Mob bosses have traditionally been larger than life, mostly stoic figures, such as Brando’s Don Corleone and Paul Sorvino’s Big Paullie from Goodfellas. Both of these characters had moments of human emotion, (Corleone losing Sonny, Paul turning his back on Henry Hill), but all of that was before Tony Soprano came along.
His marriage is on the rocks, his kids are a hassle, and oh yeah, he’s the head of New Jersey’s crime family. Here was a Mafia figurehead with real problems, not just having to escape murder plots from other families, rivals for his position, or even his own relatives. Here was a guy dealing with college tuition, an underachieving son and a nagging wife.
With all these elements going against Tony, it should be really easy to root for him, but here’s where the creators of The Sopranos throw you the curveball. Tony’s a real glutton on a lot of levels, and a complete weakling when it comes to suppressing his appetites. He’s a womanizer, a gambler and a murderer. Tony falls prey to many of the emotions we as an audience wonder if we could withstand if we were in Tony’s shoes (OK, maybe not the murdering).
Giving Tony these great flaws has made it very hard to root for him on occasion. For every moment of warmth that he shows his family or those around him, there is a moment of meaningless death and destruction. To counter this, creators gave Tony a confessional and yet another way to make him seem even more human. In the first episode, Tony is hospitalized after collapsing. It’s determined that he’s having panic attacks and to combat these, Tony is required to go to counselling.
These sessions with Lorraine Bracco’s Dr. Jennifer Melfi are a brilliant way in which Tony discusses his feelings, his personal life and most importantly his blemishes as a human being. These sessions are the anchors that keep the characters grounded despite circles of violence that swarm constantly around them. Tony allows Melfi to be his conscience, the problems come when he either does not or can not listen to her advice.
James Gandolfini has to also take much of the credit for the success of Tony as a character. Though never having a real breakthrough role on the big screen, the actor is a television icon. It is to Gandolfini’s credit that Tony is a likable character despite killing or nearly killing his mother, his best friend, his uncle, and ordered the death of dozens more. We don’t care that down deep, he is a scumbag, because we’ve all got faults, but he’s just on a larger stage.
Maybe no character has run a greater gambit of emotions from cuddly to downright terrifying than Mr. Soprano. In one moment, he can be one of the most sympathetic characters on TV, the next he can be completely despicable. Through it all, Tony keeps your love because of Gandolfini’s acting and charisma.
Through five seasons, Tony has had some of the most exciting, dramatic and heart wrenching moment ever to have been put on the small screen. From season 1’s botched assassination attempt on his life that was orchestrated by some of those close to him, to his struggle with an informer in season 2, to dealing with the absence of love and understanding during his childhood, Tony has solidified his place as the best character on one of the best series in television history.
Season 5 had even more great moments to add to Tony’s legacy. Simple moments from just wanting to earn the love of his favorite Uncle, to possibly taking on the most powerful crime family in the world filled the crime boss’ world in The Sopranos’ fifth season. Perhaps the season’s best episode, entitled The Test Dream, has Tony asleep for most of the instalment walking through his life having to deal with the deaths he has caused and one yet to come. The Test Dream culminates with Tony confronting an old coach from his youth, trying to please a man that thought Tony would end up a failure. Through subliminal imagery and Gandolfini’s masterful performance, all the layers of Tony come to the forefront.
Soprano’s inadequacies and past sins haunt his dreams, but electrify our viewing experience. Through five seasons, Tony has still our every attention. He expects loyalty and we give it diligently because he has enthralled with us with his tortured existence. Salute!