Last week, on the eve of James Gandolfini’s untimely death, the Writers Guild of America chose The Sopranos as the best written show in television history. Other shows (LOST) reached higher highs; other shows were consistently better (Breaking Bad). But it would be fair to call The Sopranos one of the most culture-changing shows of all time.
The Sopranos follows Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob leader with anxiety. Killing people isn’t his only source of anxiety; his family is out to get him, his wife is unhappy, his children are unmanageable, and his mistress is demanding. To cure that anxiety, he visits a psychiatrist. This is a look inside the life of an evil man – a man who is surprisingly human. But this show is a step beyond The Godfather which similarly shows evil with a human face.
The Godfather, while it glorified the Corleone family, eventually made clear the consequences of a life of evil. Michael Corleone began as a clean-cut former soldier dragged kicking and screaming into the family business to protect his family. By the end of The Godfather III, the choices he has made have destroyed his family utterly and completely and left him an empty shell. The consequences of sin are obvious.
Breaking Bad (AMC) would be the best modern example of The Godfather’s moral code. Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher, enters into a life of crime only after being diagnosed with cancer and realizing he has no money to leave his family. Eventually, his life of crime digs him a hole so deep he can no longer get out – and he becomes a calculating and empty man who can no longer even justify to himself why he’s in the drug business.
The Sopranos is different. Tony has virtually no character arc. He begins as a self-absorbed mobster with characteristics of personal decency, and he ends the same way. The cryptic ending of the show, a smash cut to black just as it appeared Tony might be assassinated, frustrated audiences, but it was an excellent example of the show’s nihilism. It began nowhere, and it ended nowhere. It didn’t have the guts to make a moral call.
In fact, that was the point of the show – that nobody could make a moral call. Tony’s wife, Carmela, is confronted at one point by her psychiatrist, Dr. Krakower, who tells her that she must leave Tony if she hopes to maintain a semblance of personal morality. They have this exchange:
CARMELA: He’s a good man. He’s a good father.
DR. KRAKOWER: You tell me he’s a depressed criminal, prone to anger, serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man? You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself. You’ll never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame that you talked about, so long as you’re his accomplice …. I’m not charging you because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t, either. One thing you can never say is that you haven’t been told.
She’s been told, and eventually she separates from Tony, but can’t cut the cord.
The Sopranos set a new standard for nihilism on television. Now we have Game of Thrones, a vision of nihilism set in the romantic splendor of a magical medieval kingdom. It’s a place where incest goes unpunished, honor is treated with disdain, and treachery is the order of the day. Cruelty wins; mercy loses. That may be a realer world than the one we’re used to seeing on television, but it is also a more empty world. In a world without God – and there is no god in the world of Tony Soprano or the Lannisters – might makes right. Or at least it doesn’t make wrong.
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