It’s one big memento mori, “The Sopranos.” You don’t realize it while you’re watching the series at first, because the show is so drenched in sex and food, gore and comedy, violence and pathos and banality. But death is there from the very beginning, and it’s telling you something: Just wait. It will happen to you.
The series has recently gained a whole new audience, almost 15 years after its finale on HBO. This is obviously in large part because of the recent release of “The Many Saints of Newark,” a feature film purporting to fill in some of the backstory of the lives of Tony Soprano and his kin. But the comeback is also due to something else: As the New York Times’s Willy Staley posited, younger audiences see themselves in Tony Soprano’s “combination of privilege and self-loathing,” or they see today’s America in the show’s portrayal of the ’90s era of decline and fall.
Staley says the show was prescient in a way that sheds light on our specific timeline. But I think it deals with a theme that never stopped being relevant, namely, salvation. And did I mention death?
In the very first episode, Carmela Soprano, Tony’s wife, steps into the room where Tony is getting an MRI, hoping to find the source of his inexplicable collapses. In eight lines of dialogue that provide a primer to their marriage, Tony mawkishly offers a nostalgic olive branch, and Carmela quickly escalates: “What’s different between you and me is you’re going to hell when you die!” Then Tony’s body, covered only by a hospital gown, is fed into the machine.
Carmela later retracts her furious words. But where Tony is going from Episode One on—and Carmela, too—really is the central question of the show.
It is not explicitly a religious question. The church appears mainly as a cultural and aesthetic force in the lives of the show’s characters. Sin and virtue are treated as a curiosity, and even the priests are willing to help that world view limp along unchallenged, as long as they get their manigot.
In a sense, the most Catholic parts of the show are not the explicitly Catholic parts. Whether it’s the Holy Spirit (in the guise of that numinous wind that moves throughout the series) or something more amorphous, a moral force does press on the lives of the various characters, demanding their attention.
They are all constantly presented with choices: What matters more, business and efficiency or loyalty and family? When we identify what was wrong with the past, do we reject everything about it? If we see what was good about the past, may we hope to retain any of it? Once we understand why we do things, how culpable are we, and how capable are we of change? Once we realize we are wrong, how much must we give up to make things right? Anything?
Carmela is given perhaps the starkest moral choice of any of the characters (except for maybe Paulie Walnuts, with his cataclysmic vision of the Virgin Mary at the stripper’s pole): The almost prophetic psychiatrist Dr. Krakower tells Carmela, plainly and without pity, that she must leave Tony, must take no more blood money, must be an accomplice no longer.
“One thing you can never say: that you haven’t been told,” he intones.
You could see this scene as the show leaving a small marker, bobbing on the surface of the water, reminding the viewer: Don’t forget, wrong is still wrong. We may be humanizing murderers in every episode, showing them eating their sloppy pepper sandwiches and struggling with their teenagers just like anyone else, but murder is still murder. Death is still death.
Carmela leaves Dr. Krakower’s office stricken. She huddles on the couch at home, pondering these things in her heart. And then she finds a priest, a good priest, who gives her a softer message. He tells her that she should find a way to live off only the legitimate parts of her husband’s income, and that is how she will find her way. But soon enough, despite some dramatic side journeys, she makes her way back into the same old patterns.
Carmela is almost an inverse of the Lady of Sorrows, who endures so many awful indignities: Carmela takes away no good from her anguish; she only suffers. She feeds everyone and cares for everyone, and everyone comes to her for comfort. She listens to everyone, and with her deep, hollow eyes she sees through everyone, and she always tells people the truth about themselves. But when it comes down to it, she has her price, and can be had for presents and jewelry.
Carmela’s insight also goes dim when there is something she doesn’t want to know. It has been her life’s work not to see that Tony was capable of killing people—including his own loved ones and relatives. Carmela’s brittle manicure and spraddle-legged gait betray the terrible tension of keeping so much horror in check within her.
Her dalliance with real estate is more than just a way to build a nest egg. It is her answer to Tony’s impending, inevitable death: to pile up money for herself and her children. She knows that throughout her whole life, she has been building with rotten materials. But she also knows she can make the sale if she keeps pushing hard enough. It’s not just the house she’s building as her own project to sell, it’s everything.
And this is how the show draws us in. It gives us the same choice: How will you hold all this knowledge in check? We’re going to show you so many things about what people are like. What will you do with the knowledge? How will you accommodate it?