The Sopranos and Existentialism: Explaining the End
It has now become pop culture common knowledge that The Sopranos changed dramatic television programming for good. HBO’s critically and commercially lauded program that ran from 1999 until 2007 is often given credit for the recent coming of more insightful and artistic programs that have graced the small screen, and, now, the extra small screen of the lap top and smart phone. This includes HBO’s The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones, AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Dexter and Homeland, Netflix’s House of Cards, and more. And while all these shows respectively push the dramatic programming envelope in their own distinct ways, perhaps none of them have done it with the same boldness and level of importance as creator David Chase’s now legendary series.
Chase and company proved again and again they were unafraid to break the rules of television, and, because of the artistic freedom they were granted, took advantage of the opportunity to create a wholly original and meaningful show that was more than mindless entertainment to fill up viewers’ free Sunday nights. It was a show with things to say about every controversial topic imaginable from violence to rape, homosexuality to old age, drug abuse to psychiatry, religion to politics. Looking back, what may prove to be the most historically relevant aspect of the show was the way it subtly depicted American family life and culture in a post-9/11 world without ever specifically revolving around the topic.
However, what made The Sopranos so popular was the fact it touched on all these intellectually stimulating topics while also being an amazingly entertaining show with an unprecedented cast headlined by the brilliant coupling of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco as Tony and Carmela Soprano. The show delivered what audiences expect of great television drama: surprising character deaths, shocking violence, hilarious interplay and dialog, touching family drama, and was utterly unpredictable, captivating, and refreshing week in and week out.
In fact, the show works so well as entertainment that viewers often get so caught up in it they overlook the dark, existential core of the show that is Tony Soprano’s soul searching tendency to dwell on the unanswerable questions that plague the human condition. The psychiatry sessions, dream sequences, and all too frequent funeral scenes continually give form to the internal battle constantly raging in Tony as he contemplates happiness, morality, and mortality. While the show has an incomparable ability to entertain, James Gandolfini’s brilliant melancholic portrayal of Tony Soprano gives the protagonist (or antagonist) a sadness that overwhelms the show and defines its main themes. The Sopranos may be remembered by viewers as the darkly comic, thoroughly entertaining series about a modern mobster with family issues, but what makes it so moving and unforgettable is that Tony Soprano and the other characters are not simply artificial over the top Italian stereotypes, but are relatable characters who feel like genuine human beings and who contemplate the same deep and unknown curiosities humanity shares.
Existentialism is a philosophical movement whose contributors include Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Hiedegger, and Jean-Paul Satre. There is no universally accepted definition for the term, but Robert C. Solomon summarizes the message,
“It is that every one of us, as an individual, is responsible – responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately for the way the world. It is, in a very short phrase, the philosophy of “no excuses!”…We cannot shift that burden onto God, or nature, or the ways if the world. If there is a God, we choose to believe.”
Though The Sopranos focuses heavily on this subject, seven years after the shows finale aired, nearly all discussions concerning it are about the show’s infamous ending. These discussions almost always revolve around the question, “Did Tony live, or die?” While a seemingly appropriate response, this question seems to have survived because viewers got so caught up in the entertaining spectacle of Chase’s brilliant use of music and thrilling editing, that they forgot the existential and meditative themes he has been relaying to them throughout the series. It is a show that episodically depicted Tony’s never ending consumption of everything he desires, without the satisfaction of ever attaining happiness. Tony is subconsciously troubled by profound problems and questions related to the meaning of life, and he tries to drown these troubles in material, sexual, and violent actions and commodities thinking that the satisfaction of the moment will overcome the deeply rooted problems of a life time. This article will give examples of these themes that run throughout the show and conclude with a final analysis of the show and its ending.
Dream and Fantasy Sequences
In the numerous dream sequences, the themes of death and the unknown are always present. Characters that have died or even been personally killed by Tony constantly reappear to him, haunting his subconscious. Other characters like Christopher (Michael Imperioli), Paulie (Tony Sirico), and Carmela have similar dreams where deceased friends, enemies, and family members reappear to them at night, continually foregrounding the subject of their own mortality in their respective minds. One of the most existential segments in the show’s run comes in “Join the Club” and “Mayhem” (Episodes 6.2 and 6.3). These segments take place in Tony’s mind while he is in a coma after being shot, and are more like visions or alternate states of mind than dreams, as they are more logical narratively and aesthetically than the often unintelligibly ambiguous dream sequences. This alternate state is still decidedly surreal, but has a more realistic sense of space and time than the dreams normally do. In the vision Tony takes on a different persona with a new personality, accent, and the occupation of a salesman. To make things more confusing, he loses all his forms of identification and is forced to take on the identity of another man, Kevin Finnerty. It revisits themes of identity and meaning present throughout the show. At one point Tony wakes up and asks, “Who am I? Where am I going?”
