The Sopranos concludes its fifth season this Sunday, but already I feel the pangs of longing. How empty those succeeding Sunday evenings will seem without Tony Soprano and all his company. My only consolation is in the knowledge that The Wire, HBO’s less-acclaimed but no-less-worthy crime drama, is now in production for its third season. Yes, I confess: Like millions of others, I’m a Sopranos junkie, and have been since the show began. Such is my affliction that, in my two-Tivo household, I set one to record HBO’s east-coast feed at six P.M., the other to catch the west-coast feed at nine, in case some glitch in transmission deprives me of even a moment of one or the other.
But why are we hooked?
As a cop, my conscience tells me I should be repelled by the exploits of so vile a pack of criminals and their various enablers. And on one level I am indeed repelled, but still I watch, week after week, even enforcing a no-talking rule in the Dunphy house from the moment Tony takes to the New Jersey Turnpike in the opening credits to the final fade-to-black. From a technical standpoint The Sopranos is simply excellent, as its growing list of Emmys and other awards attests. But the show’s appeal can’t be traced merely to its technical brilliance. Fine writing and fine acting can be found elsewhere on the dial, certainly, though rarely in the consistently great heaps one finds on The Sopranos. No, the show succeeds for other, deeper and darker reasons, for it offers the viewer a glimpse into some dark, dark souls, all from the comfort and safety of his own living room.
At times Shakespearean, at time Wagnerian, it is not only the dark souls The Sopranos exposes, but the not-so-dark as well. We take it for granted that Tony, for whatever qualities we may admire in him (and there are some), will be as ruthless as need be to remain in command of his “family,” even as his real family, wife Carmela, daughter Meadow, and son Anthony Jr., continue to vex him. But Carmela and the children never completely slip from his grasp, do they? It is in these characters that I find the greatest fascination, for they are in a sense like us, the viewers. They are aware, to one degree or another, of Tony’s depravity, yet they are unwilling or unable to reject him. They are repelled by the darkness even as they, like us, are drawn to it.
Carmela, after battling her conscience and her Catholic faith over Tony’s life of crime, at last separated from him at the end of last season. But it was not his murderous ways that finally pushed her over the brink, but rather his unfaithfulness and the callousness with which he practiced it. And now, as we saw in the last episode, they have reconciled, with Tony offering a promise not to cheat on her that was positively Clintonian in its torture of the language. “No, Carmela!” we say. “He hasn’t changed!” In her heart of hearts she knows the truth, yet she allows him back into the house, the next insult, perhaps delayed until next season, coming just as surely as night follows day.
As for Anthony Jr., after watching him for five years we can resign ourselves to the fact that he will not escape the path his father has laid before him. Lacking any apparent ambition or aptitude, he will follow his father into the family business. But, also lacking Tony Sr.’s innate abilities, he will never be more than a mid-level thug, the kind of man who spends more time in prison than out.
It is Meadow who perhaps has the greatest chance of breaking away from Tony’s legacy. She is as bright as her brother is dense, bright enough to be attending Columbia, and now she is engaged to be married, albeit to Finn DeTrolio, a vapid young man with a bad haircut. The circumstances of the engagement, moreover, coming as it did while Finn was in fear of a rubout for catching one of Tony’s crew in a compromising position, offer scant hope for a successful marriage. And don’t forget that Meadow has always been quick to defend her father to anyone who questioned the legitimacy of his work. “He’s in the waste-disposal business,” she would say, even as the truth was ever more apparent to her.
Such is the blindness that accompanies familial love, and it is this blindness that The Sopranos portrays so well. As a young cop many years ago I was surprised to discover how many girlfriends, wives, and mothers were blinded to the depredations committed by their boyfriends, husbands, and sons. “My son is not in a gang,” the moms would say, even after I showed them the gang tattoos on their darlings’ arms. Recall the opening moments of the Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, when Georgiana Williams, mother of Damien “Football” Williams, was telling anyone who would listen what a good boy her son was, even as the world saw him launch a brick at the helpless Reginald Denny’s head. Damien did eight years for what he did to Reginald Denny, and now he’s doing 30-to-life for murder, but I’ll bet his mom still thinks he’s a good boy.
The Sopranos will return next year for what may be its final season, and by now the producers have surely devised some fitting end for Tony and his crew. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching them, I hope to see Tony and Paulie and Christopher and the whole bunch hauled off to prison. We may like watching the bad guys, but we mustn’t forget how bad they are. And in the end, don’t we still want the good guys to win?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.