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The Long Con


Illustration by Roberto Parada  

And Tony himself was changing, or rather, more alarmingly, he had stopped changing. In the first season, we saw Tony the struggling father, binging on whipped cream with A.J.; he beamed proudly as Meadow sang in her school chorus, squeezing Carmela’s shoulder. Even his darkest crimes—say, that witness-protection rat he strangled bare-handed in Maine—could be justified. The guy was an informer, after all; he was still on the con, manipulating junkies. It was revenge, and, hey, the rat was trying to kill Tony when Tony got him.

But the show’s agenda was shifting. Among the earliest hints was the Season 2 finale, which concluded with a montage of Meadow’s graduation party. Pussy is dead, and the family is gathered, glowing with prosperity and peace; yet their revelry is intercut with shots of the mob’s victims from the past two seasons, from immigrants being sold fake phone cards to a junkie nodding off in the Hasidic owner’s hotel from back in Episode 3. It felt like a message from Chase to us: Don’t forget, these are the real victims.

As for Tony, it had become harder to make excuses. When he was depressed, we could hear Livia speaking through him: “Poor you,” he’d snap. He stalked Carmela; he nearly seduced, then coldly ordered a hit on Adriana. He corrupted and abandoned his closest companions, from Bobby to Hesh, while soaking in self-pity and a kind of poisonous nostalgia. At times, Chase’s frustration seemed to beat behind the scenes: You like strippers, think misogyny is funny? How about watching a goomar beaten to death? That fun, too? He even created a parody of what some Sopranos fans seemed to want the show to be: Cleaver, that Saw II of mob flicks.

But the moment that really wrenched the show off its axis was a brief, almost throwaway scene in the third season, in an episode titled “Second Opinion.” I remember the first time I watched it, the way it seemed to invert everything that came before. Carmela goes to a psychiatrist we’ve never met before, a Dr. Krakower. She is eager to make the session a referendum on personal growth: She wants to “define my boundaries more clearly”—from her perspective, the issue is that she’s unhappily married. She’s toying with divorce.

But Krakower cuts her off. With riveting bluntness, he addresses Carmela not as a seeker but as a sinner. She is not Tony’s wife, he informs her; she’s his accomplice. She needs to leave now, reject Tony’s “blood money,” and save her children (“or what’s left of them”). And he adds a remark that might serve as a punch line for the series: “One thing you can never say, that you haven’t been told.”

Of course, it doesn’t work. How could it? Carmela does leave Tony, but she goes back, and when she does, she has become something far worse than she was before, a woman who has consciously decided to become unconscious. To me, Krakower is Chase, and we are Carmela. He told us who Tony is, and each episode, he became crueler in delivering that message. This shift narrowed Chase’s artistic palette, cutting out the warmer shades of the early episodes. But it also lent the show an acid originality, a sadistic narrative engagement with the audience and our own corruption.

“Some of my money comes from illegal gambling and whatnot. How does that make you feel?”

Meanwhile, what began as a valentine to talk therapy transformed, by increments, into a condemnation. Each season, Tony knew himself better. He gained more sophisticated tools to cope with life. But he became a better mobster, not a better man. Every crime left him receding into his most charmless self: menacing, piggish, a wall of flesh topped by a smirk.

And yet, he continued to make breakthroughs. The first, of course, was that famous revelation about the ducks. In an early session, Tony tells Melfi about a dream in which his penis falls off and a bird flies off with it. What kind of bird?, Melfi pries. The exchange feels like psychobabble at its goofiest, and then suddenly, it works: Tony breaks down—a moment of shocking poignancy. “It was just a trip having those wild creatures come into my pool and have their little babies,” Tony says, his voice cracking. “I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my family, like I lost the ducks. That’s what I’m full of dread about. That’s always with me.”

It’s a full-fledged, A-1 psychotherapeutic breakthrough, and in Gandolfini’s performance, intensely affecting. But with each season, such insights became more suspect. There was the shock of acknowledging that his mother was trying to kill him—another life saved by Melfi. (For Tony Soprano’s brand of depression, death threats have always been the equivalent of electroshock.) There were the insights he gained in love affairs—the melodrama with the suicidal car dealer, the bonding with the one-legged Pole. There was his coma dream of a life as a peaceful man and the New Age mellowness that followed, when he fixated on the Ojibwa koan on the hospital wall: “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”


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