It’s been 20 years since The Sopranos first graced our screens and 12 years since the infamous cut to black. In those interim 8 years, we were treated to arguably the finest television series of all time. Save for Twin Peaks, nothing had exploded the keg of television potential more than David Chase’s magnum opus. Up until 1999 the now standard anti-hero protagonist did not exist. James Gandolfini’s iconic Tony Soprano was the first man we were invited to both empathise with and judge damningly at the same time. Networks refused to believe an audience would tune in week-in-week-out to watch a monster commit such heinous crimes. Series creator David Chase refused to believe that an audience was incapable of understanding the complexities and nuances of our most basic human needs, desires and wants. He didn’t back down from his artistic vision and thank God he didn’t, because otherwise we may have been deprived of one of the most beautiful and progressive shows of all time.
So then, without delving into the entire narrative to pick it apart and lecture you all on why it is one of the finest shows of all time, I’ve decided to take 5 key moments from the series to explain why you should watch this show if you haven’t already. Or if you’ve already been seduced by it, why a second viewing is the highest order of the day.
Every frame, every line of dialogue, every plot point is expertly and artfully crafted. It’s not just that it’s beautiful and abstract as all great art should be, it’s that there is an artist’s method to the madness. A method that transcends the pages of the script into the very essence of who Tony is making him the perfect protagonist to inhibit such a world. Case and point: Season 6, episode 2 ‘Join the Club’. Tony spends half of the episode in a dream-like parallel world where he exists as a salesman. His alter-ego Kevin Finnerty is so unlike his actual personality that violence and love exist in a completely paradoxical way to that which we have become accustomed to with Tony. The presence of a light, a beacon on the horizon, is woven throughout his fugue state. It’s all there in the episode but the interpretation is for us to make. There are many other dream sequences in the show, but none pack a punch quite as much as this episode did which is heralded as one of the best in the show’s entire run.
FUNNY AS FUCK
Yes, there’s plenty of humour to be found in The Sopranos. Most of it coming from golden lines delivered by Paulie Walnuts, so perfectly played by former wise-guy Tony Sirico (and thus providing a sense of total authenticity to the whole show). A great example is when Tony is struggling with bad reception on the phone to Paulie. Tony tells Paulie “It’s a bad connection, so I’m gonna talk fast! The guy you’re looking for is an ex-commando! He killed sixteen Chechen rebels single-handed! He was with the Interior Ministry.” Paulie, horrified, gets off the phone and repeats the news to Christopher “You’re not gonna believe this. He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator.” Without missing a beat Christopher replies “His house looked like shit”. C’mon – you can’t say funnier than that. Fuhgedabowdit!
Family, both mafia and blood, tug hard at the heart-strings throughout the shows’ run. Not least the relationship between Tony and his mother, which is as tragic as it is hilarious. But despite the amount of discussion in Dr.Melfi’s office about Livia Soprano, there’s a deeper emotional cut at the heart of The Sopranos. It comes in the form of Dominic Chianese’ outstanding performance as Uncle Junior. Tony lost his father to the mob when he was a child. So the closest he has to an older role-model is his Uncle Junior. But it’s made pretty clear very early on in the show that Junior doesn’t much care for his nephew. In fact, he’s not too bothered whether he lives or dies! So begins a near decade-long grudge held between the two which is touched with moments of real tenderness, humour, anger, violence and eventually, beautifully and tragically, pure vulnerability. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it but the culmination of Tony and Uncle Junior’s relationship boils down to one of the greatest scenes in all of The Sopranos history. A nephew talking to his uncle about “this thing of ours”. Our final scene with Junior is one that hits a little close to home for me personally but is all the more powerful for its truth and honesty. Junior may be an ageing mafia boss, but he’s just as susceptible to the hardships of getting old as anyone’s grandparents are.
NARRATIVE CONVENTION OUT THE WINDOW
Like its predecessor and inspiration Twin Peaks, The Sopranos did not follow the television rule book. Where other series might have a main character killed off in the dying seconds of an episode, The Sopranos will do it in the first 10 minutes before switching the focus to a completely unrelated location and plot point. Such is the case after one of Tony’s victims, who we have gotten to know intimately and grown to love, meets his end. We barely have time to absorb the shock of the moment before Tony leaves his familiar New Jersey setting, heads to Las Vegas and goes on a peyote-fuelled drug binge with a stranger and ends the episode in the middle of the desert watching the sunrise and bellowing the words “I get it!” at the top of his lungs. There are many, many examples of where The Sopranos refuses to conform. Violent hits that would inevitably frequently take place in a less well-crafted show about the mob are restrained and used sparingly here. Characters that escape from Tony’s clutches hover ominously over future seasons, never to appear again, disappearing into the void forever. Conversation, insinuation and imagination are the beacons of The Sopranos over-arching narrative. If you want closure on everything, you came to the wrong place. That brings me neatly to….
If you’ve seen The Sopranos, you may think you know how it ended. You didn’t. Nobody does, apart from David Chase. I know what I think happened. In fact, I’ve researched almost every article and video on the web that interpreted The Sopranos controversial ending and I can say with my hand on my heart that I know definitively what happened.
But I’m wrong.
No one knows.
That’s what makes this show, this ending and this journey so damn satisfying. Everything doesn’t have to be wrapped up in a pretty box with a fucking bow on top in order for you to ‘get it’. Chase staunchly refused to provide audiences with a neat and tidy ending to the 8-year journey. He knew audiences had been watching and waiting for Tony to get his comeuppance. He just refused to give it to them. Just like he refused back in 1999 to believe audiences couldn’t interpret stories, art and complex ideas. In denying audiences the ending they were expecting he paid us the greatest compliment he ever could have. He trusted we had the intelligence and the emotional insight to work it ourselves.
I just wonder if I’m right…
CUT TO BLACK