written by Kingdom of Pavement columnist Jack Bentele
It is the dead end of summer 2020 in the northern hemisphere of this our planet Earth, and it feels like we’ve come in at the end of things.
Put it out of sight, out of mind for as long as you want, but the temperature rises all the same. Generations turn against one another, political phoenixes rise and fall, and it seems as if Didion’s collapsing center repeats itself as farce – or had it already been farce back in the swinging sixties? What comes after farce? Regurgitated farce? Pick the right morning to log onto Twitter and that feels about right. This is a tired world, so on the television goes, and one of the most popular prestige series of the year actually debuted in 1999.
Is this repetition a spun-out record on cultural overdrive? Or after a long trudge through the Golden Era of TV-And-Not-Much-Else, have we just settled into the couch with a bowl of ice cream and decided we got it right the first time? Or, more specifically, that Tony Soprano did. He called that shot right as his own story began, that he had missed the best parts, that he was coming in at the end of things, and that seems like a national proclamation these days.
Was The Sopranos about millennials all along? Can I really be that self-absorbed? All due respect, you got no fuckin’ idea what it’s like to be Number One. Meet millennial icon, Tony Soprano.
The first time Tony picks up a newspaper, the Star Ledger displays the opening act of a long death march for public healthcare in America. It barely registers a huff from this hulking, white, male, anti-hero beast, although maybe it should. After all, the hospital is one of the most recurring settings throughout the rest of show, as Tony’s goons put people in them, and, as inevitably is the way of man, Tony and his goons end up busted there too.
This series hugged the bend between twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as the myth of America became our nation’s primary gamer fuel. As our glory faded, even our villains became national heroes. While the FBI start out hunting Tony at every turn, in the series finale Tony’s agent acquaintance wields a catchphrase straight from the mouth of Dubya Bush himself. After illegally tipping Tony off to help him cap a criminal rival, Agent America declares to no one but himself: “We’re gonna win this thing!” Sublimate reality into cultural myth. Supplant far off failure with localized victory. Take your wins when and where you can get ‘em.
The gangster story is nothing if not coked-up Horatio Alger, the Americanization of the American Dream, a get-rich-quick scheme fused with a dark Campbellian journey. Rise here, by any means, and you will be celebrated – not by the law, but a higher power: culture, the genetic code of our society.
But that was then and this is now, and why exactly is it that an influx of millennial viewers have now become immersed in this story by and for their parental generation? Is it simply because we were too young to consume it right the first time? Certainly, if not universally. But could it also be due to the case that Tony’s psychologically warped gangster saga feels like a peek behind the curtain of the millennium itself, our at-the-time end of history?
Do we take comfort in seeing that others felt this tightening of the drawstrings, that collective unconscious groan of unease in the morning, that recognition that escape may be impossible? Or is it more simply another symptom in our media’s favorite generation blockbuster, Boomer v Millennial: Dawn of Justice, some Oedipal drive to revel in the punishment of bad Boomer Tony and all that he could not foresee? I don’t think so, because by the time it cuts to black, I don’t want to kill Tony, even if his toxic narcissism has rotted his life beyond redemption. I definitely don’t want to be him either. Yet, unfortunately, I am beginning to think that I might already be on the road toward that pitiful Bethlehem, someone looking up at each ring of the diner door, waiting for this shit to finally end. As his mother Livia always said, let the Lord take me now. Prepare yourself for despair and you shall not be disappointed. Life is suffering. The sins of the father. Etcetera. These are the moral lessons that debut as middle age comes into view, when the sheen of youth leaves the world.
Trademark America gives quite a lot but it cannot give it all. Even with a shield of wealth and self-mythologizing, there is always a darkness pressing inward on the mind, a feeling that cannot be expressed in either words or material goods. Poor you, say the Sopranos to one another. Poor me, they think to themselves. Such indignity! It is not fair. It should not be.
In The Sopranos, murder is fueled by reactions to these indignities suffered. What is indignity if not the subversion of some held certainty? A certainty of what is owed. Some are told they are born into a promised land. But a land cannot be a promise kept, and time cannot be a promise held. As the series goes on, Tony’s killings drift from business into the deeply personal. Life is hard, so make it hard for those who seem worse around us. After everything, they deserve it, even more than we do. They have been given everything, and yet they waste it. So waste them.
Twenty years gone since its debut and where do we stand? During my own rewatch of the series this year, the story sequence at top of the final season hit me harder than it had when I first watched the show as a teenager. It reminded me of how much my view of the series had been shaded by these strange, opening episodes at the beginning of its end.
Up until this point, I was mostly impressed by how deftly the writers moved Tony and his America deeper into the absurdities of this century. I felt as if I was gaining purchase on the shadow story of my own childhood, of the machinations that eventually lead to our current breaking point. The piercing of Tony’s veil when it comes to his expectations of Mafia life felt like a mirror image of our last few decades. The high wore off. It was still cold. America had not been solved or perfected. It had stalled, and moral rot was the apparent result.
But then the sixth season opens with a shock, as Tony’s Uncle Junior finally ends up shooting his nephew, not due to some jealous defense mechanism, but dementia. Even in what might be his death, meaning is stripped away from Tony. This won’t have the noble connotations of death in the capital F-family tradition. This is an embarrassment. An accident. A random slap of fate that literally decimates his ego and sends him spiraling into a proto-Lost purgatorial coma. Uh, bold move.
What follows is a series of episodes that wind up with Tony recuperating in the hospital (plagued by a healthcare provider from Hell) alongside a rapper called Da Lux and a particle physicist called Schwinn who elucidates the essentials of quantum physics to our favorite gangster. All is connected. Our very being is liquid, and the world and everyone in it make up a universal ocean. This is the ultimate rebuff to Tony’s mother’s nihilism, and the self-pity that has eaten away at all the lives on The Sopranos. Tony even finds a new favorite quote, from the indigenous Ojibwe, taped as a postcard on his wall:
Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.
As the series heads for the finish line, the filmmakers highlight the elements of nature that surround and contain the horrid, selfish decisions of these characters and the brutalities that seem to govern human life. It all, of course, ends in that famous final black. As it approached, I wondered if such a presentational case for moral and narrative ambiguity would resonate as much now as it had during the original run, that great controversy that heralded television’s “Golden Age.”
This ending gives us a choice of interpretation. A question, not a statement. I believe it says: you are not damned until you’re damned, even if you highly suspect damnation is on its merry way. But until then? Fuhgettaboutit. What are you going to do right now? Absolution in the moment, if you’ll have it. Will Tony? Will we?
Ah, moment to moment living sure sounds peachy, but can it actually stick around in our swirling, anxious minds? And what of that lingering sense of malaise, like some Freudian specter crouching in the darkness…
Heaven only knows why we wake up each morning and think things will be better. How could they? Haven’t you read the news? The world doesn’t give a shit about me or you or your grandmother. The bombs fall, foundations quake, trust breaks. Family? Spit to the ground. Fingers flick beneath chin. That’s family. That’s life.
But then the wind blows, and the trees shift, and our eyes meet the sky. Ducks fly north for winter. Huddle beneath a soft robe and head inside some shelter where the hearth burns for the lucky enough. A suitable house, built by contractors, yes, but that church up the road, near our childhood home? It was fashioned by the hands of our ancestors you do not know. That’s America. A promise forever behind us and around the corner through some dirty turnpike tunnel. Some may even call it a light.
Jack Bentele is the film and TV columnist at Kingdom of Pavement. For more about Jack and our team, visit our About page.
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