Having recently finished my first ever viewing of The Sopranos, it’s now perfectly clear to me why it’s been called “the show that changed TV”. The series tells an incredibly unique story which follows the life of arguably the most iconic antihero in TV history and concludes with a finale which has continued to leave people talking about it all these years later. I’ll offer my thoughts on the ending of the series towards the end of this article, with plenty of warning beforehand, in case you haven’t managed to get around to watching The Sopranos yet. In the meantime however, I’m happy to explain why for me, The Sopranos is the greatest TV series of all time.
Offering an in-depth exploration of family, masculinity, femininity, relationships, mental health, depression, immigration, culture, nationality and more, The Sopranos tells the story of the classic self-made Italian mobster thrust into the George W. Bush era of America. A man who wants to desperately hold on to the “old way” of mob life and the old Italian values his ancestors brought to this new land struggles to do so in modern America, a world smothered in consumerism and materialism. In fact, modern society has become so mind-numbing and out of sorts that even someone like Tony Soprano, a ruthless, alpha-male type mafia boss, seeks the help of therapy to help him deal with panic attacks. As we follow a man desperately struggling to balance his life at home with leading a criminal organisation, we see the other side of the gangster world we’ve seen on our screens for years.
The Sopranos revealed that when it comes to a television series, it doesn’t have to be about finding answers, getting to the end of a mystery or spectacular cinematic climaxes. The series taught us that we can also take great pleasure from simply being thrown into the middle of this intriguing social circle of individuals and experiencing their reality one small step at a time.
The influence of The Sopranos echoes in all of the antihero stories which followed. Bryan Cranston from the Sensational Breaking Bad even said that without The Sopranos there would never have been a Breaking Bad. We could potentially say the same about stories like Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men and many more.
Tony Soprano didn’t deliver the classic portrayal of mobsters that we’ve seen in The Godfather or Goodfellas. Instead, he offered a character who was flawed and complicated. Essentially, Tony Soprano was every bit as human as you and I. Where Michael Corleone always appeared calm, calculated and dressed in the finest suits, we often see Tony collecting the morning paper in his dressing gown or sprawled out on the couch with a bowl of ice cream. We find ourselves wondering how such a morally corrupt person can still seem so loveable solely due to the love he reserves for his own family and admirable due to the weight he bears from his own personal demons.
He fears that his son will follow in his footsteps while simultaneously forcing himself to match up to his own father‘s legacy. When we combine these with a deep compassion for children and animals, and a child-like sense of humour, it becomes almost impossible to dislike Tony despite us being aware of everything he is and represents.
Characters, dialogue and comfort viewing
As iconic as Tony Soprano was, the series owes its legacy to many more than him alone. The series gave us countless complex characters, all slowly moulded and developed gradually over time. These characters are the heartbeat of this series. More often than not we’re not even that concerned with what the characters are doing, or how they react to a looming threat or an unexpected twist. It’s not events or incidents that keep you coming back to The Sopranos but rather the characters themselves.
These characters don’t reveal their intentions through intensified monologues or use witty and timely remarks after a climatic incident. They speak entirely naturally, just as real people talk to each other in the real world, be it two women enjoying a glass of wine together, a group of men playing cards or a conversation between a teenage boy and his girlfriend. You become engrossed in their way of life, their values and their unwritten rules until you the viewer begin to feel like you’ve been accepted into the family, which would explain why sometimes a show full of murder and strip clubs can still feel like such wholesome and relaxing viewing.
The portrayal of mental health in The Sopranos , particularly in the modern middle aged man, was ground breaking. Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr Melfi allows us into his mind. There’s no doubt that Tony Soprano is an immoral human being. However, we seem to forget this when Dr Melfi manages to cut right to his core. Very often in these therapy sessions, Tony shows a completely lack of respect for psychiatry as a whole, and is even offensive and aggressive towards Melfi. Other times however, his hard exterior is completely stripped away to reveal a man crushed under the weight of self-loathing. He burdens himself with passing on his depression, panic attacks and “rotten genes” to his son. Despite the fact that Tony’s mother proved to be a cold, hateful woman incapable of love, Tony struggles to wonder what kind of a person he must be if his own mother doesn’t like him.
“remember the good times”
At the end of the first season Tony and his family sit down to a meal before Tony tells his kids that one day they’ll have families of their own, that life will be a crazy journey but along the way to make sure to remember the times that were good. When AJ references this same quote at the end of the final season however, Tony can’t even remember it. This shows us all how far he’s come and what being the head of a criminal organisation will do to a man. When you live this life, you’re always in danger. You can never relax. As the years pass by Tony begins to realise that the way of life he’s been desperately clinging on to for so long is fading away, not just from him, but from the world, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.
