Counterpoint: The Sopranos is about moral struggle

The finest television series ever produced is ending its fifth season tomorrow night, and once again I must turn to my boxed DVD sets of previous years, for comfort and artistic sustenance. My life will have a little less joy in it, until David Chase and his production team finally present us with another season, 12, 14, 16 months from now —— whenever they finally get it done. The Sopranos breaks the rules, even those of television scheduling, and gets away with it, because it is such compelling and rewarding art.

 

When our star columnist and folk philosopher, Bob Weir, pronounces his judgment that my favorite work of contemporary art is dangerous, it takes an overdose of chutzpah to disagree. You see, what I know about crime, its perpetrators, its victims, and its consequences, I got from TV, books, and movies. Bob, on the other hand, had a distinguished career as a New York City cop working Manhattan, and knows the real—life version of organized crime, and not just as a spectator. I worry that my disputing Bob on this topic is somewhat analogous to Maureen Dowd picking an argument with Charles Krauthammer over the psychology of John Kerry. I may be out of my depth here.

 

Of course, that has never stopped me before.

 

One of the reasons I love The Sopranos so much is the simultaneous moral complexity and moral certainty it portrays. 'This life we have chosen' becomes a curse, eating away at those who embrace it, and often enough destroying them, along with their loved ones. Tony himself, a powerful and physically imposing thug, is brought low by panic attacks, triggered by a traumatic exposure to violence in his youth, when he spied his gangster father doing what gangsters do. The curse, in Shakespearean and Biblical fashion, is working itself through the generations. Tony's son, Anthony Junior, appears to be on a tragic arc of recapitulating his father's career choice, much though his parents would prefer otherwise. Unto the generations.

 

Anyone who watches The Sopranos on the subject of loan sharking will never be tempted to go for a loan where the interest is paid weekly, and collected by the likes of Tony's nephew Christopher. In one of the more memorable subplots, we saw the father of one of  Meadow's (Tony's daughter) best friends destroyed by Tony, because his compulsive gambling left him with debts he could not pay. When the logic of the crime 'business' takes over, sentiment no longer matters. The story is made all the more poignant by our seeing it partially through the eyes of a young and comparatively innocent daughter, who sees her friend's family crumble.

 

Family, of course, is at the heart of The Sopranos. The themes are universal, but amped—up by the particular circumstances of a life of crime. Some of us have problems with our mothers, and feel manipulated, overly—controlled, and in need of cutting the strings a bit, as we grow up. It's not all that uncommon. But as handled by David Chase, when guilt—ridden Tony finally manages to put his own mother in a nursing home, she tries to have a 'hit' carried out on him. Her life of compromising, rationalizing, and accepting her late husband's career has left her a monster. Tony is left with this realization as small comfort after her death.

 

Tony and his wife Carmella likewise struggle with each other, and with their children, in ways that families have done since before the dawn of time. The fact that they are fully—realized characters, however, does not insulate them from the moral rot, the fatal choice, and the looming specter of the crime which lies at the heart of their livelihood. Each one of them struggles to find a way out, and the viewer ultimately knows that none of them will succeed. Tragedy will play itself out here, and that is why the story is so compelling.

 

We must see how this all works out in the end, because we know, and at least in some aspects, identify with these characters. This, of course, implicates us, which is the cleverest moral dimension of all. We see through our own feelings toward Tony and Company, that we, too, have the capability to be seduced by evil. Thanks to the artistry of the writing, however, we are not allowed to get away with it, and relax into a comforting haze of moral indifference.

 

The violence we see in The Sopranos is almost always horrifying, and almost always intrudes just when we feeling good about the more lovable aspects of one of the villains. Now, there are some people who see violence as beautiful, funny, or otherwise satisfying in some fashion. I am not among them. But the violence in The Sopranos usually functions to bring us back to earth, and remind us exactly who and what we are dealing with. It is the face of evil we find ourselves looking into, and it rarely blinks.

 

But evil is not portrayed simplistically here. The really scary thing about evil is how it often wears the robes of good, and only takes them off when it is too late for us to escape. Hitler, after all, was extraordinarily kind to and sentimental about animals, and is said by many who met him in social circumstances, to have been capable of great charm. So, also, in The Sopranos, we see evil often masquerading as good. But in the end, we also see it for what it is.

 

And that is why I consider The Sopranos ultimately to be about morality, and the struggle each of us has to find our way through the dilemmas, temptations, illusions, and difficulties we face in the course of our lives, in choosing the right thing to do.

 

So, I will have to find some other way of getting my Sunday night dose of moral complexity and richness. Maybe I'll start reading Shakespeare's plays, or re—read the Claudius trilogy by Robert Graves. It will have to be something that good to be much of a substitute.

