Happy Mother's Day, and screw you

Raise a glass to Livia Soprano, the meanest mother on TV.

Published May 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As Mother's Day approaches, consider the dilemma of Tony Soprano, the anxiety-ridden hero of HBO's wickedly good Mafia serial "The Sopranos." Tony (James Gandolfini) is the dutiful Italian son, but widowed 70-year-old Livia Soprano would test the patience of a saint. Livia (Nancy Marchand) is a manipulative martyr, a sour, suspicious-eyed old bird who never had a kind word for anyone. She's too addled to live alone anymore (she almost burns down the house frying up some calamari), but she dramatically threatens to kill herself -- actually, she demands that Tony do it for her -- rather than move to the retirement community he's chosen for her.

It's a very nice retirement community, but still, Livia is angry at being farmed out -- so angry that she puts a hit out on her only son. Not in so many words, mind you, but in the passive-aggressive "Who, little senile me?" way that has become her MO. She rats out Tony to her dim brother-in-law Junior, the boss, telling him the top-secret information that Tony is seeing a shrink (a no-no in the Mob, for obvious security reasons), then suggests to Junior that Tony is plotting a coup. When Junior (Dominic Chianese) swears vengeance, Livia puts on a superb show of histrionics, twisting her handkerchief, beating her breast and crying, "I should have kept my mouth shut, like a MUTE! Then everybody would be happy!"

There are some mighty (and mighty difficult) moms on TV these days, like the meddlesome and smothering (but adorable) Marie on "Everybody Loves Raymond" and the deceptively sweet, white-haired, granny-gowned "Mom" on "Futurama," who's really a crude, avaricious industrialist bent on intergalactic market domination. But Livia Soprano trumps them all. Played with a fearless unlovability by the indomitable Marchand, Livia is part Medea, part Lady Macbeth, part Rhoda's mother, hitting operatic heights of maternal fury and self-pity. By the end of its terrific first season, "The Sopranos" (reruns begin June 1, with the second season launching in January 2000) was as much about the power struggle between parent and child as it was about mob moves -- as much about family business as Family business.

Creator-writer David Chase wasn't merely wringing dark comedy out of opposing milieus when he sent New Jersey "waste management consultant" Tony, reeling from midlife panic attacks, off to therapy with a female shrink; he was also showing us how much these two worlds have in common. After all, the mob and therapy both deal in cause and effect: You don't pay the protection money, we break your legs; you had lousy parents, you're a screwed-up adult.

"The Sopranos" began with Tony's sense of manly identity -- as boss, father, husband, son -- slipping away. It ended with the Prozac-fortified and newly self-aware Tony surviving both crippling depression and the attempt on his life, and emerging with renewed virility. Now he knows who his worst enemy is -- his mother. Earlier we'd seen him in flashback as a little boy whose beautiful, unhappy, unfulfilled mom threatened to put out his eyes with a fork if he didn't quit nagging her. That boy learned how to take care of himself. And that's the first thing every mother, even one as fierce and unmaternal as Livia, dreads -- becoming obsolete. The second thing is karma.

Last month's season finale of "The Sopranos" climaxed with an enraged Tony charging into the retirement home after the failed hit, intending to smother Livia with a pillow, only to find her being carried out on a stretcher, having allegedly suffered a stroke. "I know what you did, Ma! Look at her -- she's smiling!" Tony shouts as he's restrained by paramedics. And, indeed, she's baring her teeth behind the oxygen mask. At its heart, "The Sopranos" is about a boy and his mother -- the way "Psycho" was about a boy and his mother, except Livia is no mummified authority figure; she's alive and growing more powerful the older she gets. Livia is toxic, for sure, taking out a lifetime of bottled-up hurt and anger toward her philandering husband on Tony. But she's also tough and cagey, and in the scenes where she subtly gets Junior to do her bidding, she thinks like a true Godfather. "A formidable woman," Tony's female shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), comments in the understatement of the year.

Actually, all of the women in Tony's life are formidable. His wife Carmela (Edie Falco), who doles out tough love to Tony like a substitute mom, is the feisty modern mob spouse, putting family before business. After Tony is wounded in the attempted hit, she urges him to think about the feds' offer of protection: "I want my kids to have a father." When Tony rebuffs her, explaining, "I took an oath," she snaps back, "What are you, a kid in a treehouse?" And there's Tony's teenaged daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), who flaunts her ripe, sloe-eyed sexuality because she knows her dad just cannot deal. And, of course, there's Dr. Melfi, whose aloofness Tony finds inscrutable, infuriating and arousing. In one scene, he tries to get his mistress to wear a sedate Melfian business suit; in another, he has a nightmare where he shows up at Melfi's office for an appointment and finds his mother in her place.

Tony and his crew may swagger around with their guns and vendettas and broads, but, deep down, they fear women. One unforgettably wry episode was devoted to the wise-guy belief (well, in Tony's crew, anyway) that performing cunnilingus is a sign of weakness. And as the tension between Tony and Livia grew, you started noticing the matricidal subtext to these guys' colorful oaths of fealty; they're always swearing on their mothers' graves and saying stuff like, "May your mother get cancer of the eyes if you're lyin' to me!" Where does this fear come from? Take a guess.

Yeah, I know all this male midlife crisis and fear of emasculation stuff sounds misogynistic, but, I swear, it doesn't play that way. "The Sopranos" is, after all, a comedy and Chase (who told Salon that he based Livia on his own mother) deeply understands the morbid humor of A) a tough guy who's afraid of his mama, and B) a comfortable, successful boomer on the shrink's couch whining about his wretched upbringing. The bad mother is one of psychology's most enduring bogeywomen, and "The Sopranos" draws some satisfying giggles of horror out of the validation of Tony's primal fear. Livia is a big-boned woman to begin with (she could eat Estelle Getty for lunch), but as the first season of "The Sopranos" ended, she seemed to loom above the action, larger than life. Livia does not go gently into the Green Grove Nursing Home, and isn't that an adult child's worst nightmare?

So tread lightly around dear old Mom this Mother's Day. Bring her flowers. Take her to brunch. And when she's not looking, disconnect the cable box, just in case.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------