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‘You can’t ever say you haven’t been told’: My love letter to ‘The Sopranos’

| Thursday, January 26, 2023

Television, in particular paid programming television, has seen a cinematic revival since the turn of the twenty-first century. While once belittled as the little brother of the silver screen, the current landscape of television has changed drastically. No longer do actors smirk at the idea of taking on TV projects, but rather embrace it in ways not seen before. And while there have been dozens of titles that have received both critical and fan acclaim, all roads lead back to “The Sopranos” (1999-2007), arguably the godfather of modern television (yes, all puns intended).

A contemporary take on the American mafia genre, “The Sopranos” revolves around a crime family in New Jersey, headlined by our titular character, Tony Soprano. The premise begins with Tony as a criminal battling depression, but the show quickly becomes so much more. 86 hours of this show are still not enough to satisfy fans, as even after ending 16 years ago, HBO’s magnum opus continues to be a focal point for conversation, debate and remembrance. Parts drama, dark comedy and commentary on American society, “The Sopranos” has turned thousands of viewers into critics of all other pieces of cinema. I am one of those critics. 

And don’t get me wrong, I have come to love plenty of other shows over the years. Yet nothing has come to match the level of intersecting entertainment and enlightenment that “The Sopranos” has come to represent. Let me explain.

First, I seriously think you could consider several rewatches of “The Sopranos” as a tutorial to the world of business. Think of watching “The Sopranoss” as like a quasi-business school, unraveling before your eyes through the lens of La Cosa Nostra in metropolitan New Jersey. And yes, granted, the business conducted on the show is of course illegal. But the levels of intricacies present in these illegal rackets of the Soprano family can grow an intellectual curiosity inside the viewer that is truly unprecedented for its time. 

The ingenuity of such schemes has always made me wonder that if real-time mobsters used their business savvy, capital and execution toward more noble pursuits of commerce, then maybe their world would’ve been better off. But I digress. One some scheme in season four circles around fugazi (fake) mortgage loans in inner city Newark. First, Tony Soprano and crew, with the help of their combined political capital, buy up houses primed for urban development in the city. Then, using a bribed real estate appraiser, they reevaluate the houses at a 300% markup. The revalued houses are then sold to a not-for-profit also enlisted in the scheme, who then defaults on the mortgage payments. Percentages of the profits are then chopped up “nicely.” Negotiation, organizational management, quality control and conflict resolution are all developed in depth. “Charles Schwab over here,” I believe is a quote. 

But more importantly, as a Roman Catholic, there is truly a triumphant relevance that exists in the show’s discussion of spirituality, God, eternal life, redemption and the evil that is present within the Mafia’s half-hazard embrace of its Catholic heritage. For the Italian members of La Cosa Nostra, their shared religious culture gives a divine dignity to their work. When members are inducted into the Mafia, they burn a photo of a chosen patron saint, simply repeating, “May I burn in hell if I betray my friends.” Additionally, when the discussion of hell is once again broached, characters revert to their place in the mob as a saving grace from eternal hellfire. “We are soldiers, we don’t go to hell,” is a continuous sentiment throughout all six seasons. 

Additionally, when two integral characters are wounded by gunshot, they are left with lengthy recoveries. For these men, gruesome nightmares follow them. Visions of hell as “never-ending St. Patrick’s Days” are discussed, and these characters seemingly see that their current paths are a one-way ticket there. But our mafiosos accept this, and Tony Soprano becomes a sociopathic figure of the devil, leading his crime family into the twenty-first century. Like the devil, Tony attracts all around him with false promises, sin and delight, while ultimately sowing their destruction. “My Uncle Tony, that’s who I am going to hell for,” is often how he is referred to. 

But the most harrowing spiritual encounter of all comes in the form of civilian complacence with the sins of the crime family. In particular, “innocent” family members such as a children and wives are caught up in the crossfire of realizing the truth of their abundance of riches. Carmela Soprano, the wife of Tony Soprano, acts as the centerpiece for this. In the first season, Carmela’s children begin to poke the bear of Tony’s activities as a mafioso, but Carmela is aware of it all along. Tony and Carmela’s children eventually accept the lifestyle, and actually come to defend it, but Carmela’s peace of mind sometimes wavers. Tony keeps her entertained with diamonds, furs and Mercedes SL, but he is serially unfaithful and seldom acts to keep business out of the habitat of the Soprano family home.

In season 3, Carmela sees a Jewish psychiatrist after continuing to struggle with her husband and his infidelity. The doctor gets Carmela to open up, as she truly does want Tony to reconcile for his sins. Carmela insists that she was only ever there to “make sure he had clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.” But instead of advice, Carmela gets an ultimatum. The doctor brings judgement and brings it hard. He laments, “You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. Never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about. As long as you’re his accomplice… Take only the children — what’s left of them — and go…  I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money. And you can’t either. One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told.”

For those who haven’t seen the show, I’m sorry. But Carmela never ends up leaving Tony for good. And while her character fails to answer the spiritual call, what other shows even broach this subject?  The ending of the series is infamously ambiguous and keeps the conversation going, but I think this scene and hundreds of others beg questions on philosophy, spirituality, society, that haven’t been matched on TV. So seriously, sit back and enjoy the show.

Stephen Viz is a one-year MBA candidate and graduate of Holy Cross College. Hailing from Orland Park, Illinois, his columns are all trains of thoughts, and he can be found at either Decio Cafe or in Mendoza. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter, @StephenViz. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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