Two doors shut on Tony Soprano during the second-to-last episode of the iconic HBO creation that bears his name, the series that David Remnick eulogized in The New Yorker as “the greatest achievement in the history of television.” The first is slammed closed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, ending what seems to be their final session. It comes as a symbolic rupture in the show’s original comic conceit, which set the panicked paterfamilias in the therapist’s plush armchair, seeking relief from the twin stresses of organized crime and suburban domesticity. The second door Tony shuts behind himself, a final barricade against a hostile world fast closing in on him. We watch the door through his eyes with an ominous sense of foreboding; the nearness of an end–the end–is palpable. Instead of the man whose sins the late Ellen Willis, in her essay “Our Mobsters, Ourselves,” found “in all of us,” we are now inside of him, taking one final look back over the last eight years. What do we see?
No television show in recent memory has earned the critical accolades heaped on The Sopranos since its premiere in 1999. A cable sensation of unprecedented proportions, it swept up Emmys, cultural cachet and middling acting careers (most notably those of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco) during seven at times painfully drawn-out seasons.
From its earliest episodes, The Sopranos was compared with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas and eventually joined them in a holy trinity of American Mafia fiction. Like its predecessors, the show has been a rich send-up of the old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches narrative so closely associated with our collective national identity. But instead of the traditional portrayal of the Mafia–bound by its code of omertà and a glorification of violence–The Sopranos often gave us a brutal and diminished anachronism. “The show took the concept of il declino del padrino–the decline of the godfather–and made it very central to the series,” says George De Stefano, author of An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. Or as Regina Barreca, who has written about the show and teaches English literature at the University of Connecticut, puts it, “These guys are trying to be larger than life figures, but it’s not possible. They’re in New Jersey–it’s not even the Brooklyn mob. They’re always one step removed from greatness.”
The distinction is significant, and not only because of the stench emanating from the Jersey Turnpike. “In The Godfather: Part II,” De Stefano points out, “Hyman Roth says to Michael Corleone, ‘We’re bigger than US Steel.’ On The Sopranos, we have gangsters fighting over stolen power tools and provolone. It shatters any of the mythology and romanticism of the Mafia image.”
And so our identification with Tony has always been perverse but logical. Battling over a shrinking pot of power tools and garbage collection routes, juggling college tuition, a prodigal son, a troubled marriage and the costs of maintaining a sufficiently bourgeois lifestyle, Tony shares the insecurities of class and status that are so deeply ingrained in the American experience of the last forty years. “In the very first episode,” De Stefano recalls, “Tony tells Dr. Melfi ‘things are trending downward,’ and it’s clear even then that he’s not just talking about the Mafia.” If the Corleones were once bigger than the giant of American industry, then the Sopranos are a perfect fit for our deindustrialized present. If The Godfather: Part II offers a revisionist take on the 1950s American Dream, then The Sopranos is our elegy to that long-gone era of postwar affluence.
Which is not to say we have forgiven Tony all his many trespasses. Killer, bigot, egoist, misogynist, crook–he has been all of these things at one point or another. And caricature? For some, that has been the most unforgivable part of The Sopranos. It’s what compelled Camille Paglia to denounce the “libelous images of Italian-Americans” served up for elitist New York critics “full of designer Marxism” in a 2001 lecture cosponsored by the National Italian American Foundation. It might also be why Nation film critic Stuart Klawans bemoans the show’s decline from a singularly exceptional first season into a more prosaic TV soap in later years, overly dependent on “silicone boobs, sickening violence and enough cursing for a convention of Tourette’s syndrome patients.”
So in some way it is fitting that, despite our fondness for Tony, disaster looms as we head into the final hour. Dr. Melfi’s slammed door speaks for all of us. “Even under the very best of conditions, psychotherapy for an anti-social personality disorder is unlikely to succeed in real life,” according to Dr. Glen Gabbard, psychiatrist and author of The Psychology of “The Sopranos”. “The show began with an upbeat attitude about psychotherapy,” Gabbard notes. But as time wore on, “Tony’s psychopathy and his inaccessibility to therapeutic change became intractable.” By the final season, “Tony has shown himself to be irredeemable. And that was always the hope of the audience–maybe a bad man can become a good man, and be redeemed.”
When we next see Tony, he’ll be pulling out of the Lincoln Tunnel, beginning the last of his weekly rides out to the deceptive creature comforts of his suburban home. Over eight years, this opening montage embodied the conflict at the root of the show, the progression of images outside the car window–from industrial grunge to urban clutter, small family homes and, finally, the surreal palaces of North Caldwell–the willful inversion of Tony’s downward-trending reality.
The road he travels on is at once the open one of the American imagination, that interminable icon of opportunity, self-made men and–yes–redemption; but it is also the doomed path leading inexorably to where we last saw him, alone in the dark, stripped of family and possessions, his hour of judgment at hand. This Sunday, those two roads will converge in the eighty-sixth and last chapter of The Sopranos saga, an episode called, appropriately enough, “Made in America.”