Will Vito get whacked for wearing leather? Will Paulie forgive his mother for being his aunt? Will Carmela ever succeed in building that million-dollar spec house out of cardboard and glue?
As the sixth season of The Sopranos passes the half-way mark, we need to momentarily disentangle ourselves from such pressing questions and address an even bigger issue: why is it that we still care?
It’s not because of the menace in Tony Soprano’s eyes when somebody crosses him, or the periodic explosions of violence when wise guys clash over money and respect—as fun as those things are. The answer, I believe, is that The Sopranos is not just wonderful storytelling but that it addresses moral experience and moral choice with a complexity and honesty that is rare in pop culture.
Gangster tales have always anchored themselves in a relatively straightforward idea of right and wrong. We admire Bogart’s dark elegance, but we know that he is on the wrong side of the law and that in the end he will have to pay for his crimes, most probably in a hail of bullets. More recent films like The Godfather and Goodfellas don’t step outside that basic framework so much as turn it inside out. They draw us into a closer identification with the bad guys and give us permission to temporarily enjoy that part of ourselves that would like to do some shooting, too—even as another part of us thrills to our sense of moral doom.
What these films don’t do is slow down enough to examine how complex human beings make moral choices, and how they live with the results. Only The Sopranos does that.
Take episode 69 this season (“The Fleshy Part of the Thigh”), in which Paulie finds out that Nucci, the woman he always thought was his mother, is actually his aunt. He feels betrayed and flies into a rage, listing all the things that he’s done for her over the years, including the nice TV he just bought her—which he promptly throws out the window—and the $4,000 a month he pays for her retirement home. He accuses her of pretending to be his mother in order to use him for his money and swears that he will never talk to her again.
The moment is vintage Sopranos: absurd, desperate, and psychologically revealing. We see Paulie’s habit of equating money with love, and his tendency to mask sorrow with rage. But in a strategy that is typical for the show, the scene gains power as it connects with later scenes, creating a pattern of cause and effect that is both emotionally acute and dramatically surprising. We watch as Paulie eavesdrops on Jason Barone’s mother begging Tony not to hurt her son over the sale of their carting company. And while Paulie is apparently so moved by this example of maternal love that he weeps in the hall, the next we see of him he is breaking Jason’s knee with a metal pipe and ordering him to pay $4000 a month in protection.
This is of course the exact sum Paulie had been paying for Nucci’s retirement home. It’s as if he’s demanding Jason’s share of maternal love in exchange for the dose he’d been buying all these years from Nucci, which has turned out (in his mind) to be counterfeit.
Beauty of the Beast
The beauty of this level of psychological detail is that it explains Paulie’s actions without excusing them. On the contrary, by tracing Paulie’s attack on Jason back to its emotional roots, the show effectively robs the act of the glamour typically bestowed on violence by the gangster genre. Instead of an act of ruthless strength (the kind of thing we can secretly admire, at least on TV) it becomes an act of psychological weakness—cruel, horrible and strangely pathetic. We can’t get a kick out of it because it’s so obviously sick and wrong; we are left instead with our disgust, and with our awareness that Paulie is doomed by his failure to understand himself.
The Sopranos has sometimes felt as if it was creaking a bit under the strain of keeping multiple story lines going, season after season. With so many side characters and so many plot twists, soap opera inevitably becomes a worry. (Just think of the romantic travails of Tony’s sister, Janice, who returns home to Jersey after she hears her mother is sick, takes up with the murderous Richie Aprile, whom she kills, then gets involved with Ralph Cifaretto, whom Tony kills, and then marries Bobby Bacala, whose wife died in a car accident just a few episodes before…)
Yet the series format is also the thing that has allowed The Sopranos to achieve a moral seriousness beyond movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Over the course of seventy-plus episodes, the show has developed its own brand of psychologically nuanced story telling, one that can give full complexity to even a minor character’s actions—as with Paulie’s attack on Jason Barone. Tony, Christopher, Carmela and the rest of the crew are simply too complex to be either demonized or glamorized, dismissed or embraced. Instead they challenge us to think.
This challenge is rare on the contemporary scene. While conservative pundits rail about the spread of moral relativism and moral laxity, I remain firmly convinced that the real problem is our culture’s penchant for cheap moralizing, a dumb-and-dumber approach to ethics that is antithetical to genuine moral reflection. TV, the most massive of the mass media, is often the worst offender, but in this case it has done good. Half way through its sixth season, The Sopranos continues to give us the real thing.