he’s a business, man
I love a good antihero. Let me explain what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that I like characters proportionally to how much they transgress (except for Claire Underwood), and I don’t especially like watching characters start out basically good and collapse into moral treachery. Walter White, for example, provides solid entertainment but doesn’t strike me as especially compelling. His story lets the audience off the hook too easily. Though Walter starts out as a sympathetic (practically pity-wrenching) character, I don’t think he ultimately causes audience members any concern about their own moral purity. When was the last time you stayed up late at night, tortured by the possibility that you would turn to a life of crime and violence if you got a terminal illness and needed to support your family? A good antihero is more thought-provoking and prompts more internal reflection in reaction to her story. Her faults exist from the beginning, even if you looked past them. She gets smarter as you get smarter.
There are basically two kinds of antiheroes: the antihero who is supposed to be fundamentally good but breaks the rules and works outside of the system, and the antihero who’s very clearly transgressive but is also charming and relatable. I think the second is the more challenging kind, and when I think of the second, I think of Tony Soprano. As the pilot opens on Tony, we see this schlubby, balding, middle-aged man waddling into his pool and flinging crusty bread at a family of ducks that happened to pass through, excited beyond belief. He cares about family values, but finds it hard to relate to the family he has. And most important: if he really is on the side of good, it is far from obvious. He’s the caporegime of a Mafia. In the very first episode, he crashes his car into a man who owes him money, beating him bloody and telling him he’d better pay up. Through the course of the show, he orchestrates thefts, extortions, racketeering, and murders. And we see this all from the therapist’s office, where he is by turn defensive, defenseless, and one of the most charismatic characters I have ever seen on television. Like a good antihero, he’s flawed, as characters are all flawed. He does not pretend to be otherwise, as much as he wishes he could.
An anti-hero is useful when there are no heroes left, and I have ceased to believe in pure heroes. The biggest flaw of those who pretend to be perfect is their pretense, and the saddest mistake of those who believe them is their faith in that perfection. Openly flawed heroes depict themselves honestly, and a bit of honesty casts some light on the hard problems that we need so badly to recognize. Yet there’s still something that makes me uneasy about how much I like Tony Soprano. I feel as though I shouldn’t, and yet I really do.
It is important for the purposes of this piece that you understand his magnetism. He is positively endearing as he sits in his therapist’s office in his boxy suit with his growing double-chin and talks about how much he loves his Uncle Junior—though Tony tells us that he has some grievances against his beloved uncle. “When I was younger, he told my girl cousins that I was never going to be an athlete, and”—he pauses—“frankly, that made a big blow on my self-esteem.” If you go online, I’m sure you’ll find synopses of the show that describe Tony as a “sociopath with anxiety and depression issues.” This is a wholly inadequate description of a man who made The Sopranos a hit for six seasons. It does not capture his innocence and infective longing as he clumsily tries to nurture ducklings in only a bathrobe, his struggles to perform his duty to his family, nor even the frankly funny scenes, like when he accidentally poured too much lighter fluid on the grill at his son’s birthday party, creating an explosion, and passed out.
I suppose the appeal of Tony Soprano could be taken in an optimistic way: Is it not commendable when we can understand and empathize with those who are different from us, and isn’t it a success that The Sopranos makes us accept and like Tony? After all, to condemn too much is to understand too little. If Tony is flawed, as we are all flawed, then we should try to understand him and try to extend the same courtesy to ourselves.
But to understand is not necessarily to accept, and there are numerous things we should not accept about Tony Soprano. The Sopranos doesn’t work as a show if you write off Tony as a fundamentally a bad guy and tell yourself that you’re nothing like him. It also doesn’t work if you watch all six seasons and you still think he’s basically just a nice person who’s made a few mistakes—and incidentally discover that you really enjoy watching the inner workings of a criminal organization. And to their credit, The Sopranos doesn’t try to make either happen. It does something better. It shows that the traits we love about Tony are also the traits that cause the problems that make him a character worth hating. Tony wants to live the good life, and this is what makes him beloved: He wants to protect and provide for his family, he wants warm dinners and a warm bed at night, and he wants plenty of glowing memories to carry him into old age. But this concern he has for himself and for his own is what makes the good life impossible for Tony Soprano. He loves his pleasures more than he accepts his duties, and so every move he makes toward improvement drags him further down. As he lies to his family about his business to keep them clean (officially, “waste management”), he pushes them away from him. As he seeks safety and security by exterminating those who threaten and challenge him, he deepens his involvement in deceit and danger. The Sopranos, in the end, doesn’t show just a man who makes ordinary mistakes and has ordinary desires; it shows the consequences of his everyday decisions.
Now, I might be moralizing a little bit (can you tell?). You don’t need to spend your downtime constructing an elaborate framework of value around Tony’s visits to his mistress in place of enjoying the show, especially for every episode over six seasons. Believe me, I don’t. But I think watching a good show is not just about being a spectator: What makes Mr. Soprano interesting is not just that his life is bigger and brighter and more beautiful than ours (it very well might be), but also that his life intersects with and mirrors ours as he meanders across the screen, drinking orange juice, sitting in traffic, and lying to his wife about his infidelities. And in playing the interesting and fun game of dissecting his life and thinking about its trajectory, the audience starts to play the best game, starting from an easy level, where the higher objective is to turn that high-powered vision onto ourselves.