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In August, Michael Imperioli and his band, Zopa, played a show at the Mercury Lounge in Lower Manhattan. It was a Saturday night, and the concert was sold out. Looking over the crowd, Imperioli — the actor best known for playing Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos” — saw a sea of youngish Sopranos fans. Some were even dressed up like Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana La Cerva, who favored form-fitting cheetah and tiger prints. “I don’t know what they were expecting,” Imperioli told me later. The concert had nothing to do with “The Sopranos”; it was a benefit for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a trans rights organization.
Imperioli, like just about everyone with a significant role on “The Sopranos,” had his life completely upended by it. When he took the job, he was a successful character actor — he played Spider in “Goodfellas,” the gofer kid Joe Pesci’s character kills for no good reason — and was in the process of writing the screenplay for “Summer of Sam,” which he went on to make with Spike Lee. But then “The Sopranos” happened, and for the next decade he portrayed Christopher, the troubled, moody and impatient heir apparent to Tony Soprano’s crime family.
Imperioli’s post-“Sopranos” career has been a successful one, but he has never fully escaped the show’s gravity. In the years after its finale, he would still travel around with a handful of cast members to do spots at casinos: James Gandolfini (Tony), Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) and Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante). “We’d go to, like, Vegas,” he said. “We’d go to Atlantic City, we’d go to Foxwoods,” and on down to “Tahoe and Reno,” stuff like that. They’d be the entertainment for the night, telling stories from behind the scenes of the legendary show. These were “high roller events” and “very Rat Pack” — and fun, he says. “ ‘The Sopranos’ was a perfect casino draw.”
“We always had our audience that grew up with us,” Imperioli said. “They watched it when it first aired. They had, you know, pasta and pizza parties on Sunday night, and they grew older with us.” The die-hards within this group were the sorts of guys you might have met at the Silver Legacy in Reno: guys who love mob movies and think mobsters are cool, guys who know the manager at the casino. But then something changed. Around 2019, Imperioli joined Instagram and discovered “all these fan sites and meme sites” dedicated to the show, and all these young people who’d made their avatar image a picture of Christopher in a neck brace. He also noticed that people in their 20s and 30s were coming up to him asking for selfies. Just over that last week in August, he told me, he saw three people with “Sopranos” tattoos.
It was also around this time that Imperioli and Schirripa started to be approached by podcast producers, who told them they could take their stage show and bring it to the masses. This became “Talking Sopranos,” which debuted in April 2020. America was in lockdown, and watching (or rewatching) “The Sopranos” had found a spot in the pantheon of loafing-class activities, alongside breadmaking, jogging and scolding strangers online. According to HBO, the show has had its overall streaming hours triple during the pandemic. And “Talking Sopranos,” which lives up to its humble promise — Imperioli and Schirripa rewatch and discuss each episode, often with guests from the cast and crew and usually for more than two hours — became a genuine hit. A book based on the podcast will be published in November. Hollywood also seems to be banking on resurgent interest in the show. This week, David Chase unveiled the first new addition to the show’s story since it went off the air in 2007, a prequel film called “The Many Saints of Newark.”
One oddity that can’t be ignored in this “Sopranos” resurgence is that, somewhat atypically for a TV fandom, there is an openly left-wing subcurrent within it — less “I feel so seen by this” lefty than “intricate knowledge of different factions within the Philadelphia D.S.A.” lefty. This is especially true on Twitter, where just about everything takes on a political valence. But it goes beyond that: There’s a Socialist “Sopranos” Memes account on Facebook with 22,000 followers, run by a Twitter user called @gabagoolmarx. There’s a podcast called “Gabagool & Roses,” “the ONLY leftist ‘Sopranos’ podcast,” a presumably ironic claim, because there’s also the much more popular “Pod Yourself a Gun,” which frequently brings in guests from the expanded Brooklyn leftist podcast scene. The queens of downtown leftish podcasting, at “Red Scare,” sell “Sopranos”-inspired merch; the “Irina Thong” ($21) and “Capo Tee” ($30) both have the podcast’s name styled just like the Bada Bing’s logo. The “leftist ‘Sopranos’ fan” is now such a well-known type that it is rounding the corner to being an object of scorn and mockery online.
