An Excerpt: ‘Liking the Men We Shouldn’t’
In the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano – played in the series by James Gandolfini – chases a man down in his Lexus. There’s something comical about the way this scene unfolds: the fact that the attack is so absurdly public; James Gandolfini’s maniacal grin; the inevitability of the outcome and the viewer’s simultaneous disbelief at the impending violence. This is, after all, television, the medium we brought into our homes.
The man appears later with a broken leg, wearing a neck brace and we find out that he is a compulsive gambler who owes money to the criminal organisation which Tony Soprano more or less runs. With this scene, the rules of the world we are entering in The Sopranos are set: this is a world in which power and influence are exerted through violence.
In real life, such a premeditated act of violence as that which occurs in the first episode of The Sopranos would make us recoil but it does not alienate us from Tony Soprano. Tony Soprano is someone that we are actually invited to like. The Sopranos, spanning six seasons, is compelling only to the extent that we are invested in what happens to its protagonist since the plotlines are formed around him. Because we are not privy to the characters’ thoughts, observations about the world they inhabit, or internal justifications for their actions, television relies on other mechanisms to make a character psychologically plausible. To catalogue some of Tony Soprano’s acts of violence spanning the course of the series, they include: strangling to death a man suspected of being an FBI informant with a piece of wire (season one); shooting his good friend Salvatore Bonpensiero (season two); repeatedly lashing a man with a folded leather belt after he is discovered in a relationship with Tony’s former mistress (season four) and, in the same season, choking to death mob captain Ralph Cifaretto over the killing of their racehorse Pie-O-My. Finally and perhaps most shockingly, is the smothering of his nephew, who he professed to be ‘like a son’ to him, Christopher Moltisanti, after they were both injured in a car accident caused by Christopher driving under the influence of heroin. It’s this act that comes closest to alienating us from him, because there is a certain sanctity to this relationship: in such a corrupt world, the bond between Tony Soprano and Christopher Moltisanti seemed to be one of genuine affection and respect.