Does David Chase think he is Dr. Frankenstein?
OK, this is going to be a little behind on the times since the last episode of HBO’s The Sopranos aired on June 10, 2007.
I live with a room mate who had never seen the greatest television series ever and we’re now about mid-way through the fifth season. Ever since the show’s controversial finale, I’ve been building this thesis: Sopranos series creator David Chase believes he created his own Frankenstein monster in Tony Soprano and turned against his creation to close the series.
BTW – I’ll be discussing all the nitty-gritties of the Sopranos in FULL SPOILERS. It’s six years later, I think we can all come to grips with that.
Early on in the series, the Sopranos come across Hasidic Shlomo Teittleman seeking “alternative conflict resolution” in a dispute with his son-in-law. During negotiation, Teittleman’s son warns that by dealing with organized crime his father is creating a Golem, like the Rabbi of folk lore. Tony and company rough up the son-in-law, but Teittleman insists that a business proposition brought the matter to an end and attempts to rid himself of Soprano involvement. Tony strong arms his way into the Teittleman hotel business and Shlomo calls him mud, a golem, a Frankenstein come to life.
I think David Chase is Shlomo Teittleman.
His creation, Tony Soprano, spends several years wooing and captivating American audiences with his charm, wit, and crude savagery. Tony Soprano is a criminal mastermind. Watch him manipulate his crew, his friends, his associates, and his family. The entire series lives off of sharp dialogue where content is surface and subtext is everything. Tony Soprano plays the game of gangster with a psychologist’s grasp of motive and a diplomat’s care. He beds women, he drinks and gambles, and he kills. And we all applaud.
The idea of the show compared to the movie Analyze This, a midlife gangster with panic attacks seeks help from a psychiatric professional. The Sopranos explores this wholly in a way a movie can never. There is an arc of involvement and discovery by Tony’s psychiatrist, the brilliant Jennifer Melfi, that leads her to a conclusion that gets postulated by her ex-husband as early as the first season: Tony Soprano is a sociopath incapable of processing psychotherapy and is actually honing his dishonesty and criminality through therapy. We see this and we hear this throughout the series, but the point doesn’t get explicitly pushed until the series’ closing.
I think David Chase saw some adoration for Tony Soprano in critic and viewer praise for the show and decided to turn against his creation. It starts in season 4 with the budding relationship between Carmella Soprano and imported enforcer Furio Giunta. There’s a sequence of comparisons between the Napoli gangster and Tony the American: Furio cooks his own pasta, pours a glass of wine, then sits and eats by his lonesome (possibly contemplating Carmella) while Tony reheats something in the microwave, has a coke, and reads the paper. Tony doesn’t appreciate what he has, and is constantly concerned with more he could have (more money, women, food, etc.). Furio is self-aware and thoughtful, Tony is driven by his desires. Tony’s philandering catches up to him in the season finale and the couple split. This is the first movement of the overture leading to Chase’s rejection of Tony.
Season 5 displays a lot of Tony on his own: his slovenly housekeeping, his growing narcissism, his paranoias, a tumultuous relationship with his cousin Tony Blundetto (who went to prison for 17 years for a crime Tony Soprano was supposed to take a part in), and fractious decisions he makes managing the relationships of his family and his “family.” He’s an abusive father to AJ (although it’s nearly called for, in my opinion), a manipulative prick to his sister Janice, and downright hurtful and unsupportive of his nephew Christopher, whom he could rest the future of the family upon given the right amount of commendation or appreciation. There’s still lots of smart Tony moments, though. My favorite scenes are always Johnny Sac and he working together. Johnny and Tony provide oodles of highlights throughout the series. They play off of one another and mirror the other in a supreme display of foreshadowing: Johnny gets the high seat and makes all the wrong decisions powered by his arrogance, then falls. Is David Chase warning us that crime doesn’t pay?
Season 6 came with the knowledge that it would be a two-parter. Tony has an immediate and shocking crisis in the first episode, leading to an existential trip through his psyche that takes two more episodes and affects most of the rest of the season. It’s interesting that Chase leads us through Tony’s subconscious in this and in the previous season’s “Test Dream” where we see a mix of different Tony’s from his own perspective: Tony the contractor/salesman visiting an arms conference, Tony the soldier preparing to whack his high school football coach, Tony the contemplative self-doubter (“Who am I? Where am I going?”), and Tony as Michael Corleone retrieving a planted gun from a restaurant bathroom. The mixed messages here are realistic and sublime. Chase portrays Tony as introspective and full of doubts, yet unable to draw himself away from the road of continued violence, greed, and crime.
In the second half of season 6, the smear-job is in full effect. He picks a nasty fight with his brother-in-law, Bobby Baccalieri, and manipulates this moral fan-favorite into “popping his cherry” and committing his first murder. Tony’s gambling debts lead to severe conflict between he and one of his oldest associates, Hesh Rabkin, and also with Carmella. In a fit of irritation Tony thinks about ridding himself of another long-time associate, Paulie. Tony grows willfully intolerant or even disinterested with Christopher Moltisanti as Chris tries to distance himself from drinking and drug use, and through this disapproval Chris slips back into relapse. Tony even goes as far to believe that his bad luck with gambling is lifted after Christopher’s death.
The writers are pushing Tony Soprano as the bad guy in this last series of episodes so hard its difficult to reconcile some of these episodes as united with the series as a whole. Where in the majority of the episodes Tony is the protagonist anti-hero, the last half of season 6 almost presents as an addendum to the rest. “Look here, he wasn’t so great,” these episodes scream as Tony alienates friends and family before the finale. The creator has taken a look at the monster he created and declared it a pariah to be shunned.
My eternal optimism and fondness for Tony makes me refuse the widely-accepted theory that the final harsh cut of the very last Soprano scene is the end for Tony. I guess I live in a world of rainbows and unicorns, but I didn’t interpret that moment as his death. The dramatic fall of Tony in the episodes before hand are more telling than the actual ending.
I don’t think Chase is disappointed in Tony so much as he is in the audience who put the Sopranos on a pedestal. Before the Sopranos, was the goomba culture of New Jerseyans ever as celebrated? Would Jersey Shore ever have been possible without the Sopranos? The show puts this question out there, too, as it examines the complexities of the Italian-American cultural image in comparison to the small population of organized crime members. It recognizes and tries telling its viewers that this is a small minority that has dramatically affected media.
“Hollywood tries to give these sociopaths the tragic grandeur of Al Pacino,” complains Dr. Melfi’s ex-husband and he’s completely right.
I think David Chase came to see that as the show progressed and didn’t feel right about it. The show turns its back on Tony Soprano for the moral high ground, but it was probably the right decision. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Chase might have initially seen some good in his creation, but would rather have it die than see what it might do to human kind.
“I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over,” Tony says in the show’s pilot episode. In “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” fashion, this statement rings true even if that wasn’t the intention from the start.