I came late to “The Sopranos,” but as with a loan from a gangster, I made up for it with enormous interest. It was the summer of 2003, and the monumental, tragi-comic story of Tony Soprano (and his crumbling family, culture, economic model and country) had already been airing for four seasons. I had just finished my undergraduate degree in history and before starting work on a master’s degree (that I would abandon about 6 weeks in), I was working as a groundskeeper — sorry, assistant groundskeeper — at a suburban housing complex, commuting daily from my apartment in Vancouver’s Little India to a mound of family-friendly sprawl in Port Moody. I was also losing my mind, with the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression that I had hidden with various degrees of success for almost my entire life to that point finally pushing out beyond the manageable, the weight of it grinding me into an almost daily meditation on suicide as I cut other people’s lawns. More than once, walking the overpass above the Barnet Highway to catch my bus, I stopped to fantasize about the drop down.
Every night, though, I made it home. And on most of those nights, too tired and lonely to go out, I would watch two, or three, or four episodes of “The Sopranos,” rented on VHS from a video store up Main Street. I made my way through all three available seasons. I was fully caught up when, in the Fall, season four was released on, get this: DVD. The series’ darkness probably wasn’t any good for my fraying mental health. I began to have terrifying dreams about the Soprano crew. Still, I immersed myself totally in the violent world of the upper middle-class American suburbs — there was also some mafia stuff in there that I liked.
Though I couldn’t predict how deeply it would draw me in, I had known when I started that I would probably quite like “The Sopranos” — the summer before, while tearing up newspaper to start a fire on a camping trip, I read a New York Times review of the early episodes of season four. The piece was largely positive, but took exception with the overtly political “Christopher” episode, written by one of the show’s stars, Michael Imperioli (who plays the drug-addled Christopher Moltisanti, Tony’s ersatz-nephew), and dealing with Christopher Columbus as a hero of the assembled North Jersey mobsters. The same political charge that turned off the NYT reviewer was part of what attracted me — the old appeal of the gangster drama to the leftist audience, conflating the terror, violence and emptiness of the mob with its more successful cousin in the world of “legitimate” capitalism. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Sopranos were Enron in tracksuits.
I nodded as the series carried out the familiar mob-arc-as-American-Dream-critique once thought perfected by Coppola. I thrilled as it went deeper than anybody had, using the expanse of its nearly 90 hours to plunge into the darkest waters of masculinity and avarice, the ambivalence of white ethnicity, the hollowing out of Late Capitalist Man. It was never so clumsy and obvious as to be agit-prop, never ambiguous enough that you could pretend it wasn’t happening. The historico-political world of “The Sopranos” was always rich with detail, irony: As Tony tries to explain the injustice of Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution to his son Anthony Junior, AJ asks earnestly if he means “the two anti-Christs who got the electric chair?” Brother-in-law Bobby “Baccala” explains how his forebears had first to immigrate to Canada, then sneak into the United States, owing to some vague story of Republican activity in Italy — “They should build a wall now, though,” he concludes.
TheSopranos, “The Sopranos Discuss Italian Accomplishments” (Season 1, 1999)
Like any literary masterpiece, however, “The Sopranos” was infinitely more than its downbeat political agenda. Much has been written about the perverse charm of the Tony Soprano character — the way he draws us in, then repels us, then repeats, over the life of the series. Here, the performance of the recently-departed James Gandolfini alloyed with the brilliance of David Chase’s writing to create, in my opinion, one of the richest characters in the history of English-language fiction. Gandolfini’s tragically premature death wasn’t “celebrity news” — it was a gutting loss from the world of art.
I got the news of Gandolfini’s death on my phone, walking the aisles of a Home Depot. My mind went to Tony Soprano in a similar environment, in the season three episode “Another Toothpick.” He’s carrying a length of pipe for a birdbath, and he comes across a black police officer who had given him a traffic ticket. The scene embodies the dialectics of Tony Soprano: His love of animals and disregard for human beings; his racism and his fleeting needs to be loved even by those he squeezes underfoot. His pettiness, his bullying, his sociopathic attempts at charm — all there.
Despite his monstrousness, I couldn’t help sometimes but to see Gandolfini’s Tony as at least something of a sick sort of role model. So deep in hatred for myself and my broken brain, here was a villain whose mental illness was not only beside the point of his villainy, but actually the thing that made him human, lovable. Here was a fat man who was magnetic, and sexual (albeit in deeply problematic ways). I couldn’t help but ape him as I looked myself in the mirror, swallowing a pill that may or may not clear the clouds away, or as I sat in my psychologist’s office navigating the self-pity, self-regard, conscious narrative construction and helpless honesty that make up therapy, treatment, healing. In many ways — and aside, of course, from his racism, sexism, violence and greed, not to mention his height, material success, and ability to grow a beard — it was the first time I had seen myself on screen: Tony was fat, and funny, and angry, and self-loathing, and had a chip on his shoulder from having lived his life around the hole left by the absence of a mother’s love (his was cruel and inaccessible; mine had been sick and died). I had to watch myself: For days after watching Gandolfini, I could mimic him unconsciously in my physicality and, especially, my speech.
James Gandolfini lived 51 years before he died. He played more roles than just Tony, and played them with great talent and humanity. I will remember him always, though, for the beauty and the ugliness of the role that he was best known for. It’s a commonplace to say that there are public figures who touch our lives without our ever having met them — sometimes we fantasize that by some trick of luck, we’ll get to meet them one day and tell them how they did, or even just exchange a quick, deep look that will let them know. I’ll never get to do that with James Gandolfini. The thought leaves me sad, angry, and sullen. But he turned sadness, anger and sullenness into poetry. So I’ll sit with that.
– Charles Demers
A version of this essay also appeared on rabble.ca.