The finest television series ever produced is ending its fifth season tomorrow night, and once again I must turn to my boxed DVD sets of previous years, for comfort and artistic sustenance. My life will have a little less joy in it, until David Chase and his production team finally present us with another season, 12, 14, 16 months from now —— whenever they finally get it done. The Sopranos breaks the rules, even those of television scheduling, and gets away with it, because it is such compelling and rewarding art.

 

When our star columnist and folk philosopher, Bob Weir, pronounces his judgment that my favorite work of contemporary art is dangerous, it takes an overdose of chutzpah to disagree. You see, what I know about crime, its perpetrators, its victims, and its consequences, I got from TV, books, and movies. Bob, on the other hand, had a distinguished career as a New York City cop working Manhattan, and knows the real—life version of organized crime, and not just as a spectator. I worry that my disputing Bob on this topic is somewhat analogous to Maureen Dowd picking an argument with Charles Krauthammer over the psychology of John Kerry. I may be out of my depth here.

 

Of course, that has never stopped me before.

 

One of the reasons I love The Sopranos so much is the simultaneous moral complexity and moral certainty it portrays. 'This life we have chosen' becomes a curse, eating away at those who embrace it, and often enough destroying them, along with their loved ones. Tony himself, a powerful and physically imposing thug, is brought low by panic attacks, triggered by a traumatic exposure to violence in his youth, when he spied his gangster father doing what gangsters do. The curse, in Shakespearean and Biblical fashion, is working itself through the generations. Tony's son, Anthony Junior, appears to be on a tragic arc of recapitulating his father's career choice, much though his parents would prefer otherwise. Unto the generations.

 

Anyone who watches The Sopranos on the subject of loan sharking will never be tempted to go for a loan where the interest is paid weekly, and collected by the likes of Tony's nephew Christopher. In one of the more memorable subplots, we saw the father of one of  Meadow's (Tony's daughter) best friends destroyed by Tony, because his compulsive gambling left him with debts he could not pay. When the logic of the crime 'business' takes over, sentiment no longer matters. The story is made all the more poignant by our seeing it partially through the eyes of a young and comparatively innocent daughter, who sees her friend's family crumble.

 

Family, of course, is at the heart of The Sopranos. The themes are universal, but amped—up by the particular circumstances of a life of crime. Some of us have problems with our mothers, and feel manipulated, overly—controlled, and in need of cutting the strings a bit, as we grow up. It's not all that uncommon. But as handled by David Chase, when guilt—ridden Tony finally manages to put his own mother in a nursing home, she tries to have a 'hit' carried out on him. Her life of compromising, rationalizing, and accepting her late husband's career has left her a monster. Tony is left with this realization as small comfort after her death.

 

Tony and his wife Carmella likewise struggle with each other, and with their children, in ways that families have done since before the dawn of time. The fact that they are fully—realized characters, however, does not insulate them from the moral rot, the fatal choice, and the looming specter of the crime which lies at the heart of their livelihood. Each one of them struggles to find a way out, and the viewer ultimately knows that none of them will succeed. Tragedy will play itself out here, and that is why the story is so compelling.

 

We must see how this all works out in the end, because we know, and at least in some aspects, identify with these characters. This, of course, implicates us, which is the cleverest moral dimension of all. We see through our own feelings toward Tony and Company, that we, too, have the capability to be seduced by evil. Thanks to the artistry of the writing, however, we are not allowed to get away with it, and relax into a comforting haze of moral indifference.

 

The violence we see in The Sopranos is almost always horrifying, and almost always intrudes just when we feeling good about the more lovable aspects of one of the villains. Now, there are some people who see violence as beautiful, funny, or otherwise satisfying in some fashion. I am not among them. But the violence in The Sopranos usually functions to bring us back to earth, and remind us exactly who and what we are dealing with. It is the face of evil we find ourselves looking into, and it rarely blinks.

 

But evil is not portrayed simplistically here. The really scary thing about evil is how it often wears the robes of good, and only takes them off when it is too late for us to escape. Hitler, after all, was extraordinarily kind to and sentimental about animals, and is said by many who met him in social circumstances, to have been capable of great charm. So, also, in The Sopranos, we see evil often masquerading as good. But in the end, we also see it for what it is.

 

And that is why I consider The Sopranos ultimately to be about morality, and the struggle each of us has to find our way through the dilemmas, temptations, illusions, and difficulties we face in the course of our lives, in choosing the right thing to do.

 

So, I will have to find some other way of getting my Sunday night dose of moral complexity and richness. Maybe I'll start reading Shakespeare's plays, or re—read the Claudius trilogy by Robert Graves. It will have to be something that good to be much of a substitute.