This essay addresses the parodic representation of heroism in the quintessential American dramatic comedy, The Sopranos, and develops the different means by which these thematics are explored.
This paper was presented at the ‘Holy Men in Tights’ Superheroes conference which was held at Melbourne University in June 2005.
The title of my talk is a means to address the parodic representation of heroism in the quintessential American dramatic comedy, The Sopranos, and in order best to develop the different aspects of these thematics, I would like to begin with a textual reference taken from The Sopranos, episode 12 of season 2, entitled “The Knight in White Satin Armor.” The first excerpt depicts Tony seeing his tearful sister Janice off at the bus following her murder of her fiancé, Richie Aprile, and Tony’s nocturnal disposal of the body:
Janice: What’d you do with him?
Tony: We buried him… On a hill overlooking a little river, with pine cones all around.
Janice: You did?
Tony: C’mon Janice, what the fuck? What do you care what we did with him, huh? You want to know?
Janice (sobbing, hugging Tony): I loved him so much.
Tony (hugging): You’re gonna miss your bus.
Janice (still sobbing, getting on bus): I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Tony: Alright, go ahead.
(As the bus pulls off, Tony stands watching looking weary, resigned, relieved)
The next scene shows Carmela Soprano sitting in the living room, reading, as she hears the door open:
Carmela: Meadow, you have a UPS, it’s up in your room. (Tony walks in) Tony: What are you doing in here?
Carmela: You’ve been gone all night. Half the morning, what the hell happened over there?
Tony (sighing, pausing, sitting down next to Carmela): Janice decided to go back to Seattle.
Carmela: You’re kidding. Well, what about Richie? He must be devastated.
Tony: Richie’s gone.
Carmela: What do you mean, gone?
Tony: Carmela, after 18 years of marriage, don’t make me make you an accessory after the fact.
Carmela: An accessory after the– holy shit!
Tony: Stop asking.
Carmela: Oh, my god. Oh, my god.
Tony: I took care of it.
Carmela (pausing): That… That was not a marriage made in heaven.
Tony (sighing, then looking at the brochures on the coffee table): What’s all this?
Carmela (pausing, drawing herself up before replying): After Meadow’s graduation, me and Rosalie Aprile are going to Rome. (pause) For three weeks.
Tony: Excuse me?
Carmela: We’re gonna stay at the Hassler, shop, and try and see the Holy Father.
Tony: What are people gonna say, you take off for three weeks?
Carmela (ignoring the question): You’re gonna have to chauffeur AJ around to his dentist and whatnot. And you’ve got to find a tennis clinic, for Meadow to join. Because (pause) if I have to do it, Tony, (staring at him directly) I just might commit suicide.
Carmela gets up and leaves the room, and Tony sits alone trying to comprehend what he just heard, and the music track fades in with the words: “Hey, hey, I saved the world today, and everybody’s happy now the bad thing’s gone away, and everybody’s happy now, the good thing’s here to stay, please let it stay…”
For those not as familiar with the HBO series The Sopranos as I have necessarily become, let me explain the two narrative threads for which these scenes are the conclusion. First, the topic Tony cannot discuss with Carmela is, of course, the murder — or crime of passion and rage — of his rival Richie Aprile by his fiancée, Tony’s sister Janice, just dispatched to Seattle after a night of clean-up and disposal. The other topic to which Carmela alludes in this scene, her plans to travel to Italy or risk committing suicide, is Tony’s gumar, or Russian mistress, Irina, who in the same episode attempted suicide taking by pills and slicing a wrist to prevent Tony from abandoning her. Indeed it is her malapropism in the second scene that produces the episode’s title, which might have inspired a tune from the Moody Blues, but instead obliquely announces the Eurythmics final song over the credits which nicely summarizes the different narrative threads of Tony’s role as local savior of two conjoined families.
