Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini) wants to be good, and sometimes he is. And yet, Tony is terrifying—when he bodyslams Gloria Trillo, when he shotguns his cousin to avoid a turf war, every time he grabs someone and legs loose that barbaric yawp. He is a family man, sure, but he might be one of the most lecherous and unfaithful husbands ever, banging car saleswomen, nurses, sex workers, Russian cousins, all his comares (pronounced "goomah"). He's emotionally Janus-faced, a man struggling to reconcile with what he is, what he wants to be.
You see it most clearly in a matched set of final season episodes, "Kennedy and Heidi" and "The Second Coming," both directed by Alan Taylor, a veteran of the series. Tony's dichotomous personality, his capacity for love and loathing, heroic and hellacious, is on full display in these episodes. Tony loves his nephew Christopher (Michael Imperioli), but his patience for the dope fiend slowly erodes over the course of the show, coming to a head in when Christopher, high on smack, crashes the car and Tony sees a tree branch impaling the baby seat in the back. Had Christopher's kid been in the car, he would be dead—dead because Chris is a goddamn junkie. But it's not just the image of the impaled car seat that does it. Chris, still tormented over the death of Adrianna (Drea de Matteo), has become estranged from the other gangsters. He becomes a security risk, someone who can't be trusted. Maybe Tony has been thinking about this for a while now, maybe this was just the excuse he was looking for, because Tony hunches over the bleeding-from-the-mouth nephew, and, with a look of redoubtable rage, pinches Christopher's nose closed, allowing him to choke to death on his own blood. This is the vindictive Tony, the scary Tony. Look at his face, contorted into a look of pure hate. Tony was supposed to be a role model for Chris, a support system.
Tony also worries about his son, AJ (Robert Iler), who has dropped out of school and just generally ambles around the house with a terrible chin-strap beard and no ambitions other than going out to party. Another young man for whom Tony feels responsible, who has let Tony down. In "The Second Coming," AJ, despondent when his older girlfriend leaves him, ties himself to a cinder block and jumps into the pool. It's Tony who saves him, and we are reminded of the big man's strength (he used to bench 300), reminded of how much he loves his son. Tony repeatedly says that, in the end, all that matters is family, and yet he feels that shameful squeeze, like a fist clenching its fingers, of disappointment in his nephew and his son. He kills one and saves one, hoping, perhaps, that his son still has a chance to turn out alright.
There are two Tonys. This was clear even before season five, when Tony’s cousin, also named Tony (Steve Buscemi), shows up in an episode titled “Two Tonys.”
The mob life pulls Tony deeper and deeper into the mire of amorality, and yet. Tony loves animals; he worries about his children. Tony tells his family to remember the good times, a line his son A.J. repeats in the final episode. "You said that," A.J. tells his father. "I did?" Tony responds. "Well, it's true."
Consider Tony's anger when Meadow brings home a half-Black, half-Jewish boyfriend (who turns out to be an asshole), then consider Tony's sympathy for Vito (Joseph Gannascoli) when Vito's sexual orientation comes to light and virulent homophobe Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) wants him dead and desecrated. Tony doesn't give a shit because Vito is his top earner, but you can tell that the abhorrence with which other mafioso greet the news doesn't sit well with him. Tony is so offended by his biological son’s pampered softness that roughs up A.J. and smashes the window of his vehicle, but when Johnny Sack (Vince Curatola) breaks down and cries after being dragged away by the cops at his daughter's wedding, the guys gather around to mock this piteous and non-masculine display of emotion, with only Tony defending the man.
It's these moments that make us want Tony to be better, to show us the decent guy encased in all that antiquated masculinity.
Tony has no greater foe than himself. He is man who, like all of us, comprises so many contradictions, so many anxieties; a man torn between convictions. He is a gangster, yes, and a killer, a bigot, a boor, and at the same time he's a sentimental slob who cries over ducklings, a complicated creature confounded with self-doubt hiding behind the facade of stoical manliness—think of the "strong silent type," like Tony's ideal man, Gary Cooper, who stood there at high noon to face-off with a guy so tough the rest of the flown has fled in fear. This is what Tony aspires to be, this man's man, the platonic ideal, and yet Tony is as fragile as anyone, prone to panic attacks and susceptible to that which all Italian Americans dread most: emotions. Tony's is a story of modern American masculinity, middle-aged sordidness and sorrow; he is saggy around the gut, bruised at the knuckles, and tender in the heart.
