Following the very sad news of James Gandolfini’s sudden and untimely death last week, an examination of his most defining character, a certain Anthony John Soprano, is more than overdue…
Some TV & film characters are more than just ‘popular’; more than just a combination of charm, witty lines and cool locations. They do the things we want to do and get away with it… at least when we’re watching, anyway. They live lives we’d be too scared, too wary or too weak to live, allowing us a window into worlds we’ll never inhabit.
In a climate where you’re only as good as your last online credit score, we all have to bite our tongues, keep our tempers and pay our bills to keep a roof over our heads and money in our bank accounts. Make nice with your colleagues, don’t drink too much during the week and generally toe the line, right?
For Tony Soprano, that couldn’t further from the truth. He sets the line – and crosses it – whenever he wants. Money, power, sex and of course a warped sense of brotherhood, complete with armed ‘soldiers’ to do his bidding – it’s all his for the taking. That’s why I think he’s particularly attractive to men (depressive and otherwise) and that’s why I’m talking about him here.
When he tells his daughter about being in the mob, he says his father was in it, his uncle was in it and he’s just following in a family tradition. His father, Johnny Boy, had ‘a condition’, like Tony, that led to black outs, and his Uncle Junior’s not exactly a study in secure, rationality either. How much is Tony’s depression part of another secret family tradition, as much as his criminal life?
With Tony, the attraction is that he’s subject to all the temptations that any man is vulnerable to and while we get to see him enjoy them, we also see how he suffers for his indulgences. After all, Tony Soprano lives in a world where he may well get ‘a steel-jacketed anti-depressant to the back of the head’ for just daring to see a therapist. Mob lore states that members of the organisation cannot reveal its secrets to any outsider, on pain of death, which is technically what we see him do from the first episode to the series’ end. His decision to seek help from this forbidden avenue is at the cost of more than one life, and many more are changed irrevocably by it.
He’s also got problems in his blood family. His wife’s on to his affairs and wants to know how much money they really have; his daughter’s growing up too fast and he’s worried that his son and heir isn’t going anywhere fast. He’s got his share of regular-person problems too, has our Tony.
Compared to all this (and the small matter of the FBI being on his case as a matter of course), normal depressives have a smaller set of problems to face. Our parents might not be happy we’re in therapy (should we choose to tell them) but they don’t set us up to get killed by our uncles. Our friends might not understand that we need to seek help (though the chances are that more people will understand due, in part, to shows like this showing that even the toughest people can get depressed), but they’re not likely to put a bullet in our heads to protect their ‘business interests’.
Tony is, of course, a 21st century version of that televisual classic – the anti-hero. The Sopranos is his story, there’s no doubt he’s the main focus, but it doesn’t portray him as a hero. Instead we meet a deeply troubled man, in therapy as he has no other choice. Like many of us, he’s in that room because he’s exhausted all other options – and he’s as angry, as confrontational, as sad and as vulnerable as all of us can be when we’re sitting in that chair. He’s just a heavily exaggerated stereotype – or at least, he is at times. At others we see what’s going on behind the gangster swagger and indeed, behind the façade of the cheating husband.
The Sopranos isn’t a glowing endorsement of the life of Tony Soprano – his wife leaves him, his daughter loses two boyfriends, his son feels compelled to avenge his father’s shooting by attempting to murder his senile uncle and later tries to kill himself due to his own depression, while his best friend (the immaculately-coiffured Silvio) ends up in a coma. Oh, plus his therapist witnesses a horrific assault and is forced to go on the run, all due to their association with our protagonist.
The true appeal of Tony Soprano, however, is in his very human weaknesses – this mob killer likes the ducks in his pool, because they remind of his family. But his family is the source of his mental anguish. Ultimately, he wants their love, their respect, their loyalty. In the end, like us, he’s just trying to cope.
RIP James Gandolfini