TV Club

Lonely at the Top

The Sopranos. Click image to expand.
Silvio, Tony, and Paulie Walnuts


In 1996, I quit my job as a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Wall Street Journal to join the management team at U.S. News & World Report. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being the Man, and it wasn’t all that close. I was part of a governing cabal headed by my friend (and occasional Slate contributor) James Fallows, but I didn’t have any employees who reported to me, which spared me the shock of witnessing firsthand, as I gather all real managers do, that if you scratch any seemingly competent and well-adjusted underling, you will find a squalling infant. Even without having to perform any diapering and burping myself, I experienced enough office politics to last me a lifetime, and when the gig ended I resolved to steer clear of the management track and revert to squalling infanthood to the end of my days. The lack of responsibility for anything bigger than myself was a relief, and I had a lot more time to do actual journalism.

If ever I should express an ambition to stop writing and climb the short, greasy pole to become Slate’s editor, please advise me to unspool last night’s episode of The Sopranos. Our theme: It sucks to be the boss. To quote Frank Costello, the Irish mob boss Jack Nicholson plays in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, “Uneasy lies da crown.” Come to think of it, maybe that’s not such a great example. Costello (who’s modeled on Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster/FBI informant who has spent 12 footloose years on the lam) seems to be having a pretty good time. Then again, Costello’s a bachelor, unburdened by family obligations. As we’ve learned from TheSopranos’ closeted Vito Spatafore ( buon’ anima), in the Italian mob even gay capos are required to have a wife and kids and a mortgage. Layer that with the responsibilities of being capo di tutti capi and watch a man’s shoulders sag.

In this latest installment, the New York boss Johnny Sack, shortly before he dies from lung cancer in a prison hospital, makes the mistake of asking his brother-in-law Anthony Infante what his legacy will be on the street. Infante blurts out that some thought he was “hotheaded.” Johnny, failing to put this criticism in perspective—Infante makes his living as an optometrist, for Pete’s sake, so of course Johnny looks hotheaded to him—replies bitterly that his critics don’t understand what a lousy, thankless job this is. And in fact, when Johnny dies, none of his logical replacements seems terribly interested in moving up. Tony meets with Little Carmine, the weakling son of Johnny’s predecessor, to encourage him to take the job, but L.C. tells Tony no way; his physical safety and his time with wife and kids matter too much to him. Phil Leotardo, Johnny’s No. 2, says he doesn’t want the job either and ends the show sitting on a barstool doubting his manhood because he failed to avenge the death of his beloved brother Billy, who was clipped by Tony’s equally beloved cousin Tony Blundetto. To keep the peace, Tony S. had to kill Tony B.—I told you this was a lousy job—but really Phil should have done it, and the fact that he didn’t shows that Phil isn’t mob-boss material.

Tony, of course, has his own succession problem. His nephew Christopher was once the heir apparent, but now he’s too preoccupied with his new career as a movie producer. Christopher is reluctant to hang out at the Bing for fear of falling off the wagon, but Tony thinks that Christopher is staying away because he hates him—he is at first flattered and later insulted that the mob boss in Christopher’s godawful movie, Cleaver, turns out to be based on him—and it’s breaking Tony’s heart. (Tony chooses not to dwell on the small facts that he seriously considered having an affair with Adriana, the love of Christopher’s life, and subsequently had Adrianna whacked for being an informant.) In the previous episode, Tony told his brother-in-law Bobby Bacala that perhaps Bobby should succeed him, but Bobby didn’t show much gratitude when he slugged Tony for making vulgar jokes about his sister (Bobby’s wife) Janice during a not-so-friendly game of Monopoly. Tony’s son A.J. has made occasional vague noises that he wouldn’t mind becoming a wiseguy—he’s a complete and utter failure at everything else—but neither Tony nor Carmela wants that, and casual evidence suggests that A.J. lacks the necessary competence. He bungled an attempt to kill his elderly Uncle Junior in the hospital to avenge Tony’s near-death after Uncle Junior, in a demented state, shot Tony, and lately A.J.’s hot Puerto Rican girlfriend has begun to notice that A.J. is not the macho character she imagined him to be. (I still get the feeling that A.J. will do something spectacularly stupid and destructive before the show concludes.) Silvio Dante didn’t seem to like filling in for Tony while Tony recuperated from Uncle Junior’s gunshot wound, and Paulie Walnuts is too dumb and too crazy-angry to become boss, isn’t he? Really, the only person I can plausibly imagine filling Tony’s shoes would be Tony’s princessy Columbia-grad daughter, Meadow. But, of course, even if she could be persuaded to abandon her faux naiveté about what daddy does for a living, she’d likely bump up against the most formidable glass ceiling in America. In the Mafia, no woman ever advances beyond the entry-level jobs of stripper or prostitute. Take it away, NOW.

This glass ceiling is quite ironic in light of something I learned two nights ago at a birthday party for my silver-haired friend Beth Frerking. Several guests were talking animatedly about attending a Washington screening of the first two Sopranos episodes followed by a question-and-answer period with the show’s creator, David Chase. I gather you were there, too. (Slate’s D.C. office received an invitation, but it was addressed to NPR’s Diane Rehm Show and was nontransferable. Story of my life.) My friend Mary Kay Ricks said she was at the screening and that she asked Chase who inspired the character of Tony Soprano. Chase answered that if Tony had a prototype, it was his mother. (Chase has also said his mother helped inspire the character of Tony’s ghastly mother, Livia.) On hearing this, I pointed out that Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, always said that he modeled the character of Don Corleone on … his mother. We kicked that around a bit and reached the consensus that, pop-culture depictions of the Mafia notwithstanding, Italian-American culture is not remotely patriarchal. The wise and powerful padrone is a Hollywood invention. It’s the moms who take care of business and always have. See, for instance, Martin Scorsese’s hilarious documentary Italianamerican. Nominally it’s a portrait of the filmmaker’s parents, but Dad can’t get a word in edgewise.

No wonder it’s so hard to find a good man to succeed Johnny Sack or Tony Soprano. Incidentally, would the Italian-American dominant-female thing explain your own reckless passion for Carmela? Please don’t be too specific in your answer.