Death in the family

In the "Sopranos" season finale, Tony preserves the peace in his kingdom the only way he knows how.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published June 8, 2004 2:00AM (EDT)

"It's my mess. All my choices were wrong."

Just when it looks as if his empire might fall into the sea, Tony Soprano reverses course -- how else? -- by getting rid of someone. Forced to shut out his conscience in order to uphold order in the family once again, Tony personally hunts down Tony Blundetto and kills him for the sake of keeping the peace with Johnny Sack.

Tough break, when it takes blowing your cousin's head off with a shotgun to keep your family together. But Tony's uncomfortable position from the start of David Chase's series has been that of the ambivalent patriarch, called on repeatedly to cast aside his own concerns for the sake of his dependents. Unfortunately for Tony, he seems to have more dependents than the leaders of most small nations.

Fitting, then, that at a pivotal point in last night's fifth-season finale of "The Sopranos," Tony (James Gandolfini) would find the painting that Paulie (Tony Sirico) was supposed to get rid of, and gaze at himself dressed up as a jolly Napoleon next to his adored horse Pie Oh My. "The general," Paulie calls Tony in the picture, and something about the image spurs Tony to action, and he drives out to take care of the problem of his cousin, protecting his people from the threat of vengeance at the hand of New York boss Johnny Sack. Like a besieged modern leader, Tony changes course, putting aside his own conscience and taking extreme measures to prevent any change in the status quo that might erode his family's grip on the good life.

Since Tony's desire to escape his role as the lonely king has been growing, it follows that his immediate family should cling to the spoils of mob life more determinedly than ever. After toying with a fulfilling life far from the corruption -- and cash -- that Tony represents, Carmela (Edie Falco) gave up her fight and named her price for reconciliation, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Discala) seemed to abandon her former ideals and dreams of escaping to California after too much time away from her cushy, climate-controlled upbringing, and A.J. (Robert Iler) continued to bumble thoughtlessly toward a thuggish existence simply out of his barely conscious familiarity with its juvenile thrills and spills. Tony and his family might hope for more as individuals, but the grip of what they know always seems to be stronger than those passing whims and fleeting notions about a better life they embrace and then discard whenever the going gets rough. The irony, of course, is that by providing his family with everything, Tony keeps them enslaved to the same attachments that bind him to a discontented existence.

Far from blossoming into her own person outside her marriage with Tony, this season Carmela found herself overwhelmed with the prospect of waging a legal battle against Tony and raising A.J. on her own. She quickly soured on the single life after an affair with A.J.'s college counselor ended bitterly. While the temptations of life away from Tony always seemed to bring out the more conscientious, sensitive side of Carmela while she was still married to him, the realities of life alone seemed to bring out the worst in her. Once she slept with Tony and recognized that she could have him back whenever she wanted, forging her own path became an utter impossibility. Instead of exploring ways to support herself or make her own way in the world, Carmela wound up simply increasing her financial demands on him, essentially agreeing to reunite with him as long as he would allow her to construct and design a new home. The project is ostensibly a business she and her father are starting together, but that means little to Tony -- he's willing to pay for whatever project will keep Carmela busy and get him his old life back.

Meadow, the only character you could count on to call Carmela out for the laziness of her choices, is making some lazy choices of her own. After spending the better part of her young adulthood lashing out against what her father stands for, Meadow suddenly seems prepared to embrace an easy existence, giggling all the way. Like those who refer to themselves as having had a "bohemian phase," as if their interest in life outside the mainstream was merely a passing affliction, Meadow quickly finds her rebellious and idealistic ways a little inconvenient, since they mean sweating it out in a New York City apartment without air conditioning. Before you know it, she's encouraging her wishy-washy boyfriend, Finn, to work for her dad. Petrified by the unknowns of drifting away from her familial safety net, Meadow jumps at Finn's weak proposal of marriage, made when he's delirious from arguing with her all night. In Meadow's last scene of the season, we recognize her conversion as complete: Cooing over the designs for her mother's new house, Meadow gushes that the entryway must be at least three stories high.

A three-story entryway on a family home is, of course, the ultimate pointless demonstration of wealth, but Tony's family can't recognize the relative value of the things around them, having always depended completely on Tony for their survival. Similarly, Tony's associates and underlings can think only of themselves when presented with having to make sacrifices due to Tony's intractable position with regard to his cousin and Johnny Sack. And they seem particularly unmoved by Tony's warnings that his cousin will face unthinkable torture (which has its own eerie echoes).

