Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tony Soprano and Abu Ghraib

Like many fans of the Sopranos, I was disappointed by the closing scene of the final episode, to the point of wondering whether my DVR had malfunctioned. Upon reading some commentaries, I'm a bit mollified. The best interpretation I've seen goes like this: The camera moves where Tony's eyes go, and that means constantly watching the door and every stranger for a possible assassin, so that what should be a relaxed family meal at a local diner --- an opportunity to celebrate a return to some sort of normalcy --- is utterly ruined. Forever Tony will be looking over his shoulder. Thus we have a simple lesson that crime doesn't pay, brought home by seeing how it doesn't pay even for the crime boss.

Yet, as with the Sopranos from start to finish --- although I'm one of those viewers who thought the show never quite repeated its greatest triumphs after Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano) died --- things are more complicated. To the extent that we think Tony will survive, we envision an indictment and trial coming next. Unless the Justice Department handles the trial incompetently, there are only six ways Tony can be acquitted or hang the jury: 1) Kill witnesses; 2) intimidate witnesses; 3) intimidate the judge; 4) bribe the judge; 5) intimidate jurors; and/or 6) bribe jurors. None of these options is remotely legal and Tony richly deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison for murder and other crimes. If the Sopranos were a simple crime-doesn't-pay morality tale, we would hope that Tony does indeed go to prison, but of course it isn't and we don't. We hope that somehow he beats the rap. Why?

The obvious answer is that he's the protagonist of a multi-year series. With great writing and terrific acting, we naturally come to see the world of north Jersey organized crime through Tony's eyes. We don't sympathize with his criminal activity, but we see him as a complicated person. Sure, he uses the fact that his mother never loved him as an excuse. Even in the final episode, while seeing AJ's therapist to discuss AJ's depression, Tony can't help but talk about his own rotten childhood. But he did, after all, have a rotten childhood.

More darkly, I think Tony's experience serves as a dangerous fantasy outlet and metaphor. He once told Dr. Melfi that guys who got involved in "our thing" are like soldiers. They risk death from one another but they leave non-combatants alone. This is nonsense, of course. Innocent store owners who don't pay protection money aren't left alone, for example. But no matter. We want to believe in Tony because we want to believe in the banality of evil. We want to believe that it's possible to commit acts of hideous violence by day but then come home at night and have to deal with nothing more sinister than disobedient children and a strong-willed spouse. I don't think that David Chase intended the final episode or the Sopranos more generally as a metaphor for US foreign policy, but as with all great art, there are layers of unintended meaning here. And note that AJ---himself something of a metaphor for over-indulged Americans ---decides in the final episode to ride the bus and sign up with the armed forces out of the noblest of motives, only to take a movie production job and a gas-guzzling Beamer when they're offered.

10 comments:

egarber said...

It seems somewhat odd that amid all the justified disgust with Islamic murderers, Americans tend to glamorize the same basic violence in other contexts. I totally understand the cathartic release, but there's something weird there nonetheless.
I guess it's the same reason our friends will let their four-year olds watch Die Hard movies; yet they're outraged if we catch a peak of a nipple during the Super Bowl. To further muddy things, these friends politically value the "sanctity of life".

[Of course, I'm not accusing the good professor here of distorted values :).]

Jamison Colburn said...

I must confess an affinity for the Soprano clan in our house, too. One thing we were left wondering (we totally missed the metaphor suggested here but now love it) was how the cat fit into anything. (?)

Michael C. Dorf said...

I think the cat was what Hitchcock called a Mcguffin, a distraction for the characters with no real relevance.

PG said...

I don't think the desire to see Tony escape the rap is peculiar to the Sopranos -- I sort of wanted Raskolnikov to escape in Crime & Punishment, even though he totally deserved to be punished. I think it's a mark of good writing to get us so far into the minds of villainous people that we want them to get away with it and to survive. (Contrast with Pulp Fiction, which was merely amusing and did not trouble me by killing off any of the characters.)

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