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This Week in Watching: The Sopranos

I finished “The Sopranos” on Saturday – just as Dave was starting. I didn’t watch the second half of Season 6 when it aired on HBO because it had been too long since I had seen everything up to that point. I wanted to begin from the beginning, which I did in early May. I watched 86 episodes in six weeks, an average of 2.047 episodes per day, mostly on lunch breaks and late at night after Kate and Molly were in bed. I didn’t read any fiction in that time. “The Sopranos” was my novel.

After watching the final episode (don’t worry, no spoilers), I read excerpts of an interview with David Chase, the show’s creator, in which he said this about loyal viewers and their expectations for the series finale: “They had gleefully watched [Tony Soprano] rob, kill, pillage, lie and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ‘justice’ . . .The pathetic thing – to me – was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”

I had such a different experience than what Chase described that I’m considering four possibilities: 1) I didn’t pick up cues in the show that I was supposed to be rooting for Tony as he used and abused nearly everyone with whom he came in contact, including his family and closest friends; 2) I watched a different version of the show, the non-director’s cut, perhaps; 3) Chase’s cynicism put him so far outside the mainstream that he failed to understand his audience, even as he created one of the greatest television shows of all time; and/or 4) I’m the one outside the mainstream, I’m the one who doesn’t get it.

I admit I lived vicariously through Tony. But it wasn’t during those scenes in which he robbed, killed, pillaged, lied, and cheated. It was in the rare quiet moments with his family, usually at the end of a season, and especially in the office of his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, when he tried to make sense of himself and his place in the world. I understand, in my own way, the depression and the feelings of being trapped. I recognize too in Tony the rage, the self-deception, the hunger and lust and hubris – and also the consequences of yielding ground to those urges. For me, watching this show again, I had no shortages of second chances for Tony, even when Tony didn’t extend a second chance to someone else. I rooted not for Tony’s sins, but for his redemption, as I hope for my own redemption.

All those years of therapy and Tony never left organized crime. But he learned enough to keep his kids away from it. Live or die in the final episode – no spoilers here – the Soprano family’s cycle of violence and betrayal will end with him. That makes Tony a kind of hero. That is a kind of redemption.

Update: My friend Jordan makes a great point in response to this post:

What’s telling, though, is that we rooted for Tony against almost every antagonist he faced (with the possible exception of Big Pussy…I may be forgetting others). We certainly wanted him to beat Phil Leotardo in that last season, even though he was becoming more and more dark. Maybe it’s that he was at least seeking a way out through therapy.

I think Agent Harris’ reaction at hearing the gang war’s outcome was emblematic of what Chase felt viewers believed: maybe we pretended to want justice, but we still often root for the evil we like best

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One comment on “This Week in Watching: The Sopranos

  1. I guess there was more than one audience for the show. And the “mayham” and bullying had its fans. In fact, though people do hope for redemption, it seems to me one of the central attractions of the gangster film is the guy who does exactly what he wants, and ” go fuck yourselves, the rest of yas”. We may not want to admit it, but then we don’t actually DO it, we just watch it. And get a tingle.

    And yes, he was kind of a hero. He saved his children. Finally, somebody gets that.

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