This essay is a chapter from the forthcoming The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am, edited by Richard Greene and Peter Vernezze (Open Court, April 2004). Copyright © 2004, used by permission.
says media critic Susan Sontag, a video-addicted, media-saturated society. We live in a “turned on,” “tuned in” world. According to a recent report in the New York Times, 98 percent of American households own at least one television, and 40 percent own three or more TVs. Moreover, private ownership of TVs is not limited to our living rooms. Car, cab, and SUV manufacturers started offering backseat TVs in 1999, and according to the Consumer Electronics Association, more than 400,000 “mobile video units” were installed in 2002. TVs have now taken over our public lives as well. Banks and supermarkets have installed them in cashier and checkout lines. Airports, railway, and bus stations have them prominently displayed everywhere. Restaurants, bars, but not coffee-houses (they are reserved for low platform information systems—music, books, magazines, and newspapers) have TVs strategically placed to better keep their customers entertained, informed, or at least distracted while they wait. And, let’s not forget, no matter where we are or what we’re doing—we can always access our favorite TV show or movie on our laptops or by using portable DVD players.
The late Neil Postman, media-maven and author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, believes that watching television is the most commonly shared cultural experience in America. Household televisions are turned on, even if not closely watched, an average of 7.8 hours per day, and the average American attentively watches more than four hours of TV every day. Television, suggests Postman, is the primary medium by which most of us seek entertainment, gain information, or just relax.
What was it that Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message” or “the medium is the massage”? Either way, the fact is we get the bulk of our messages from the media. (The French philosopher, André Glucksmann goes much further than McLuhan. For Glucksman, the media is—“mediatique”—the focus of reality, that which frames and delimits reality, and, due to its all pervasiveness, the only reality we really know.) The media brings us the sights and sounds of the world. The media and its messages insinuates itself into our consciousness by virtue of its omnipresence and repetition. Like it or not, from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood to Dan Rather to Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City, TV bombards us with messages, manners, metaphors, and models of reality.
My thesis is a simple one. In the past, many of us learned some of our first lessons in manners and morals by watching Sesame Street: cooperate, play fair, share things, don’t hit people, say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Today, in watching The Sopranos, about 11 million viewers an episode are taking an advanced course (i.e. containing—adult language, violence, nudity, and explicit sex scenes) about the self defined universe of Mafia ethics: What is Duty? What is Honor? What is Omertà? But more than just a curious and titillating analysis of an aberrant ethical code—the tribal/warrior justification of murder, mendacity, prostitution, infidelity, extortion, and usury—it is, in some sense, a traditional morality play. The Sopranos may not be high art, but neither is it a cheap action-thriller or a murderous melodrama. I believe it is a mass media, action-packed, X-rated version of Waiting for Godot. A story of both existential despair, and, in the words of Victor Frankl, “man’s search for meaning.”
In one magic movie moment, Francis Ford Coppola completely transformed the semi-slapstick antics of gangster flicks into serious films that gave mythic, metaphysical, and moral status to Italian mobsters and wise guys. This transformation was, of course, cemented into permanent place (pun intended) with the works of Martin Scorsese. Before The Godfather, mob films were, predominately, but not exclusively, about non-Italian, urban, bad guys. Gangsters with Irish, German, English, and “everyman” Caucasian faces. And the stars of these films, different from most of the casts of The Sopranos, Godfather I, II, III, and Goodfellas, were anything but Italian, e.g. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Pat O’Brian. Perhaps these early mob films were urban updates of the American love affair with the wild, wild west, and our infatuation with the action packed but laconic lifestyle of the “Riders of the Plains”—cowboys.
The American cinema has depicted the life of the cowboy in many different ways. He has been portrayed as a loner, the drifter, always on the move, living without commitments or roots; as the strong silent type that rides into town and gets rid of all the bad guys, marries the school-marm, and lives happily ever after; as the drunken, bar-brawling saddle hand who works hard and plays even harder; as the single and seemingly celibate circuit-riding marshal whose exclusive quest is to pacify any and all hostiles in the territory. And then, there are the exploits of the marshals’ opposite number, the outlaw heroes—Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid—their stories too have filled our screens and captured our hearts.
We have long loved the roughneck, the rascal, the bad boy—in both our films and our literature. We seem to be drawn to their sense of rugged individualism, their resourcefulness, their eagerness to take risks, their need to be experimental, push the envelope, be different. We wonder at their daring, their cheek, their flare for the outrageous. We are, I think, envious of their ability to break with convention and—to paraphrase Frank Sinatra—“Do it their way.”
Of course, our infatuation with these “bad boys” and “pirate kings” has its limits. We do not want, nor are we easily drawn, in fiction or in fact, to anti-heroes who were sadists, serial killers, or ghouls. Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy may evoke our curiosity, but their conduct and behavior is too ghastly and writ-too-large to qualify as “loveable rascals” or even as “rascals we love to hate.” Anti-heroes need to be both scary and lovable, need to find a balance between being naughty and nice, tough and soft, strong and yet compassionate. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, has intentionally fashioned just such an anti-hero in his main character, Anthony “Tony” Soprano.
