Sunday, July 14, 2024

5 Things I Learned From The First Season of The Sopranos

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While I’m a big fan of television, my crippling urge to re-watch shows I’ve already seen on repeat means that I haven’t gotten around to watching a lot of the classic “prestige TV” shows. Well now I’m finally rectifying that – starting with the first season of The Sopranos!

I gotta say it straight away – I really like this show. I’ve always loved the flavour of mob movies – all the smokey rooms and gruff-voiced Italians making veiled threats. Makes me wanna take up smoking cigars and eat only pasta. I enjoy how this show combines that flavour with the madcap energy of a dysfunctional family who can barely get through a meal without some kind of tantrum erupting. Most of all, I like that I have no idea what’s going to happen – my pre-existing knowledge of the show consists entirely of that bit in Bojack Horseman where Todd accidentally steals the final episode’s ending.

A screencap of Todd from Bojack Horseman. Caption reads: "Whoa, who, Tony marries Dr. Melfi?"
I’m assuming from context that this doesn’t happen?

So I thought I’d share a few miscellaneous thoughts that I had while watching this first season, and speculate wildly about future events that will ensure I look like a complete tool in a few seasons.

1) They love referencing mob movies, huh?

I swear, almost every episode contains some character naming their favourite mob movies, talking about them in general, quoting lines. It’s a reference geeks candy shop. One character in the first episode has a whole extended bit where he does an impression of Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III.

A gif of Silvio. The caption reads: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Yeah this bit.

In another episode, a member of the Italian-American Anti-defamation League rants about the portrayal in Hollywood of Italian-Americans as gangsters. Another subplot has one character try to write a screenplay based on his experiences in the Mafia. It’s kind of this self-reflective panopticon, where the show is commenting on how media portrayals perpetuate this stereotype, the stereotype pushes people into mob activity, and the mob activity pushes them to write Hollywood films, all within a show which is itself both built upon and commenting upon classic mob movies. Or, the writers are nerds who wanted to reference their favourite films. One of the two.

2) Junior Soprano is a better lover than Batman

So we all know that the whole internet was in flames a couple of weeks ago, as D.C. censored an episode of Harley Quinn where Bruce Wayne gives cunnilingus to Catwoman, stating “heroes don’t do that.” Of course, this drew bemusement and criticism from the entirety of Twitter, anyone with taste, and Zack Snyder.

It was right in the middle of this shitstorm that I reached episode 9, Boca, which almost entirely revolved around one character giving reportedly great oral sex, and his insane need to keep that a secret, for fear it will damage his reputation as a “real man.” That character is the ruthless and experienced head honcho of the family – Corrado ‘Junior’ Soprano.

Junior Soprano sits outside a cafe, dressed in old-man slacks.
Yeah, this guy.

Despite looking like he buys all his clothes in a five-pack from George at Asda, we now know, as an irrefutable, canonical fact, that this guy eats better pussy than the super-jacked billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Let that sink in.

It’s a great farce, watching these men of great power devour each other over the most ridiculously fragile perception of masculinity. The reveal of Junior’s rug-munching skills lead directly to him putting out a hit on his own nephew’s life, that’s how insane they get over it.

It also intersects with Tony’s regular visits to a psychiatrist, which themselves are viewed as a symbol of unforgivable weakness. He sums up this bitter clownery in the last episode, about how “cunnilingus and therapy” led to a shitstorm of attempted murder and familial betrayal. Which I guess is bad news for about 90% of the people reading this.

Speaking of Tony…

3) Tony Soprano is my poor little meow-meow

Yeah, I know, I know, Tony Soprano is an awful person. He’s a murderer, a criminal, and a philanderer, with terminal rage issues, the most toxic sense of masculinity, and a willingness to burn down a friend’s restaurant.. But what can I say? He’s a sad little man and I just want to give him a pat on his head. It’s not that I think I can fix him, it’s that I want to make flower crown edits of him.

