So Long Tony Soprano

by Rick Rockwell

Tony Soprano won’t go quietly into that good night. And his fans want him to keep raging on until the end.

For those who haven’t paid attention during the past eight years, The Sopranos is ending its long run on HBO this spring with nine new episodes. Typical for this groundbreaking series, it somehow managed to only run six seasons worth of material over those eight years. But, no matter for the fans. They keep coming back year after year, giving HBO some of its best ratings ever. In the past, The Sopranos has beaten some of the lower ranking broadcast networks on Sunday nights, quite an achievement for a premium pay-cable series. (Ratings for the season debut showed about 7.7 million viewers tuned in, compared to the ratings peak for the series: the fourth season debut at 13 million.)

This latest installment of the series began this week with a chilling episode that evokes the best The Sopranos has to offer and is especially evocative of the power of the series’ beginnings in 1999 and 2000.

The genius employed by David Chase, the series’ creator is that mob boss Tony Soprano is actually a metaphor. He is the embodiment of middle-aged male angst. He is male rage personified. He is the great television anti-hero.

Tony may be the head of a mob family but his real family is what takes center stage in The Sopranos. We learn that even the rockstar of mob bosses, Tony Soprano, can’t seem to find his personal nirvana, although with his money and power, he often indulges his whims.

Since 1999, Chase has carefully layered Tony’s character and James Gandolfini has taken the role of a lifetime and played it to the hilt. This week’s debut of the final stretch centered around Tony’s birthday. Sure, there were big guns, mob lawyers, lots of wiseguy patois, and a big dollop of violence. But most of the episode was spent around a lake, presumably in upstate New York, and really had a lot more to do with aging, sibling rivalry, divided loyalties, dysfunctional families, and the web of conflict at the heart of some family gatherings. The chilling part was not the violence, although that is always scarily realistic on The Sopranos. No, the chilling part was how right Chase can be when he depicts how families can tear themselves apart from the inside and how aging men (they could be Italian-Americans, African-Americans, or Jewish Americans, it doesn’t matter) strike out in rage against what they perceive as the dimming light.

Chase also leavens the series with enough humor that sometimes he has the audience both laughing and cringing on the rollercoaster ride that is a Sopranos season.

Tony Soprano’s struggles with the pressures of middle age have always been the core of the series and as the series comes to its close, Tony’s mortality is moving directly to the forefront. As Tony puts it in the first episode of the last run: “80 percent don’t survive.” They get wacked or go to prison. Chase’s closing story arc is already laying down the possibilities of both for Tony.

But before he goes, Tony is going to feud with his sister, exact some revenge on his brother-in-law, hang-up the phone in disgust on his nephew – who he perceives as disloyal because he is distracted by Hollywood – and continue his day-to-day struggles with his wife and kids. Instead of bottling up those family pressures like many in Middle America, Tony explodes violently, something that a character who is a mob boss can do believably. Is it any mystery then why Tony Soprano is so popular? He brings catharsis to America once a week. And that’s why he’ll be missed when he’s gone, no matter how he goes.

(Promotional photo of The Sopranos from HBO.)

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