Monday, March 13, 2006

The Sopranos - Season 5

Matt Zoller Seitz has written on his blog about his fear that The Sopranos, by refusing to judge its characters and, indeed, allowing Tony to get away with just about everything (he finds out who informants are or they kill themselves, charges against him seem to slide right off of him, etc.) when these characters are so morally reprehensible in many ways (I say in many ways because it's obvious that Tony loves his family unquestioningly). While he feels that it's okay to have a morally reprehensible character in a film (because of the limited amount of time we spend with them), he fears that having one in a television series, where we're invited to identify with that character for an extended period of time, is detrimental.

I, of course, would disagree (I think the impetus for judgment is on the viewers, not the producers), but it's an interesting question nonetheless. Seitz has been pleased by the turn that season six has taken, launching some characters into a state of purgatory (I won't spoil anything beyond that). But I think that season 5 is where the show began to develop these themes.

If you've seen only one episode of The Sopranos, you'll know that Tony, Dr. Melfi and Carmela are set up to be the characters the audience identifies with. Tony, of course, seems like a teddy bear, but has a very cold, unforgiving heart (much has been written about his tragically Shakespearean overtones, but season 5 is the first to embrace these ideas outright). Carmela is probably the best stand-in for the audience. She hates the immoral things her husband does to earn her such a comfortable life but she still craves that comfortable life (in many ways, Carmela is a better metaphor for the American public than Tony himself). Dr. Melfi, of course, has her issues, but she manages to tread a moral line (when she COULD have Tony kill her rapist, she refuses to on the grounds that it would be immoral). The show has always set up the Hobbesian idea that when confronted with the self-benefitting thing to do and the right thing to do, the characters will choose the one that benefits them most. But in season 5, we begin to get the sense that these things will ultimately doom them. (Many of these ideas were first suggested by Mr. Seitz, though I don't believe he would agree with me that season 5 was where the themes were first developed.)

I'm speaking, of course, of the series' penultimate episode and, I believe, its episode richest with this theme for the entire run: Long Term Parking. Drea de Matteo's portrayal of Adriana la Cerva was one of the show's brightest spots. She was essentially an optimist, and her involvement in the scuzzy world of the mob was minimal. However, the FBI got her to flip and she started feeding them information. From there on out, it was only a matter of time before her death would happen.

Long Term Parking is particularly wrenching because it does two things: It involves Adriana in her first truly serious crime (she covers up a murder for some people she barely knows in order to benefit herself), and it shows Tony at his most sympathetic and lovable (he sacrifices his own indulgences to get back together with his wife because he truly loves his family). The murder, of course, leads to the FBI putting the screws to Adriana, which leads to her asking her fiancee Christopher to turn informant and run away with her. He nearly does, but again, his own desires for his own benefit lead to him turning to Tony, who orders Adriana killed.

In short, because Adriana has finally stepped into a moral quagmire, she is killed. But David Chase is able to suggest that the moral quagmires the other characters are trapped in are much, much deeper. Because Adriana's was so shallow, her death was quick. When the end comes for the other characters, it will be truly, well, Shakespearean.

This idea is borne out by Uncle Junior, who begins to enter the later stages of dementia in this season. A man who wanted nothing more than to be the head of a family, who was someone who thought himself capable finds his hopes overturned first by an arrest and then by the complete loss of his mental faculties. Chase comes from a Catholic background, and the punishments he is meting out seem apt, as though he spent a lot of time between seasons reading Dante's Inferno.

Tony Blundetto, played by Steve Buscemi, also exemplifies this theme. He hopes to leave his old life as a gangster behind him and become a massage therapist. But even though he seems passionate about this idea, he can't put his life behind him. He's trapped, psychologically and otherwise, by who he was. And for that, he dies.

Season 5 won the show the Emmy finally, and I do think it's the most thematically complete season since the first one (even if it doesn't quite match that one). It begins in the autumn and ends in the winter, visiting spring and fall along the way. It seems to suggest that there is some hope for these characters, but most of them will end in the grave.

Season 5, I think, is where the true argument for the show as a television novel begins. The previous four seasons suggested it, but season 5 begins to tie the threads together, putting the characters in smaller and smaller boxes.

It leaves you unable to wait to see how it all ends.

1 comment:

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Wow, I wish I'd read this piece last month. Your case is close to airtight, particularly the closing, which says that with Season 5, the show began to reorganize itself as a television novel, in contrast to previous seasons, which exhibited those traits more sporadically. I wonder if this isn't evidence of a long chain of influences -- THE success of THE SOPRANOS influenced other series, some of which took the TV novel notion and explored it more diligently, and that in turn inspired THE SOPRANOS to construct more intricate and readily apparent master narratives.

The tendency was always there -- even Season Two, parts of which I recently rewatched, exhibit them. But the architecture has definitely become more precise and more exposed for our perusal.