In remembrance: James Gandolfini and The Sopranos

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June 23, 2013 by Susan Miller


James Gandolfini died of a heart attack earlier this week.  It happened in Rome, on a vacation with his son.  He was 51 years old.

Those are the simple facts.  They are completely true.  There’s nothing to analyze there, nothing to question.  It cannot be reversed.  It’s not a cliffhanger or a season finale that can be undone by clever writing.  It is what it is and that’s all that there is.  James Gandolfini lived, acted, was discovered by David Chase and brought to life the first and greatest anti-hero of television drama in Tony Soprano.  Now he’s gone.  He’s gone at 51, only 6 years after the infamous cut to black that ended The Sopranos.  We’ll never see him play another role.  He’ll never get another encore.  He had 30 years of work left in him.  Now we’ll all just make do in his shadow.

So much of the TV that we love exists because of James Gandolfini and The SopranosThe Wire would never have happened without The Sopranos to sustain it.  Matt Weiner got his start on The Sopranos and then went on to launch Mad Men.  The success of Mad Men gave rise to Breaking BadBreaking Bad stole 60% of its DNA from The ShieldThe Shield could not have created Vic Mackey without Tony Soprano.  Because of Vic and Tony, we got Dexter.  Because of Dexter, we got Homeland.  Because of Homeland, we got The Americans.  Because of The Americans, we will be happy for many years to come.

So today, we want to say thank you to David Chase for creating The Sopranos and discovering James Gandolfini.  To Edie Falco, who was the perfect partner for Tony, and to HBO, for letting this crazy crew do whatever they wanted, for 6 spellbinding seasons.  I spent several hours of my life watching James Gandolfini do his thing, and even more hours watching all of his copycats unleash their madness on my television.  Thank you so much for this beautiful disturbia.

Here are a few of our favorite scenes/episodes/relationships/stories.  (So, y’know, spoilers ahead as well as plenty of non-kid friendly language/subjects/etc.):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Susan: I always found Tony most fascinating when he was at his angriest.  I love watching great actors yell and scream at each other, and have huge fights.  There’s a raw energy to it that is completely captivating.  In the season 4 finale, Whitecaps, Tony and Carmela have the best fight ever recorded on television.  It’s mind-blowing and brave and shocking and 100% captivating.  To my mind, there’s never been a better scene on television.

Steven: I like this episode because it deconstructs their gangster language and makes Tony look at what he’s doing outside of euphemism.  It’s not a metaphorical fish, it’s a real fish.  RIP, Big Pussy.

Susan: I never much liked the dream sequences on this show or any other, though I do think it’s a step-up from those Saved by the Bell dream sequences with the pink fuzzy lines around the edges.  Remember those?  Ah, the good ol days.  What I love about Tony’s scenes with Dr. Melfi is how close he gets to really understanding what it is he’s doing.  He gets so close, so many times, and then turns away at the last second.  Dr. Melfi’s arc lasted far beyond its usefulness, but she was never better than in Employee of the Month, where she bravely refuses to sic Tony on the man who raped her.

Steven: It’s funny, but it also reminds us that this is a show about survival.  The characters put themselves in danger so much, but it’s the thought of freezing to death out in the woods that actually scares them.  I think that’s why it’s so funny.

Susan: I think Pine Barrens was ruined a bit for me because I knew of its legendary status before I saw it.  Chris and Paulie were always problematic characters for me, because I never found them the least bit sympathetic.  It’s a wonder that I was able to find Tony sympathetic, but that wonder is due entirely to the magic of James Gandolfini’s sad eyes.  To me, Bobby Baccalieri is the heart of the show, and was used to great effect as a light comic center.  I love the sight gag of him in his hunting gear in Pine Barrens, but my favorite Bobby storyline was his role as Junior’s nurse/aid/helper for much of the series.  The two had a great Odd Couple vibe.  Bobby always deserved better.

Steven: I like the priest because he proves that even the ideal person in the world of the Sopranos is not that ideal.  Carmela wants to reform Tony but the tools that she has at her disposal are flawed.  Dr. Melfi wants to cure Tony but the understanding she has of him is flawed.  Tony himself wants to be happy but he refuses to realize that happiness is based on his actions.  I feel like that is all of the characters on this show.  They want things but they’re not willing to change course to get them.

Susan: This is never truer than with the tortured relationship between Chris and Adriana.  Beginning in the very first episode of The Sopranos, Chris wanted to write a screenplay and live the Hollywood life as a movie director.  Tony wanted him to stay and be a good capo.  Together, they created more problems for each other until Chris finally met his end in the episode Kennedy and Heidi.  Chris’ final scene is so perfect, from the conversation in the car, to the song on the CD player from a movie soundtrack, to the final execution.  If you’ve seen season 2 of Breaking Bad, it might seem eerily familiar.

On his way down, Chris dragged poor Adriana down into the muck until she was forced into giving up information on Tony and his crew to the FBI.  When Chris found out that Adriana had turned rat, we got the saddest episode in Sopranos’ history in Long Term Parking.  All Chris wanted to was get out and live a different life.  Instead he stayed with Tony, and used drugs to keep himself complacent.  All Adriana wanted was to marry Chris and be happy together.  Even when Chris didn’t turn out to be the man she wanted, she stayed with him to the bitter end.

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