This new structural reading of “The Sopranos” was encapsulated neatly by Felix Biederman, a co-host of the leftist podcast “Chapo Trap House.” Recording another podcast in November 2020 — after the presidential election was held but before it was called for Biden, a moment when nothing in this country seemed to be working — Biederman argued that the show is, at its heart, about the bathetic nature of decline. “Decline not as a romantic, singular, aesthetically breathtaking act of destruction,” he said, but as a humiliating, slow-motion slide down a hill into a puddle of filth. “You don’t flee a burning Rome with your beautiful beloved in your arms, barely escaping a murderous horde of barbarians; you sit down for 18 hours a day, enjoy fewer things than you used to, and take on the worst qualities of your parents while you watch your kids take on the worst qualities of you.”
The show’s depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow is plainly at the core of the current interest in the show, which coincides with an era of crisis across just about every major institution in American life. “The Sopranos” has a persistent focus on the spiritual and moral vacuum at the center of this country, and is oddly prescient about its coming troubles: the opioid epidemic, the crisis of meritocracy, teenage depression and suicide, fights over the meaning of American history. Even the flight of the ducks who had taken up residence in Tony’s swimming pool — not to mention all the lingering shots on the swaying flora of North Jersey — reads differently now, in an era of unprecedented environmental degradation and ruin.
This sense of decline is present from the show’s very beginnings. In his first therapy session with Dr. Melfi, Tony tries to explain why he thinks he has panic attacks, why he suffers from stress. “The morning of the day I got sick, I’d been thinking: It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” he says. “I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” Melfi tells him that many Americans feel that way. Tony presses on: “I think about my father: He never reached the heights like me, but in a lot of ways he had it better. He had his people, they had their standards, they had their pride. Today, what do we got?”
When the show completed its run, famously ending on a cut to black at Holsten’s as Tony, Carmela and A.J. wait for Meadow to finish parallel parking, some critics cast the show’s creator, David Chase, as a vengeful god who was punishing his viewers for their trespasses against decency. Writing in New York magazine, Emily Nussbaum interpreted the show as a dialogue between Chase and his viewers — “a collaboration, with viewer response providing a crucial feedback loop.” In her reading, Chase watched those viewers become more vile in their willingness to side with an increasingly reprehensible Tony and “did not always like what he saw.” So he spurned us, robbing the characters of their charm until, in the very final shot, he “slammed the door on us.”
And perhaps Chase did slam the door on his viewers at the time. But back then, they were the fortunate 28 million Americans who had HBO subscriptions and, possibly, TiVo. They were the same self-regarding upper middle class that the Soprano family aspired to join, and who let them in at arm’s length for their own amusement — people like Dr. Melfi’s therapist, Elliot Kupferberg; or the Cusamanos, who lived next door. These characters were audience surrogates, and Chase plainly held them in contempt. But new viewers don’t identify with those characters; instead, they see in them their parents, whose HBO login they stole, or the rich friend’s parents whose login they stole, or just some yuppie Boomer nitwits. Younger viewers do not have to fear Chase’s wrath, because they are not so obviously its object. They are also able to watch the show for hours on end, which makes the subtext and themes more apparent. Perhaps all of this has offered clarity that was not possible when the show aired. Perhaps it is easier now to see exactly who — or what — Chase was angry at.
