In an interview for Stanford Magazine back in the fall of 2002, David Chase responded to claims that his show offered a negative portrayal of Italian-Americans by commenting, “Everybody in the thing is Italian, but the show is really about corruption: it’s about good and evil. And in The Sopranos, there are good Italians and there are bad Italians.”
While Chase may downplay whatever consequences stem from another connection made between Italians and organized crime, it would be fair to say that the show itself largely stays true to his comment. The characters, good or bad, tend to reap what they sow, with those who violate codes of honor, respect, or their own better judgment tending to fare the worst. Being Italian has nothing to do with it, and the show has never gone out of its way to assert this more strongly than in season four’s often maligned “Christopher.” While the show has addressed both the Italian-American disconnect from Italy and the depictions of Italians in the media, “Christopher” is much more didactic, simultaneously delegitimizing the role film and television play in reality and calling for Italian-Americans to reject traditional expressions of ethnic pride in favor of an abstract self esteem.
Folks don’t usually take kindly to didacticism, especially when a favorite television program puts the brakes on plot to address problems seemingly more important to the storytellers than to the story. This is, for better or worse, the mode that “Christopher” is operating in. Rather than dismiss the episode for the time-out aberration that it is, peering under the surface (or, rather, directly at the surface) of the episode reveals more about both the characters and how Chase views them than, say, a typical mid-season Artie Bucco episodic placeholder.
The episode begins with a God’s-eye view of the Soprano crew outside Satriale’s before plunging into their discussion of how Native Americans, by protesting the Columbus Day parade, are discriminating against Italians. When Furio attempts to complicate the issue, mentioning that Columbus is disliked in Napoli because he was from Genoa and that those in the north of Italy “put up their nose at us like we’re peasants,” he is pretty much ignored. That the next scene includes Adrianna’s line about a friend thinking Furio’s ponytail makes him look like “he has a dick coming out of his head” does not do much for his authority.
Further discounting ethnicity as a definitive factor in this discussion are the mixed-blood and confused ethnicities presented in the episode. Native American activist Del Redclay is stunned to learn that his T.A. is one-eighth Italian. Doug Smith, the CEO of Mohonk Enterprises and casino, admits that he took his government handout upon learning that his grandmother on his father’s side was one-quarter Mohonk. We also learn that Iron Eyes Cody is not a Native American and that James Caan is not Italian. Tony makes a joke late in the episode about his ancestors being a nomadic tribe, the Fuckarewe (as in, they would get lost and ask, ’Where the Fuckarewe?’), and until it’s obvious that Tony is telling a joke, the episode wires one to believe that Tony is actually telling the truth. That he does make a joke out of ethnicity in such a charged context points to an insensitivity that I’ll discuss later. For now, it is safe to say that a pure ethnic pride is complicated by reality.
Also in the episode, anti Italian-American defamation organization leader Philip DiNotte is made to look ridiculous on a televised debate with Redclay. He claims that Italians had to undergo a ’perilous middle passage’ to get to America, and is called on his mistake by Montel Williams, of all people. When Redclay and DiNotte later clash at the parade, Melfi’s husband Richard, a typical ’good’ Italian on the show, labels the event as ’tragic.’ Roma Maffia’s Professor Longo-Murphy, speaking at a lunch organized by Father Phil, also seems silly when calling for Italians to promote Armani and Giuliani as model citizens. With these two portrayals, Chase waves away any criticism stemming from the anti-defamation camp. These organizations are not the solution to whatever problem exists.
And what is the problem? Tony explains it in the final scene. After driving back from a day at a Native American casino, Silvio complains about missing the parade until Tony snaps, “Who the fuck are you kidding? You were thinking about black jack.” When Silvio fires back that Native Americans are discriminating against Italian-Americans as a group, Tony dismisses him, yelling “Group! Group! Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” The line comes out of nowhere for Silvio, but quickly starts to make sense. Beyond not complaining about his problems, Gary Cooper wouldn’t rely on his “poor Texas Irish illiterate background” as a main source of pride. Silvio points out that Gary Cooper is ’the movies,’ but Tony responds that “Columbus was so long ago he might as well be a fuckin’ movie.” They’re just ’images.’ That’s all. Silvio then tries to draw Tony back into reality, claiming that real people have suffered. Tony: “Did you? No…Everything you got you got because you’re you, you’re smart, you’re whatever the fuck. Where the fuck is our self esteem?” Silvio then begins complaining again about having to ’tip-toe around the Indians,’ but Tony has made his point. He shuts Silvio up, and the episode ends.
