As summer heats up and game releases slow down and the broadcast TV season comes to an end, I thought it would be a fitting time to go back and cross off one of the major items on my TV bucket list, The Sopranos. As I watch and enjoy this seminal television series, I thought I would record my thoughts and impressions of the show on a season by season basis. To take all of you along for the ride and experience this together. My plans are for this to be a summer series with each season review coming out about every two weeks. There's no real structure to what the reviews will be, either to say they are my thoughts on what each season of the show means. Now on to the first season review.
The music kicks up, the skyline of New York City pops into view, cigar smoke fills the screen and I'm welcomed to the wonderful scenic commute of Mr. Tony Soprano. In this wonderful, yet simple way the Sopranos opens and what an opening it is. The first season of the show comes barreling out like a charging bull, delivering a complex, rich, and wonderfully real tale of an American life and family at the turn of the millennium. Flawed, struggling to connect with his wife and kids, and having to deal with a overbearing and at times brutal mother, Tony Soprano, is just an average North Jersey dad, apart from being a mobster that is.
Yet, thats part of the wondrous joy of this show. That juxtaposition between Tony's home family and his mob one and the tension this creates for him. James Gandolfini is luminous as Tony Soprano, at times silently, at others violently, and still at other times, screaming and full of barely contained rage he manages to craft one of the most stunning and deeply troubled and complex characters ever to come roaring across our TV sets.
Whether it's bonding with his daughter as they visit colleges while at the same time hunting down and then brutally murdering an associate from the past, or hoping for a better future for his son, terrified that his way of life might be genetic, Tony is a man rife with contradictions of deeply embedded flaws. Yet, it's the fact that he knows his flaws, indeed at times is fully aware of them and seemingly unable to do anything about them, that makes Tony so compelling to watch. You can't help rooting for Tony, theres just something to him. This is highlighted perhaps nowhere better then in his fantastic sessions with his shrink, Dr. Melfi. Diving deep into the psyche of Tony, from his troubled childhood relationship with his mother, to the impact of his father, the struggles of his marriage with Carmela, and his high hopes for his children even as he fears he may have cursed them. Tony is just consumed by the same things so many others are, he just works for the mob, further complicating everything else.
There's just a sense of sadness of somberness throughout so much of Tony's life. This is shown right from the very beginning, when during the pilot he becomes consumed by a group of baby ducks taking refugee in his pool and in a particularly insightful conversation he has with Dr. Melfi, during one of their first sessions. As Tony and the Doctor talk to each other, Tony mentions how he feels like he is "coming in at the end of the something" how he misses a bygone era of doing things. This is hit upon further in the next episode, 46 Long.
That episode opens as Tony, Silvio, Paulie, Pussy, and Christoper are together, playing cards, counting money, and just joking around as a news program runs a special on the end of the Mafia. As the guys all watch, a former made man turned government witness and a mafia historian discuss how the golden age of the Mafia is never coming back, how the era of Carlo Gambino and The Godfather are gone, never to come back again. The guys make jokes, but its very clear to see that every one of them has been affected by what the new program was saying. This theme of the end of an era weighs heavily upon the whole season.
The season wonderfully shows this with the slow death of acting boss Jackie Aprile, during the first half of the season. Loved and respected by everyone, Jackie's rule is peaceful, prosperous, and good for the whole family. Yet, his death from cancer causes chaos and confusion with no clear leader and tension among the major players.
The first half of the season wonderfully establishes the world of The Sopranos and its odd cast of characters. Peeling back the layers to introduce us to Tony, Uncle Junior, Carmela, Meadow, A.J., and Tony's mother these episodes brilliantly set up the major conflicts and tensions of not just this season but of the larger show.
It is at this point, after Jackie's death from cancer and Tony's willingness to make peace with his Uncle and let him lead the family, that the structure and nature of the season takes a different tone. The events of the show radically slow down, the pace of the larger story all but stops, as we begin to get a series of smaller, character driven episodes that vary widely in how successful they pull off their smaller more layered approach to the characters and their stories but that ultimately make the final two episodes and their ramifications that much more impactful.
It's during this time that David Chase and company at first subtly and with small gestures, start to crack and fray the peace that Tony and his Uncle have just made. It's incredible to watch how the whole thing unravels due to the smallest gestures and a few ill-timed jokes. It is a brilliant touch to let what lights the fuse for the war to be the two men learning small, personal details about each other. There is no big betrayal, no turncoat action, no murder that ignites things. Instead and much to the benefit of the show, it is a small, very personal detail about the other that leads to the calm being broken and each taking steps to prepare for trouble. Yet, even here it is impossible not to root for Tony, who seems truly surprised and heartbroken at the turn of events and particularly there connection to his mother.
