The enduring scene from the finale of The Sopranos Photos courtesy HBO.
January 24, 2008
Whacked but not forgotten, The Sopranos will live on in our memories as a groundbreaking mob drama — with particular resonance for us New Jerseyans, whose pride in sharing the state with the media’s most engaging mafiosi will linger. So that we don’t have to rely on our memories, there’s the DVD set….
In the first episode of the wildly popular television series, a much-troubled Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) sits outside the office of psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). We learn he has been suffering from panic attacks, presumably brought on by his having to function in a dysfunctional family and the stresses of his “business.” In the final episode, thousands of die-hard Sopranos fans (I count myself among them) experienced a panic attack themselves as their TV screens suddenly, unexpectedly, went dark.
Talk about foreshadowing. The first episode makes it clear that Tony thinks of himself as a man caught between the glory days of organized crime, when there were strict “codes of honor,” and an eerie sense that the end is near. There’s no respect anymore, which in Tony’s case means that mobsters no longer do their jail time with mouths shut.
Tony is not the only character in the modern canon who pops Prozac and worries about things falling apart. Serious fiction writers from John Updike (his Rabbit tetralogy) to Ian McEwan (Saturday) to Don DeLillo (White Noise, et al.) have also taken the measure of the late 20th century and of the years following 9/11. It is safe to say they are not optimistic about the contemporary landscape. Many political analysts concur; their argument goes something like this: If the soldiers strutting home from World War II represented America at its strongest and most confident, those who returned from Korea, Vietnam, and now Iraq suggest — at least for some — an America in slow decline.
At this point it is important to issue a critical caveat: The Sopranos was a TV show that raised the bar for a dramatic series; but it does not deserve the shrill blog analyses from those who were deeply disappointed by writer-producer David Chase’s ending nor the deep exegeses of those writing in purportedly serious “cultural studies” books evaluating every nuance of its nearly 90 episodes.
I have no quarrel with most of the show’s coverage on the Internet. For example, when commentators refer to Tony as a version of an early 21st-century Everyman, I see their point — but in the same way that I thought it excessive when critics claimed that Lenny Bruce died for “our sins”; I could not resist adding: “Not mine, bub.”
Granted, Tony had plenty of moments when his love of family and even his “humanity” bubbled through a tough exterior. However, there were moments when his beefy fists turned him into a very scary character. Violence was as much a part of his world as the sausages he grilled at his backyard cookouts.
In the (bad?) old days of the Hayes Code, Hollywood would have known how to deal with a Tony who drilled an old mobster pal-turned-FBI informer full of lead and then dumped him in the drink, or who made sure that a coked-up Chris (Michael Imperioli) did not survive a nasty DUI. In the code days, Tony would have died in a hail of police gunfire or been forced to walk his last mile — kicking, screaming, crying — to the electric chair. No longer. A wide assortment of hardened criminals and lovable con men regularly beat their respective raps and live out their days in sunshine and plenty.
In The Godfather trilogy (which has no greater fans than those who were found most afternoons at Tony’s Bada-Bing strip club and bar), Mafia dons live to a ripe old age — Vito Corleone passed on by simply falling out of a chair in his yard. Some argue that as he munches his onion rings at Holsten’s in Bloomfield, Tony is about to get gunned down, but the jury is still out on that one, as it is on the possibility of Tony doing lots of hard time on racketeering charges.
Among the phenomena that will surely follow The Sopranos is a realization of how multicultural America has become. Among the interactions that figure prominently in the series (in no special order): blacks and Jews, Koreans and Hispanics, Middle Eastern types and Native Americans.
Very often the constituencies clash because whatever else The Sopranos may be, it is not a part of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. One thinks, for example, of the episode when lots of multicultural dust gets kicked up as protesters try to halt a parade honoring Christopher Columbus, or Tony’s reaction to his daughter’s dating a Columbia student who is half-Jewish, half-black (Tony doesn’t especially mind the Jewish part, but shades of blackness drive him nuts). In Tony’s multicultural world, homosexuals are excluded altogether and their treatment is as far from PC as one can get.
A Jew’s worry
Jerry Adler played Herman “Hesh” Rabkin in the series.
Herman “Hesh” Rabkin (Jerry Adler) represents an anchoring, world-wise presence in Tony’s hectic world. A friend of his father’s, Hesh was there in the old days when there was money to be made in everything from running liquor to discovering and promoting black musicians; he has a good eye for opportunity and an ear for which groups can become mainstream successes.
But as much as Hesh and Tony have history, they also have deep cultural differences, as in the episode in which Tony finds himself on a losing streak at the track and the gaming tables. He owes Hesh $200,000 (which he has “forgotten” about until Hesh “reminds” him) and what follows is a tale of crossed purposes and missed signals. Tony feels that Hesh, like all Jews, is all about money while Hesh feels that Tony is a man who, when trapped by debt, might turn into an animal. Tony, in short, requires a flashy lifestyle, one that goes through money like water. By contrast, Hesh is more grounded and thus better able to love both his Orthodox son-in-law and his longtime black mistress (who, ironically, dies at the end of the episode in which Hesh fears for his life; Tony brings the $200 K in a shopping bag during a quick condolence call).
Granted, there are other episodes where Hesh stood his ground, even raised his voice, but it is simply impossible to imagine him beating an adversary to death. That, from time to time, is what Tony does. Afterward, he invariably seeks the help of his psychoanalyst and the “talking cure” pioneered by Sigmund Freud. Indeed, Melfi is something of an oddity because the other practitioners who make cameo appearances (most notably Peter Bogdanovich as Elliot Kupferberg) are clearly Jewish.
In Godfather II, we meet Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), loosely modeled on Meyer Lansky, and watch as the intrigues pitting himself against Michael Corleone play out. By contrast, Hesh has no such grand designs, preferring the safety of the sidelines. Still, he has an immigrant Jew’s sense of worry (for such people, every joy is tempered by history and by sadness); he fears the ulterior motives lurking behind certain evangelical Christians’ support for Israel (“Just wait,” he intones ominously), even though he does not for a minute believe in the apocalypse as described in Revelations.
Ironically, Tony and Hesh arrive at foreboding by traveling vastly different roads. Much of the humor surrounding Tony is prompted by the way he gets the facts only half right. Such is the “little knowledge” acquired during his brief stint at a junior college that became what Alexander Pope regarded as a “dangerous thing.” Tony’s sense of history goes back to his father, and what it tells him is that he is an unworthy son. A.J. (Robert Iler), his own son, feels this even more keenly, and with more reason.
Hesh, on the other hand, brings a longer lifetime of hard-knock experience and a sense, however unsystematic, of what Jewish history teaches. If many Jews were upset by the Sopranos episode in which a hasidic Jew refuses to grant his ex-wife a get, a Jewish divorce, and by the shady ultra-Orthodox types involved in prostitution and other crimes, Hesh stands as something of an antidote: He is part of the same mob network that we alternately hate and love but he seems, at least to me, to stand at the social margins, a place where many Jews of his generation grew comfortable.
The DVD collection of the entire Sopranos series is now available from HBO Home Video.