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Thoughts on Tony Soprano

I'm finally getting around to watching "The Sopranos," a decade after the show's peak in popularity and seven years since the series went to sleep with the fishes. I grew up loving "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" (not to mention films like "Moonstruck" with funny and spot-on Italian-American characters who aren't in the mob), so it's about time I catch up with Tony Soprano and company.  In no particular order, some reactions:
  • Tony Soprano strikes me as somehow more monstrous and hard to like than the so-called anti-heroes his character inspired (Walter White, Don Draper, pretty much anybody on "The Wire") on other marquee programs. Tony's a coarse bully. Walter White and Don Draper do some despicable shit but Tony is an even worse husband. He's got Catholic guilt but no remorse. His guilt is all sub-conscious; he has freaky dreams but never hesitates to kill, hurt, or embarrass people with less power than him.
  • He's not really respected as much as feared. His "friends" are sycophants; even the goons who are related to him maneuver against him when they sense vulnerability or when the anger and resentment against him boils over.  (Possible exception: Silvio)
  • Compared to other tv/movie mobsters, this group is pretty pathetic. Nobody is as glamorous as Vito or Michael Corleone. They hang out at a dumpy stripclub, struggle to "pass" anytime they're around civilians. They have monetary mobility but rarely cultural mobility. They don't know how to code switch when they go to a college campus or a charity function. I'm not saying their working-class ethos makes them pathetic--it's their lack of self-awareness. Lots of working-class people, both real and fictional, are much savvier and more flexible than Tony Soprano et al.
  • Tony's life is ugly. He and his crew engage in domestic violence (in some cases with both their wives and their mistresses), abuse drugs, and suffer profound, visible, pyschic damage as a result of being criminals. This isn't just like Michael Corleone looking sad after killing his brother or even Henry Hill acting all paranoid and red-eyed as he keeps a look-out for helicopters and makes sauce. It goes beyond that. In "The Sopranos," we get prolonged images of, say, Christopher shooting up and Tony sitting in therapy. Like I said, they don't express any remorse, but we see the damage and destruction constantly. Even if he wears expensive clothes, Tony Soprano does NOT make this life look desirable.
  • Last thing: James Gandolfini was brilliant in the role. The strained breathing, the compulsive eating, the non-verbal reactions to others...has anybody ever embodied a character this well? All the stylized camera work and heavy-handed symbolism (eggs! birds! prosciutto!...every object signifies something, as if David Chase had Joseph Campbell on his desk every time he wrote a script) help the cause but Gandolfini's acting was perfect. I think "The Wire" boasted better, more consistent writing. "Breaking Bad" is more addictive. But Tony Soprano was a vivid, compelling, despicable person thanks to brilliant, brilliant acting.

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