My title poses two, perhaps contradictory problems: on one hand, in the framework of discussing Superheroes, one might be hard pressed to associate Tony Soprano and his crew (or crews, taking the domestic family into account) with the contemporary hero (and heroine) counterparts such as Buffy, Angel, et al. On the other hand, the title might also appear to give away the entire argument of the talk; that is, once the parodic elements of Tony’s role as local savior are emphasized, what more is there to say? In my view, the parody of the American “family,” or rather “families,” in The Sopranos presents a complex mélange of elements related to heroism and anti-heroism, which necessarily need to be problematized. As the Eurythmics’ lyrics underscore, Tony’s clean-up marathon in the penultimate episode of season 2 consists of his handling Irina, Richie Aprile, and Janice (temporarily dispatched en voyage), his Uncle Junior (ostensibly renewing his alliance to Tony), even his mother (with the first scene in the series in which she is properly chastised, if only momentarily) – all this assuring at the episode’s end that “the bad thing has gone away.” The use of music in The Sopranos not just to set atmosphere but also, at the end of each episode, to create sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant closure, points to the careful layering of textual and filmic elements in this series. From the perspective of Tony’s quest to keep together the frayed strands of his and his families’ existence, this layering corresponds to the thematic tension between heroism and anti-heroism that commences explicitly in episode 1, season 1, and is maintained at least throughout the first two seasons.
In order to address concisely these parodic aspects of American heroism and anti-heroism, I must summarize what could easily become much lengthier remarks by offering a typology of the episodes’ heroic registers. Within the realist register, The Sopranos naturally follows the linear, narrative unfolding of multiple subplots of series television, extending the saga of the dual, and dueling struggle between domestic family drama (and comedy) of Tony, Carmela, Meadow and A.J., and the “business” family of the crime/mafia genre. The depiction of heroism in this register is complicated — strengthened at home, potentially weakened in “the field” — by Tony’s ongoing psychological counseling from Dr. Jennifer Melfi, which functions at first as a useful plot device for recapitulation, but then extends forward from season to season in various mutations. In season 1, both family plots and the heroic/anti-heroic tensions — Tony’s business war with Uncle Junior (whose sexual preferences Tony has ridiculed) and his personal struggle with anxiety attacks — are neatly summarized in this scene between Carmela and Tony in their bedroom from the concluding episode of season 1, entitled “I Dream of Jeanne Cusumano”:
Carmela (coming in from the bathroom with pills): Here. One of mine. It’ll help you sleep.
Tony (sitting on the edge of the bed in his underwear, distraught): What kind of person can I be where his own mother wants him dead?
Carmela: The problem is not with you. That woman is a peculiar duck. She always has been.
Tony: Yeah, but that’s not the point.
Carmela: She’s gotten worse with age. You think my mother didn’t warn me about her on my wedding day?
Tony: Please don’t start with that again.
Carmela: Both your sisters left New Jersey so young you would have thought there were contracts out on them.
Tony: I know.
Carmela: But you were different. You tried to make it work.
Tony: Two p
ricks with nine millimeters. My self-esteem is nonexistent right now. Carmela: I could kill her… With these two hands. The next time I see her, it’s gonna be—
Tony (interrupting): You got to play the concerned daughter-in-law. You got to stay even-keeled. For the sake of the business.
Carmela: Fuck the business. Let me tell you something Tony, dollars to donuts, this Alzheimer’s thing is an act. So she can’t be called on her shit.
Tony (pausing): Uncle Junior and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted. (pausing) Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.
Carmela: You had to see a shrink because of the mother you had.
Tony: When I look at the guys now all I feel is humiliation. (pausing) I’ll take care of my uncle. And I’ll take care of Mikey P. And I’ll get some satisfaction. But inside… I’ll know.
“Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this” — again, the writers succinctly sum up two facets of the plot, Tony’s razzing of Uncle Junior’s sexual tastes and prowess (highlighted in the “Boca” episode 9) which contributed to the bad blood between them, and then which was aggravated with the discovery (manipulated by Tony’s mother Livia) that Tony was seeing a psychiatrist (part of the family sub-plot as well). And the episode (and first season) conclude with other questions and temporary resolutions about issues of heroism and leadership: Tony revealing to his crew the ongoing counseling sessions; Tony attempting to deal with his mother’s perfidy (with a pillow), but frustrated as she is wheeled out of her room in an a suspiciously timed loss of mental faculties; Silvio and Paulie (Tony’s two lieutenants) discussing the pros and cons of psychiatry for their boss and deciding in Tony’s favor; and Artie Bucco (Tony’s childhood friend, now a restaurateur) first confronting Tony’s betrayal (over his torched restaurant in the show’s pilot), then sheltering the Soprano family from the storm in his new restaurant. The finale of season 1 thus sets up the final scenes of the two family’s harmony menaced all around by natural (the storm) and human-made elements (threats from the law and from internal conflict), and Tony as the protector of both, however unstable that protective shield might be.
Still, both sub-plots and sub-genres, the domestic family and the mob, are constantly spun toward a postmodernist register, that is, at once ironic and self-referential, and these inflections have the direct and constant effect of placing into question the heroic stance of nearly everyone concerned. In the case of Tony, the sessions with Dr. Melfi depict his fixation with “saving the world.” There are constant references to deeper sources of this instability — the mother-son relation is the constant refrain, but eventually father-son tensions emerge, and even incipient mental illness in the family is revealed. The savior fixation is part of Tony’s own search for heroes and his bitterness with the contemporary betrayal of heroic values. Midway through season 2, in episode 6 entitled “The Happy Wanderer,” this heroic/anti-heroic conflict comes up in the context of Tony questioning the validity of the therapeutic process:
Tony (addressing Dr. Melfi): Do you want to tell me what you’re thinking? Believe me,
you don’t want to know. You want to know what I’m thinking. (pause) Seriously? I’m thinking I’d like to take a brick and smash your fucking face in a fucking hamburger.
Dr. Melfi: Okay.
Tony (pause) I’m not– don’t worry. I know I broke your coffee table and it’s not gonna happen again. You asked, I told.
Dr. Melfi: But you’d like to smash my face.
Tony: Not really. It’s just the way of describing how I’m feeling.
Dr. Melfi: Do you think making hamburger out of me would make you feel better?
Tony (slides down on his seat): Mother of Christ, is this a woman thing? You asked me how I’m feeling. I tell you how I’m feeling. And now, you’re gonna torture me with it. (pause) I don’t know who the fuck I’m angry at. I’m just angry, okay. (pause) Why the fuck am I here? I even asked to come back. (pause) I got the world by the balls and I can’t stop feeling like I’m a fucking loser.
Dr. Melfi: Who makes you feel like a loser, your mother?
Tony: Oh, please, we wasted enough oxygen on that one. It’s everything and everybody. I see some guy walking down the street, you know, with a clear head. You know the type. He’s always fucking whistling like the happy fucking wanderer. I just want to go up to him and I just want to rip his throat open. I want to fucking grab him and pummel him right there for no reason. Why should I give a shit if a guy’s got a clear head? I should say “a salut”, good for you.
Dr. Melfi: Let’ get back to smashing my face.
Tony: Jesus Christ.
Dr. Melfi: Oh! No, I think it all ties in.
Tony: Alright. (pause) Sometimes I resent you making me a victim, that’s all.
Dr. Melfi: I make you feel like a victim.
Tony: Yeah. Remember the first time I came here? I said the kind of man I admire is
Gary Cooper, the strong silent type. And how all Americans, all they’re doing is crying and confessing and complaining. A bunch of fucking pussies. Fuck ’em! And now, I’m one of them, a patient.
Dr. Melfi: Your parents made it impossible for you to experience joy.
Tony: Yeah, see, there you go again.
Dr. Melfi: You said yourself you’re not the happy wanderer.
Tony: Well, I’m more like one of those assholes than I am the fucking jerk offs and douchebags I see leaving this office.
The Gary Cooper figure is evoked in every season, and Dr. Melfi’s recourse to these figures subsequently, and Tony’s own references create the peculiar intersection of therapy and existential practice that is never presented in The Sopranos without the self-referential, post-modernist wink of irony. Of course, the most frequent play on this register encompasses the many references to Italian identity issues and especially to the different Godfather films – Paulie’s car horn that beeps out the musical theme; Christopher’s attraction to, if not talent in, cinematic acting and writing; and of course, Silvio’s recurrent imitation of Al Pacino in The Godfather III (or as they call quite simply, “Three”). The Gary Cooper theme returns most poignantly at the end of season 4’s episode on Italian-American pride and identity, entitled “Christopher”, and also near the end of season 5, episodes to which I will return.
