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Issue Date:  May 19, 2006

'Sopranos' mobster wrestles with his mortality


There are lots of reasons not to like “The Sopranos.” I resisted it for a few years because I was sick of gratuitous violence and clichéd shootout climaxes in formula gangster flicks -- not knowing that “Sopranos” has no shootouts. Still, by the time this season opened, the series had shot to death 32 characters, beaten to death three, strangled two, had one commit suicide, let three die of natural causes and given one a fatal heart attack on the toilet.

Meanwhile the use of the F-word -- common in war and cop movies and on Jersey City streets -- is still offensive on the TV screen. The characters are bad people, and several of the actors who play them have been criminals in real life. The May 2 New York tabloids carried reports of one arrested for cocaine possession while driving drunk in the oncoming lane with his lights out at 1 a.m., and of Tony’s muscle-bound bodyguard arrested for smashing in the door of his ex-girlfriend’s home.

To give this show an hour of one’s Sunday night, say its critics, is an irresponsible waste of precious time. But that’s not why the audience of 25.5 million Americans that the show had when I wrote about it in June 2001 has shrunk to 8.2 million today.

In this season’s first episode, the demented Uncle Junior, former boss of the New Jersey mafia, whom Tony (James Gandolfini) had declined to institutionalize because he was “family,” shot Tony in the stomach. For the next three weeks Tony hung near death in a coma, as his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who had left him in the last 2004 episode, stood by his bed like an angel in agony day and night. For “action” the viewers watched Tony’s dreams: He had accidentally switched wallets with another man in a California hotel and had to pretend to be that man to survive. The Newark Star-Ledger TV critic analyzed symbols in the dream to suggest  that Tony, in the last moments of life, was in purgatory, choosing between heaven and hell -- forgetting that theologically purgatory is actually at heaven’s door.

I could imagine millions of viewers flicking to another channel or going out for a beer. Most people hate hospitals and hold their visits to dying patients other than family to a few minutes. When Tony was blowing away his rivals, his audience was with him. When he is helpless, they are not. The same is true of his fellow mobsters who use his absence to jockey for power themselves. In short, David Chase and his writers have decided to make some moral demands on their audience, to lead them into territory where TV entertainment seldom treads: the vulnerability of a bad man who is still a human being. In so doing, they are telling a story more serious and demanding than any TV drama in recent memory and one that rewards close attention even when it’s “slow.”

Usually, when I have watched enough episodes of a series to write about it, between six and 12 episodes -- “West Wing,” “Commander in Chief,” “Law and Order,” “American Dreams” -- and have my say, I never watch that show again. Except “The Sopranos.” The other shows could have been conceived by a well-programmed computer. “The Sopranos” will challenge me with surprises.

This season each episode has contributed to one theme: A bad man at the edge of death gets a confused sense of his mortality and behaves in both decent and immoral ways as he tries to reestablish his identity as leader of the mob.

Tony walks the streets of the North Ward, which his gang controls, and an old lady tells him to stop the Puerto Rican kids who play their music too loud. He’s losing control. A gang member, exposed as homosexual, flees to New Hampshire, and Tony declines to rub him out. A national chain wants to buy the building of the local chicken deli Tony owns and he first refuses, then agrees in order get sex with the beautiful real estate agent.

As he dresses to go sign the contract in the woman’s apartment, Carmela, unaware, adoringly buttons his blue shirt. When the real estate agent, in rough foreplay, starts to unbutton the shirt, Tony, remembering whose fingers helped him put it on, suddenly flees. This is not the man who went into the hospital.

When Tony was comatose, his college-dropout whining son A.J. (Robert Iler), who has been fired from one menial job after another, stood over his unconscious dad and swore to kill Uncle Junior -- acting out an imaginary revenge ritual he had probably seen in the movies. A.J. is a waste. Underage, he snorts coke and boozes it up in New York clubs where the other kids treat him like a celebrity and ask him to have his dad settle their scores for them. He runs up a $1,890 bill in one night and passes out on the men’s room floor. Finally he packs his hunting knife, visits Uncle Junior in the mental hospital determined to stab him, and, as Uncle Junior comes forward to embrace him, the knife clatters to the floor.

Tony yanks A.J. out of the police station and beats him in the parking lot. How could his son do something so stupid? It does not occur to him that by his own behavior, all his life Tony has been training his son to do nothing else but kill. In a scene worthy of Sophocles, Tony screams at his bawling son: “It’s wrong.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2006

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