30 Day Television Challenge: Day Fourteen

Favorite male character: Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano is the inimitable protagonist of HBO’s gargantuan hit-series The Sopranos. Portrayed by James Gandolfini, Tony is the manic depressive don of New Jersey. Although his uncle, Corrado “Junior” Soprano, is technically the official boss of the family for most of the series, Tony is the one truly running the show.

As you would expect from a mobster who worked his way up the ladder in the Italian American mafia, Tony is violent, conniving, short-tempered, and possibly even sociopathic. However, what sets Tony apart is his hyper-sensitivity and devastating insecurity. Tony struggles with anxiety and depression such that he’s forced to see a therapist, which turns into one the show’s signature motifs.

Tony is fascinating because not only is he charismatic and sympathetic, he’s also sufficiently alienating that the audience is able to maintain some critical distance.

On the one hand, he’s endearing because he struggles with all the familiar issues of the modern American male: he strives to get out from under the shadow of his post-WWII, first-generation immigrant father; his aging mother still has her foot on his throat; he juggles familial commitments with work, along with the temptations that come with his job; and, most importantly, he yearns to carve a legacy for his family and himself beyond his bourgeois lifestyle.

Yet, despite all these likeable characteristics, the show isn’t afraid to challenge the audience’s sympathy. Beyond his run of the mill rascally behavior, Tony is capable of reprehensible cruelty. At his worst, Tony robs without conscience, philanders liberally, and kills without remorse.

Moreover, the show rarely seeks to redeem Tony. Sure, a lot of the people Tony kills are business-related, but he takes a pleasure in it that borders on the sociopathic, and is execution is so cold and calculating that it’s inhuman.

The episode “College” is an example of Tony’s ambiguity.

Tony is taking his daughter, Meadow, to check out some ivy league universities. Along the way he sees Fabian Petrulio, a former mafioso who turned informant and sought witness protection. While Meadow is at an interview, Tony hunts down Petrulio and strangles him. Afterwards, driving in the car, Meadow confronts him about being in the mafia and Tony downplays his role, lying to her.

What are we to make of this?

Firstly, there’s the murder. Sure, Petrulio was a bad guy. He ratted out some of Tony’s friends and family. Also, Petrulio is a heroin pusher who tried to get two junkies to kill Tony. However, Tony is with his daughter and is risking her involvement. He could’ve just let the thing go, but he pursues Petrulio. Also, Tony insists that he must do this himself. His nephew, Christopher, offers to handle it, but Tony takes it upon himself. Also, the intimate way Tony strangles Petrulio shows he wants to be up close and personal about it. Tony savors the moment. Finally, the way he maintains his composure after the killing shows it didn’t have any effect on his psyche.

Secondly, there’s the way he lies to Meadow. He’s being dishonest, there’s no question about it. However, he’s also protect his daughter from the criminal world. But for whose benefit? Is he doing this to keep her safe, or does not want to jeopardize their relationship for selfish reasons. After all, she has a right to know what her father is, doesn’t she?

These sorts of ambiguities are what I love about Tony. Sure, he’s a badass, and it’s fun to live vicariously through his endless id-satisfying escapades, but it’s the unapologetic duality that I love. Throughout the series Tony’s soul is in question. Is he a good guy put in a bad situation, or is really just evil? Right up to the final moment of the series, this question remains unanswered.

What I take away from Tony’s arc is that we can’t categorize people so easily – between good and evil, or even sane and insane. Tony is sympathetic because there’s a murderous sociopath in all of us; it’s the human condition. Tony is different because he’s in a milieu that forces him to let the clown out of the box. Part of is repulsed by this, another is titillated. In short, Tony represents what it is to be a man in 20th century capitalist society.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on October 3, 2012.

2 Responses to “30 Day Television Challenge: Day Fourteen”

  1. I’m not sure, but I think you just became my go-to source on entertainment. I see we enjoy much the same shows, and I was wondering if I should give Arrested Development a try since I too have Netflix and need a new comedy to watch while the others are getting their shit together and putting out new seasons. You sold me!

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