Least surprising, perhaps, is Christopher's griping, although his urge to leave the fold always seems to give way to a continued determination to stay the course with the family. Far from loyal to Tony, he simply refuses to abandon the promise of wealth that becoming Tony's second-in-command brings with it. Christopher's (Michael Imperioli) resolve may have been tested even more than Tony's this season, swinging wildly from recovering addict to disgruntled underling to potential informant to Tony's right-hand man. Mimicking the decisions made by Tony, who consistently chooses the family over pursuits and connections that might make him happier, Christopher chose Tony and the family over Adriana (Drea de Matteo), his only friend in the world. When Tony and Christopher pronounced Adriana a "cunt," they not only denied the warm feelings they each had for her, but they also denied their own constant urges to pursue their own goals outside the business. While Christopher can't believe Adriana wouldn't do five years in jail for him, what's truly impossible to believe is that Christopher would do a single minute in jail for Adriana. It's not surprising that Tony has trouble getting a foothold in making slippery decisions, when those around him rationalize their weakest moments and worst mistakes until they sound like acts of courage and honor.

With so much at stake, Tony's men are the closest they've ever been to an insurgency. In one unusual scene, Silvio (Steve Van Zandt) confronts Tony about the rumblings among his people over the risks they're taking for the sake of keeping Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) alive. "Frankly, you've got a problem with authority," Silvio tells him. "Seven deadly sins, and yours is pride."

Tony's having none of it, of course, replying that Silvio and the rest of them can't have any idea of what it's like to be the boss. It's a rare moment: The king's judgment is called into question, and by way of offering a rebuttal in his most threatening tone, Tony inadvertently admits that he's struggling with his choices. The fact that Silvio is right, that Tony does have a big problem with authority, may say more about Tony's problem with himself than anything else. After all, the boys are just out for their own necks, and they're only willing to confront Tony on his decisions when it threatens their own livelihood. But Tony's deep-seated anger at authority figures reflects, most of all, his hatred toward that part of himself that calls the shots. It's no wonder he's indecisive about his next move, when those who choose to appear to have all the answers -- his mother, his high school coach, Dr. Melfi -- are essentially his enemies.

And why shouldn't Tony dislike authority, when these strong figures in his life seem to share a habit of misunderstanding him and completely misinterpreting the options available to him? Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in particular urges Tony to take a more enlightened path, to find himself, and to pursue new ways to be happy without even beginning to understand how his pursuit of his own personal goals would immediately threaten to topple his entire world. In the finale, while Melfi highlights the fact that Tony's feelings for his cousin may arise more out of guilt than genuine affection, she doesn't begin to grasp the fact that Tony will be staring into his cousin's sad, dead eyes soon, thanks in part to her words.

It's funny that Tony should have a problem with authority when what he seems to crave more than anything else is a parental figure in his life, someone he respects whom he can trust to offer the slightest bit of gentle guidance when he gets confused. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the finale, Tony goes to Uncle Junior's house and explains, "I've pinned myself into a corner, here," but Junior (Dominic Chianese) can't focus enough to understand Tony's predicament, let alone what he should do next. Not only doesn't Tony's last living model of a patriarch have any answers, but he reinforces Tony's sinking feeling that all of the stresses and concerns of his patriarchal role, supposedly pursued for the sake of honor and those who depend on him, don't amount to much in the end. You still end up bewildered and confused like Junior, destined to live out the balance of your days struggling to remember whether you left the stove on or not.

Cruel, then, that the one man who does emerge as, at the very least, a peer to Tony, Johnny Sack (Vince Curatola), is taken down by the feds seconds after they share a real moment of mutual understanding and support. While Tony's lawyer lightly quips that Tony should consider himself lucky instead of feeling bad about Sack's fate, Tony looks utterly dejected. Maybe Tony feels disheartened because he recognizes that all of his valiant attempts to protect the family by offing his cousin were unnecessary, since most of Sack's family will be soon be incarcerated. In fact, Tony's main trouble was never Blundetto himself, but his own isolation and loneliness in having to solve the puzzle that Blundetto presented.

And so, Tony is left to sally forth without support or connection, locked into his role as provider and perpetuator of the status quo, all alone and lonely on his throne, more an elaborate parable for the American man than ever before. He's confronted with the same dilemma time after time: Find your true identity, follow your conscience, make your own choices, or fulfill your role and satisfy the expectations of your family, your job, your home and your society, sacrificing your unique self to the ravenous demands of your little nation.

And like so many other leaders in this world, Tony doesn't have the option of being human. At the start of the season, he camped out in his old backyard with a rifle to protect his family from a black bear that had been showing up there, frightening his wife and son. It's no coincidence that, in the finale, Tony should end up taking his cousin's life with a shotgun, and in the last memorable scene, come scrambling through the woods to his own backyard looking just like that black bear. Like the leader of a remorseless nation, in order to protect his family, Tony must be savage and shameless, wielding his brute power without reason, taking down anyone who stands in his way. He fills his role reluctantly, aware of all he's lost in the process of tying up loose ends and keeping the family safe, either from real physical threats or merely from life outside their shell. No matter how little those around him know of what he's going through, no matter how tempted he is to stop keeping the whole ugly circus afloat, he always comes home. In the last scene, as Tony enters his house, Carmela asks him, "What happened to you?" and remarks that his feet are cold and wet.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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