More than any novel or movie I can think of, “The Sopranos” is an honest, faithful reflection of the heart of American culture. It’s about everything we’ve learned and lost growing up with the H-bomb, the Cold War, the assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, the Iranian hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, Woodstock, drugs, TV, classic rock, yuppie consumer culture, New Age, Prozac, the dot-com bubble, Bill Clinton, global trade, 9/11 — all of that and probably more. “The Sopranos” has no detectable political agenda, but it speaks eloquently to the corruption that has seeped into all our relationships, our business dealings, our culture, our consciousness.
The brilliant irony of how Christopher Moltisanti met his maker! Sure, Tony delivered the coup de grâce, strangling him by pinching his nose after the accident. But the accident was caused by two seemingly nice, decent girls driving a late model car, who preferred to let the unknown victims of a horrible accident die than risk what would have been a minor sanction against their driving privileges. We have grown to loathe and fear the moral relativism of Tony and his crew as they justify dozens of murders and ruined lives. But what Chase is saying here is that, under the right circumstances, Tony’s ethics are everyone’s, including our children’s.
Like our country’s greatest writer, William Faulkner (whose stories seldom left a small fictional region of Mississippi called Yoknapatawpha County) David Chase and his writing crew display America through the eyes of a geographic sub-culture, New Jersey Italian-American criminals. “The Sopranos” gets a lot of its comedy from putting our culture’s evasive buzzwords in the mouths of these thugs. Like this exchange from Season 5:
Tony Blundetto: It’s hard to believe. My cousin in the old man’s seat.
Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri: It’s like “Sun-Tuh-Zoo” says: a good leader is benevolent and unconcerned with fame.
Tony Blundetto: What?
Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri: “Sun-Tuh-Zoo”. He’s Chinese Prince Matchabelli.
Silvio Dante: “Zoo”! “Zoo”! “Sun-Zoo”, you fucking ass-kiss!
It helps if you’re old enough to remember that Prince Matchabelli was the name of a perfume company that advertised on TV a lot in the 1960s. Paulie was not the first to mix that name up with Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” But what really makes it funny is the idea of mobsters elevating themselves by citing Sun-Tzu, a chic cite for all enlightened corporate executives.
Again and again, Chase has rubbed our faces in the sheer evil and vulgarity of Tony Soprano and his associates, through some of the most violent and ugly scenes ever depicted. Then he shows just how well Tony fits into the upper-class milieu –worrying about his kids, enjoying sushi, engaging in comforting nostalgia about his ethnic roots and, of course, medicating himself under a psychiatrist’s direction. He’s just another executive who made it to the top of his chosen profession. He has what so many Americans have, and what most Americans want. Was his rise to the top that much dirtier than others who are lauded by our culture?
It’s a horrible question, an insulting question. But that’s what Chase has been asking through 83 episodes of “The Sopranos,” never more starkly than last night. For all our ideals and pretensions–and our hallucinations of enlightenment–are we baby boomers so sure we haven’t passed the ethics of sheer expediency onto our children?