three seasons had me worried, thinking I’d come across another Lost. (But reading through blogs and such, people actually disliked the show as it progressed.)

Deconstruction

Something that really surprised me about the Sopranos is how smart it is. I know that’s cliche to say, but I’m suspicious that the plot was more revered by audiences than the actual themes of the show– which is why it might’ve been as popular as it was. I mean mob plots are all really the same.

The Sopranos is a deconstruction of Italian/American mob stereotypes, exploring and slicing through every single facet of this culture, from the mob wife to the role of homoesexuality in a mafia environment. Not to mention all of the allusions to nihilism and existentialism through the course of the show. Besides the standard mafia plots, which I think don’t get more concentrated-on until the fourth season, the show is a philosophy grad student’s wet dream. On a very analytical level, a lot of these concepts are not accesible to wide audiences.

Also the role of psychotherapy as a form of character-building, and how it translates to a sociopath like Tony. Not only Tony, though, but his entire family, who at one point or another see a psychiatrist (sometimes the same one). Even the psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, sees a psychiatrist as a way to deal with Tony.

Surrealism

I also have to bring up the direction of the show, which as it progresses, feels more and more like Fellini. One of the episodes in the fifth season “The Test Dream”, Tony spend the entirety of the episode wandering an incredibly-produced dream.

Channeling the opening dream sequence in Fellini’s 8 1/2– and even some instances of Jodorowsky, these surreal sequences differentiate Sopranos from other mob narratives. It focuses more on the internal mafioso complex that Tony struggles with throughout the show; from being a good cousin, brother, father, manager, lover, etc.

The End

So, yeah– I’m not quite sure if audiences were totally “getting” these certain texts within the show. And I say this because of the show’s series finale… which got really negative feedback from fans.

As far as the plot goes for Season 6, things were pretty much resolved. (Spoiler Alert) Phil Leotardo gets killed in a great, rewarding and macabre way. Paulie gets promoted to “underboss” (I don’t even know what that means) and things are cool with the New York family. So, yeah, as far as the plot goes, things were wrapped up.

The last scene has the whole family meeting up at some jukebox retro diner. Tony comes first, then Carmela, then A.J. (Meadow is trying to parallel park in the front [I know, parallel parking can be tough for real]). And I guess what the writers decide to do is house a whole gallery of possible endings for the show inside the restaurant Cabin In the Woods-style.

Suspicious Italian-looking dude with the Members-Only jacket, a pair of black dudes who look similar to the ones who tried to kill Tony in Season 1, a weird trucker dude, a family with kids, etc. I mean we’re set up to believe anything can happen right now. Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ is playing in a really dramatic way. However, most of the focus is on the Members-Only jacket guy, as there’s a small shot that follows him to the bathroom. We can only assume, this is the dude that kills Tony Soprano.

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The infamous cut-to-black is so simple, yet so powerful a statement. If there were any other allusions to nothing-ness and nihilism, this end sequence is probably the pinnacle Sopranos/Nietzche reference. Not only does the show talk about depression as a central theme, but A.J. (Tony’s son) continually struggles with questions of existence and its meaningless role in the family.

Tony, as well, struggles with these questions. One instance of his depression happens when he’s talking to his psychiatrist about therapy. And how even when we solve all the problems, we all end up back here (Here, being his therapist’s office). Feelings of isolation, meaningless-ness and being trapped… these are feelings most characters in the show have.

“Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in”

So, yeah, the cut-to-black is probably the most depressing thing about this show. Here we have the great Soprano dinners that happen few and far between, but occur when things are going all right. It happens at the end of Season 1 at Artie Bucco’s restaurant, as well as in Season 3 for the post-funeral party for Jackie Jr (that one didn’t end as great).

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So things are going good; A.J. reminds Tony of an affirmation he said years before: “Remember all the good times”, and then all of a sudden there’s the cut-to-black. There’s been a couple of references throughout as to what death feels like, and it’s mentioned by Bobby in Season 6 as a cut-to-black, essentially. And in Season 5 when Syl is dumbfounded by sudden whack that occurs in front of him. You, essentially, don’t know it’s coming and you hardly feel anything.

So is this what happened to Tony Soprano? Is it all good times and then nothing-ness. I think it is. If he didn’t die there, he would die that same fate sooner of later.

So what disturbed me about the last scene so much? Personally, I think it was the god-iness of it. I oftentimes felt like The Sopranos was greek tragedy, or Shakespearean text; familiar narrative, but a very timeless play, where the gods have full control of fates. I felt like things were being placed in that restaurant with such authority, that all the characters we’ve come to love so much are reduced to nothing. People like Carmela, who is such a loveable, complex character can be finished off at any moment.

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That scared the shit out of me and I was deep in dread. More than any other television show, The Sopranos has the most bleak outlook on life and the future. However the fact it was able to present that emotion under such a familiar mafia narrative, and champion itself as one of the best shows of all time is ultra impressive to me. And justifies why it’s cream of the crop TV.

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