The glory days of the Mafia are gone, new technology is revealing the world’s dirty secrets, large firms are pushing out old family businesses and above all else, his kids, the only thing that offered him solace and escape from an otherwise cold, dark and violent life, are growing up and will soon have families of their own to look after. Over the course of the series, Tony struggles to accept this. During a phenomenal, six season long journey in which Tony has to attempt to balance his own inner demons, an evolving world, the “life” and of course, his family, we like to think there’s always still room to cherish the good times, just as we will always cherish The Sopranos.
Whether you loved it, hated it, or still can’t understand it, the ending of The Sopranos is legendary. The famous cut to black has made sure that people still talk about the finale as if it only happened yesterday. The cut to black during the very last scene in the diner lead to the ever-lasting conversation of, is he or isn’t he? Personally however, I believe that regardless of whether Tony is or isn’t in the last scene, his fate is sealed earlier in the finale.
I actually believe that the real “ending” of The Sopranos takes place prior to that last scene in the diner. When Tony finally reluctantly goes to visit Junior in the nursing home, purely to discuss the matter of providing financial support to Bobby’s kids, he is shocked to see just how much his uncle has deteriorated. After a few minutes of conversation through Tony’s clenched jaw, he forgets all the rage he feels towards his uncle when he’s forced to ask, “You’ve no idea who I am do you?” Discovering that Junior doesn’t recognise his own nephew completely rocks Tony. In this moment, Tony completely surrenders and in an expression of deep sympathy he attempts to remind his uncle of the legend he is. “You and my Dad, you ran North Jersey.” As he says this, Tony looks both proud of his uncle and happy with himself for being able to be human enough to openly convey this admiration. However, when Junior responds with merely “really? That’s nice”, and it’s clear that he has absolutely no idea what Tony is saying, the rug is pulled from beneath Tony. It’s in this moment that Tony realises that “the life” he holds so sacred, the old mafia code, the culture and legacy that he’s torn himself apart under the pressure of for years, is all for nothing in the end.
So regardless of whether or not Tony is shot at the end of finale, the story of Tony Soprano is over. Tony’s journey was always about learning to balance his home life and raising his kids with his mob life. This is mirrored in his therapy sessions. From the outset of the series he’s engaged in a process of trying to be cured by Dr Melfi. When Melfi abruptly ends their relationship in one of the last episodes of the final season, it’s synonymous with the ending of this process of balancing his two lives. He realises that he can’t be both a good father for his children and also carry forth the legacy of the mafia. The thing is though, he had already started to accept this. Tony often reminded Christopher that he’s like a son to him and that he was the future of the family. The night that Tony decided to end Chris’s life after the car crash showed us that he had let go of his vision for the future of the Soprano legacy, favouring the idea that Chris’s new born child would have a better shot at life if Chris wasn’t around.
The deaths of Sil and Bobby have left the Soprano crew in ruins. On top of this, Tony learns that Carlo has flipped and he plans to testify, yet when he says this to Carmela he seems to appear like it doesn’t bother him. This is because he has accepted that his end has to come in some shape or form, whether by the gun, in prison or by the slow decay of time like Junior.
Perhaps Tony did meet his demise right there in the diner with the cut to black, shot Godfather style by the man who walks passed them into the bathroom. The cut to black would seem fitting as each time the doorbell of the diner rings, what follows is a shot from Tony’s point of view. We never get the view of Meadow coming through the door because neither did Tony, as this is the moment Tony’s life ends. After all, we are reminded of the conversation between Bobby and Tony while they were fishing where they discussed the potential end that always lingers in their line of work. As Bobby said, “you probably wouldn’t even hear it”.
Regardless of whether he was shot or not however, the further Tony’s kids move on with their own lives and out of his, the more his life becomes no life at all. The life of the mob or as they say, “this thing of ours” is dead and gone as the new world has no place for it. His friends are gone, his kids are up and on their way, and even though Tony still may have plenty more memories to make with Carmela, Meadow and AJ, as long as he lives he’ll forever be looking over his shoulder and waking up every day knowing people could be coming for him.
Dr Melfi’s decision that Tony can’t be cured means that until the day eventually does come that he’s murdered, indicted or becomes incompetent, he’ll continue to live the rest of his days with the very same, “bleak view of the world”. Ironically, this is the same view that allowed him to hold his position as the head of the family for all this time. Without the desperate struggle to redeem himself through his more human side, the journey of Tony Soprano which we all enjoyed following, comes to an end.