Tony Soprano is the archetypal anti-hero of what we now call Prestige Television, an awful term for what has become as commodified and homogenous as those old less-prestigious television programs. But whereas, say, Bryan Cranston (a prodigiously gifted comedic actor, e.g. "Malcolm in the Middle") acts to the rafters as Walter White, increasingly ravenous as he chews the arid scenery of Albuquerque (where I live), wading deeper into villainy and actorly histrionics, Gandolfini has a subtle sorrow about him, a malaise that belies Tony's wealth and power and the grandiosity of his life. Tony, that sometimes crestfallen killer who eats ice cream while watching the History Channel, Tony who laments the era of organized crime he just missed out on.
Those furrowed brows, that guido Jersey accent, inner seething and sentimentality. It's a bravado performance, one that belongs not to the big-acting of the New Hollywood era, the Lee Strasberg school of method acting that allured moviegoers with its loudness, but Meisner's ideas of reaction. It recalls Cassavetes (who abhorred method acting) in its sincerity, its slow coalescence of minute actorly details. You watch Tony and you can see him not waiting for his cue to recite a line, but listening, really listening—to his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), to Christopher, to Silvio and to his kids and to everyone else; you can see the thoughts turning over in his mind, see Gandolfini paying attention and contemplating what to say, and when he explodes, spitting out "F**king this" and "f**king that," you see Tony take a breath and reflect on what just happened, process his own rage. This is a self-aware man who's too afraid to change anything.
Nick Nolte once said that judging a character on their moral flaws will always inspire a bad performance. Gandfolini brings empathy to both Tonys without apologizing for the scary side. He understands that Tony isn't just a bad guy, isn't just a gangster, but a creature of aching complexity.
"The Many Saints of Newark," a prequel film to "The Sopranos," gives us Tony as a teenager. Tony once told Paulie that "remember when" is the lowest form of conversation, and yet this is exactly what the film does. It plays like a medley of memories, showing us the confluence of influences that lead Tony down the path of the mafioso, the ideation and alienation felt by the American teenager and how desperate they can be to find a male mentor, someone to guide them, teach them, protect them. It's directed by Alan Taylor, and written by series creator David Chase. Gandolfini's son, Michael, plays young Tony. It could have been a bit of gimmick casting, a way to get the Gandolfini name on the poster, but the kid isn't bad. Tony finds a manly role model in his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), father of Christopher, who was tormented by the unexplained murder of his father. (Remember that time Tony tricked Christopher into killing a man he says killed Dickie?) Here, we see Dickie as the quintessential bad influence, a guy who wants his nephew to grow up into a hoodlum. We are reminded of Tony's relationship with Christopher, of Tony's growing chagrin; we think of A.J. and his awful facial hair, lousing around, the acrimony with which he spits out every sentence to his parents.
We see the Two Tonys when he speaks with his therapist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Their conversations hark to the dialogue between Rameau and his nephew. They discuss children, money, the elusive nature of genius; as Diderot writes about the character of Him, "[he's] a mixture of the sublime and the base, of good sense and irrationality." Does this not also describe Tony? And the narrator extols the rectitude of crime and the acquisition of money above all else. Is this not also Tony? These sessions between Tony and Melfi are the collision of two steadfast minds, the sea crashing upon a bulwark. Tough guy Tony bemoans the logorrhea and self-pity of modern men, a society bereft of strong, silent types (though he later finds himself enamored by Nick Nolte's manly man with a sensitive side in Barbra Streisand's adaptation of Pat Conroy's Prince of Tides). And it is here, on the shrink's chair, that Tony lets his emotions flow out unfiltered, elucidating on his nephew, his son, his legacy. Tony is "a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection," as Lord Macaulay put it, describing Lord Byron's tortured men. Like a Homeric hero, Tony is always at war, and he is Quixotic in his lamentations about being born in the wrong era. Tony has his own windmills to fight. Like a Homeric hero, Tony Soprano is always at war, and he is Quixotic in his lamentations about being born in the wrong era.
