I remember how my ex-husband and I used to love to watch the Sopranos. We felt we had discovered the show before anyone else and so were almost possessive as though the show aired to delight us alone. While I loved the show from the start I really couldn’t believe I loved it and neither could other people. It didn’t fit my image.
I’m a feminist and a pacifist (almost all of the time) and could never get beyond violence even in movies like Pulp Fiction where the violence is “artistic” and necessary to the plot. How do you suspend disbelief when each stabbing makes you grab your gut and each punch makes you hold your face? Being told, “It’s not real,” doesn’t prevent tensing up every time someone gets hurt and I don’t find that enjoyable.
But I liked Tony. Hell, I loved Tony. I watched show after show where violence was like background music. Even though he was violent, despicable as a family man and a pig to the women in his life, I felt for him. His panic attacks were sad; his ambivalence about his son’s getting into the business made me hope for his paternal side. Didn’t he have pangs of goodness and wanting to do the right thing? O.k., so the objectifying his mistresses and the strippers topless half the time never got easier to watch. The swearing and the language, I loved it, felt it was well done and there were some great scenes of dialogue in that show.
But I couldn’t understand how I was able to sometimes see this character as a family man. Or how much I liked Christopher or how invested I was in Carmela. I hated Tony’s mother as well as Junior but both were fascinated by both of them and they helped me understand why Tony was such a lost soul. And Janice, she was horrible and pathetic and desperate and evoked my sympathy as well. And the mistresses, oh, the mistresses were high drama or completely used by the men, and yet they also were occasionally more than caricatures. But really, for me, it was that Tony was in therapy, on medication, and had that dynamic with Melfi that kept me into the show.
Who doesn’t love a neurotic mob boss as well as the shrink who dares to treat him? As a viewer, I was a mini Melfi utterly perplexed by Tony and also intrigued. How could Tony be so despicable and sensitive? How could such an arrogant and overweight man of such low moral character act so entitled and confident and deserving of love, money and family? And what twisted part of my psyche found him to be kind of hot and sexy? Was it the sad eyes? Was it the vulnerability of Tony in a bathrobe? Or was it just a bad case of Tony as total bad boy to be rescued by a good girl?
Yes, probably all of that. But it was also that Tony exemplified the rule of all good writing and that is this: No one is all good and no one is all bad. Your villains need a few likable traits and your heroes need to be flawed. It is the human condition and dogma and rigid rule following may be prescribed by preachers, teachers and parents but rarely make for believable human beings.
My love of the Sopranos was a metaphor for my own conflict about the human condition as well as my getting my toe wet in the pool of things I enjoyed that surprised me. Like devouring fish at a rapid pace after three decades of vegetarianism, like keeping my car radio on a stand-up comedy station for six months, like the sound of Howard Stern’s voice which I listened to even while disagreeing with most every word he said.
With age, I’ve realized everyone, even me, especially me, can be surprising and that there’s something incredibly appealing about honesty, even when it doesn’t “fit” or adhere to an image that is unyielding.
I know the people in the lives of James Gandolfini are grieving the loss of a father, husband, friend and artist. I know that is heart-breaking and life-changing loss and I feel for them because he was so young. But I didn’t know the real man. I knew Tony. Tony was in my living room every week for years.
I’m reminiscing about what appealed, attracted, disgusted and confused me about his character. I know a man like him Tony Soprano doesn’t get to live to old age, get a happy ever after or a second chance. But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit, until the man who played Tony died I was secretly still hoping he might redeem himself. Maybe the child side of me thought he could turn into a wonderful father and husband who would repay his debt to society and would endlessly nurturing baby ducks before his hour with Melfi.