As the final two episodes dovetail into a series of escalating steps taken between the two men, everyone else begins to envision what the future will look like on the other side. It is here that Tony and his mother's relationship becomes most interesting. There is a remarkable scene during the early portions of the season finale, that features Tony being brought to a basement by a group of F.B.I. agents so that they can play him a series of tapes, that they hope will cause him to turn against his Uncle and help the government out. The tapes reveal his mother and uncle discussing Tony and his visit's to a shrink, his inability to be the man his mother wants, and her subsequent comments on multiple occasions that he lives such a miserable life and that he would be better off dead.
The way that Tony receives the news, just sitting in the chair as a plethora of differing emotions cross his face, and as the F.B.I. agents are all observing him is among the series most poignant moments. It is Tony in a room full of people, but truly all by himself, as he absorbs the seismic-shock news that his uncle and mother are the ones responsible for the attempted hit on him. Yet, in the great twist of irony instead of this leading to Tony going to work for the government it pushes him in the exact opposite direction, as he goes about destroying his uncles crew and everything he thought he had. What occurs next is a bloodbath by the Sopranos standards, with Tony personally shooting in cold blood one of Junior's top hit men. Jarring, unexpected, and a stark reminder yet again, that for all of Tony's love of his family he is still a monster.
Tony wins. His uncle 's crew is destroyed and Junior is arrested and sent to jail, his mother suffers a severe stroke right before Tony was going to kill her, and Tony is now the new boss. Yet, the actual final scene goes away from all of this and instead settles on Tony and his family being welcomed into Artie's new restaurant to escape a terrible rainstorm and to grab something to eat.
Tony's twisted, complicated, and deeply personal relationship with Artie was one of the highlights of the season from the very first episode and that leads to a brilliant and powerful pay-off here. All season long Artie and his wife have argued over what kind of a man Tony is, of her fear that he will only get them into trouble, of how she doesn't want those kinds of people to be what the new resturant is known for. Artie meanwhile has been caught up in his life-long friendship with Tony, they've been friends since they were kids. The fact that Tony had Artie's first restaurant burned down to protect it from being the site of a mob hit out of a sense of love and respect for his friend only complicated things from the start. The fact that Artie finds out the truth about this and confronts Tony on it in the finale, further lights the fuse. Yet, it is here where things get there most interesting. Artie goes to Father Phil, the local Catholic priest and talks to him about everything that has happened. He listens to the father's advice, hears what he says, to talk to his wife about the truth and then instead, while sitting at his restaurant and observing how happy his wife finally is with everything, decides to hide the truth, to accept the story Tony told him and at the episodes conclusion, to let him inside his restaurant.
It's at that moment that we are treated to a beautiful scene, layered with symbolism and set-ups for the future. Silvio and Paulie are sharing a table, discussing the new state of the crime family, Christopher and his girlfriend Adrinna are sharing another, and then finally there is a table of Tony, Carmela, A.J. and Meadow which leads to Tony deciding to give a toast. What occurs next is a great piece of understated story-telling in the show. Tony raises his glass, looks at his family, and then locks eyes with Carmela and proceeds to not break eye contact with her as he says that life is about treasuring small, little moments like this, how he hopes his kids "remember this, remember the good moments". All season long, Tony has struggled with his role as father and husband and you get the feeling, that after what's happened he recognizes his time with them may be short. Then without another word said, everybody toasts, smiles are shared and Tony gives one last longing, wistful, happy, and sad look at his family as the image fades and the credits roll.
Season One of The Soprano's delivered a modern day tale of what it's like to be a major figure in the Mafia of the new millennium. Sorrowful, bleak, and wistful for a bygone era that all involved know can never come back, it delivers a deeply personal and moving tale of one mans story of trying to stand proud at the end of something. Of trying to be a leader as your way of life and it's ideals are literally dissolving all around you. Hammered by his personal and business life, Tony Soprano seems to serve as a wonderful microcosm of both what ails his business and his country and also what's great about it. Crime and the Mafia have always been the dark underbelly of the American dream, as shown by the transcendent piece of art of The Godfather series and its here that Tony's story becomes even deeper and richer. His is the working mans version of that story. He is not Vito Corleone, he will never be as great and towering a figure. The best he can hope for is a good life with his family and to keep the family business alive and as successful as he can. In his triumphs and his failures he does just that, in the process showcasing one of the most deeply complex, troubled, personal, and layered performances in television history and helping to helm one of the great season's ever crafted in TV. Not a bad days work for a waste management employee from North Jersey.