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Turning out the light on The Sopranos

June 22, 2007 | Page 13

SARAH KNOPP explains how the mafia TV drama exposed the rot in U.S. society.

WHAT HAPPENS when the last episode of The Sopranos--the HBO series that the New Yorker called "the greatest achievement in the history of television"--cuts to black?

Conspiracy theories plastered the Internet. Perhaps Tony Soprano's whole family gets whacked, Godfather-style, by the guy in the Members Only jacket who walks into the bathroom. Maybe Meadow, Tony's daughter, narrowly escapes the fate of the rest of the family because it took her so long to parallel park her car.

But I think that the explanation is simpler and consistent with the show as a whole: Maybe the Sopranos' worst fate is that they are trapped in an existence of perpetual fear and angst. Their last dinner at the ice cream parlor, where under the surface characters are wrestling with their own moral conflicts, depression and disappointments, is a portrait of millions of family dinners in thousands of suburbs in America.

Creator David Chase based the series on his own suburban upbringing. Perhaps for most families the perception of impending doom isn't execution at the hands of a mafia rival or arrest by the FBI, but a more pedestrian version of financial insecurity, worry about whether the kids will turn out well and be happy, and the particular version of existential dread cultivated by life in the suburbs--that feels both disconnected from the rest of the world and also under the threat of impending collapse from global warming, war or terrorism (all themes in The Sopranos' last season).

"It's all a big nothing," Tony's mother infamously remarked to her grandson. "In the end, you die in your own arms." While this statement was referenced throughout the series, and while characters occasionally wrestled with it, none came to a meaningful resolution of the moral dilemma that it poses.

The Sopranos clung to their family in an attempt to find meaning and security. "The only people you can trust are your family," Tony said. However, during the course of six seasons on the air, Tony killed no less than four of his family members and close friends when they become business liabilities. His family and friends, like a stockbroker's balance sheet, are a set of assets or liabilities.

On top of all this, Tony's mother and uncle, Junior, attempted to put a hit on him in an intra-family power play. The show's great strength was its humor. It played on Freudian irony--for instance, Tony discusses with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, how he "feels" about his mother's attempt to kill him.

The show brilliantly used the technique of a mob boss visiting a psychiatrist's office to expose all of the ideological contradictions built into society. Family is supposed to be source of meaningfulness and security, the "heart in the heartless world," as Marx put it. This was amplified in a mafia family where business is a family affair. And yet, as the Soprano family shows, it cannot play this role.

Carmela, Tony's wife, was one of the most interesting characters. She's Catholic and a devoted mother who thinks of herself as a moral and upstanding citizen. Yet, as the series unfolded, the viewers were made aware of just how much she knew about Tony's business.

She considers leaving--tempted, for example, by an affair with a Catholic priest who eventually counsels her that she shouldn't leave Tony because "marriage is a sacred institution." To her credit, she perceptively accuses the priest of "preying on spiritually thirsty women."

In season four, she tells Tony that she wants a divorce but decides in the end to stay with him and never really resolves the fundamental conflict between her morality and the source of her livelihood.

Aside from its humor, another strength of The Sopranos was the complexity of its characters. That complexity rested on the exposure of the contradictions at the heart of middle-class psychology. And these contradictions were never fully resolved.

Other conflicts abound. The war on terror was a background theme, and while no one spoke out against it, the Sopranos pulled strings to prevent their son from joining the military. The FBI was Tony's sworn enemy, and yet he cooperated with them in an attempt to jail Muslims.

"My son is obsessed with this shit," Tony told his FBI confidant about terrorism. "We tell him he's making a molehill out of it. Is he right?" Interestingly, the FBI agent said that the suspects Tony was trying to finger could be "innocent pistachio salesmen."

Many, such as The Nation's Max Fraser, have pointed out that The Sopranos was a significant departure from earlier mob classics in that themes of decline and decay were at its core. Tony's family was going down. The mafia was seen as petty, irrelevant, falling apart and under attack. The rottenness and sense of alienation at the core of suburban life was exposed. And there were increasing references to the disaster in Iraq.

The Sopranos didn't challenge us to do something about these contradictions, nor did it provide any answers to feelings of alienation of millions of Americans. But it painted a stark and brilliant portrait of the rot in the fabric of American society.

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