Ever since its infamous final scene, and even before that, “The Sopranos” has been subjected to relentless analysis; it is easily one of the most written-about TV shows in the medium’s short history. But more than the shows that have emerged in its wake, which are subjected to close readings and recaps in nearly every major publication, “The Sopranos” has a novelistic quality that actually withstands this level of scrutiny. It’s not uncommon to hear from people who have watched the series several times, or who do so on a routine basis — people who say it reveals new charms at different points in life. The show is full of extraneous details that exist only for its own enrichment. There are dreams and leitmotifs. The early seasons are cleverly postmodern in their treatment of mob movies. The lead character’s therapist is an unreconstructed Freudian. This, arguably, is the show that left us in a world awash with hints and antiheroes and dream sequences and characters explaining their motivations and frustrations and wounds aloud, as if in therapy. On top of all this, it’s funny — funnier than most shows billed as comedies these days.
But even as “The Sopranos” gives, it withholds, and it’s this withholding that invites so much close reading. The show continually tosses up mysteries over its seven seasons, even when it comes to major plot points. It’s never totally clear, for example, whether Ralph Cifaretto killed the racehorse Pie-o-My; he probably did, but the show never really says. It’s not clear that Jimmy Altieri — the crew member executed in Season 1 for informing — was really a rat; it seems as if he might have died for Big Pussy’s sins, but no one on the show so much as mentions it. And what the hell was going on when Tony was in the coma and thought he was named Kevin Finnerty? Who left the Ojibwe saying in his hospital room? Then there’s the matter of the Russian in the widely beloved “Pine Barrens” episode, who disappears after being shot in the head. Did he die, or is he still hiking up the Garden State Parkway, hoping to take revenge on Tony and his crew? And what happens to Tony at the very end? Is he killed by the man in the Members Only jacket, or does he go on to live in a purgatorial state of constant paranoia and vigilance? We don’t know, and Chase hates it when we ask him.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all, looking back on “The Sopranos” all these years later, is this: What was Chase seeing in the mid-’90s — a period when the United States’ chief geopolitical foe was Serbia, when the line-item veto and school uniforms were front-page news, when “Macarena” topped the charts — that compelled him to make a show that was so thoroughly pessimistic about this country? I asked Chase about this over Zoom in August. He was backlit, sitting in his office in Los Angeles, wearing a collared shirt. I was in my living room, wearing a T-shirt with a noticeably stretched collar that I had no choice but to look at, which made me feel extremely self-conscious as the conversation unfolded.
“I don’t think I felt like it was a good time,” he told me. He is 76 now, and speaks deliberately and thoughtfully. “I felt that things were going downhill.” He’d become convinced America was, as Neil Postman’s 1985 polemic put it, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” not an easy thing for a journeyman TV writer to accept. He went on: “There was nothing but crap out there. Crap in every sense. I was beginning to feel that people’s predictions about the dumbing-down of society had happened and were happening, and I started to see everything getting tawdry and cheap.” He mentioned a line from Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, “The Price”: “If they would close the stores for six months in this country there would be from coast to coast a regular massacre.”
“And that’s what I felt back in those days,” he said, “that everything was for sale — it was all about distraction, it didn’t seem serious. It all felt foolish and headed for a crash.” Chase grew up around New York and New Jersey and told me he lived in North Caldwell, N.J., long before the subdivision containing the Soprano home was even a twinkle in a developer’s eye. “Right where the Soprano house was had been a swim club,” he said. “It looked kind of Appalachian, with that kind of furniture and everything.” It was a place people brought their families, and there were trees all around. Chase told me he watched as North Jersey became despoiled over the years, as the towns of Cedar Grove and North Caldwell, separated by the Watchung range, grew up the sides of the mountains until they just about met at the top, and North Caldwell became dominated by this development of McMansions. “Expensive,” said Chase, “but not attractive.”
At the beginning of every episode, the viewer is brought along with Tony as he makes his long journey home, a ride from city to exurb that tells the story of America’s geographical unwinding in miniature. Out of the Lincoln Tunnel and onto the turnpike, Tony passes through the industrial hinterland of New York City, eyeing aging smokestacks and crumbling factories, which loom as large here as the more potent symbols of American life — the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center — that flash in and out of view. Next comes Newark, dreary, with its vinyl siding and white-ethnic heritage both fading. From there Tony drives through the suburbs, which grow nicer the farther he gets from the city — the houses tidier, the lot sizes larger — a series of sieves that caught this outflow of humanity, until at last he reaches his home, that perfectly garish palace. North Caldwell, New Jersey. A zone of total atomization, where the swimming club, once a place for families — if not for everyone — became a wallowing ground for a fictional depressed mobster.
