The Long Con

Illustration by Roberto Parada

David Chase, you sadist. We trusted you, and then you turned on us—and maybe we deserved it.

Since The Sopranos’ premiere in 1999, critics have preached that it was like nothing else on television: It was novelistic (Dickensian!), cinematic (Fellini-esque!), iconic (Is there any other show where most viewers still watch the opening credits?), a metaphor for Bush’s America. The implication has always been that at last, TV was playing way out of its league.

But HBO’s slogan aside, The Sopranos was TV—and great because of that fact, not despite it. Chase was the first TV creator to truly take advantage, in every sense, of the odd bond a series has with its audience: an intimate dynamic that builds over time, like any therapeutic relationship. Unlike a novel, a TV drama is not invented in some solitary genius’s cork-lined chamber. It is a collaboration, with viewer response providing a crucial feedback loop—a fitting dynamic for a mob story, a genre predicated on a certain level of bloodlust in its audience. For eight years, the characters themselves obsessively watched (and quoted and analyzed and emulated) GoodFellas and The Godfather, and we obsessively watched (and quoted and analyzed

and emulated) The Sopranos, and all along, Chase was out there watching us watching them. As the show became more popular, the characters more beloved, the fans more openly excited by the violence, one got the distinct sense that Chase did not always like what he saw.

But he was willing to give us what we didn’t want. There are many breeds of TV auteurs: the great mythologizers, Buffy’s Joss Whedon and Lost’s J.J. Abrams and The X-Files’ Chris Carter; the quirky dialogists, like Gilmore Girls’ Amy Sherman-Palladino and the maddening David E. Kelley; deadpan craftsmen like Dick Wolf and sadomasochistic visionaries like Tom Fontana and California dreamers like Alan Ball. There are the utopian solipsists (okay, just Aaron Sorkin). But they all share an essential love for their characters—a natural side effect, one might imagine, of building one story for many years. Their protagonists suffer, but they rarely corrode.

In this sense, Chase was a true iconoclast, a prophet of disgust. He seemed determined to test TV’s most distinctive quality, the way it requires us to say yes each week. To be a fan, we needed to welcome Tony Soprano again and again into our homes, like a vampire or a therapy patient. Chase gave that choice a terrible weight.

Now that it’s over, no longer a work-in-progress, we are finally free to criticize it for real or praise it as a whole, and despite some missteps (a gambling problem, really? And what was that Furio-Carmela thing back in Season 4?), I do think the show will reward rewatching. It was, in fact, truly revolutionary, but not because it was adult or novelistic. The Sopranos was the first series that truly dared us to slam the door, to reject it. And when we never did, it slammed the door on us: A silent black screen, a fitting conclusion to a show that was itself a bit of a long con, that seduced us as an audience, then dismantled its own charms before our eyes.

“Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”

When we first met Tony Soprano, he was a mess, but we loved him, we couldn’t help it. Underneath that bulk (and James Gandolfini was significantly smaller at the start, almost light on his feet), he was a hurting bad boy. Smart despite the malapropisms, Tony struck many viewers as simply an extreme variation on the midlife baby-boomer: He was struggling with aging relatives, mouthy teenage kids, and that old work-life balance. His deepest desire was to be a better parent than his own (an ambition that was perhaps aiming rather low). He was terrified of death. And his greatest enemy was the most brilliant strategist of them all, his mother, Livia, a villain who crushed her enemies with the illusion of powerlessness.

Those early episodes are jauntier and broader than what came later, with a stylized quality strongly reminiscent of GoodFellas—Chase’s master influence, he’s said. The first moment of violence is practically a dance sequence, a loopy action shot in which Tony’s cover story to Dr. Melfi (“Then we had coffee”) is contrasted with a slapstick beating in daylight, scored to a doo-wop song. (On the DVD commentary, Chase says it’s the one musical choice he regrets: “I think it’s hackneyed, silly, and I’m sorry.”) Carmela is a broader character, too, and knows more about Tony’s business—she hides money in false Campbell’s Soup cans, and even brandishes a gun.

But if the show was playful, it took one thing seriously: Tony’s therapy sessions with Melfi. He’d gone to her for help with panic attacks, but their meetings quickly became something stranger and deeper, an experiment in self-knowledge. The show’s central question was simple and bold: Can this man change? It’s no wonder Slate assembled a panel of shrinks to weigh in. Back then, The Sopranos could be viewed without irony as a drama of human potential, however dark-humored and extreme.