Yet, there is at least a third register that I will call “neo-Baroque” in which the elements are neither realist nor postmodernist, or at least stand apart from these first registers in seeming at once chaotic and aesthetically ornate, spilling out and around the edges of the linear realism and the clever post-modernist posturing, toward something altogether “other.” I think specifically of the celebrated use in The Sopranos of various dream and fantasy sequences that intervene to explode the narrative and create extraordinary bifurcations on both the textual and metatextual levels. The best example I can offer comes from the final episode of season 2, entitled “Funhouse”, a title referring to the location and movement from successive dream segments on the boardwalk at the New Jersey shore and leading finally into the plot that forces Tony to face the inevitable, revealed in this dream segment:
[Dream Sequence 4]
(Voice of Pussy Bompensiero, from the mouth of a sea bass, wedged between a market display of fish for sale):
Fish Pussy: Hey, Ton’. How’s it going?
Tony (referring to the dinner th
ey ate together): You didn’t get sick?
Fish Pussy: Nah.
Tony: How much you weigh?
Fish Pussy: Eight pounds.
Tony: Lost a lot of weight.
Fish Pussy: Swimming. The best exercise. Works every muscle group.
Tony: Get the fuck out of here. You never exercised once in your life.
Fish Pussy: Anyway, four dollars a pound. (pause) You know I’ve been working with the government right, Ton’?
Tony: Don’t say it.
Fish Pussy: C’mon, Ton’. Sooner or later you gotta face facts.
Tony: I don’t want to hear it.
Fish Pussy: Well, you’re gonna hear it.
Fish Pussy: You passed me over for promotion, Ton’, you knew.
Tony: How much shit you give them?
Fish Pussy: A lot.
Tony: Jesus, puss.
Fish Pussy: Fuck of a way for it all to end, huh?
Fish Pussy: Yeah. These guys, on either side of me, they’re asleep.
Tony: Don’t say that. (getting angry) It’s not fucking funny. (lifting the table and turning it over) I don’t want to see you floppin’ around down there!
Here, in Tony’s food-poisoning induced delirium, Pussy Bonpensiero “reveals” his cooperation as an FBI informant, or rather Tony admits it finally to himself, a suspicion he held since the first season, that Pussy has been “for sale” from the start. However, rather than find facts and verification in a linear, realist fashion (already attempted by the crew in season 1), it takes the “neo-Baroque” register to push the delirium into reality, culminating in the dramatic closure of Pussy’s final boat trip with Tony, Silvio and Paulie. But even in this dream segment that connects the realist register with the delirious neo-Baroque, a wink of the postmodernist slips through with the reference to “these other guys on either side of [Fish Pussy], they’re asleep,” which I take as yet another sly reference to The Godfather, the famous line “Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fish.” That Tony gets upset at this otherwise gratuitous reference to sleeping (fish) comrades suggests his unwillingness to accept the inevitable, that Pussy too will have to sleep with the fish, and very soon.
These three registers encroach on each other quite understandably since their interference places the thematics of heroism and anti-heroism constantly in tension, assuring the vitality of the narrative progression. In fact, I would attribute the relative loss of popularity in subsequent seasons to the uneven handling of these different registers. That is, at certain points in seasons 3 and 4, this overlap is lost as the writers tend to juggle rather awkwardly too many narrative lines, in realist, linear fashion, some that lead nowhere, others that seem silly (for example, the Carmela-Furio platonic affair). As for the thematic focus of heroism/anti-heroism, this theme still remains a constant reference point in the seasons that follow – notably in season 3, Tony’s exerts efforts on behalf of Jackie Jr., acting as a surrogate father for the deceased (in season 1) Jackie Senior. He also provides stoic leadership when challenged in various ways by Ralph, Christopher, and Paulie. In season 4, with the threat of the New York Mafia (in the person of Johnny Sac) encroaching on the New Jersey action, Tony maintains a strong front and works to exploit divisions within the New York family in order to gain full advantage, refusing to be gulled by Johnny Sac’s attempt to have Tony execute the New York boss, Carmine Lupertazzi. And in season 5, the confrontation between New York and New Jersey comes to a head in the person of Tony’s cousin, Tony Blundetto, whose misdeeds against New York require that Tony Soprano take extreme measures, an episode to which I return below.
