Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Sopranos and the Anxiety of Decay

(warning: the following essay contains spoilers. If you don't want to know who does or does not get whacked in The Sopranos, I suggest you wait to read this. It's not going anywhere.)

Over coffee this morning, I read a piece in the Style section of the Washington Post questioning the gloomy nature of so many recent films. "Bleak is chic" it said, implying that our current cinema's existential anguish was something of a fad. The irony of this, of course, was that the rest of today's massive Sunday edition was one big bundle of bad news. There were articles about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the ever metastasizing economic crisis, and the inevitable success of Iran's nuclear program. Hell, there was even an article about this year's mysterious shortage of acorns from the Midwest to the east coast. There is a lot of bad news out there. Is it any wonder that our movies are gloomy?

The last seven or eight years--let's call them the "Bush years" for short--have been rough by anyone's estimation. In those years, we suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history, launched two wars, lost trillions of dollars, and watched our once Colossus-like status in the world diminish on nearly every front. The long wars have undermined our reputation for military dominance, while the economic meltdown that is ravaging every market in the world has soiled--if not ruined--our reputation as the masters of finance. These have been dark times, and our art (from Cormac McCarthy to The Dark Knight) has reflected the deepening anxiety of the time.

Thinking about it, though, has any work of art captured the Bush years like The Sopranos? The run of the show (from 1999 to 2007) fit snugly into the era, beginning with the outgoing Clinton administration and ending just as the Bush administration was imploding. When you look back over the show, you see how clearly creator David Chase and his writers and directors captured the times they were living through.

The Sopranos was a show about many things. One could start an inventory of the themes it addressed either explicitly or implicitly in its eight year run: family, crime, sexism, racism, homophobia, psychotherapy, violence. One could keep this list going because more than most works of cinematic art The Sopranos cast a wide net. Chase utilized the 86 episodes of his show to dramatize the complex overlapping of the personal, the social and the political. Yet the reason I started thinking about the show this morning is because its overriding theme--the constant thread running through all the others and binding them together--was the anxiety of decay in modern America.

It's funny that I've been talking about the show in past tense when, really, we must now think of it like an era-defining novel, alive and always unfolding, a piece of time captured for us by a great artist and his collaborators.

1. The Certainty of Loss

“Things are trending downward,” Tony Soprano says in the first episode of the series. This fear of impending doom is there at the beginning and it will be revisited time and again over six seasons (spread out over eight years). On one level (the mob level) the characters live with the fear of being murdered. Over the course of the series many important characters—Ralph, Adriana, Christopher, Bobby—die violently. These sudden violent “whackings” and the tension and horror which accompanies them is, of course, a major staple of the mob movie genre The Sopranos ostensibly belongs to, and they are no doubt part of the excitement of the show. Yet it is important to note how often the show concerns itself with more ordinary, in no less harrowing, forms of decline and death.

The series begins, after all, with Tony having a MRI to diagnose the cause of his fainting spells. Uncle Junior, who for the first four seasons at least is the most verbally entertaining character in the show, gradually declines and eventually gives way to dementia. Paulie Walnuts, at once the toughest and most insecure of Tony’s crew, is a cauldron of phobias and neuroses, chief among them a fear of germs and cancer. Johnny Sack, Tony’s adversary for much of season five and a man who knows how to smoke a cigarette, dies of lung cancer. For a non-medical show, The Sopranos spends a lot of time in hospitals and not just for gunshot wounds.

But the anxiety found within the show is about more than just illness. More specifically, the major undercurrent of the show’s psychology is the certainty of loss. From the incessant gorging on food, the constant chasing of sexual release, the boozing, the gambling, the drug abuse, and the pathological pursuit of financial gain, to the more respectable, and perhaps healthier, outlets of religion, art and psychiatry, the universe of The Sopranos is filled with characters who are always attempting to distract themselves from their absolute knowledge of their own eventual decline. They all know the end is coming, but no one wants to face it.

