The Sopranos, end minus 1

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Since viewing last night’s penultimate episode of The Sopranos (and how often do you get to use the word “penultimate,” accurately anyway, in your daily discourse?), I have been mulling over a theory that is as yet half-formed, or maybe half-baked. But here goes.

There is no escaping the fact that in this run-up to the end of the series, David Chase has been wrestling with questions of morality at the highest level. Tony Soprano is a lifelong criminal, a multiple murderer, a serial adulterer, intermittently abusive to his wife and son, and on the whole a menace to society (as emphasized by lingering shots of asbestos being dumped into a lake on Tony’s authority). The question is, do Tony’s human elements — his affection for his family and friends, his self-awareness, his philosophical bent, his love of ducks, for Chrissake — balance the negatives to make him worthy of some sort of redemption? Or is he just a charming con man who uses those human elements to justify his bad behavior to those around him — and to himself?

Chase’s answer seems to be the latter. It has been verrrry interesting watching the dissolution of Tony’s relationship with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, who has finally come to accept that she is a sort of accomplice, helping Tony feel better about himself so he can continue his sociopathic ways. It occurs to me sitting here just now that Dr. Melfi is and always has been a stand-in for Chase himself, his way of conducting a dialogue with the monster he’s created. And if that’s so, Melfi’s final rejection of Tony represents Chase distancing himself from the character that made him rich and famous, and Melfi’s acceptance of responsibility represents Chase accepting responsibility for what he’s put into the world.

Because, let’s face it, despite it all, we love Tony. We sympathize with him and root for him and don’t want him to die. And if it came right down to it we couldn’t explain why except to say that on some level we would like to be him. He has fun, he does as he pleases, and he gets away with murder, quite literally. Most of us aren’t going to imitate Tony in any major way, but the idea that it’s alright to do things you know are wrong because they feel good is a seductive and dangerous one. By accepting Tony we accept the idea of selectively swtiching off our consciences, and that’s a slippery slope.

Which is why this last episode is going to be so important. Will Chase let Tony — and by extension us, the audience — off the hook? Or will Tony finally be called to account for his crimes?

We shall see, we shall see. But once viewed through this lens, The Sopranos in its entirety becomes a critique not just of gangster stories, but of the whole human tendency to revel in the bad deeds of others. We love to watch Scarface or The Godfather and we tell ourselves it’s OK because “it’s not real.” Or we read about Al Capone or John Gotti — or Jeffrey Dahmer or Charlie Manson — and get off on it, and it’s OK because “I didn’t do it, they did it.” I think the whole point of The Sopranos may be to say no, it’s not OK. You may not be responsible for it, but you are affected by it, and it’s important to be aware of that. It’s not that we should avoid depictions of crime and violence — that would be impossible, and pointless. But we should resist getting so swept up in the thrill of it that we forget who we are.

Or maybe I’m overanalyzing. That seems like am ambitious agenda for a TV show, but then The Sopranos is nothing if not ambitious. Your thoughts, dear reader(s)?

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