It is in season 4, episode 3, entitled “Christopher,” that Tony’s evocation of Gary Cooper as heroic model has a different result than previously seen. From the pilot episode onward, Tony has spoken of this symbol of heroism only in the context of psychotherapy. However, in the “Christopher” episode, Silvio takes the lead in opposing a group of Native-American who challenge the celebration in Newark of Christopher Columbus Day. In response to Silvio’s efforts, the unsuccessful attempts by Tony to broker a compromise (and to assert his leadership despite lack of enthusiasm for the cause of wounded Italian-American pride) result in him, Silvio, Christopher and Patsy Parisi (a Soprano soldier) traveling to a casino owned by the opportunist Native American whom Tony approached to attempt to negotiate a compromise. On the way home in Silvio’s car after an evening of gambling, Tony and Silvio engage in a discussion in which Tony challenges what he sees as the recourse to identity politics as a crutch, in contrast to facing one’s problems squarely, without excuses. The final scene shows the four driving home, with Silvio listening to the radio report of a violent confrontation during the demonstration against the Italian-American celebration. As Silvio berates himself (and also Tony indirectly) for having missed the event, Tony points out that all Silvio thought about was the blackjack, not the demonstration, while he, Tony, was approached by the casino owner to have Frankie Valli sing at the casino – an assignment that Tony lays on Silvio’s lap since he was responsible for getting Tony involved in the Native American matter in the first place. During the conversation, Christopher and Patsy sit quietly in the back seat, only occasionally looking at each other, as Tony continues to vent:
Tony: You and this fuckin’ parade, already! (long pause, as Tony steams)
Silvio: I don’t know what you’re so hot about. They discriminate against all Italians as a group when they disallow Columbus.
Tony: Oh, will you fuckin’ stop! Group, group… (pause) What the fuck happened to Gary Cooper, that’s what I’d like to know.
Silvio: He died. (pause; Tony slams his head back against the seat) Oh you mean because he fought the Sioux in all those westerns….
Tony: No, fuck that… Gary Cooper – now there was an American. The strong, silent type – he did what he had to do. He faced down the Miller gang [in High Noon] when none of those other assholes in town would lift a finger to help him. Did he complain? Did he say, oh, I come from this poor Texas, Irish, illiterate fuckin’ background or whatever the fuck, so leave me the fuck out of it, because my people got fucked over?
Silvio: T, not for nothing, but you’re getting a little confused, here. A) They were the movies.
Tony: What the fuck difference does that make? Columbus was so long ago he might as well have been a fuckin’ movie. Images, you said.
Silvio: The point is, Gary Cooper, the real Gary Cooper, or anybody named Cooper – they never suffered like the Italians. A Meddigan [white bred, WASP, denying anything ethnic] like him, they fucked everybody else. Italians, the Polacks, the Blacks.
Tony (nodding, rubbing his face, not convinced): Ok, so even if there was a Meddigan nowadays, he’d be a member of a victims’ group, the fundamentalist Christians, the abused cowboys, the gays, whatever the fuck.
Christopher (quietly, from the back seat): He was gay, Gary Cooper?
Tony (exploding): No! Are you listenin’ to me?
Silvio: Hey, people suffered.
Tony: Did you, except maybe for the Feds?
Silvio: My grandparents got spit on because they were from Calabria.