While problems can always be boiled down to our nation’s lack of Gary Cooper for Tony, things aren’t that simple for Chase. For all of Tony’s get real bluster, Chase certainly goes through pains to paint him as anything but a modern enlightened man. In the scene where A.J. reads from Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, Tony is quick to jump at ’what they’re teaching kids these days,’ plowing through A.J.’s assertions that he is just reading from his history book and yelling about how Columbus was a “brave Italian explorer and a hero in [their] house.”
I’ve never felt completely comfortable with scenes in the series where the writers seemingly go out of their way to show Tony’s true intellectual capability. Think of the scene where Dr. Melfi reads Tony’s love/apology letter to Peter Bogdonavich’s Dr. Kupferberg and points out his spelling and grammatical errors. This always seemed a bit unfair to me; we know that Tony isn’t an academic, but to place him on the same plane as true fools like Christopher and Paulie only undercuts whatever respect and sympathy has built up, a strategy at odds with the entire humanizing project of the series. However, in “Christopher,” Tony is depicted as being truly belligerent and ignorant. Unlike the similar Nietzsche quoting scene in season two, A.J. neither has an attitude nor misinterprets what he’s reading to Tony. He is simply stating facts, Tony can’t handle it, and it makes sense.
A deep condemnation of Tony is present here. In his outburst toward A.J., Tony labels Columbus a “victim of his time.” Elsewhere, Silvio comments that “We’re the victims here” as a result of the planned protests. In this light, Tony’s disgust at the modern day Gary Cooper who joins a victims group appears hypocritical. Moreover, the episode contrasts the whining of Tony and Silvio, and Janice in her therapy sessions, with the real suffering of both Native Americans and Bobby Bacala, whose wife dies in a car accident. Regardless of the aloof and disconnected light in which the Native American activists are shown, what stands out is how Tony and Silvio can only care about the Native struggle to the degree that it interferes with their own interests. It is this selfishness and unwillingness to negotiate and listen that allows Silvio to make foolish statements like, “It’s not like they [Native Americans] didn’t get anything out of it [being wiped out]. Land, casinos.” Also, stressing Bacala’s being different from the rest of the crew and presenting his grief in such a straightforward and touching manner indicates the degree to which Tony, Silvio, and Janice have escaped real suffering and are wrapped up in themselves. The brilliance of Season Six was that it gave Tony a reality check. In S4, why does Tony have to go to therapy every week? Where the fuck is his self esteem?
More to the point, what does all of this have to do with anything? Ultimately, if, as Tony suggests, movies and ’images’ have no bearing on reality, do the characters in ’The Sopranos’? I doubt Chase and company either think so or even care. There is a sense of humor about this, like when Christopher, responding to Tony’s idea that a modern day Gary Cooper would be a member of a gay cowboy support group or something to that effect, asks, “Gary Cooper was gay?” In that one line, Christopher does not seem an Italian mobster so much as simply dumb; surely no real person could take this as a portrayal of a real Italian. Also, the closing credits use Frankie Valli’s “Dawn (Go Away), with its ironic chorus of “Go away, I’m no good for you.” If you think Italian gangsters beating strippers to death on television is a more serious problem than simple self esteem, Chase has some advice for you.
That all of this is done in the context of the television show itself is baffling and, perhaps, misguided. Much of “Christopher” seems more appropriate for an op-ed piece than as a crucial hour in a terrific episodic television program. There is something more than a bit pointless about having a television character decry the uselessness of ’images.’ As a strategy for getting critics off the show’s back, it makes twisted sense, though placing the words of what purports to be real Italian pride in the mouth of a mobster is not only ironic, but potentially self-defeating. Somehow, though, this works for me. I’m angry at Tony, the character, for being hypocritical, for being a mobster with the audacity to call for Italian self-esteem, for his deep ignorance and cruel jokes. In this sense, the episode does a complete 180, bringing the focus back on Tony instead of on itself. Is this in itself problematic? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the ethnic plights laid out? Probably. But if we do focus on Tony, we really are forced to wonder where our self esteem comes from. I don’t think “Christopher” has the answer, but I applaud it for raising the question.
Brad LaBonte is a student and writer living in New York City. This is his first article for The House Next Door.