When he is on the brink of death, he is traveling in his vision to a family reunion in hopes to reclaim his real briefcase with the contents of his identity. Outside the house his cousin Tony B. (Steve Buscemi) (who he shot only a few episode’s back) appears as a door man, and tries to convince Tony give up the Kevin Finnerty briefcase we wishes to exchange. Tony (or Finnerty) resists giving up the brief case and tries to see inside the door, but can only see a white light coming from it. It becomes clear if he gives up the case his life in the real world will come to an end—the door possibly leading to a reunion of the many dead acquaintances Tony has. Whatever is in that house intrigues but frightens Tony, and it may be his fear more than anything that convinces him to hold on.
While this near death experience is the closest Tony comes to reaching his final destination, his dreams are a much more regular component of the show. The image of Livia (Nacy Merchand) is particularly present in Tony’s dreams as the repressed memory of the monstrous mother that tried to kill him continually resurfaces. In one such dream in “Calling all Cars,” (Episode 4.11) Tony comes as an Italian immigrant worker to do some maintenance on a house in the country. He walks in the door and sees a figure on the staircase. The silhouette of the figure’s black shadowy outline is all that can be seen, but is clearly representative of Livia. Her foreboding presence gives off a sense of dread and terror that perfectly exemplifies Tony’s relationship with his dominating mother.
Livia’s own opinion on life had a great influence on Tony’s, and her comments explain the ominous images he has of her in his dreams. She explains her harsh views in “D-Girl” (Episode 2.7) to Tony’s son A.J.
Livia: “Why does everything have to have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down. And I’m not naming any names, but in the end you die in your own arms.”
A.J.: “You mean alone?”
Livia: “It’s all a big nothing. What makes you think you’re so special?”
While The Sopranos engages with these thoughts, and perhaps agrees that there is no definite “point” to life, it doesn’t necessarily conclude that life is devoid of all meaning. The show is about predominantly unhappy people, but it shows on a regular basis that even these immoral characters experience moments of love and happiness that make life worth living. As Tony explains in his famous monologue in “I Dream of Jeanne Cusamano” (Episode 1.13) that concluded the first season in one of the most optimistic Sopranos scenes, “I’d like to propose a toast to my family. Someday soon you’re going to have families of your own, and if you’re lucky you’ll remember the little moments like this—that were good. Cheers.”
The Greek Chorus: Psychiatry with Dr. Jennifer Melfi
The surrealist dream sequences nearly always exude a depressing, gloomy mood, but the existentialism is really spelled out in Tony’s psychiatry sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). In “D-Girl” (Episode 2.7) when Tony’s son A.J. (Robert Iler) recites Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote “God is Dead,” to Tony and Carmela a few days before his confirmation. Irritated, Tony turns to his psychiatrist for advice on how to deal with the situation. Melfi defends A.J. and his behavior, explaining:
Dr. Melfi: “When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs, and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”
Tony: “Intense dread?”
Dr. Melfi: “A dull aching anger that leads them to conclude that the only absolute truth is death.” Tony: “I think the kid’s on to something.”
Tony’s initial anger with his son is turned into meditative understanding. Tony was perhaps never able to explain these thoughts with such precision, but Melfi’s definition makes him come to terms with A.J.’s thoughts, thoughts which Tony himself recurrently has. Throughout the show Tony expresses anger, sometimes physically, towards A.J.’s depressing inclinations. However, Tony is not most angry about the thoughts themselves, but that he sees A.J.’s problems in himself. The fact these thoughts trouble his own mind frustrates him more than anything. He would rather be the “Happy Wanderer,” content, without a problem in the world.
Countless scenes in Dr. Melfi’s office like this persist through the show, and because of their regularity and importance, the question viewers should find themselves asking regarding the finale is not “Does Tony live or die?,” but “What does this thrilling montage with an exceptionally abrupt and ambiguous cut to black mean?” Given the shows foregrounded preoccupation with existentialism, it becomes clear Chase is commenting on life’s unpredictability and ultimate end. At any moment life can be ripped away from us, without any warning or predetermined meaning. Does Tony Soprano survive his meal at Holstens? It is possible, but one day he will die, and after that point his state of his continued existence, like every human being’s, is completely unknown. It may be a cut to black nothingness, or it may be something else entirely.
In any case, the uproarious and hysterically furious response that followed The Sopranos final scene is perhaps fitting to the message Chase was actually trying to send, that after spending all this time on Earth, after all the joy, misery, happiness, and suffering, it all amounts to a void of nothingness and unknowable darkness. As Tony bluntly asks Dr. Melfi after his son attempts suicide in “Walk Like a Man” (Episode 6.17), “Seriously we’re both adults here right? So, after all is said and done after all the complaining and the crying and all the fucking bullshit – is this all there is?” When these thoughts come to mind the obvious question one asks oneself is: “What is the point?,” which Tony, of course, also asks in “House Arrest” (Episode 2.11), “What’s the point? You go to Italy, you lift some weights, you watch a movie—it’s all a series of distractions til you die.” In “The Strong Silent Type” (Episode 4.10) Tony refutes the “we live in the best of all worlds” argument by analyzing the people and events close to him:
Tony: “It just makes me wonder what kind of fucking toilet world we live in. A friend of the family, little boy gets shot with an arrow, cuts off the flow of blood to his brain. Thirteen years old. He’s going to live, but he’s never gonna be right.”