Tony: Let me ask you a question: all the good things you got in your life, did they come to you because you’re Calabrese? I’ll tell you the answer. The answer is no. You got a smart kid at Lackawanna College, you got a wife who’s a piece of ass, least she
was when you married her, you own one of the most profitable topless bars in North Jersey. Now, did you get all that because you’re Italian? No, you got it because you’re you, because you’re smart, because you’re whatever the fuck. Where the fuck is our self-esteem? That shit doesn’t come from Columbus or “The Godfather” or Chef-fuckin’-Boy-Ar-Dee.
Silvio: We gotta tiptoe around the Indians though, don’t we? We can’t call our
teams the Braves or the Tomahawks or the –
Tony: Oh, you take that up with Frankie Valli when you talk to him.
Music fade-in, “Dawn” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: “Girl, we can’t change the places where we were born . . .”
Clearly, Tony has linked with Gary Cooper as his fundamental myth, and the reference to “the Miller Gang” – the opponents of Cooper’s Marshall Kane – shows his active recall of this cinematic confrontation. The difference between the therapy sessions and this scene is that none of Tony’s crew members understands his fundamental ethos – especially the role played by Gary Cooper within it. Whereas Silvio responds literally to Tony’s first question about Cooper, Christopher simply reacts instinctively to Tony’s reference to gays, not following closely Tony’s argument about ethnicity and special-interests used as a crutch, at least according his view of self-reliant heroism. More importantly, the cause that Silvio espoused has cost the “family” money or at least, more importantly, influence, with the need to contact Frankie Valli and negotiate an arrangement with his manager. Whereas Tony had attempted, reluctantly, to provide leadership for this cause, and then had to field the request for in-kind support (since he had sought help from the casino owner), Silvio ultimately was not committed enough even to know which day was Columbus Day in order to remain in town for the celebration and demonstration.
Besides constituting the most direct confrontation in all the Sopranos seasons of issues related to ethnic identity and political correctness, this episode shows the contrast between private mythology and the public persona of the leader. Yet, Tony’s remarks show how he can conceptualize the need for heroes in a way that is active rather then reactive, at least active within his own modus operandi. Likewise, in season 4, Tony works tirelessly and strategically to create an irrevocable bond with his nephew, the fatherless Christopher, in heroic and fatherly fashion, in order to assure the succession of the mob with family bloodlines, going so far as to protect Christopher while forcing him into drug rehab. Tony has thus taken his therapy several steps beyond the rage of seasons 1 and 2 to confront a usurper like Johnny Sac and cope with the emotionally handicapped like Christopher. An important exception, of course, occurs in season 4, with Tony’s brutal murder of Ralph Cifaretto. In that case, however, where a power struggle between mobsters results in a stable of horses being burned, another psychological factor obtains, what we might call Tony Soprano’s becoming-animal, in a range of senses of the term. And as fans know well, Tony has an almost pathological affinity for animals, starting with the ducks in his swimming pool in the pilot episode (a topic for another paper at the Wild Men in Nature conference).
As I mentioned above, the end of the fifth season is marked by a major confrontation between the New Jersey and the New York families through which one can judge not only the limits of Tony’s ability to cope with his anger, but also his leadership skills and search for heroism. The anger issue comes to the fore explicitly in episode 10, “Cold Cuts,” at the start of which Janice is arrested at a soccer game for pummeling another soccer mom, caught on video by another parent. Besides embarrassing Tony publicly, this incident requires that Janice attend anger management counseling, and her relative success in this process contrasts sharply with Tony’s sibling jealousy and especially his outbursts from frustration with business matters, notably covering for his cousin Tony Blundetto’s killing of a New York mob member without official sanction. Then, the title of episode 11, “The Test Dream,” points to the explosion of the neo-baroque register that was missing throughout most of seasons four and five. Indeed, given the twenty-minute running length of this dream sequence, it is almost as if the producers felt the need to make up for lost time. In fact, the sequence imitates the one cited above, except with a cast of different characters filling in for Fish Pussy: in a recurring dream (the first viewers have seen of it, however) that ends with his high school football coach scolding Tony for his lack of initiative, Tony faces what he refuses to admit in the waking state — that he has to deal with his cousin’s misdeeds sooner rather than later in order to retain control of the family. One could quibble that this imitation and the segment’s sheer length undermine its force, all the more so since the length can be attributed to the ritual return of nearly every departed major cast member – from Tony’s dad, Johnny Boy, and Big Pussy, to Gloria Trillo (season 3 mistress) and Ralph Cifaretto (season 4), and even the completely incomprehensible appearance of Annette Benning… as herself!
