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Analyze This

June 10, 2009

On the evening of June 10, 2007, several million people watching "The Sopranos" experienced a moment of simultaneous bewilderment. During the final scene of the final episode of its final season (a montage in which the tension built up steadily from cut to cut) the screen went blank -- and the soundtrack, consisting of the Journey power ballad "Don't Stop Believing," had gone dead. The impending narrative climax never arrived. But neither was this an anticlimax, exactly; it did not seem to be related at all to the events taking place onscreen. Many viewers probably assumed it was a technical glitch.

Once the credits began rolling, any anger at the service provider was usually redirected to the program’s creators. The willing suspension of disbelief had been not so much broken as violated.The blank screen could be (and was) interpreted variously: as an indication that Tony Soprano was blown away by an assassin, perhaps, or as a gesture of hostility by David Chase (towards the audience, or HBO, or even the notion of closure itself).

But analysis was not payoff. The end remained frustrating. The Sopranos offered its viewers an aporia they couldn’t refuse.

As I write this column (scheduled to appear two years to the day after that final episode aired) the bibliography of academic commentary on "The Sopranos" runs to more than half a dozen volumes. That's not counting all the stray conference papers and scattered volumes with chapters on it, let alone the knickknack books offering Tony Soprano's management secrets.

Life being as short as it is, I have not kept up with the literature, but did recently pause in the middle of watching the third season to read the latest book-length commentary, The Sopranos by Dana Polan, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, published in March by Duke University Press.

His departmental affiliation notwithstanding, Polan’s analysis challenges the idea that "The Sopranos" was much more akin to film than to television programming.This is certainly one of the more familiar tropes in critical discussion of "The Sopranos," whether around the water cooler or in more formal settings. An associated line of thought identifies it with a tradition of “quality TV” -- as when a critic in The New York Times suggested that the series “is strangely like 'Brideshead Revisited,' 'The Singing Detective,' and 'I, Claudius.' ”

(The fact that Tony Soprano’s mother is named Livia certainly did seem like a nod to the latter show’s monstrous matriarch. At least one classicist has argued that the real-life Livia Drusilla of the first century was the victim of an unscrupulous smear campaign. I mention this for the convenience of anyone who wants to attempt a revisionist interpretation of Livia Soprano’s role. Good luck with that.)

Rather than going along with the familiar judgment that "The Sopranos" stood above and apart from the usual run of mass-cultural fare, Polan reads it as continuous with both the traditions of genre television and the hierarchy-scrambling protocols of the postmodern condition.

The thugs in Tony Soprano’s crew are familiar, obsessed even, with the Godfather films, and cite them constantly – a bit of intertextuality that left the audience constantly scrambling to find and extrapolate on allusions within the unfolding story. But Polan maintains that the show was structured at least as much by parallels to the old-fashioned situation comedy. Or rather, to the especially ironic variation on sitcom themes found in one program in particular, "The Simpsons."

“In this revised form,” writes Polan, “the job front is a complicated site lorded over by capricious and all-powerful bosses; the sons are slackers who would prefer to get in trouble or watch television than succeed at school; the daughter is a liberal and intellectually ambitious child who is dismayed by her father’s déclassé way of life and political incorrectness but who deep down loves him and looks for moments of conciliation; the wife is a homemaker who often searches for something meaningful to her existence and frequently tries to bring cultural or moral enrichment into the home; the bar is a male sanctuary; and there is an overall tone of postmodern fascination with citation and a general sense of today’s life as lived out in an immersion in popular culture and with behaviors frequently modeled on that culture.”

Someone posting at the New York Times blog Paper Cuts a few months ago took the entirely predictable route of charging the book with “taking all the fun out of our favorite unstable texts” by smearing jargon on slices of the show.

But surely I cannot be the only reader who will respond with a kind of wistful nostalgia to Polan’s recurrent, urgent insistence that postmodern irony is organizing principle of "The Sopranos."

The show “frustrates easy judgment,” he writes, “by incorporating a multiplicity of critical positions into the text so that it becomes unclear to what extent there is one overall moral or thematic attitude that governs the work.”

Man, that really takes me back. While "The Sopranos" itself premiered in 1999, this interpretation has something very 1989-ish about it.... The Berlin Wall was in ruins, and so were the metanarratives. Joe Isuzu was introducing a new generation to the liar's paradox. And it seemed like if you could just make your irony sufficiently ironic, brute contingency would never touch you. Those were "good" times.

Yet formally self-conscious and deliberately ambiguous though it tended to be, "The Sopranos" was by no means so completely decentered in its “overall moral or thematic attitude” as all that. On the contrary, it seems to me to have been very definitely grounded what might be called (for want of any better phrase) a deeply pessimistic Freudian moral sensibility.

