Television: The End of the Soprano Administration

8 minute read
James Poniewozik

The famous leader is coming to the end of his term, and he is not sure whether he will have anything good to leave behind him. He has no obvious successor. He has always valued loyalty and usually gotten it, but some of those who have been most loyal to him have disappointed him most. There are questions of credibility. There are continuing legal investigations. There have been ill-advised conflicts that are starting to have disastrous blowback …

O.K., O.K., you’ve seen the picture at the top of this page, so you know I’m talking about Tony Soprano. I’ll leave you to decide whether the comparison is insulting to that other American leader or to Tony. HBO’s The Sopranos, which begins its for-real-this-time final run of nine episodes April 8 (9 p.m. E.T.), is not a straight parable of the presidency. Tony, for instance, has a rather more strict policy toward staffers who leak.

Still, the series has never been afraid to be topical or resonate with current events: nearly every season opens with a newspaper landing in Tony’s driveway, underlining the suburban setting and reminding us that, to some extent, the show intends to deliver the news. Tony (James Gandolfini) has fretted about terrorism and suffered through recessions; wife Carmela (Edie Falco) dabbled in stocks during the NASDAQ craze and in real estate when that market took off. There have been parallels to politics–like Tony’s Clintonian appetites and his Bushian yen for simple answers–and direct references, as when Carmela copped to voting for Bush.

In a broader sense, The Sopranos is about male baby-boomer American leadership in an age of irreconcilable demands and diminished expectations. As a Mob boss and a family man, Tony is caught between what he is and what he imagines himself to be. He cannot muster the stoicism the past demanded of men nor the sensitivity the present does. He whines to his therapist and “goes about in pity” for himself (the quote is from an Ojibwe proverb that Tony reads and that he believes applies only to other people), yet he longs for the days when men were strong and silent like Gary Cooper. He’s a hotheaded brute who imagines himself, as he says, a cool “captain-of-industry type.” He longs for the patriarchal prerogatives of bosses before him yet feels obligated to be faithful to his wife–or at least to try, kind of, once in a while.

After eight years on TV–the length, you’ll note, of a two-term presidency–the head of the Soprano crime family is thinking about his legacy. (Fair warning: here’s where the spoilers begin.) In the first new episode, Tony, still feeling the effects of having been gut-shot by dementia-addled Uncle Junior, is celebrating his 47th birthday. Later there’s a reference to one of his Mob peers, who died at 47. No one connects the dots explicitly, but the parallel is not lost on Tony. “My estimate, historically, 80% of the time, [a Mob boss] ends up in the can,” he tells his brother-in-law Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa). “Or in the embalming room”–that is, whacked.

Could it be curtains for Tony? It’s possible. His battered insides are giving him agita, and there’s still trouble with the Brooklyn Mob, whose leader can’t forget the murder of his brother by Tony’s cousin. Death on The Sopranos can be operatic or bathetic; in the first two episodes screened for critics, one mobster dies in a bloody shooting, another ignominiously of cancer. It’s also possible, given creator David Chase’s distaste for tidy endings and moral lessons, that Tony could stroll off into retirement as others pay the bill for his deeds.

Regardless, a feeling of doom hangs over these episodes. Early in the debut, police wake up the Soprano household to arrest Tony on a weapons charge. “Is this it?” shrieks Carmela, as if she had been expecting this moment every morning she opened her eyes next to her husband.

The new episodes, heavy on domestic drama, may frustrate fans of the Mob story lines, and several major characters (Uncle Junior, Dr. Melfi, Paulie Walnuts) are absent or on the sidelines. While there are a couple of nasty whackings, the most physically and emotionally brutal scene is sparked by a drunken game of Monopoly. (Tony, unsurprisingly, palms $500 from the bank and believes in the Free Parking–jackpot rule.) But Tony’s personal crises–getting older, trying to break his family’s cycle of dysfunction–mirror his business problem: figuring out who will lead the Mob family after him. Consigliere Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) proved unsuited to lead; protégé Christopher (Michael Imperioli) is off making his low-budget Mafia-slasher movie, with a pseudo-Tony played by Daniel Baldwin. (“Imitation’s a form of flattery,” Tony says with a shrug. “He’s a tough prick, that Baldwin.”)

In the wider arena of TV, Tony has a sure legacy. When The Sopranos debuted in 1999, antiheroes were rare; now they’re the new heroes. Cable’s FX network has a stable of brooding, self-destructive, often violent, mostly male protagonists, from Michael Chiklis’ corrupt but effective cop on The Shield (which returns April 3) to Denis Leary’s alcoholic fireman on Rescue Me to Eddie Izzard’s captivating con man on The Riches.

Even good guys on broadcast-network shows are now all but required to have moral failings and dark sides. Jack Bauer of 24 may be on the opposite side of the law from Tony, but he has likewise made ugly choices and bargains. From House to Prison Break to Shark, dramas are now full of lessons that the good are imperfect, that justice can come at a moral price and that sometimes you have to be a grade-A tool to get the job done.

It took years, but the big networks have learned to adapt The Sopranos’ strengths to their own needs and audiences. Lost is, in its adventure-story way, an HBO show in structure, with one complex story played out over years. (In fact, its fans complain, much as Sopranos fans have, that the plot wanders too much and fails to give closure.) And antiheroes? Take your pick: nearly every major Lost character has a criminal or checkered past, from fugitive to druglord to torturer to addict.

Still, eight years later, big-network TV shows can’t match the layering and subtlety of the original. The Sopranos’ April 8 premiere is tightly focused and intimate; it’s mainly about a family squabble between two couples on a weekend getaway. Yet in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments, it evokes the show’s entire history. Tony and Carmela visit Tony’s sister Janice (Aïda Turturro) and Bobby at their country home–a trip that recalls Tony’s turbulence with the Brooklyn Mob. (Tony forced its former leader to sell his house to Janice at a discount.) Later Carmela and Janice have a passive-aggressive conversation about their relationships. “I had this boyfriend once,” says Janice. “One night he hit me. Boy, oh, boy, I blew my lid … In the end, he went his separate way.” (Actually, she killed him, as longtime viewers will recall from season 2.) Carmela thinks Janice is insinuating something and responds, “Tony has never once raised his hand to his children. Or to me.” (Not entirely true either: he slammed her against a wall during a searing fight scene in season 4.) By now, The Sopranos has developed such a history and metaphorical vocabulary that the smallest remark or visual can comment on multiple story lines at once.

Above all, there are the ducks. Tony’s first trip to therapy came after he had a panic attack when a family of ducks settled in his backyard pool. (The gentleness of the duck family brought up hurtful associations with his relationship with his vindictive mother.) In the return episode, Tony sits brooding by the lakeside after an ugly family blowup that resurrected his mommy issues, and fleetingly, a duck flies behind him. Later he sees Bobby and Janice’s preschool daughter singing with her nanny. The song: Five Little Ducks. Seeing the sweet tableau–and, perhaps, the chance for his brother-in-law and underling to have the kind of innocent family relationship that Tony never had–eats away at him.

He eventually responds, typically, not with introspection but with a cunning and jealous act of revenge that proves he’s still the boss–and that The Sopranos is as acute a family and Family drama as ever. Tony Soprano may be on his way out. But he’s not a lame duck yet.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at