Tony, the Prince of Tides, the Boss, who has an IQ of 138 and says "irregardless." As John Cassavetes once said: "Most people don't know what they want or feel. And for everyone, myself included, It's very difficult to say what you mean when what you mean is painful. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to…" Tony wants to be remembered for being a good guy, a family guy. When Christopher produces a movie called "Cleaver," which he pitched as "Saw" meets "The Godfather," Tony is hurt by his depiction in the film, a greedy, fat, knavish man who trundles around in his white bathrobe barking orders at his subordinates. It ends with the knife-wielding zombie man killing the churlish Tony surrogate, which doesn't sit well with the big guy. (This is, of course, a contribution to Tony's decision to let Chris die.) Tony waxes nostalgic with Dr. Melfi, telling her a story about Tony taking young Christopher for a ride in a cart, back when Satriale's made deliveries, but when reminds Christopher of the good times, he doesn't remember. "All those memories are for what? All I am to him is some asshole bully." Tony can't, or maybe won't see or understand that he is an asshole bully, but that isn't all he is. Tony doesn't recognize his duality. Tony says that Dickie was to him what he is to Christopher. "He was a f**king guy you could look up to," Tony says. "And the hope is that you pass that shit down." What does Tony pass down?
Let's consider, for a moment, another time Tony lost his temper, another example of innocence lost.
Christopher isn't the first person to suffer Tony's terrible side. In "Pie-O-My," from the fourth season, a horse, owned by the psycho-in-a-toupee Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), gets sick, and Ralphie, a coke-fiend with a protean temper, refuses to pay the vet bills. He tells the vet to call Tony, who has become attached to the horse—he finds something resembling solace in the docile mare, something resembling hope, maybe. He gets out of bed, goes to the stable, pays the vet and spends the night petting the horse, telling her that it will be okay. The final shot of the episode is a static composition of Tony sitting in the stable with the horse, a goat slowly approaching him in that way that animals do when they feel safe. This is the loving Tony, the softie.
Four episodes later, in "Whoever Did This," Ralph burns down the stable for the insurance money, killing the horse, and a devastated Tony beats him to death and dismembers him. Tony loved that horse. Tony shows Carmella (Edie Falco) how to pet the horse, gently touching her head, looking like a man at peace with the world. He's calm and caring when he visits Uncle June (Dominic Chianese), who is showing early signs of the dementia that will lead to him shooting his nephew in season six. He sympathizes when Ralph's son gets an arrow in his chest while playing a Lord of the Rings game, rubbing the bereaved man's shoulders. He watches Ralph and maybe he thinks about his own kids. He feels for the guy. "Hang in there," he consoles. Tony suggests that Ralph "go see Pie, it might help." And Ralph does go see Pie, setting the stables ablaze (or so Tony assumes; Ralph denies it), and the other side of Tony's Janus-face comes out. Earlier, Tony tells Paulie "If you lay a f**king hand on [Ralph], you answer to me," but when Tony lays his hands on him, he has no one to answer to except himself.
The episode, directed by Tim Van Patten and written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, shows off the full spectrum of Tony's personality, and Gandolfini's performance. "It was a beautiful innocent creature," he brays as he slams Ralph's head into the floor. "What did she ever do to you?!" Tony doesn't even flinch when Christopher drops the severed head into a bowling ball bag. The episode ends when Tony leaves the tenebrous Bing and steps into an intense brightness, a new day erasing all the dark. Cue credits.
Beating a man to death and hacking up his body is pretty gnarly, yet one of Tony's most menacing moments is a matter of delegation—which is to say, it's business. In the season six part two opener "Sopranos Home Movies," with Van Patten behind the camera again and written by Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider and David Chase and Matthew Weiner, he orders Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa), his brother-in-law and maybe the show's most moral man (he's certainly a better guy than the horny, ziti-loving priest), to commit his first murder. Why? Bobby and Tony had a brawl over a game of Monopoly during a weekend getaway, a brawl Tony lost. Bobby has never killed anyone, and thus retains some innocence, a splinter of hope, perhaps, that he still may see heaven; Tony petulantly ruins this innocence, and takes away from Bobby something that can never be regained.