2. “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”

In the final season this fear reaches a fever pitch as The Sopranos fully embraces a post-9/11 paranoia. Tony’s fears of terrorist infiltration are addressed many times, and in an interesting and telling twist his prime adversary in the FBI, Agent Harris, is taken off his case and moved to counterterrorism (where, we note, he begins to unravel and becomes in many ways one of Tony’s henchmen). Nowhere is the post-9/11 anxiety felt more acutely than in the subplot about “the two Arabs” who hang around the strip club for a time and then disappear. The show’s final episodes find Tony and Agent Harris discussing the two “suspect” men more and more often until the fear of terrorist attack hangs over everything like a cloud that never rains.

The anxiety extends even into the family, where Tony and Carmela live in constant fear of the imminent collapse of their world. The most fascinating example of this tension is the development of their son Anthony Junior. From a sweet—though self-centered—youngster into a vacuous teen, and finally into a troubled young adult, AJ is a ship without a mooring. Despite having an intact, loving (if deeply flawed) set of parents, despite having money and notoriety as the son of a famous gangster, despite having a religious (if hypocritical) upbringing, AJ has, by show’s end, become a mass of fear, rage and depression.

He is not unlike his father in these ways, of course. Yet, as even Tony points out, AJ is not able to “handle” these pressures like his father. That Tony handles his own fear and rage with violence, overeating, drugs, booze and an endless series of extramarital dalliances is precisely the point. AJ is both better and worse off than his father. When in the depth of his son’s depression, Tony tells him “Go out. Get a blow job” and arranges for AJ to hang out with a band of racist, drunken frat boys, Tony is only prescribing a cure which, to his limited understanding of his own psychosis, has “worked” for him. That it does not work at all for AJ is to AJ's credit. But there is nothing there to fill the void. He reads Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and trembles in terror at the apocalyptic vision of a blood-dimmed tide and the rising of the rough beast in the Middle East.

When, in “Made In America”, the final episode of the series, AJ decides to confront his fears of nuclear annihilation by joining the Army, his parents intervene to stop him by arranging a job on a movie set. The fear and sense of hopelessness which has beset their son nearly all his life, and which drive him to attempt suicide, are dealt with in the end—after all the talk of school, ambition and responsibility—by buying him off.

Just as AJ’s problem with crippling anxiety in these final episodes rings true of his character throughout the series, so to does his parents’ solution to it. Tony and Carmela have always thrown money at their problems. Their marriage, by season six, is as much a financial arrangement as it is loving partnership. When Carmela becomes overly interested in the strange disappearance of Adriana, Tony essentially buys her a career in real estate to keep her distracted.

They both face a particularly bourgeois dilemma at the intersection of their post-9/11 anxiety and their son’s directionlessness and anxiety. They fear terrorist infiltration and attack, the disruption of their personal and material security, and they support the Bush administration and the “War on Terror” (Tony says at one point that he would elect Dick Cheney “president of the universe”), and yet they do not want to see their son involved in the fighting. They would rather buy him a new car and get him a flashy job with promises of his own dance club down the road.

3. The Cut to Black

Will it work? Chase’s final masterstroke is to end the show with all its anxiety intact. Things are still trending downward. The Arabs still haven’t been found. Carlo is missing and is probably with the cops. Christopher is dead. Bobby is dead. Silvio is in a comma he will probably not pull out of. The violence with New York may or may not be over.

In the final scene, Tony is at a diner waiting for his family. Everyone is running late. He plays a song on the jukebox. A man comes in and sits down at the counter. He glances over at Tony. Carmela comes in, apologizing for being late. AJ wanders in. Outside, Meadow tries to parallel park. And there is still that man at the counter, looking over at Tony and his family as they eat onion rings. The man at the counter gets up. He walks to the bathroom. Meadow rushes in. Tony looks up.

Cut to black.

With this ending (invoking the diner assassination in The Godfather) Chase is not simply trying to wrap up his story (nor is he simply refusing to wrap up his story), he is dramatizing the state of fear we live in, the fear which has been mounting in the series, and in society, since the series began. The events of September 11th and the violent drudgery of the Iraq war are not simply the cause of these fears, they are the quickening of fears built into the modern American psyche. Tony and his family and friends all fear they are living in an America trending downward and coming apart at the seams. Chase offers no relief from this fear. He just shows us the seams stretching.


shawnak said...

Let's get some pictures up in here.

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