“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
When you watch The Sopranos, you can discern episodes from the early seasons to the later seasons by one factor. The factor for most television series would be the story. With The Sopranos it’s who the character is at that point and time. Although there is a story in the show, that’s not the focal point. The characters, who they are, and what they aspire to be, that’s the focus. In our own lives, we aren’t a singular story, we’re an accumulation of stories and experiences. Most television series act as if we’re the passenger along for the ride. The Sopranos approaches the show as if we’re watching a tree grow and branch out.
The Sopranos is a television series that lasted from 1999 to 2007. It stars the late and great James Gandolfini as mobster and New Jersey resident, Tony Soprano. The Sopranos is about how he, his family, and his mob family navigates everyday life. A gimmick to utilize crime only adds to the intrigue while telling a story that is no different from yours or I’s. Tony has a wife, children, friends, and sees a therapist on a weekly basis. How exactly is he different from you and me?
The lens of The Sopranos is through his eyes. All thoughts, ideals, and motives are all his and in turn yours. None of us are immune to bad decision-making. Although there is a stark difference from racketeering, money laundering, and extortion to flipping off the car behind you, who is to say you would be different given the circumstances. We are all prone to bad decision-making, and what we surround ourselves with will scale how bad our decision-making is.
Throughout The Sopranos, Tony only had one goal in mind, himself. He did care about his children, his “cousin” Christopher, but when situations put him on the hot plate he wouldn’t mind squashing those around him to get off. We know people like that in our own personal lives. Those who would align with individualism rather than collectivism. What does this cost us? The cost can either be minuscule as in the loss of a relationship. The alternative could be drastic such as the current raging pandemic.
When you see members of the DiMeo and Lupertazzi crime families greet each other they always say “hey, how are you doing?” When people go behind each other’s backs they greet with “hey, how are you doing?” In most, if not all, regardless of the circumstance, they greet with “hey, how are you doing?”
In an attempt to save face, the phrase itself is representative of the shallowness of these relationships and these people. They don’t actually care about each other. It’s all business, and in the end when someone is considered ‘disposable’ their relationship is essentially over. In the last season of The Sopranos, when Johnny Sack was in prison, Tony didn’t consider what his needs were. For all Tony could care, he just wanted to continue moving along. In multiple instances where Phil Leotardo brought this up Tony just brushed it off.
As the series continued to grow and flesh out, the actual relationship between these men that work together became more apparent. Tony, Paulie, Pussy, Silvio, they only have a professional relationship. They do things for each other and put on this facade of love for each other. But when things get hard, they wouldn’t mind killing them. For example, when Tony and Paulie are on the lam there was a point where Tony considered whacking Paulie. Tony believed that Paulie tipped off Johnny Sack for the Ginny Sack mole joke. Was that enough to kill one of his close associates and lifelong friends?
What exactly is the threshold? Throughout the series multiple people set Tony off and made his life infinitely more difficult. Granted, Paulie nearly set off a war between the two crime families. But at that point in the series, bad blood was cleared. How is that justifiable? Ralph killed his pregnant stripper goomah for slapping him. Tony developed a personal relationship with this woman. Tony could have easily set his sights on Ralph. What was the limiting factor? Money.
“Other people’s definitions of you, sometimes they’re more about making themselves feel better. You gotta define yourself.”
Much like life, as time continues to pass we all evolve into something entirely different. Our mannerisms, our interests, our ideals. Whether it be the natural progression of time or a traumatic event, we constantly develop into something fresh and new. Even against our better wishes, we naturally develop as if we’re all in a body of water, effervescing our previous self into a new singular being.
The Sopranos, unlike most shows, somehow establishes an assortment of unique characters and evolves them individually. Characters like Meadow, Adriana, Janice, and even Agent Harris evolve drastically. As society continued to change, so did The Sopranos. Meadow became more progressive, Adriana became more individualized, Agent Harris discovered how much more broad his fears lied, and Janice found a level of inner peace. Although Adriana didn’t make it to the end of the show and Bobby’s death regressed Janice’s newfound sense of self, a part of who they were still clutched onto those they surrounded themselves with.
As the characters individually discovered themselves this progression spread much like a butterfly effect. The human connection that was made character to character felt so real as if you could feel their emotions flow through you. Tony was seeing a counselor, and even though in the end it was cut off due to the implications placed on Dr. Melfi, he still learned how to be more vulnerable. Even in smaller intimate conversations, this level of vulnerability allowed Tony to connect with those he surrounded himself with.
When The Sopranos ended, each character was on a new path. A sense of separation could be felt from the original characters from the first season, but the love for each other was still there. We learn who these people are, we saw them grow, we saw them suffer. When we arrive at the end of the series, we see a small glimpse as to where the characters will go. But due to the abrupt end of the series, we never see where they do go. Such as the cruelties of life we’ll never know, but such as the beauty of life we were fortunate enough to know who these people are.
“You steer the ship the best way you know. Sometimes it’s smooth. Sometimes you hit the rocks. In the meantime, you find your pleasures where you can.”
By no means do I believe the members of these crime families to be holistically good people. There are some redeeming qualities, but that doesn’t mean they’re good. They caused pain and suffering to those in their way. But that doesn’t mean we don’t understand why they do what they do. The Sopranos effectively shows how and why these people do what they do. Whether it be because they’re helping their family, helping their city, or even helping themselves. These aren’t inherently bad motives. But do the ends justify the means? Not exactly.
When the series started we saw Tony sitting in the waiting room for his therapist. The show told us from the opening seconds this show would be more of an introspective look into serial criminals. Vulnerability, empathy, and leading by rationality go a long way. As the series came to a close every single character developed some sense of vulnerability, empathy, or rationale. Such as humanity, we will continue to learn and grow and become the person we set out to be yesterday.
We are no different from the characters of The Sopranos. We all want to feel secure, we are prone to bad decision-making, and we are always changing. Do these characters exist? Yes, though us. The show may have ended fourteen years ago, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone. Television shows us the perception of reality, but with The Sopranos we are envisioning reality. – Jacob Mauceri