At A Glance



By Anthony Volpe

Spring 2014

The Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Astoria, Queens recently screened The Sopranos self-titled pilot and series finale “Made in America.” Part of the event’s draw was that Sopranos creator and show runner David Chase would be in attendance and later participate in a Q&A session after the screenings. MoMI had billed the event as a showcase for Chase’s directorial talents. Although Chase had a hand in every creative decision behind the show over its eight year run he only directed two episodes: the pilot and the finale. Considering how much creative control HBO gave Chase, it’s surprising that he didn’t choose to direct more episodes. After all, this a man who has frequently aspired to be a film director and never missed a beat to bash television as a medium. Worshipping at the altar of Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, and Scorsese, Chase sometimes gave the impression that his masterwork, The Sopranos, credited with spawning the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” was merely a consolation prize. If he had his way, The Sopranos, would have been a two-hour film; a spring board for the career in film he always wanted.

But thankfully he did not have his way. Instead we were given an 86 episode epic. Part family drama, part gangster film homage, The Sopranos was fueled by the auterist spirit of ‘70s Hollywood and European avant-garde cinema and straddled two eras: the dubious peace and prosperity of the late Clinton ‘90s and the perpetual anxiety of the post-9/11 world. Fifteen years since its debut, it’s easy to forget the impact of The Sopranos. We seem to be saturated with “quality” television these days. Whether most of these television programs are deserving of such accolades is debatable, but there is no question that the medium of television has changed. The Sopranos played a huge role in this development.

Re-watching the pilot at the event last week, (my Sopranos viewings are certainly in the double digits at this point,) I was struck at how early the theme of decline set the tone for the entire series. When we first meet New Jersey mafia don, Tony Soprano, he is suffering from anxiety attacks. He is unsure about what is triggering them. He is clearly confused and, although he’d never outright admit it, frightened about their impact on his family and work life. When prodded by his new therapist and fellow paisan, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, about what has been going on in his life, Tony describes to her a nagging feeling eating away at him. “It”s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he tells her. “I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I”m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

I can’t think of a more relevant concern. Obsession with American decline has become a cottage industry. The television punditocracy makes a handsome profit scaremongering and fueling the 24/7 news cycle. Of course, that does not mean that concerns with decline are not genuine. The falling living standards of the American middle class in the early 21st century, especially when compared to the relative prosperity and affluence of the late 1940s through mid-1960s, are very real. There is always a danger, of course, in looking at the past with such rose-colored lenses. What sort of stability existed for racial minorities and women back then? Still, the perceived stability of the post-World War II economic boom is very much on the mind of Tony Soprano. “What about to Gary Cooper? The strong-silent type. That was an American.” Tony erupts to Melfi. “He wasn”t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn”t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn”t be able to shut him up! And then it”s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!”

Such a statement captures the heart of the show’s contradictions. Throughout all six seasons, Tony, as well as the other members of the Sopranos (both the biological and crime family), wrestled with their disappointments in life as well as their own depression, neuroses, and moral conflicts. Self-realization was possible for these characters, but actually following through and changing one’s life never quite panned out. Fears situated around decline were never far and to face these uncertainties the Sopranos put faith in the family. As Marx said, family is supposed to be “the heart in a heartless world.” It provides meaning and stability. In the pilot, however, I see family being a source of aggravation and anxiety. In the pilot, he’s worried about his daughter, Meadow’s lack of respect for his wife, Carmela. He’s worried about his Uncle Junior’s attempts to whack a rival in childhood friend Artie Bucco’s restaurant. And he’s worried about his mother, Livia, that awesome black hole of a woman (based on Chase’s mother) that helped give the show’s first two seasons a darker edge. An Italian-American man with mother issues? The jokes write themselves.

But I think the contradictions of family is what set The Sopranos apart from other family television dramas. Chase based the show on a lot of his experiences growing up in Essex County, New Jersey. Being half-Italian myself and having family in Essex County, I found the show very credible and relatable for this reason. Italian-Americans are famous for vaunting family values as the most important quality to have, but honestly I always found such sentiments to be suspect. Sure, there’s love. But intra-fighting, rivalry, and insane jealously are the “family values” I’ve seen more often. The show was always brutally honest about this fantasy. Tony’s own mother and Uncle Junior try to kill him in season one. It’s implied that Livia was angry at Tony for putting her in a nursing home. That’s pretty damn bleak.

