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‘The Sopranos’: An In-Depth Analysis

sopranos analysis

HBO

If you’ve seen ‘The Sopranos’ as many times as we have, then the show feels like a close friend. Our Sopranos analysis includes interpretations of the show’s story arc, its mafia intertextuality, and more. You can also read our analyses of The Sopranos’ dream sequences and its controversial final scene.

What makes the ‘The Sopranos’ so compelling? The show is a riveting blend of tragedy and comedy. This is exemplified by Tony’s lament that he feels like he has to be the sad clown: laughing on the outside and crying on the inside. Another example of the show’s perfect union of tragedy and comedy is when Christopher passes out while sitting on Adriana’s dog, Cozette. Adriana is devastated at the loss of her dog, but when Chrissy says, “she musta crawled under there for warmth,” it’s just hilarious.

The Sopranos also nails a delicate balance of high and low art. In other words, it’s incredibly smart and impeccably crafted – and yet it’s also packed with lowbrow humor, brutal violence, and the cheap sexuality of the Bada Bing.

The Sopranos was truly a game-changing moment in television. Today, we take it for granted that television is capable of the same sophisticated storytelling that you’d expect from a great film. But back in the day, television was considered a creative ghetto compared to Hollywood moviemaking. The Sopranos changed all that.

A High-Water Mark For T.V. Drama

Some have debated whether ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘The Wire’ are the greatest show in the history of television. There’s one big difference that separates these two remarkable shows. Only one of these shows revolves around a clear and compelling protagonist. The Sopranos features one of the most riveting protagonists of all time at its center. The relentlessly complex and dynamic character of Tony Soprano is a force of nature who leads the viewer through six seasons. His character has a physical and psychological heft that anchors the show at all times, now matter how many other characters and storylines orbit him.

‘The Wire’ is incredible but it doesn’t have a clear protagonist. That show is a sprawling, ambitious portrait of the life and institutions of Baltimore – but it lacks that central character who’s there to weave you through it all. You’ve got the great character of Jimmy McNulty – but like all characters on the show, he never remains in the spotlight for long. I’ve heard some people say that the protagonist of The Wire is the city of Baltimore itself, but that argument is a little too pretentious.

‘The Sopranos’ began as a simple idea in the mind of creator David Chase. Chase originally conceived of The Sopranos as a movie that would be about a “mobster in therapy.” The Sopranos evolved into a television project, and HBO ordered a pilot episode in 1997. It was subsequently picked up for a run that lasted six seasons. The show follows the trials and tribulations of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano and his two families – his nuclear family and his mafia family.

Mafia Intertextuality In ‘The Sopranos’

Here’s how the ‘Funhouse’ fish alludes to The Godfather. In The Godfather part one, Sonny Corleone opens a package containing dead fish. He is told “That’s a Sicilian message. That means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” In other words, Sonny is being informed that the family henchman Luca Brasi is literally dead in the water. The Sopranos makes an overt allusion to the ‘sleeps with the fishes’ line when the fish in Tony’s dream says, “These guys on either side of me? They’re asleep.”

This Godfather reference is an example of how The Sopranos uses intertextuality, or direct references to other works of mafia cinema that help tell its own story.

The ‘Funhouse’ episode wasn’t the first time that The Sopranos had made direct nods to The Godfather. In the pilot episode, Christopher misquotes the same line of dialogue, saying “Louis Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” Also in the pilot, Carmela tells the family’s priest that Tony loves The Godfather Part II, especially the scenes in Sicily. In another episode, Tony is shot at after buying a jug of orange juice. This is a reference to the scene in The Godfather when Vito Corleone is shot on the street after shopping for oranges at a produce stand.

The cast of The Sopranos almost serves as its own bit of intertextuality because there are so many actors who we recognize from Martin Scorcese’s mob masterpiece Goodfellas. In total, Goodfellas and The Sopranos shared 27 actors, which is pretty staggering number.

Michael Imperioli played Christopher Moltisanti on the Sopranos and he also played the character Spider in Goodfellas. The Sopranos alludes to Spider when Christopher shoots a bakery clerk in the foot; this mirrors the scene in Goodfellas when Spider is shot in the foot. The actor Lorraine Bracco portrays Dr Melfi in The Sopranos; she played the role of Karen Hill in Goodfellas. Bracco was first considered for the role of Carmela Soprano, but she turned down the role of the mob wife. Lorraine Bracco told Vanity Fair that she remembered thinking, “No, I don’t want to do that. I did it. Can’t do it better.” Bracco says she asked her agent to audition for Dr Melfi instead.