The subdivision’s hideousness runs deep. One of Ted Kaczynski’s victims lived two doors down from the Soprano house, Chase told me. Tony would be looking toward this place — a monstrosity like his — every time he picks up the paper. The victim, Thomas Mosser, was the Unabomber’s second to last, a Manhattan P.R. executive targeted because of his firm’s involvement with Exxon after its infamous 1989 oil spill in Alaska — and in general for “manipulating people’s attitudes” from his Madison Avenue perch. Mosser was murdered in his kitchen less than three years before Chase started filming the pilot; he told me that he was thinking about all of this when he started working on the show.
As I continued to ask him about his dim vision of American culture and society, Chase shared a memory from his boyhood. He thinks he was in fifth grade, and he was reading an illustrated textbook that explained how water sanitation worked. “There were pictures in the book of how the water comes from here, it goes through a pipe, it goes to a place where it’s filtered, then it flows to a lake where it comes out of a fountain, and then the sun hits it,” he said. “And I remember thinking, God, America — we do that, we purify that water.” He was so proud of it. And obviously, he conceded, we still do that stuff. Then he trailed off. Maybe it was the birth of his daughter, he offered, and his sense that she would live in a country unrecognizable to him.
I was about to change the subject when he hit on something. “Have you noticed — or maybe you haven’t noticed — how nobody does what they say they’re going to do?” he said, suddenly animated. “If your sink gets jammed up, and a guy says he’s going to be out there at 5:30 — no. Very few people do what they say they’re going to do. There is a decline in goods and services that is enormous.” I asked him to elaborate. Near his home in Santa Monica, he said, there are five expensive mattress stores. “To me,” he said, “that’s a sign of decline in some way.” He actually went into one of these stores, he said, looking to buy one of these expensive mattresses. “And it was difficult, over five days, to get anyone to tell me the full story of the mattress.”
You can write this off as the curmudgeonly thoughts of a TV writer in Santa Monica, or you can take it as an opportunity to look at the mattress situation anew. Over the last few years, many nearly identical mattress brands have crowded into the same direct-to-consumer market with the same business model, which involves shipping mattresses directly to people’s homes and offering full refunds if they’re not satisfied (thus sending tons of perfectly fine mattresses to the landfill). Now, probably because there are so many of these companies, they have begun opening storefronts to showcase their mattresses — because people do like to try mattresses out before buying them — even though the entire point of the business was to not have a storefront. So now Chase lives in the midst of an investor-funded mattress-marketing battle where there could be, I don’t know, anything else. But some combination of greed and sloth and wastefulness had made it this way — and he still couldn’t get a straight answer about the mattresses.
We all have to live this way, in a landscape vandalized by increasingly inane and powerful flows of capital. Chase told me the real joke of the show was not “What if a mobster went to therapy?” The comedic engine, for him, was this: What if things had become so selfish and narcissistic in America that even the mob couldn’t take it? “That was the whole thing,” he said. “America was so off the rails that everything that the Mafia had done was nothing compared to what was going on around them.”
Many critics have observed that the Mafia, in cinema, often stands in as a perverted and grotesque form of capitalism — fitting, for a form of organized crime that was world-historically successful at making the line between legitimate enterprise and criminality wafer-thin. In “The Mafia: A Cultural History,” Roberto M. Dainotto, a professor of literature at Duke, writes that one thing our cinematic Mafiosi have that we admire, against our better judgment, is access to structures of meaning outside of market forces: the church, family, honor. The Mafia movie often pits these traditional values against the corrosive and homogenizing effects of American life. What “The Sopranos” shows us, Dainotto argues, is what happens when all that ballast is gone, and the Mafia is revealed to be as ignoble as anything else. “Life is what it is,” he writes, “and repeats as such.”
