It’s an honor to be commemorating the final Sopranos season with you (Season 6, Part 2, if you want to get obsessive-compulsive about it). I am neither a psychoanalyst, like the intrepid team of shrinksSlate employed to pick over seasons 3 and 4—granting, in a show of unprecedented generosity, a full 60-minute hour to the dysfunctional Soprano family, as opposed to the 50 minutes they give paying clients—nor a mob expert, like you or Jerry Capeci, who did the honors for Season 5. Nor am I former Slate New York editor Judith Shulevitz, with whom you dished about The Sopranos in Slate’s inaugural dialogue way back in 2000, which technically was still the previous century—a lifetime ago for me, and perhaps for you, too.
These concluding episodes find me in a retrospective mood. I watched the first season on bootleg tapes made available by my slightly disreputable local video store. The late Vincent Canby had already raved about the series in the New York Times, piquing my interest, and if I remember correctly, I was the one who then suggested at a Slate editorial meeting that we track this burgeoning cultural phenomenon. From the start, The Sopranos was both a great crime story and a delicious feast of unexpectedly complex characters living ordinary lives—what Slate’s film critic, Dana Stevens (in her previous incarnation as Liz Penn of the High Sign) once termed a “juicebomb.” The term acquires a somewhat literal meaning in this context, since you never know when any given character will abruptly start oozing blood. My previous Sopranos interlocutor took an almost indecent pleasure in the series’ juicebomb-ness, and was no mean dissector of human character herself. We watched the show together in our first house, and then in our second, and once in a bamboo hut in Jamaica with a large crowd of fellow vacationers, most of them Americans, who jockeyed as politely as they could for a good seat. My dear wife passed away before the first half of Season 6 began, and I discovered TheSopranos was one of the many things in life that wasn’t nearly as much fun without her. This season, though, I have discovered the pleasure of watching the show with my son Will, now 14 and old enough to be recruited into the Sopranos cult. Only one rule, I explained to him as we sat down to watch. Never disrespect the Bing.
“What’s the Bing?” he asked.
This season’s first episode finds Tony and Carmela Soprano in a comparatively mellow mood, taking in the scenery at the vacation house in the Adirondacks that Tony’s sister Janice acquired along with her sweet, dim husband Bobby, who works in the family business but who never, we find out early in the hour, “popped his cherry,” i.e., rubbed a guy out. The two couples barbecue; they sit by the lake; they drink convivially. After night falls, they sing karaoke in the living room; they drink some more; they play Monopoly. For as long as they can, they do their best imitations of Lucy and Ricky and Fred and Ethel on a double date. But of course as everybody gets looser and boozier, familiar pathologies emerge. Janice tells Bobby and Carmela a childhood story about their gangster father, over Tony’s objection—even when Sopranos are feeling mellow, they rarely want to revisit family history. Seems one night dad silenced their relentless harpy of a mother (the dreaded Livia) by taking out his gun and shooting a bullet clean through her beehive hairdo. Carmela finds this hilarious. Bobby gets quiet. Bobby is annoyed that Tony, Janice, and Carmela want to play the standard Monopoly variation in which some money gets put into the middle of the board to be collected by the next person who lands on Free Parking. “The Parker Brothers put a lot of thought into these rules,” he complains (a characteristically choice bit of Sopranos dialogue). Tony teases Janice about her looks in his vulgar way, Janice laughs, and Bobby is appalled. “You Sopranos go too far,” he says. Tony apologizes, but then of course resumes almost immediately, and Bobby slugs Tony, who may be his brother-in-law but is also his mob boss. A fistfight ensues, which Bobby wins. (Did I mention that Bobby isn’t very bright?) Tony tells Bobby he won fair and square, but of course he can’t let it go, and he exacts revenge the next day by assigning Bobby a mob hit. It’s classic Tony payback: Not only does he get to show Bobby who’s boss, but he also communicates in the most direct possible way that it’s time for Bobby to get down off that high horse of his.
“What did I tell you?” I told Will as the credits rolled. “Is this a great show?”
“This is a great show,” Will answered. Because he is a teenager, Will seldom agrees with me about anything.
To tire of The Sopranos is to tire of life.