It’s Over (Sopranos)

Not quite a marathon of binge watching, but as I have posted a couple of times already, we have been working our way through The Sopranos a couple of episodes a night. It took about a month with a few breaks (notably a week in Baja California), so it really wasn’t a binge, per se.

In my other observations, I mentioned how unsympathetic the characters are, how callous their actions, and how quick to violence or murder they are. The last few episodes took this to an extreme. From Chris shooting his screenwriting “partner” in a alcohol and narcotics fueled rage, to Tony’s hastening the demise of Chris Moltisanto after the auto wreck (you really can’t feel too sorry for his death, he superbly played the “dick” druggie throughout the series), and the escalation of the war of the families near the end.

Back to the merits of the series. First, the writing was excellent. Fantastic dialog, excellent choices of scenes for filming, and the stories were complicated enough to engage, yet not so cerebral that you needed to go back and re-watch to catch the intended theme.

The filmography was equally outstanding. Reading the credits, there were a lot of directors credited, and often if you were looking for stylistic variances, you could pick them out. This, of course, was much more evident to my Film Arts educated wife, Barbara, but even to my eyes, it kept the series fresh.

Unlike prior gangster films that had wide acclaim (Godfather, Goodfellas in particular), there was little actual glamorization of the life. Yes, the portrayals were close to how people live, and the challenges that affected Tony and his family were things we could relate to. Of course, my family wasn’t an organized crime family, where you have your capo’s and soldiers out “earning” for you, and your worth to the family being how much you kick up each week.

In The Sopranos, you see Tony struggling with his management of his “family” (not his “real” family, but his “family“) and how to keep that segmented from his wife and kids. His chaotic management style, playing favorites (the slack he cut his nephew Chris in particular) and inconsistent enforcement of the rules lead to ambiguity in the team, and that encouraged some freewheeling and limit testing. Such as when Pauley was working the Johnny Sack angle to get in good with the NY families by letting slip some internal dirty laundry that should have remained internal.

The inconsistent treatment of the family set the stage for the eventual downfall, that was well telegraphed. The (in my mind) justified whacking of Ralph Cifaretto when he burned the co owned race horse was a beginning of the reckless phase, the dissembling of Tony’s control. The fact that he killed one of his top earners, a newly minted Capo, and a made man, and hid this from his own crew began the water cooler chatting.

From that point on, you could see the world slowly unraveling for Tony.

The brilliance of the writing is also evident in the various threads and sub stories. The central theme of therapy with Dr. Melfi (played superbly by Lorraine Bracco) provides a consistent reckoning of what is going through Tony’s mind. Yes, Tony Soprano is a sociopath, very intelligent, with insatiable appetites (both gustatory and sexual), and used to getting his way. But the therapy gives us, the viewer, a glimpse into his world. And it isn’t a pleasant place.

Some other random notes:

  • The batshit insane response to Vito’s homosexuality fits the macho theme, how the code of masculinity must be upheld. The reaction of all the members of the family seems out of step with society as a whole, even going back to 2005 when this aired. Vito’s demise was to be expected upon his return, and descriptively as ugly as expected. And the odd penchants of Ralph Cifaretto, and Richie Aprille (brought out by Tony’s sister)
  • The success of the FBI in “flipping” members. Early on, with Tony’s lifelong friend “Pussy” (Salvatore Bonpensiero) who was informing from before the series started, to the flipping of Adriana (Chris’ girlfriend/fianceé), and the allusion to the flipping of one of Phil’s soldiers at the end (the tip from Agent Harris on the impending “hit” against Tony, and the tracing of the call between Phil and his soldier). It is surprising how poorly the FBI is in breaking up the family.
  • How they just kill people without getting caught. Only once do I recall them being careful because of DNA. Still, the number of people who are offed, and often never found (Ralph, Pussy, Adriana, et. al.) is astounding. One would think that the law enforcement of New Jersey would be better at solving crime.
  • The episode where they try to extract “protection” money from a national chain coffee shop was enlightening. The world is changing, and the corporate, franchise takeover of the little shops will put the squeeze on the protection racket. The manager’s response was priceless. Then of course, Tony sells the property of the local poultry purveyor to Jamba Juice, to perpetuate this transition, selling his “earning” for a one time profit.

Summary

I thoroughly enjoyed the Sopranos. As mentioned here and in prior posts, the cast of characters are not particularly sympathetic. Tony’s management (or mis-management) of his “Family” is dysfunctional, and something many of us experience in our professional life. Bad management, nepotism, and irrational behavior are common in corporate America, so it is safe to assume that this plays out the same in organized crime.

The casting is excellent. The writing matched the brilliance of the cast, and you found yourself having sympathy for some of the characters who are as equally undeserving. Adriana in particular, is someone who you feel for, born into the family life, connected with an abusive douchebag, and a victim of her circumstances. Then there is Carmella, Tony’s wife, who you are tempted to feel sorry for, but then you recognize she is a full partner in the “life”, and her tolerance for his philandering makes it hard for the outrage when they separate. Or Meadow, whose choice in men is pretty pathetic, but while she knows about her Family, she does an outstanding job of holding herself above it.

Then there is the ending. Of course I heard about it, so I wasn’t too surprised, unlike much of the internet outrage expressed when it first aired. Still, it seems like a fitting end to a tale that was told.

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