The show puts all this American social and cultural rot in front of characters wholly incapable of articulating it, if they even notice it. What is, for me, one of the show’s most memorable scenes has no dialogue at all. Tony and his crew have just returned from a business trip to Italy, during which they were delighted with the Old Country but also confronted with the degree of their alienation from their own heritage. They’re off the plane, and in a car traveling through Essex County. As the camera pans by the detritus of their disenchanted world — overpasses, warehouses — Tony, Paulie and Christopher are seeing their home with fresh eyes, and maybe wondering if their ancestors made a bad trade or if, somewhere along the line, something has gone horribly wrong. But we don’t know: For once, these arrogant, stupid and loquacious men are completely silent.
In “The Many Saints of Newark,” Chase brings viewers back to a time before that terminal decline set in. It’s 1967, everyone still lives in Newark and their world still turns. The crew gathers for lavish dinners at its own Jersey-scale version of the Copacabana, with live entertainment and all the rest. They dress properly — no tracksuits. Satriale’s Pork Store, where Tony’s crew will one day gather, still appears to be a part of a functioning neighborhood; you can see a greengrocer across the street, instead of slow decay.
Looking at the film through Dainotto’s lens, “Many Saints” makes a timely update to the story of postwar American capitalism by focusing on who was left out of its embrace. Whatever nostalgic qualities the film has are undercut by the added perspective of Harold, a Black affiliate of the crew who is allowed to run, and violently enforce, the numbers racket in the Black neighborhoods. He beats and kills his own and kicks the profits up to a bunch of gangsters who treat him like scum — an unjust arrangement that can only last so long, and one not exactly unique to Harold. It is the eve of the riots that will ultimately disperse the working-class whites of the city, including the Soprano family, all over Essex County and beyond. And after Newark revolts, Harold follows suit: He starts his own numbers game.
Cinematic depictions of the Mafia tend, for obvious reason, to focus on the dramatic: the Lufthansa heist, the hit men, extortion schemes, broken thumbs, infiltration by the feds, wars between and within families. The reality of the mob is of course a lot more boring. As Chase put it to me: “They spend all day sitting around eating sandwiches and thinking of ways to outsmart the government or big business.” In New York, the Mafia’s real power came from its infiltration of a vast array of industries in the city: commercial waste-hauling, garment manufacturing, the docks, the Fulton Fish Market and construction. According to Selwyn Raab’s “Five Families,” the Lucchese family even had a racket in this very newspaper, through its control of the union that represented deliverymen, which it used to get no-show jobs and to steal and sell copies of The Times.
The Mafia was a parasite on a grubbier economy — one that was more tactile and localized than containerized and algorithmic. It was a grotesque mirror image of the American dream this economy enabled, a perverted form of upward mobility through hard work and enterprise. The key component enabling its industrial racketeering was control of unions, another choke point in an economy that had yet to become so totally manicured to suit the needs of corporations. Unions could be used as a two-way tollbooth. Employers could be pressured into giving regular kickbacks, in the form of cash or no-show jobs, through the threat of a strike — but they could also bribe mobbed-up officials to look the other way so they could hire nonunion labor.
Around the time “The Sopranos” premiered, the N.Y.U. Law professor James B. Jacobs wrote a paper, along with a student, arguing that the Mafia, though weakened by decades of prosecutions, could come roaring back. By 2019, though, he had published a new paper called “The Rise and Fall of Organized Crime in the United States,” declaring the Mafia all but finished. “The world in which the Cosa Nostra became powerful is largely gone,” he wrote. And he cites a litany of factors that aided its collapse, a mix of technological advances, deregulation and financialization — many of the same forces that have created the stratified economy of today.