In his mid-forties, Tony Soprano is a second-generation wise guy. Although he tells his neighbors, his children’s teachers, and the IRS that he is in waste management, in fact he is the acting boss of the most powerful criminal organization in New Jersey. Tony likes his work and occasionally loves his life, both professionally and personally—at least, when he can keep them all properly separated, balanced, and under control. Tony is a big, powerful, physical man with even bigger appetites for good wine, good food, good cigars, and good sex—whether with his Russian goomah, her amputee best friend and cousin, his local Mercedes sales-nymphet, Ralph’s new goomah, a quickie at the Bada Bing, or—on occasion—even with his wife. In his interactions with his family, friends, and associates, he is by turns benign or brutal, selfish or sensitive, lecherous or loving, overwhelmingly physical or psychologically insightful. Like the heroine in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Tony’s general outlook on life is that of an alpha warrior/hunter—“the world is a predatory place, take big bites, eat faster!”
A major piece of the dramatic tension of The Sopranos comes out of just how much Tony likes the life of being a wise guy, a made man, a capo di capo. Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussey, Christopher, Silvio, and Furio aren’t just his employees or even his fellow workers. They are his crew, his tribe, his truest family. As Tony said, “This family comes before everything else . . . Everything. Before your wife or your children and your mother and your father” (“Fortunate Son”). These are the guys he plays with, fights and argues with, steals with, makes war and kills with—and, if needs be, would die with. These are the men with whom he shares his real life—life on the street, life on the hustle. Tony likes his gang and he likes the games they play to get by—gambling, racketeering, union scams, stolen property, loan sharking. He likes the dreaming, the scheming, the game playing, the con, the heist. He likes the risks and the dangers. He likes the chances they take to “put food on the table,” and, most importantly in their eyes, prove their manhood.
As a second generation mob guy, Tony chose “the life” because he wanted it. Although he regularly preaches the line that Italians were forced into “the life,” because they had no other choice, neither he or his daughter, Meadow, are entirely convinced. “Right, Dad! Italians had no other choice. Just like Mario Cuomo, huh Dad?” (“University”). Nor is his therapist convinced. When Tony attempted to explain his entrance into the mob in terms of the fact that the Carnegies were crooks and killers and that early Italian immigrants just wanted a piece of the action, Melfi responded, “What do poor Italian immigrants have to do with you?” (“From Where to Eternity”). Nevertheless, Tony wants to rationalize his choices and actions by saying he is a man of honor, doing his job. As far as he’s concerned, he’s fulfilling his duty. In his mind, he’s just a businessman trying “to get by” and do well for his family. But protestations aside, Tony’s claims of “honor, duty, and family” simply do not pass the litmus test for the code of honor or described by Mario Puzo in The Godfather.
According to Puzo, Vito Corleone was an accidental if not a reluctant Don. He was not a man who sought the title, and only embraced it when circumstances and necessity forced it upon him. As a child, Vito came to this country as an orphan and on the run from a blood-feud in Sicily. As he grew into adulthood, his hopes and aspirations were modest—a wife, a family, and an honest job. Only when a local member of the “Black Hand” forced him out of his job and began to harass his friends did the young Corleone take action. He killed this “Black Hand,” this “fellow Italian who stole from other Italians” out of a sense of duty and justice and not for personal gain or in an attempt to establish a reputation. Vito Corleone became a “man of honor”—un uomo d’onore—because he acted on principle and not on impulse. Even at the end of his life, sitting in his garden talking to his son Michael, Vito Corleone felt he had only done what was necessary to do. “I make no apologies for my life. What I did, I had to do. I did it for my family.” No such motives can be associated with Tony Soprano’s career choice. His selection of a vocation came from the adrenaline rush he got out of watching the strong arm and bully boy tactics of his father “Johnny Boy” and his uncle “Junior” Soprano. Honor and ethnic pride aside, Tony sought out, chose, and eagerly embraced “the life” because it looked like fun. For him, it was all about the thrill of the game—the hunt, the chase, and the kill.
Perhaps the central issue and overriding existential tension of the entire series is best captured in the lamentation of Tony’s nephew, Christopher Moltisanti: “The fuckin’ regularness of life is too fuckin’ hard on me” (“From Where to Eternity”). Christopher, at the time, is just a soldier and not yet a “made guy,” and he desperately wants to be somebody. He wants recognition. He wants to be a player. He wants to overcome the “nothingness” of being an average guy, a working stiff, a nobody. He wants what Tony wants, what Uncle Junior wants, what Silvio, Paulie, Bobby Bacala, Richie Aprile want—recognition, “stugots” (balls)! Christopher wants to be “igualio,” “a man among men,” one of the boys, one of the crew, a member of the tribe.