Illustration by Roberto Parada

Not that Tony himself welcomed the challenge. “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems,” he raves during his first session. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. What they didn’t know is that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fangu’!”

And yet, like Portnoy, he began. His rants were denial, the necessary pushback before committing to such painful work. Early episodes can feel like containers for baseline psychoanalytic insights. In the first, Tony discovers that “talking [helps]. Hope comes in many forms.” In the second, he learns that if he doesn’t admit to his rage at his mother, he will displace it onto others. Next, he struggles with whether he is a golem—an empty self, a monster for hire. And by “Pax Soprana,” he confesses his love to Melfi and she tells him about transference. “This psychiatry shit, apparently what you’re feeling is not what you’re feeling,” he explains to Carmela. “And what you’re not feeling is your real agenda.”

The question of Tony’s sociopathy was also there up front, but the people raising it were weasels and weaklings. “You know you can’t treat sociopaths! He’s scum, and you shouldn’t help him with his bed-wetting,” complains Melfi’s strutting yuppie ex over a family dinner. Later in the episode, he was clearer: “Call him a patient. Man’s a criminal, Jennifer. And after a while, finally, you’re going to get beyond psychotherapy, with its cheesy moral relativism, finally you’re going to get to good and evil. And he’s evil.”

But then, Melfi’s husband was the enemy. He was a smug insider, a condescending voyeur—one of a host of such characters, like Tony’s next-door neighbors (and Melfi’s friends) the Cusamanos, who exploited him for show-and-tell at their golf club. (Tony’s ex Charmaine Bucco was the sole exception: She judged him, but did it from the inside—making her the show’s only moral character. It was nice to see her briefly reappear in the penultimate episode, her eyes still narrowed eight years later.) It was no wonder Melfi had begun to identify with Tony. Among the yuppies and therapists who surrounded her, she felt like a misunderstood outlaw, the only one who dared to see the abused child within the monster.

And it was no wonder we, as an audience, identified with Melfi. She was—hard to remember, but it’s true—a perfectly decent therapist. She handled Tony’s transference gently; she gave him tools to cope with his mother and uncle (tools he used to consolidate power, but still). She even saved a life, that of Meadow’s child-molesting soccer coach. Instead of ordering the murder, Tony stumbles stoned into the family rec room, stunned with the effort of not killing, moaning to his wife, “Carmela, Carmela, I didn’t hurt nobody.”

Back then, this scene struck me as the show’s iconic moment—a bravura sequence in which the decision not to commit violence was as vivid as any bloody hit. In a drama built on gore, it was thrilling. Though Tony continued to collect envelopes, order hits, screw goomars, it seemed like evidence that he could be a different man.

“Grandma, how can it be a joke if you’re crying?”

And then something in Chase’s vision went black.

Over the course of the show, Tony’s sessions with Melfi have taken on many metaphors. They are like sessions with a hooker: She takes his money and plays a seductive role. (In one sequence, he dreams her office is a bordello.) They are like sessions with a priest: She hears confessions and guides him toward meaning. They are like sessions with the FBI: By talking to her, he’s betraying his family, putting his livelihood at risk, and violating omertà.

But most unsettlingly, they became a metaphor for our relationship, as viewers, with the show. Like Melfi, we began openhearted, proud of our empathy, and thrilled to have a character so rich to explore. Then came the counter-transference, the audience crushes, the endless articles on James Gandolfini, sex symbol. And slowly, as years passed, one could feel an insistent chill, even as Melfi herself receded into the background and message boards flooded with fans aping mobspeak. The violence was growing more intense: the assassination of Big Pussy, then Adriana, that brutal scene where Ralphie killed a pregnant stripper (a brilliantly sick sequence that caused a wave of viewer protest), the curbing of Coco. Dread, not excitement, began to feel like the show’s signature emotion.

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.”

But by the time Tony was howling in the desert like Jim Morrison, high on peyote and screaming, “I get it! I get it!” we’d had our own revelation. Tony’s life was just a series of empty epiphanies. Sure, he was capable of guilt and anger and sentimentality—of deep emotion and loyalty. But no catharsis resulted in any true action. Instead, he was becoming his real self: the empty golem.

And this was true for all the characters. Each was eager for greater self-esteem, more spiritual mojo, but in their hands, self-knowledge had zero correlation with ethical action. Carmela gazed at cathedrals in Paris, dizzy with spiritual longing, but her capacity for questioning had dwindled to a nub, a carapace of false piety and clichés. (“It’s better to have loved and lost!”) Tony’s sister Janice used yogic wisdom as a cosmic switchblade. In the show’s most remarkable case, Christopher became a sincere AA member while continuing to shoot people in the head—his sobriety impinging barely at all on his livelihood, other than his losing the ability to bond with Paulie Walnuts over sambuca.