Expanded access to credit had cut into what mobsters call the shylock business; there’s no need to go to a loan shark when the payday lender will offer you similarly competitive rates. Gambling was legalized in many states and flourishes on many reservations; nearly every state in the Union has a lottery, which decimated the numbers racket. Italian American neighborhoods have emptied out — as Jacobs writes, “radically diminishing the pool of tough teenagers with Cosa Nostra potential”; this is dramatized brilliantly in the final episode of the series, when a mobster from a New York family hurries through Little Italy on an important phone call and, when the call ends, looks around to see he’s wandered into an encroaching and vibrant Chinatown. And, Jacobs notes, union membership has been decimated. “In the mid-1950s, about 35 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union,” he writes. “In recent years, only 6.5 percent of private-sector workers have been union members.”
Though hardly a friend to the worker, the Mafia rose to power in tandem with a postwar economy that was. It was an organization adept at finding and exploiting crevices in a world that still had crevices. And it has been surpassed, both onscreen and in reality, by a form of organized crime better suited to our era: the transnational drug cartels that mimic our immense global supply chain, corrupting the governments of the developing world while aiding the developed world’s slide into senescence.
The Mafia did famously plunder the Teamsters union pension fund to build Las Vegas (as dramatized in “Casino”) and then (probably) killed Jimmy Hoffa when he threatened their control of it (as dramatized in “The Irishman”). But they could never have accomplished what came next. The trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, which crippled the Teamsters’ bargaining power and membership (and, by making freight trucking so cheap, gave us big-box retail). In 1982, the Central States pension fund, which had been the mob’s piggy bank, was handed over to be managed by the big Wall Street banks. By the 2000s, the fund was facing shortfalls because of crippled union membership, and its Wall Street trustees made risky bets to cover the gap — bets that went south. In recent years, the fund was paying out $2 billion more than it was taking in annually, a situation that could have emptied it entirely by 2025, were it not bailed out by Congress this March. Say what you will about the Mafia’s stewardship of the fund, but at least they left us with a place to see Celine Dion and play craps.
You can see this world — one in which no one can be squeezed because everyone is being squeezed — starting to take shape from the very beginning of the show. In the pilot, Tony is fending off competition from a new waste-hauling business undercutting his company’s extortionate fees, and trying to figure out how he can get a piece of the similarly extortionate costs his health insurer paid for his M.R.I. — a procedure he had because the stress in his life had given him a panic attack. The Mafia was the perfect lens through which to see the forces that were already transforming our world.
By Season 6, the Newark riverfront is being redeveloped, and has become a federal boondoggle. Its centerpiece is, hilariously, the Museum of Science and Trucking. Two members of Tony’s crew, Burt Gervasi and Patsy Parisi, go to a chain coffee shop nearby, claiming to be from the North Ward Merchants Protective Cooperative, offering round-the-clock security in exchange for weekly payments — a classic protection racket disguised in more sanitized language.
“I can’t authorize anything like that,” the manager explains. “It would have to go through corporate in Seattle.”
“How do you think corporate would feel if — for the sake of argument — someone threw a brick through your window?” Burt says.
“They’ve got something like 10,000 stores in North America,” the manager replies, still not getting what’s going on. “I don’t think they’d feel anything.”
Patsy leans in close and lowers his voice. “What if, God forbid, it wasn’t just vandalism? What if an employee — even the manager, say — was assaulted?”
The scheme finally clear to the manager, he levels with them, almost sympathetically. “Look, every last coffee bean is in the computer and has to be accounted for. If the numbers don’t add up, I’ll be gone, and somebody else will be here.”
Disoriented, Patsy walks out onto the street and says, with complete and utter sincerity: “It’s over for the little guy.”
“The Many Saints of Newark” is not just about Harold and the riots; it is also a prequel to a show preoccupied with questions of self-knowledge, inheritance and morality. It centers on Dickie Moltisanti — the “Many Saints” of the title — Christopher’s father, whom he never really knew, a revered figure in the show said to have been murdered by a crooked cop. Dickie is, like Tony, smarter than those around him, and desperate to be a good man, or at least he tells himself that. He does horrific things — things beyond the pale even for a mobster — and tries in vain to rebalance the scales. He mentors a young Tony, played by Michael Gandolfini, James’s son. It’s not yet clear that Tony will follow his father into mob life. In fact, the younger Gandolfini’s portrayal of Tony renders him surprisingly soft. In a deeply ironic scene, Dickie offers Tony some speakers that fell off the back of a truck. Tony isn’t sure it would be right to take them, so Dickie offers him a different way of looking at it. “Look, you take the speakers, right?” he says. “At the same time, you say to yourself: This is the last time I’m ever going to steal something. It’s that simple.”