Tony Soprano carrying a pillow with malicious intent.
Tony Soprano can have a little matricide, as a treat.

I blame the ducks in the first episode. If a man gets unreasonably excited about looking after a family of ducks, then I’m immediately on his side. That’s just how it goes. I can’t help but feel for him trying to deal with the worst family in the world, and the massive blind spots that his upbringing has clearly given him. I know it’s a cliche for fans to defend problematic white men, but I’m willing to indulge that cliche. He’s my sad little meatball who just needs a nap, and a maximum dose of therapy.

4) Mama Soprano is the absolute worst, and I love it

Tony’s mother, Livia Soprano, is a total gem, and by that I mean she’s a complete piece of shit. She’s basically the Eeyore of this show – constantly complaining, taking every single thing any says in the worst possible way, and dramatically declaring how awful her life is. Yet Nancy Marchand somehow makes this toxic negativity the most engaging thing to watch. I love every moment she bitterly moans about how her daughter-in-law bringing her a lasagne is the most intolerable torture imaginable. She makes Lucille Bluth look downright cuddly.

Livia Soprano can have a little infanticide, as a treat.

The fun part is that in a show full of cut-throat mobsters, prepared to shoot a man in a bath or garrote them in a trailer park, she gets to be perhaps the most ruthless of them all. She puts out a hit on her own son, for the crime of getting put in a nursing home. How cold is that? And then she pretends to have Alzheimer’s so nobody will suspect her, the genius. She’s the bitter old lady in the corner, who’s also casually manipulating everyone around her to do her bidding. The grand chessmaster who can’t stop criticising the polish of the board. I wanna see her get drunk with Cersei Lannister.

5) This show invented The Therapy Episode

I always loved the Therapy Episode. It’s such an easy and obvious way to do character exploration, but it really works. It gave us one of the best episodes of The West Wing, the best episode of Rick and Morty (overdone memes aside), and it gives us a great episode of The Sopranos. James Gandolfini and Lorraine Bracco have brilliant chemistry, and make every scene between them sparkle. What better framing device to explore character than to just put them in a room and have another character whose literal job it is to ask them questions about their feelings.

Dr. Melfi carries out therapy.
Tell me about your backstory.

There are some moments here and there that are a bit wobbly – there is one description of Borderline Personality Disorder which is, uh, wildly inaccurate to say the least – but for the most part this is a good attempt to explore mental health. It’s still misunderstood now, but it was far worse in the mainstream two decades ago.

Infusing dream analysis and trauma exploration into this hyper-dangerous mobster world is a great watch, and provides some insightful commentary on exactly what kind of mental state somebody involved in organised crime must be in. It also teaches us that if you’re going to drop hints to your mobster patient that his mother might have attempted infanticide, you should probably invest in a cheaper table.

What’s Next?

So as I said, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next. For all I know, the second season revolves around Tony setting up a cupcake shop in Poughkeepsie. I’m just looking forward to the adventure. But here are my wildly unsubstantiated guesses as to what happens in the next season:

  • I assume Dr Melfi is going to return, but perhaps more as like a reluctant frenemy than an official psychiatrist. I can’t see her being too happy about having to skip town.
  • Tony is going to be investigated by the FBI now he’s the official Head Boy, and get into some kind of fatal hijinks. Perhaps he’ll kill that one guy that broke his bowl.
  • Meadow will either decide she wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and learn how to be a mob boss, or the entire opposite and decide that she hates him and everything he does. No in between.
  • We’ll get to meet more Sopranos – perhaps a gay cousin, or an aunt who’s somehow meaner and grumpier than Livia.
  • Mama Soprano will actually develop Alzheimers and be unable to convince anyone of that fact. 
  • Tony will, in fact, marry Dr. Melfi. 
Tony Soprano threatens Dr. Melfi
Mamma mia!
Images courtesy of HBO

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