The Sopranos and Goodfellas are woven together so thoroughly it’s almost absurd. In one scene of The Sopranos, Martin Scorcese emerges from a limo while Christopher and Adriana are waiting in line at a club. I had always thought that this was a bonafide Martin Scorcese cameo – but Scorcese is actually portrayed by an actor named Anthony Caso in this scene. Guess what movie Anthony Caso also appeared in? He played a truck hijacker in Goodfellas.

Another movie that gets referenced in The Sopranos is the 1931 film The Public Enemy starring James Cagney. The Public Enemy was one of the first gangster movies ever. It’s also a predecessor to The Sopranos due to its portrayal of a violent criminal as a likeable anti-hero, which was considered very risque back in the thirties. According to Time magazine’s 1931 review of The Public Enemy, “It carries to its ultimate absurdity the fashion for romanticizing gangsters, for even in defeat the public enemy is endowed with grandeur.”

Okay, so the show includes references to Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Public Enemy, and more. So what does all of this referencing and intertextuality achieve? On a very immediate level, it’s just plain fun to see your favorite old mafia story referenced in your favorite new mafia story. It’s also a statement about lineage – and lineage is what mafia stories are all about. When The Sopranos looks back at Goodfellas, it’s as if the show is saying, ‘look who came before us, let’s acknowledge them and show them respect.’ This kind of acknowledgement is a tradition in crime cinema. For example, in one of the last shots of Goodfellas, we see Joe Pesci firing guns directly at the camera. This shot was a recreation of a similar shot from a silent film called The Great Train Robbery.

There is also a very postmodern and meta effect when we hear that Tony’s favorite movie is The Godfather II. It means that this fictional mafia character has an awareness of other, older fictional mafia stories. Again, the show is expressing an awareness of its own place in the lineage of crime and mafia storytelling.

The Sopranos’ Ducks

No Sopranos analysis would be complete without a discussion of those damn ducks. In the pilot episode, Tony is deeply enamored with a family of ducks that has taken up residence near his pool. Tony suffers a panic attack and passes out while watching the ducks fly away. The ducks and the mental health incident that they trigger are the impetus for Tony’s visit to therapy, and that’s really the inception of this whole story about the mobster in therapy.

In Melfi’s office, Tony admits that he has felt depressed since the ducks left. He also tells Melfi about a dream he had where his dick falls off and a water bird carries it away. This dream is about several things. In one sense, it’s an anxiety dream about impotence, and we also know that the ducks represent family to Tony, because he tells Melfi, “I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my family like I lost the ducks. That’s what I’m full of dread about.” Why would Tony fear the loss of his family? In the pilot episode, his children are not yet close to college age, so this isn’t anxiety about an empty nest. Tony is suffering from anxiety about death. Tony’s capacity in the mafia means that his life is under a constant threat, and losing his life would mean losing his family. So the ducks represent Tony’s love for his family and they are also a trigger for his anxiety.

The Story Arc of ‘The Sopranos’

Let’s take a closer look at how ‘The Sopranos’ changed over six seasons.

The first four seasons of The Sopranos are impeccable. Standout elements of those seasons include the death of Big Pussy, the shocking death of Richie Aprile, a groundbreaking portrayal of therapy, a seemingly effortless blend of humor and tragedy, and dream sequences that captured symbolism and true dreaminess with nuance and subtlety. It would be incredibly difficult to choose a favorite character, but the pitiful restauranteur Artie Bucco and the smirking ladies’ man Uncle Junior are highlights.

Dominic Chianese played Uncle Jun. Dominic said that Junior’s coke-bottle glasses were a tool that helped him get into character, saying, “They were part of my makeup. Those glasses were my mask. We were doing Greek tragedy there. Behind the mask a lot of things come out that you wouldn’t do.”

Perhaps the only weakness in those first four incredible seasons is the Jackie Jr. storyline that features prominently in season 3. Neither Jackie Junior’s story or the performance of actor Jason Cerbone are up to the almost impossibly high standards of the show’s first 4 seasons.

The Sopranos loses its focus in its final two seasons. The show ‘jumps the shark’ so to speak. We all know that phrase; jumping the shark is a reference to a show’s decline in quality, and the idiom is derived from the show ‘Happy Days,’ which took a turn for the worse when the character Fonzy jumped over a shark on water skis.