The advice doesn’t take. By the end of the seven seasons of “The Sopranos,” Tony kills Dickie’s only son. He murders his own cousin and his best friend. He beats and strangles a man to death on suspicion of killing a horse. He cheats on his wife constantly; he hits women; he’s a bigot. He drives two of his lovers to attempt suicide (one succeeds); one of his best friends tries, too, thanks to him. And yet you’d be lying to yourself if you said you didn’t allow yourself to see it his way to some degree, if you didn’t sort of come to love the guy, even as he slides deeper into his most repulsive habits. Which is OK: None of the stuff on the show actually happened.
The bien-pensant line on Tony remains that he’s a sociopath, and only used therapy to become a better criminal. This is an idea spoon-fed to the viewer in the final episodes by a contrite Dr. Melfi, in a show that spoon-feeds almost nothing to the viewer. Melfi herself might call this a coping mechanism to avoid the messier reality, which is that Tony lives in an immoral world nestled within another immoral world, both of which have only grown more chaotic because of forces outside his control. Because of this, you can see how he reasons himself into more and more heinous crimes, justifying each and every one of them to himself. Perhaps to you too — at least, up to a point. That sympathy for Tony led contemporaneous critics to ask if people were watching the show in the wrong way, or if our enjoyment pointed to a deficiency of the heart. But perhaps it’s better to ask, without passing judgment — as a therapist might suggest — what it is about Tony that we find so magnetic, and why.
There’s plenty about him that young people wouldn’t relate to. He’s a Boomer, just a handful of years younger than my parents. He spends a fair amount of time in the first season getting mad about breaches of decorum that seem almost comically dated, once losing it at a guy for wearing a hat in a restaurant. He likes World War II history. In a running bit throughout the show, he laments that American men no longer live up to the ideal of Gary Cooper, “the strong, silent type.” But even Gary Cooper himself isn’t spared. In a rant delivered on a car ride home from a casino in Connecticut, Tony complains that if Cooper were alive today, “He’d be a member of some victims’ group: the fundamentalist Christians, the abused cowboys, the gays, whatever!” (Christopher chimes in idiotically from the back seat: “He was gay, Gary Cooper?”) But Tony hates himself too for failing to live up to this ideal. He has given in to psychiatry, to Prozac, to private schools for his kids and the rest of his comfortable exurban lifestyle, and he knows he needs it all.
It is this quality of Tony’s — this combination of privilege and self-loathing — that I suspect resonates with a younger generation, whether we want to admit it or not. He’s not so different from us, after all. He has an anxiety disorder. He goes to therapy and takes S.S.R.I.s, but never really improves — not for long, anyway. He has a mild case of impostor syndrome, having skipped some key steps to becoming boss, and he knows that people who hold it against him are sort of right. He’s still proud of his accomplishments in high school. He does psychedelics in the desert, and they change his perspective on things. He often repeats stuff he half-remembers someone smarter than him saying. He’s arguably in an open marriage with Carmela, if a rather lopsided one. He liked listening to “Don’t Stop Believin’” in 2007. He’s impulsive and selfish and does not go to church, though he does seem open to vaguer notions of spirituality. He wishes his career provided him with meaning, but once he had the career, he discovered that someone had pulled the rug out at some point, and an institution that had been a lodestar to him for his whole life was revealed to be a means of making money and nothing more. Does this sound at all familiar to you?
