In this blog, I will try to account for the sadness that we feel not only for the loss of a fine actor, but I will ruminate on the possible function that the popular television series played in American lives.
Here is how one blogger analyzed the series, and it is worth reading. This writer focuses on Tony Soprano as a depressed patient, thus, he argues, the show departed from the genre of the gangster movie. Putting it in my words, Tony Soprano was not just a rampaging Id, a monster of aggression and power who may or may not be punished in the end. See http://benhenleysmith.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-and-genre-conventions/. But the Wiki bio of David Chase may be more to the point: it appears that Chase projected his own family background into the series that made Tony Soprano a household word. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Chase.
I have a slightly different take on a show that at first I could not watch because of the graphic violence, which frightened me. In retrospect, I personally found it nihilistic, depraved, barbaric and reactionary: in sum an affront to the American notion of equality under the rule of law. (See http://clarespark.com/2012/09/22/materialist-history-and-the-idea-of-progress/.) But I went back to it, because of its popularity and obvious cultural significance. What follows is my attempt to understand its appeal: could the answer be found in the adolescent notion of the criminal as rebel, or did David Chase view America’s ruling class as no better than Mafioso thugs, chiming in with the 1960s generation?
First, it was written and filmed in the postwar Italian Neo-Realist style. It had the look and pace of real life (with the flashbacks substituting for memory, and only occasionally a fantasy, for instance Tony’s seeing himself as an armored Roman soldier, reminding me of Mussolini’s resurrection of ancient Rome). But more, it looked at family relationships at their most brutal, thus departing from the usual sentimentality regarding families that characterized early television and before that, the middle class popular music or theater and movie musicals that elevated romantic love, either celebrating the first flush of romance or weeping with the loss of the beloved object.
Ordinary respectable law-abiding people could thus release repressed emotions, murderous rage for instance, or promiscuous sexuality. But more, the difficulties of the mother-son attachment were revealed in Tony’s therapy, and we saw multiple generations coping with problems that everyone could relate to, but which are not displayed in the theater of everyday life, in which we all act on cue. But such catharses do nothing to remedy the underlying problem: authoritarian families and authoritarian institutions designed solely to ensure “social cohesion” and “political stability.” (See http://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, a blog about primitivism and ritual rebellion.)
With the popularity of the show, it was hard for David Chase to end the series without disturbing the audience, for it was obvious that viewers were attaching to Tony’s character, repulsive as it often was to the middle-class morality that he both flouted and vaguely adhered to. So there was much discussion of the last episode, which ends without showing what surely must have been the mass destruction of the Soprano nuclear family, sans the educated, liberal daughter, who left the restaurant to change her parking spot. (I remember being amazed that there could be any doubt about the dénouement, and why the daughter is spared. Why the series ended with a black screen remains contentious.)
But there is nothing ambiguous about the shocking death of James Gandolfini, the skilled actor. It is not only Americans who feel the ties to Italian ancestors who mourn his loss.