So when did things go wrong on The Sopranos? The obvious example is ‘Johnny Cakes.’ Johnny cakes is the food that is discussed by the mobster Vito and the short-order cook he falls in love with in Season 6. This storyline was so disappointing. Unfortunately, the writers of The Sopranos failed to develop Vito’s character beyond the fact that he was a gay mobster, and the result feels frustratingly one-dimensional. Also, it just feels like a ham-fisted attempt to incorporate homosexuality, which at the time was being deftly handled by another HBO hit, ‘Six Feet Under.’

Another theory is that The Sopranos suffers a decline in quality after the death of Adriana La Cerva. Adriana brought a real brightness to the show, and her charisma with Christopher was a great source of the show’s humor. Also, Adriana’s dealings with the FBI provided one the show’s greatest sources of tension, and when it was resolved, it deflated the show.

The show is just not the same in Seasons 5 and 6. Steve Buscemi was cast as Tony’s cousin Tony Blundetto, a former street guy who’s trying to walk the straight and narrow life as a masseuse. Sopranos fans were so excited when Buscemi was cast – after all, he directed many episodes of the show, including ‘Pine Barrens’, which is one of the show’s best episodes. However, Buscemi’s presence as an actor was mostly squandered by The Sopranos. Tony B. is largely a passive character on the show – he finally breaks bad near the end of his arc, but ultimately, Tony B. is not a particularly memorable character, and that just feels like a missed opportunity.

The final season of The Sopranos feels like a show running out the clock. This show should’ve gone out while it was on top, like the British version of ‘The Office.’ Season 6 of the Sopranos is full of frustrating dead ends and head-scratching ploys to generate tension. For example, Tony and Paulie go for a fishing trip, and the audience is meant to think that Tony might kill one of his closest confidantes because Paulie told Johnny Sac about a joke in Season 4. However, it’s not believable that this minor transgression from years ago would be grounds for murder, and it turns out that it’s not. It’s a plot that’s difficult to swallow and leads nowhere.

Another truly disappointing element of the final two seasons of The Sopranos was the storyline of Anthony Junior. Again, mafia tales tell the story of lineage and legacy. In the Godfather trilogy, the Corleone family mantle passes from Vito to Michael, and The Sopranos spends a good deal of time documenting the transition of power from Uncle Junior’s generation to Tony’s. So it felt natural to hope that the show might hint at what would come next for the Soprano family. Anthony Junior is the “hair apparent”, to quote a memorable line from Christopher. I didn’t need or expect A.J. to ascend to his father’s throne as mob boss, but I would’ve liked for him to grapple with the idea, or actively reject it, or relate to it somehow.

In the last season, A.J. struggles with depression and attempts suicide – however, it’s really hard to care about this character or feel invested when he’s down. Throughout the show’s duration, A.J. is portrayed as an aimless delinquent or a spoiled brat. David Chase once wrote, “A lot of the audience I gathered doesn’t like A.J.; they think he’s a useless, spoiled fool. But there’s also something about him that is earnest. He’s got his father’s kind of questioning and kind of little boy innocence.”

A.J.’s suicide attempt in the pool just feels like another failed ploy to generate tension. Are we supposed to be amazed that the incident occurs in the pool – the home of Tony’s great symbolic ducks from all the way back in the pilot? It just doesn’t make you feel anything, and A.J.’s storyline in the last season feels like yet another squandered opportunity.

So what does the last season of The Sopranos accomplish? We see Tony’s behavior become increasingly antisocial and cruel. He makes violent threats towards his own son. His close confidante Paulie fears that Tony might kill him. Tony actually curb-stomps a guy for intimidating Meadow.

We’re offered a reason for this increasingly dark behavior in the penultimate episode of the show. Dr. Melfi gets into a debate with her therapist, Elliot, played by the acclaimed filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich. Elliot has read scientific studies claiming that talking therapy actually helps sociopaths sharpen their antisocial behavior. Dr. Melfi reads a medical journal that includes the passage, “the criminal uses insight to justify heinous acts.” The implication is that Tony’s vicious behavior, ironically, has worsened due to his work in therapy. Melfi decides that she has been complicit in Tony’s criminal life, and she drops him as a patient. This is a satisfying and tragic conclusion to their long history together, and it’s one of the redeeming qualities of Season Six.

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