Dr. Melfi: “How awful for the parents.”
Tony: “Yeah. My nephew. I love that kid like I love my son. But I think he’s got a drug problem, heroin. It kills me just to say it, because I got so many hopes tied up in this kid.”
Dr. Melfi: “This is Christopher?”
Tony: “This 9/11 shit, I don’t know. The shit that’s going on everywhere. It’s like some fucking asshole is stalking the human race.”
Dr. Melfi: “Anthony, do any of your associates think about any of this?”
Tony: “I don’t know, we don’t talk about it. I know it’s fucking ridiculous, but I feel like the reverend Rodney King Jr., you know? – ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’”
Dr. Melfi: “What’s ridiculous about it?”
Tony: “Come on, don’t jerk me off. This is me you’re talking to.”
Dr. Melfi: “You’ve caused much suffering yourself, haven’t you?”
Tony: “My wife prays to God. What kind of God does this shit?”
While dark and depressing, and probably unsatisfying for viewers that watched the show purely for the witty, crude mobster banter and violence, Tony’s battle with his inner demons and search for truth and meaning were the cornerstone of the show from the beginning.
“Don’t Stop…” The Sopranos Finale
The final scene of The Sopranos is known by any person faintly aware of American pop culture. Tony sits down, chooses a song on the jukebox, Journey starts to play, and a gripping montage of customers in the restaurant eating and talking, entering and leaving begins. Tony is casually enjoying his time as his family, one by one, walk in the door. The viewer is immediately put on edge. Who is going to try and whack Tony?! The man sitting alone with the USA hat, the African Americans at the counter, or, most probably, the man in the Members Only jacket walking into the bathroom Michael Corleone style. And right when Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) is about to walk in, a cut to black.
Chase eloquently explained his intentions and his reaction to the public’s immediate response to the show in an interview with Jake Coyle of the Associated Press in 2012:
“To me the question is not whether Tony lived or died, and that’s all that people wanted to know: “Well, did he live or did he die? You didn’t finish the show. You didn’t answer the question.” That’s preposterous. There was something else I was saying that was more important than whether Tony Soprano lived or died. About the fragility of all of it. … Tony was dealing in mortality every day. He was dishing out life and death. And he was not happy. He was getting everything he wanted, that guy, but he wasn’t happy. All I wanted to do was present the idea of how short life is and how precious it is. The only way I felt I could do that was to rip it away. And I think people did get it. It made them upset emotionally, but intellectually they didn’t follow it.”
What Chase wanted to do was exactly what he had done for every episode in the shows 6 and a half seasons, and that was give the audience something relevant to discuss that related to their own personal lives and existence. He was never solely focused on the lives of the made up characters in his show, but used his medium to comment and explore the human condition in a narrative format. While the ending is still misunderstood by many, it is one of the greatest examples of existentialist work in the history of film and television.
The reason The Sopranos is still cited as the greatest television show ever created, even after it opened the flood gates for the current batch of great dramatic television, is because of the direct association it made with the lives of the viewers of the show. It was not made to be consumed blindly, but a dialog immediately opens up between the show and the attentive viewer. It may be a show about big, violent, funny Italian mobsters, their families, and their sexy girlfriends, but more than that it is an analysis of what it is to be an American, and, more broadly, a human living in the modern world. Its finale is a perfect example of what the show is all about. It expresses a universal message that failed to resonate with audiences immediately, and is far more interesting than a close-ended ending that satisfies the masses because it is easy to understand and answers all questions. Life is not simple, and Chase instead gave audiences a gift in this ambiguous, intellectual ending that, when deconstructed, can spurn discussion and thought in its viewers instead of the simple, “What an episode! What a way for Tony to go out!” Chase invites the audience to introspectively contemplate the finale scene, and the series in its entirety and the truths that have been plaguing humanity since its existence.
No one gets to choose when their life ends unless they pull the trigger themselves. For Tony the danger is even more present. Any time he walks in public he could be in danger of being assassinated. In the end, Chase gave viewers both a beautiful montage to the little moments in life, people talking and eating their food in joyful conversation, as well as, as he puts it, the “fragility of life” that everything for Tony and anyone else in the diner could end in an instant. No one is ready to “Stop Believing” that life, or that The Sopranos for that matter, will end, but it does end and it does stop. Therefore, Chase’s cut to a black abyss in the middle of Journey’s infinitely famous pop song “Don’t Stop Believing” epitomizes his message. Life stops no matter how good the moment is, no matter what you’re in the middle of, no matter what you’re looking forward to. It inevitably stops, sometimes mid sentence (or mid lyric), just when you were least expecting it. And who knows what happens next.
Coyle, David. Interview with David Chase. The Associated Press December 17, 2012. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/david-chase-reflects-sopranos-ending>.
Solomon, Robert C. No Excuses. Existentialism and the Meaning of Life. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2000.
The Sopranos. Creator: David Chase. HBO. 1999-2007. Television.
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