Psychiatrist Glen O. Gabbard perfectly captures the collective psyche of Tony’s mob by referring to them as a “band of lost boys” suffering from a sense of existential meaninglessness and fearing being doomed to an unheralded and unobserved life. Doomed to a mediocre, middle-class existence. Doomed to being a pawn and not a player. So, they individually and collectively seek meaning and seek self through boisterous activity, violence, criminal behavior, and murder. In breaking the rules, says Gabbard, in their almost total disregard for the rights of others, they achieve status, stuff, and success, and thereby overcome the numbing sense of absurdity and boredom that pervades their lives.
Both Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Becker have argued that the human condition is burdened with two unavoidable realities—our gnawing sense of purposelessness and the inevitability and absurdity of death. Like Tony’s son A.J., Sartre holds that life is “dumb to us.” There is no God, no menu or logical set of directions from which we may seek advice and select options. We are on our own and left to our own devices. For Sartre, our only alternative is to thrash out, to act. For Sartre, to be is to act. Whether the outcome be right or wrong, “the act is everything.” It is only in choosing to act that we assert our “Being” and, at least temporarily, overcome “Nothingness.” In The Denial of Death, Becker argues that our innate drive is not the pursuit of sex as Freud proposed. Rather, it is the fear of death and “no-thing-ness” that drives us to attempt to overcome death through both culturally sanctioned heroic acts as well as outrageous acts of violence and evil. Like Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother, Becker believes we all view life as “a big nothing.” For Becker, all humanly caused evil and/or heroic acts are nothing more than attempts to deny our creatureliness (mortality) and overcome our insignificance (meaninglessness). For Becker and Sartre, it can be argued that to act, to be bold, to achieve hero or anti-hero status is to achieve at least a modicum of immortality. In so doing, we overcome our humdrum lives and, at least for a while, put away our fears of dying and being forgotten. Like the “lost boys” of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Tony’s “band of boys,” with more “stugots than savvy,” pursue a lifestyle that, while destructive and dysfunctional, distracts them from the dread of dwelling on their own personal sense of insignificance and eventual demise.
George Anastasia, organized crime reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is right—“If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for The Sopranos.” The Sopranos is not your standard mob show. It’s not just about bad guys. It’s not just about good guys chasing bad guys. It’s not just about being an Italian gangster. It’s not even just about the Mafia. It’s a drama. It’s a story. It’s about a group of guys trying to get by, no matter how unusual and unorthodox their line of work. Yes, it’s a show full of clichés and stereotypes about Italians and food, the number of times the “F——” word can be used in the same sentence, New Jersey accents, cheating on your wife, and D.A. (duck-ass) hair cuts with pompadours. It is also a show that explores the “big picture problems” writ-large each week. Problems and issues that each of us face in our private lives, but hopefully in a much less dramatic and dangerous context. It’s a show interlaced with comedy, chaos, complexity, and confusion. As a cover story in Newsweek put it: “F. Scott Fitzgerald said the mark of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once. It is also the mark of a first-rate TV show.” The Sopranos is just such a show.
Tony Soprano, himself, is a perfect example of this point. Tony is not just another bad guy. True, he has proven to be a horrible, gruesome thug. He is a capo di capo who has earned his rank by being ruthless, exploitative, and corrupt. At the same time, he is a man who desperately wants to be loved, and a “made-man” who risks his life and reputation by secretively seeking the help and advice of a psychiatrist. (Remember, the first scene of the pilot show opens with Tony waiting to have his first session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi. For what it’s worth, I predict that the last scene of the last show will also be in Dr. Melfi’s office. Only this time, I think, the scene will contain more violence than therapy.)
The dramatic and human point here seems obvious. Tony is interesting because he is clever, complicated, and conflicted. He wants to be brutally Machiavellian during the day, but at night he wants to come home and be Alan Alda (I mean Alan Alda the real person, the do-gooder, the political activist and feminist, not the womanizing schemer that Alan Alda played on M*A*S*H) so he can bond with his wife and help the kids do their homework. Tony’s dilemma, and perhaps the central dramatic tension of the series, is that he cannot sustain the dysfunctional dichotomy of being “Janus faced in New Jersey.” With each episode Tony continues to lose control of his life, his wife, and his empire. And we are fascinated by his dichotomous efforts and his slow demise.
In the end, I believe that The Sopranos is a show rich in Freudian themes, Shakespearean character development, Byzantine political plots, and philosophical reflection. On the other hand, you may not agree and feel that my thesis is absolutely assurdità. If that is the case . . . FUHGEDABOUTIT!
Albert Gini, Ph.D. is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly. He notes that the title of this piece and many of the ideas discussed here were inspired by the research and insights of Glen O. Gabbard, M.D., and commends Dr. Gabbard’s book, The Psychology of the Sopranos, as well as Gabbard’s Sopranos chatroom on Slate.
The collection The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am, from which this essay is taken, will be released in April.