Each drama of self-discovery met its shadow version late in the series. Tony’s epic depression was miniaturized in his son—who was at once more pathetic and more swiftly manipulative—then cured by a shiny car and a decent script. (In one bitter little sequence in the show’s finale, A.J.’s therapist is a leggy Melfi doppelgänger; meeting her, Tony goes off on a rant about Livia, now long dead. Carmela’s deadpan gaze is priceless: Her husband is stuck in a time warp, his once-affecting rants now toxic parodies.)

Even Melfi’s first encounter with Tony’s soft side seems in retrospect a red flag, mere manipulative sentimentality about babies and animals—a hallmark (at least according to “The Criminal Personality,” the study that pushed Melfi into her ex-husband’s camp) of a sociopath who can’t be saved.

“You answer me like I’m Jesus Christ himself. And if you fucking lie to me, may your mother dies of cancer of the eyes.”

A friend of mine watched The Sopranos finale, having never seen any of the rest of the series. He was understandably thrown, not so much by the final blackout but by the characters. Who were these people who had fascinated so many devoted viewers? What he couldn’t see, of course, was that each had become a shrunken version of his or her former self: Tony grimly arranging hits, Carmela ogling real estate, a Meadow who had drifted so far from the savvy girl of Season 1 that she could tell her father, with apparent earnestness, that his oppression by the FBI had motivated her to enter law school.

By the final episodes, we seemed to be heading toward the conventional ending for a mob story: a bloodbath. But perhaps it was appropriate that the most brutal rubout was Melfi’s hit on Tony. After enduring endless needling from her smug therapist, Elliot—like her ex-husband, a truth-telling bad guy, hard to listen to but essentially correct—Melfi confronts her own complicity. As she lies alone in bed, the words of that Yochelson and Samenow study flash up at her—and more alarmingly, at us, centered and bold on our screens: “For the criminal, therapy is just another criminal operation.”

Some viewers thought the scene that followed came out of the blue, but I bought it 100 percent: not just the breakup with Tony but Melfi’s incompetence at ending it, the rupture of her emotions through a once-professional wall. Melfi feels exposed as a dupe; her pathetic counter-transference has endured for years (“Toodle-oo!” she told Tony flirtatiously in Season 2, running into him after terminating therapy the first time), and she is humiliated and furious, no brave renegade but the woman who built a more functional evil person. “But we’re making progress!” Tony protests. And he adds a resonant punch line: “As a doctor, I think that what you’re doing is immoral.”

It’s understandable many viewers wish they could go back in time, back to the first season, which ended on a comparably heartwarming note, when the show seemed like it might be just a metaphor about the value of family. A thunderstorm was drenching New Jersey, the electricity was out; Tony and Carmela picked up the kids in their car, and they were wheeling around town, looking for a place to land. They wound up at Artie Bucco’s new restaurant, where Artie, after a moment of hesitation, invited them in. By candlelight, they shared some pasta made on the gas stove in the back.

Tony was surrounded by members of both of his families. At one table, Silvio and Paulie hashed out the revelation that Tony was in therapy, preparing for the new régime now that Junior was in prison. Chris and Adriana canoodled at the bar. And Tony raised his glass: “I’d like to propose a toast, to my family. Someday soon, you’re gonna have families of your own. And if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments, like this. That were good. Cheers!”

This was the scene that Chase repurposed for the finale. With the family gathered once again for a meal, A.J. harks back to what used to be, saying “You once told us to try to focus on the things that are good.” But this final scene has none of the earlier’s warmth, no sense of shelter. Instead, we see a family of bad guys—dim, dwindled, corrupted, contentedly sharing a plate of onion rings. And then the door slams shut.

Looking back, we too can think about the good times: that first truly brilliant episode, “College”; the wrenching sight of Big Pussy sobbing in the bathroom of Tony’s mansion; Season 4’s marital dissolution in “Whitecaps”; the tragic tale of Adriana; the perverse tale of Vito; and in this season’s opener, that quiet scene of Tony’s brooding at Janice’s lake house, while all the while a great wind carries him. We can take pleasure in our favorite series and how much we’ve enjoyed it, how much we loved Tony, what a fabulous character, wasn’t he? And remember how cool that scene was, the one where Pop-Pop’s head got popped beneath an SUV?

But we can never say that nobody ever told us.

The Long Con