With the final episodes of The Sopranos soon to air on HBO, it’s worth considering where the show fits in the pantheon of great mob stories that have been committed to film. Yes, The Sopranos is a TV show, but as such it is sui generis and can only be compared to films.
In one self-referential scene, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) and her family are eating dinner while her ex-husband laments how Italian-Americans are portrayed in movies about the Mafia. Her son, Jason, counters that mob movies have replaced westerns as the dominant narrative of the American experience. A self-serving viewpoint, perhaps, from a show like The Sopranos, but it’s also an observation that is hard to dispute.
The modern mob drama, of course, goes back to The Godfather, which neither Mario Puzo nor Francis Ford Coppola intended as a realistic portrait of the underworld. Rather, it was a metaphor for the experiences of their immigrant families. Puzo’s mother was the inspiration for Vito Corleone (presumably she never had a horse head placed in anyone’s bed) and Coppola has said that Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), the waspish young woman who marries into the Corleone clan, was a stand-in for his own wife.
Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) wants his son, Michael (Al Pacino), to not become a crime boss like him, but a senator or a governor. And surely Michael’s own wish to take the family legitimate is as much about assimilation into American society as it is escaping a life of crime. The tension between holding onto ethnic traditions and joining the American melting pot are integral to The Godfather films and play a role in The Sopranos as well.
In The Godfather, Part II, Michael’s heritage is insulted by a corrupt senator, who implies that the Corleones are not real Americans. At nearly the same time, during the party for Michael’s son’s confirmation, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo) complains that there is no decent Italian food, and that there are no Italians in the band.
On one episode of The Sopranos, Tony (James Gandolfini) takes A.J. (Robert Iler) to see a church that Tony’s grandfather helped to build, because Italians weren’t allowed to worship anywhere else. The spoiled A.J. is unimpressed, and perhaps he understands the hypocrisy of his father extolling the virtues of back-breaking, immigrant labor. For the characters on The Sopranos, their Italian heritage is a way for them to romanticize their criminal lifestyles, and it allows them to blame their exclusion from mainstream society on bigotry.
The Godfather, in Coppola’s words, was also about the dark side of the American dream. When Vito laments to Michael that his youngest son has followed in his footsteps, he says, “I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots.” In other words, there is no value in living an honest life, in merely working for a living.
Here The Godfather speaks to a fear harbored by many of us: that the game is rigged, that there is no reward in playing by the rules, and that our hard work benefits only the rich and powerful. It is the idea at the heart of every indictment of capitalism. In Goodfellas (whose power as metaphor is in no way diminished by the fact that it happens to be a true story) Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) talks with scorn of men who punch a clock and pay their taxes. In Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale, young Calogero repeats to his bus-driver father the words of the local Mafia chieftain: “The working man is a sucker.”
Dr. Melfi’s son might remind us that this same theme is played out in many westerns, wherein powerful men lord over the innocent with the complicity of corrupt lawmen. Westerns happen to feature protagonists who set out to correct this injustice; mob films feature protagonists who profit from it. To the extent that filmmakers share Don Corleone’s cynical view of the world—even as they reject his response to it—the modern gangster picture is a subversive genre.
If westerns celebrated the frontier spirit and rugged individualism that we believe shaped a fledgling nation, then mob films show America fully formed, at the height of its power—a power that often is abused. Consider that the The Godfather is set at the end of World War II, with the Corleone family drama unfolding as a new world order is being shaped. Michael reluctantly takes the reins from his wounded and weary father just as America emerges once and for all from behind its borders to replace the shattered nations of Europe as the world’s dominant power.
The sequel takes up where the first film left off, with the Corleone family lieutenants genuflecting before Michael, their new don. He has a look of ambivalence, as though trying to contemplate what such power means. He takes the family from New York City and its ethnic enclaves to Las Vegas, that quintessentially American city. From there, his power grows unchecked, and he even attempts a move into Cuba, a fitting symbol of America’s imperial ambitions—and imperial failures. By the film’s end, he has triumphed over his enemies, but in the process he has lost his soul. Remember that the Vietnam War was coming to an end when the first two Godfather films were made.
Which brings us back to The Sopranos. The series premieres in 1999, when the United States is in the midst of what George Will has called its “vacation from history.” The economy is skyrocketing and America, her power unrivaled, is at peace. And yet something is not quite right. The first time Tony Soprano talks to Dr. Melfi, he tells her that he always wanted to get in on something at the beginning. “I came too late for that, I know,” Tony says. “But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” As Melfi acknowledges, it’s a feeling that a lot of us share, and two years before Sept. 11, it was an eerily prescient statement.
Tony says he has more money and power than his father, but that in a lot of ways, his father was better off. The show’s opening credits show us how far Tony has come from his family’s roots. It’s the same progression that series creator David Chase has said that a lot of families in his native New Jersey have made. Tony drives from New York City into New Jersey, through the old, run-down inner-city Newark neighborhoods, through the stately, inner-ring suburbs, and finally to the soulless subdivision that he calls home.
Mob films have always been urban dramas. But Tony Soprano is a gangster for a suburban nation. He drives an SUV and goes to his daughter’s soccer games. He’s David Brooks’ “patio man”, holding court over his poolside grill. His pampered children run roughshod over him and his bored wife.
And he rules over an empire that he knows is crumbling, but there’s little he can do to stop it. No one obeys the rules anymore, and half the time, neither does he. Tony criticizes his nephew Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) lack of self-control, and yet Tony is doomed by his own impulses—his overeating, his violent temper and his endless philandering. As Christopher says, Tony is a man who thinks everything is his. He does whatever he wants, but knows he can delay the consequences only for so long.
Michael Corleone would no doubt find Tony Soprano repulsive. But as Kay told him in the third Godfather film, Michael was nothing more than a “common Mafia hood”; all his sophistication and respectability was a shameful façade. Tony is Michael laid bare. “Some people have to play little games,” the corrupt senator tells Michael when he insists that his family does not share in his hypocrisy.
Michael’s power is at its peak when The Godfather, Part II ends: It’s right around 1960, and America still believes in its own innocence. Tony Soprano is the perfect gangster for our own age. He’s the godfather of a nation with no illusions, and with a future as uncertain as his own.
Jonathan Potts is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. This is his first contribution to The House Next Door.