That label may sound almost oxymoronic to most people. We tend to think of Freud’s work as a negation of moralism: an attempt to liberate the individual from the excessive demands of the social order. But his view of the world was a far cry from that of the therapeutic culture that took shape in his wake. He was skeptical about about how much insight most patients could ever achieve -- let alone the benefits following from the effort. The mass of humanity, Freud said, was “riffraff.” The best the analyst could hope for was to cure the client of enough “neurotic misery” to be able to deal with “ordinary human unhappiness.”

A regular consumer of new therapeutic commodities like Tony’s sister Janice Soprano may expect to get some profound and satisfying self-transformation for her money. But the original psychoanalytic perspective was far more dubious. Freud also had misgivings about how his work would be received in the United States. While approaching by ship in 1909 (this year marks the centennial of his lectures at Clark University), Freud took exception to Jung’s remark that they were bringing enlightenment to the New World. No, said Freud, their ship was delivering the plague.

Indeed, someone like Tony Soprano entering treatment would have been one of the old doctor’s worst nightmares about the fate of his work. The question of Dr. Melfi’s willingness to continue treating Tony (not simply the danger this presents to her, but the moral puzzle of what “improvement” would even mean in the case of a sociopath) runs throughout the series.

When Carmela Soprano decides to seek therapy, she is referred to an old immigrant analyst named Dr. Krakower who refuses to indulge her belief that Tony is fundamentally decent. This is, of course, something the viewers, too, have been encouraged to believe from time to time -- in spite of seeing it disproved in one brutal encounter after another.

“Many patients want to be excused for their current predicament,” says Dr. Krakower, “because of events that occurred in their childhood. That's what psychiatry has become in America. Visit any shopping mall or ethnic pride parade, and witness the results.” He then refuses to accept payment from Carmela, or to continue treatment, until she breaks with Tony: “I'm not charging you because I won't take blood money, and you can't, either. One thing you can never say is that you haven't been told.”

Dr. Krakower then disappears from the show. A present absence, so to speak. We, the viewers, have by that point had numerous reminders that we are deriving vicarious pleasure from seeing how Tony and his crew earn the blood money that Dr. Krakower won't touch. We have been given a very clear indication of the difference between complicity and some version of the Freudian moral stance.

The deep pessimism of that outlook comes through time and again as we see how powerful are the psychic undercurrents within the family. Far from it being “unclear to what extent there is one overall moral or thematic attitude that governs the work,” we are on a terrain of almost Victorian naturalism, in which rare moments of insight are no match for the blind play of urges that define each character.

Take, again, the example of New Age gangster moll Janice Soprano. In his book, Polan notes that she “keeps hooking up with the dysfunctional and violent heads of Mafia crews within Tony’s jurisdiction.” In spite of everything, she never learns from her mistakes.

Polan treats this as an example of “the amnesia plot” – a sly, pomo-ironic wink, perhaps, at all those times on "Gilligan’s Island" when somebody got hit on the head with a coconut.

But surely some other interpretation is possible. Outside the play of televisual signifiers, there are people who, in one crucial area or other of their lives, never learn a damned thing – or if they do, it still makes no difference, because they make the same mistakes each time a fresh opportunity presents itself. This is, perhaps, the essence of Freud’s distinction between neurotic misery and normal unhappiness.

Not that the old misogynist necessarily gives us the key to understanding Janice Soprano. But her behavior, cycling through its compulsions in spite of various therapists and gurus, is consistent with Freud’s grimmer estimates of human nature.

The virtual impossibility of changing one’s life (even when staying alive depends on it) was also the lesson of the gay mobster Vito Spatagfore’s trajectory during the final season. Having fled both the closet and his murderously homophobic peers, Vito has every reason to settle down to an idyllic life in New Hampshire, where he has both a low-carbohydrate diet and a studly fireman boyfriend.

But Vito feels compelled to return to New Jersey and his old way of life, with predictable results. It all plays out like something inspired by Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which Freud’s speculations on the repetition compulsion lead him to the concept of thanatos, the death drive.

When the screen went blank two years ago, it was, among other things, a disruption of our daydream-like engrossment in the world of the Sopranos. It was a sharp, even brutal reminder that the viewer had made an investment in Tony's life. The audience was left frustrated: we wanted him to either escape the consequences of his actions or get killed. Neither motive is exactly creditable, but daydreams often manifest truths we'd rather disavow.

Polan’s book is often insightful about the visual dimension of The Sopranos, if a bit reductive about treating its self-consciousness as generically postmodern. The program’s long shadow, he writes, “tells us something serious about the workings of popular culture in the media economies of today. Irony sells, and that matters.”

We all make different meanings out of the raw materials provided by any given cultural artifact – so in the spirit of hermeneutic laissez faire, I won’t quibble. But the realization that "irony sells" does not exhaust the show's meaning. It seems, rather, like something one of the brighter gangsters might say.

For this viewer's part, at least, the lesson of "The Sopranos" is rather different: Life is over soon enough, and it is not full of second chances – even though we tend to expect them. (We often prove really good at kidding ourselves about how many chances there are.) Be as ironic about life as you want; it doesn’t help. You end up just as dead.

 

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