The issues of psychiatry and Tony’s hero fixation are evoked quite specifically in this sequence. In one segment, suicide victim and former mistress Gloria Trillo appears in the office, seat, and role of Jennifer Melfi, in a duet during which they riff on Tony’s sessions with the doctor, with Tony and Gloria imitating Ralph and Alice Kramden from “The Honeymooners” – Tony/Ralph: “One of these days, Alice…” Gloria/Alice: “Pow! Right in the kisser!”. In another segment, strolling into Artie Bucco’s restaurant, Tony catches a glimpse of the television over the bar showing a crucial scene from “High Noon” with Gary Cooper as the lone figure of authority standing in the street. Located within the dream, this movie scene anticipates Tony’s conversation with Silvio in episode 13 in which Tony states that he is willing and ready to go it alone rather than have his leadership questioned. As I mentioned, the dream ends with a confrontation with Coach Molinaro mocking adult Tony who responds with boasts of his success as “a leader” and a man of wealth with children and a wife. But when the coach asks, “Do you have a wife?”, Tony drops the gun, the silencer falling off, bullets falling out, and the coach stands over him and shouts “See, you’re not prepared!”
Shortly after Tony awakens from this dream, Christopher informs him that cousin Tony B has compounded the insult to the New York family by executing the son of one of its leaders in retaliation for the elimination of a dear friend – an event at the center of the dream in which Tony is accused by a crowd of not having acted to prevent just such an escalation. Successive incidents pose stark challenges not only to Tony’s ability to cope, but also to his self-image as leader and hero. In episode 12, “Long Term Parking,” he responds deftly to the threat posed by Christopher’s fiancée Adriana’s betrayal of the family while also protecting Christopher in the process. In episode 13, “All Due Respect,” despite questions from members of his own crime family at his slowness to yield to Johnny Sac’s demands for retribution, Tony eventually heeds Silvio’s warning about his sin of pride. By taking the initiative with his cousin, he maintains the respect of his own soldiers, argues effectively for a modus vivendi with New York, and ultimately avoids the ultimate challenge to his authority, incarceration by the FBI in a final round-up that seems to leave Tony as the last Mafia chief remaining on both sides of the Hudson. Season 6 (of which twelve episodes aired on HBO in spring 2006) starts wi
th the extended two-episode dream sequence of Tony in a coma, and as a result, the narrative heightens the issues of leadership, both in terms of its fragility and the conflict between compassion and the ruthless exercise of power.
In the end, even if Tony Soprano fails to offer the righteous strength of a Gary Cooper, it is because he is caught between what Deleuze calls, following Leibniz, the “happy souls” and “the damned,” “vengeful and resentful people, . . . [who exist] as if they could not be done with the current and present wound they cannot keep themselves from scratching over and over again” (Fold 71). And here we might be tempted to extend this reflection on parodic heroism toward the American sociopolitical conjuncture in which The Sopranos began, the late 1990s. I think particularly of the family drama – domestic and national – caused by the failure of presidential heroism in the Lewinski affair, and of the political battle that ensued, giving a pointed sense to the Deleuze quote about “vengeful and resentful people” ceaselessly scratching the wound again and again, a topic for yet another essay. What I have suggested in this one are the tensions inherent to heroism and its conflicted representation in our era, that is, how in almost cartoonish fashion, Tony returns season after irregularly scheduled season, in the very fitful and troubled cycle of difference and repetition, to save the world and make the bad things go away, at least until the next episode.
Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque. Trans. Tom Conley. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
The Sopranos. HBO Video. 5 seasons. 2001-2005.
Charles J. Stivale is Professor in the Deptartment of Romance Languages & Literatures at Wayne State University, Detroit. He can be contacted on C_Stivale@wayne.edu