Part of what I always found compelling about the series was how much darker the show progressively got. Tony’s journey to enlightenment began earnestly. At the end of pilot, he reaches a breakthrough with Melfi. Realizing that the recently departed family of ducks in his pool symbolized his fears about his own family leaving him he leaves the session happy. The early seasons put faith in therapy but by the final season, we’re left to wonder whether therapy really could make Tony a better person. By the series end, Tony reveals himself to be a reprehensible human being: petty, vindictive, and dangerous to those closest to him. Talk therapy becomes one more criminal operation for Tony Soprano. His only remaining humanity stems from his love for his children, Meadow and A.J.

A pallor of doom envelopes the series finale, “Made in America.” The aftermath of a mafia war leaves the Soprano crime family in ruins. Although Tony is seemingly victorious against his rival, Phil Leotardo (one of many), the future of his biological and crime family is up in the air. The FBI is tightening its noose around Tony’s neck. Indictments are about to fly. End times indeed. The subsequent final moments of the series finale have Tony Soprano in the company of Carmlea and A.J. eating onion rings at Holsteen’s in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (characteristically chosen by classic-rock loving Tony at the table’s jukebox) serves as the evening’s dinner music. Meanwhile, Meadow struggles to parallel park across the street. There is a look of urgency on her face. Across from the family sits a man at the counter wearing a “Member’s Only” jacket (itself the title of season 6A’s season premiere) who appears to be leering at Tony.  In what is clearly a nod to The Godfather (referred to as “Number One” in Sopranos lingo), the mysterious man heads over to the bathroom (maybe to get a gun?). Meadow finally bursts in prompting Tony to look up. And then nothing. Fade to black. Seven years later the ending remains as enigmatic and frustrating to most fans of the show.

Tony’s fate ultimately seemed to be on the minds of most audience members at the screening. In fact, the opening question to Chase came from a disgruntled fan bluntly telling him that he thought the finale was disappointing and a cop out. For the Apollonian minded, such frustrations are perhaps understandable. Everything has to have meaning, right? But The Sopranos always reveled in the Dionysian style of storytelling, and messy contradictions were at its core. Expectations of a straight-forward ending were wishful thinking on the audience’s part. Chase told audience members that night that he wanted to write an ending that made you “feel” and not “think.”

I’ve never really been interested in the mechanics of the “why?” or “how?” behind what happens at the end of the series finale. Maybe Tony’s murdered. In the penultimate episode, Tony remembers his recently murdered brother-in-law’s foreboding remarks about the dangerous nature of their work, “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” However, to me whether he is murdered or not is really missing the larger point. Perhaps Tony experiences a worst fate than prison or death: perpetual fear and angst over the uncertainty of the future. Tony’s mother’s haunting remark to A.J. comes to mind: “It’s all a big nothing. In the end, you die in your own arms.” There is no larger meaning.

The theme of family is central once more. Chase stated that he had Edward Hopper’s iconic 1942 painting, Nighthawks, in mind when he chose to set the final scene at Holsteen’s having the warmth of the diner and its patrons contrasting against the cold of the modern, outside world as an inspiration. I took another look at Hopper’s painting after the screening. Warmth does not really come to mind when I look at the faces of the diner’s patrons in the painting. They look as alienated and cold as the modern world they are allegedly seeking refuge from. In the episode “Soprano Home Movies,” also from the final season, Tony puts on some old family movies his sister Janice gave to him on a DVD for his birthday. He briefly smiles looking at him and his sisters as children playing in their driveway with the old Italian neighborhood in Newark in the background. Earlier in the episode, Tony experiences a dysfunctional (putting it very mildly) birthday weekend in the Catskills. Yet in that brief moment, Tony chooses to see some evidence of happiness. Perhaps this is what the Soprano family chooses to see in each other in that final moment at Holsteen’s. “Focus on the good times,” A.J. says to his father. The good times are all they have to keep going amidst the decline surrounding them.

The Museum of the Moving Image is a media museum located in Astoria, Queens in a former building of what is now the Kaufman Astoria Studios.


The Museum of the Moving Image Official Site

Written by Anthony Volpe

Photography Courtesy of HBO

Design by Mina Darius


Film Still from The Sopranos, Photography Courtesy of HBO

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