LEGACIES: As The Sopranos closes out its seven-season run, will it earn its place as a classic American tragedy?
Why is it that as Tony Soprano sits on a deck chair overlooking a pristine upstate New York lake under a clear blue sky, the atmosphere is filled with dread? True, as we view Tony’s relaxed hulk from behind, there’s no hint that anyone’s going to sneak into the frame and whack him. But as the cliché goes: it’s just too quiet.
The last nine episodes in the seven-season run of The Sopranos (HBO), which begin airing this Sunday night at 8 pm, are looking at legacies. “What do you think people will say about me?” asks New York boss Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni (Vince Curatola), who’s dying of cancer in a prison hospital. “All in all, we’re lucky people — I tell myself that every day,” says Soprano family captain Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt). But looking back, most of the characters seem to be commenting on legacies that no one wants.
From when it first began airing, in 1999, The Sopranos has walked the line of comedy and tragedy: the buffoonish Tony and his goofball crew, just boys being boys at the Bada Bing! strip club, the graphic murders, and, most powerful of all, the turbulent domestic drama played out by Tony (James Gandolfini) and his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco). Art doesn’t choose sides. Sopranos creator David Chase and his team of writers have built a self-contained moral universe; we don’t judge these thieves and murderers except on their terms. The Sopranos writers are so skillful, we’ve been able to suspend judgment about “unrealistic” details — like, is someone who fits the profile of a classic sociopath treatable by psychotherapy?
The first episode of this final season (two were available for review) is one of the most disturbing in its run. There’s a minimum of physical violence, and not even much mob action or intrigue. But as Johnny Sack lies dying and Tony attempts to have a fun family weekend at the lakeside home of his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and her husband, Tony’s faithful lieutenant Bobby Bacala (Steven R. Schirripa), a night of Monopoly and drinking and birthday celebration (Tony’s 47) turns bitter and mean. You start to see Bobby’s quiet but urgent point: “You Sopranos go too far!”
The passive-aggressive needling of Tony and Janice is just about one of the best dramatizations of family dysfunction you’re going to see this side of Anna Karenina. (And Dave Brubeck’s soft-jazz classic “Take 5,” playing in the background, has never sounded more menacing.) Putting aside whatever feelings you may have about who you’ve been rooting for in this family drama, you’re likely to come to the same conclusion Bobby’s made to see: the Sopranos are just awful people. It probably wouldn’t be so disturbing except that, of course, as in the convention of any long-term weekly television drama, we’ve adopted this family as our own — and we’ve been seduced by the perfectly constructed world. Judging the Sopranos — even on the terms of their fictional world — at this point only makes you feel implicated.