Like many young people, Tony is a world-historically spoiled man who is nevertheless cursed, thanks to timing, to live out the end of an enterprise he knows on some level to be immoral. It gives him panic attacks, but he’s powerless to find a way out. Thus trapped — and depressed — it’s not so hard for him to allow himself a few passes, to refuse to become better because the world is so rotten anyway. Tony’s predicament was once his to suffer alone, but history has unfolded in such a way as to render his condition nearly universal. And if people still see a monster in Tony, then the monster is themselves: a twisted reflection of a generation whose awakening to the structures that control them came in tandem with a growing aversion to personal accountability in the face of these systems.
The notion that individual action might help us avoid any coming or ongoing crises is now seen as hopelessly naïve, the stuff of Obama-era liberalism. Whether that’s true or not, it offers us all permission to become little Tonys, lamenting the sad state of affairs while doing almost exactly nothing to improve ourselves, or anything at all. This tendency is perhaps most pronounced online, where we are all in therapy all day, and where you can find median generational opinions perfectly priced by the marketplace of ideas — where we bemoan the wrongs of the world and tell ourselves that we can continue being who we are, and enjoy the comforts we’ve grown accustomed to. Climate change? Everyone knows it’s caused by five corporations. Amazon? Someone in power ought to do something about that, but you shouldn’t ask people to boycott it, even for a day. The widespread exploitation of undocumented workers by food-delivery apps? Neoliberal capitalism has exhausted me to the point that I cannot make my own pasta. There’s no point, these forces are too powerful to disrupt, it’s true — at least you can tell yourself that.
One of the show’s most prescient aspects is its treatment of the Soprano kids, Meadow and Anthony Jr. In Meadow, we see from the beginning the tendrils of the future economy reaching back and forcing her to obsess over getting into the right college, even to snort meth to help herself study, constantly striving in preparation for a grueling career. These tendrils don’t come for A.J. Instead, we see in him glimmers of the coming era of male dysfunction: aimlessness, video games, economic uselessness, nu-metal and of course, that inheritance from Anthony Sr., depression. But A.J., too, recognizes that the adults around him have failed him, though he struggles greatly to articulate it, and tends to revert to his worst impulses. A widely loathed character the first time around, A.J. is perhaps most worthy of re-evaluation.
In the show’s finale, as the extended Soprano family gathers to mourn the death of Bobby Baccalieri, we find Paulie Walnuts stuck at the kids’ table, where A.J., newly politically awakened, charges into a rant. You people are screwed, he says. “You’re living in a dream.” Bush let Al Qaeda escape, he tells them, and then made us invade some other country? Someone at the table tells him that if he really cares, he should join up. A.J. responds: “It’s more noble than watching these jackoff fantasies on TV of how we’re kicking their ass. It’s like: America.” Again, he’s interrupted: What in the world does he mean? He explains: “This is still where people come to make it. It’s a beautiful idea. And then what do they get? Bling? And come-ons for [expletive] they don’t need and can’t afford?”
However inartfully, A.J. was gesturing at something that would have been hard for someone his age to see at the time, which is that the ’00s were a sort of fever dream, a tragic farce built on cheap money and propaganda. That the people in power truly had insulated themselves in a fantasy environment — not just in the realm of foreign policy, but also, more concretely, in the endless faux-bucolic subdivisions that would crater the economy. We were living in a sort of irreality, one whose totality would humiliate and delegitimize nearly every important institution in American life when it ended, leaving — of all people — the Meadows and A.J.s of the world to make sense of things.
Later in the episode, A.J. decides he does want to join up; he wants to fight in Afghanistan. His goal, he tells his clearly distressed father, is to qualify for helicopter pilot training. And then he says something stupid, but sort of surprising — something that once again reveals the show’s uncanny ability to dig around in America’s backyard and hit all the high-voltage wires hiding underneath. A.J. says he thinks that with helicopter training, he could finally start a career. Maybe he could be a personal pilot for someone — maybe Donald Trump would hire him.
Willy Staley is a story editor for the magazine. He last wrote about the show “High Maintenance” and New York.
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