The Sopranos Season Six (HBO)
Written by Terence Winter, David Chase, Matthew Weiner, Diane Frolov & Andrew Schneider, Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess
Directed by Tim Van Patten, David Nutter, Jack Bender, Alan Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Danny Leiner, Steve Shill, Phil Abraham
From day one, The Sopranos was compared to the work of Martin Scorsese. At a surface level view, that was inevitable as they both dealt in the world of Italian-American life and organized crime. However, Scorsese is concerned more with the intermingling of the sacred & the profane. Harvey Keitel kneels before a statue of Christ and prays for forgiveness throughout Mean Streets. Catholicism is highly prevalent throughout Scorsese’s work, and there are common elements of this religion in the Sopranos. However, I never once believed that Tony’s arc was a spiritual one. He does not believe in God, and it’s clear the world of the Sopranos is not governed by a deity. Instead, Tony’s journey is one of the inner mind; his dreams navigate him through the landscape of his existence. He does not speak to God; he listens to himself, for all the good & ill that leads to.
The characters that populate this world are reflective when season six begins, no more so than Junior, who is quickly losing his battle with dementia. He can’t be in the present, leading to shocking conflicts that shake up the rest of the cast. Christopher is still in his addiction cycle, despite going to AA and expertly talking his way through the lingo. He ends up cheating on his wife while indulging in his habits. A.J. spirals into depression & existentialism, causing Tony & Carmella to question what they should have done and what they should do. This season is divided into two clear halves, the first conclusion with the large family at Christmas and the actual ending focused on a man who is alone in the world despite his company while he eats.
Season six is reflective because it is about death. Tony experiences an alternate reality while he lies in a coma after being shot. The inner Tony we see is a meek salesman, letting everyone he encounters walk all over him to avoid a fight. He ends up taking on another man’s identity rather than rock the boat too much. Kevin Finnerty. He is recast as an Irishman, not even Italian. Tony is in conflict with the choices he’s made and the life path he’s on. He will either end up like Junior, lost in a haze of memories, or murdered like so many bosses before him. His waking from the coma is framed as a choice; Tony chooses to go back to this violent and brutal life he knows rather than stay in a world of new possibilities. From this point on, his fate is sealed.
By the time you get to the end of the first half of season six, it makes it clear that Tony’s goodwill in his marriage, with his kids, and in his business will sour. He joins in mocking Chrissy for trying to stay true to his sobriety while raging if the kid shoots up. It always had to end this way; Tony is a protagonist who ultimately does not change for the better. This is a fact Dr. Melfi realizes, which leads her to drop him as a patient. Therapy merely gives him a stage to practice his con and empowers him with tools to manipulate others. At the same time, she sees herself as good and Tony as bad, but that is such a simplistic way of thinking. Melfi has the same desires as Tony; she just suppresses them, and she believes that makes her good. There’s the question, is it better to hold back our desires or give into them? Tony’s moments of joy seem quite more intense than more moderate people’s suppression. Yet, his anger and despair hit just as hard in the opposite direction.
The key to understanding how The Sopranos and David Chase view death is found in the fishing conversation between Tony & Bobby. Bobby explains his view of death: “At the end, you probably don’t hear anything; everything just goes black.” Death for the show is simply an ending. There is no great reward waiting beyond. Everything that happens to you happens in life, so why should Tony hold back his hunger and desires? It all ends once. But then comes the question as to if all these delights are worth the effort anyway. They certainly don’t make Tony a happier person in the long run. Instead, they drive him to commit one of the most heinous acts I’ve ever seen in a television series.
Tony’s murder of Christopher is one of the most shocking moments on television. It takes a lot to elicit emotion from me in media these days but watching Tony suffocate his nephew after a near-fatal car crash, and fake grief in the remainder of the episode brought me to tears. A reflection on Christopher’s life just makes your heartache. He was born to a father who died almost immediately. He was raised in a system that would never give him a real shot by a mother whose substance abuse issues plagued his upbringing. At some point, he became dependent on substances to numb the pain. Christopher’s relationship with Adrianna was doomed from the start, and the family’s toxic loyalty ensured that. He tried to get clean, but even his mentor Tony continually gave him mixed signals because of the bizarre masculine code they follow. And then, Tony murders the man.
So much has been made of the infamous final scene and its fade to black. We often put too much importance on the specifics rather than look at what things mean thematically. Much talk centers around if Tony is killed when the screen goes black, and within the immediate narrative, there is some evidence to support a hit being put out on the boss. However, we should ask ourselves, “Is Tony already spiritually & psychologically dead anyway?” I think whether Tony lives or dies after that final moment, he’s already not living. He’s burnt out his circuits on overstimulation, his life a series of cycles of sobriety & hedonism. The man has chewed up and destroyed almost every person he claims to love, the center always coming back to his immediate needs rather than any sort of long-term thinking.
The Sopranos uses the facade of the Cosa nostra to talk about contemporary American life, and by the time it reaches the end, we are examining the death of the post-9/11 psyche. Tony is appreciated for helping the FBI with suspected Muslim terrorists in the neighborhood, and the agent over his investigation is rooting for the mob boss. Society is no longer a place where justice exists; it is a savage landscape where some people tear away what they want, and others get crushed. David Chase doesn’t believe it has to be this way, but he won’t pretend that it currently isn’t this bad.
The lack of answers is also a part of this examination of life. We never live long enough to know how everything wraps up. The final scene builds our anxiety just as you might feel when so much of your life is uncertain when you live taking risks like Tony does. We’ll never know if AJ gets his act together and becomes something. We’ll never know if Carmella and Tony stay together. We’ll never know if Tony lives or dies. That’s what happens; one day, we just die, and we never know what happens next. The peace comes when we find another path instead of living to find the answers (religion) or escape them (drug abuse). We have to choose a life that means something to us, not one where we have to constantly pose & intimidate to stay alive. The state of the world is not getting better, and there’s a good chance many of us who are adults today will not live to see how it wraps up. Somehow we have to learn to be okay with that.