GANGSTER'S PARADIGM
Total Film|October 2021
With prequel movie The Many Saints Of Newark about to hit cinemas, Total Film pays respect to modern TV classic THE SOPRANOS, and how a hit show changed the mob genre, long-form storytelling and audience expectations forever.
LEILA LATIF
On 10 January 1999, Tony Soprano walked into a psychiatrist’s office and changed television, irrevocably. The mobster, seeking help for his panic attacks, was a barrel of contradictions, kicking a man’s already broken leg then lovingly asking a group of ducks if they’d like a second ramp into his pool. The era of prestige television - of the complicated narratives, antiheroes and moral ambiguity in Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Wire - had commenced and there was no going back.

Creator David Chase hacked apart the conventions and limitations of what a mobster story could be. The sharp glamour of The Godfather was stripped away, leaving complicated men wearing fluffy robes in suburban New Jersey who fundamentally know that this mafia thing ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In his first session Tony says as much, telling Dr Melfi (Goodfellas’ Lorraine Bracco), “The morning of the day I got sick I’ve been thinking it’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’ve been getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

Tony’s wife Carmela winks at the comparison a few minutes later, telling her priest, “Tony watches Godfather II all the time.” Part of the brilliance of The Sopranos is how it subverts every mobster film that came before it. Michael Corleone’s world is filled with grandeur, dark feudal morality and high stakes, tied to obligation and loyalty. Those are expectations Tony Soprano places on himself - he is a ruthless but honourable man operating within a code of ethics - but, as the show would remind us time and time again, self-awareness was not Tony’s strong suit. Many networks passed on The Sopranos, before HBO picked it up. “I think they were afraid of it,” Chase later reasoned. “Because how could you like this guy?”

Tony’s conflicted existence plays out in his marriage to Carmela, portrayed with voluminous hair and long French manicured nails by the incredible Edie Falco. “Carmela’s fiercely loyal, a good mother, a good wife, in denial, high maintenance, street-smart,” says Falco of the multifaceted character. In Season 2, Carmela asks Tony what happened to Richie Aprile and he lets her know without being explicit, saying, “After 18 years of marriage, don’t make me make you an accessory after the fact.” Carmela is surprised, but lets out a long sigh, and the ensuing scene - tense, comic, familiarly domestic - has more layers to it than mobster wives were afforded in the decades previous.

Carmela, as much as we loved her, was complicit in the unspeakable acts her husband committed. She was aware, just as Adriana (Drea de Matteo), engaged to Tony’s ‘nephew’ Christopher (Michael Imperioli) was aware, but they enjoyed the power and lifestyles their partner’s sins afforded them.

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