In preparation for our first fully online semester of college, my roommates and I sprung for the faster of the AT&T and internet packages. This package included a complimentary subscription to HBO Max. While the speed of the wireless connection may have been overstated, HBO’s vast library of original content became a TV staple in my apartment. I watched several recommended titles in the early months, but no show has quite dominated my binging hours like The Sopranos.
On the surface, "The Sopranos" reads like a classic Scorcese-esque mob drama, complete with talented, authentic-feeling New York/New Jersey wise guys, brutal mob violence, internal politics and family drama. It centers around New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano, masterfully portrayed by the late James Gandolfini.
If you’ve seen the show, you know that the story goes much deeper than that. "The Sopranos" is a beautiful and thoughtful story about mental illness, and the way we view it. It’s about economic and social anxiety for an aging and changing America at the time of the new millennium. It’s about family and what it means to be married or to raise children. It’s about all that and a lot more.
However if you were to peruse the social media communities of the show’s fandom, you’re bound to find a different interpretation. There are forums and pages full of fans, many just recently discovering the show as I did, who see the show for all its style and charisma and think of Tony Soprano as a character whose actions in the series are endorsed by the creators or is at least defensible. They believe Tony’s actions are justified just because he spends so much time justifying them to himself.
It’s an interpretation especially common in fans of mob stories who see a justified outlaw or a badass where there is a tragic figure. And I’m not saying characters can’t be both. Generally I like to focus on all the things a story is rather than gatekeep about what a story is not.
I think art has a lot more to say than even the artist who created it could articulate and different interpretations can be and often are just as valid. There is rarely a “correct” interpretation of a piece of art, but to put it simply, "The Sopranos" is just not about cool guys being cool and doing cool, good things.
People who can’t see the anti in the antihero have been around for as long as the concept itself. In the 1970 WWII movie "Patton", the eponymous general is played by the great George C. Scott. Scott, who would become the first actor to refuse an Academy Award for this portrayal, played the controversial and boisterous military man as a rabid war dog.
In it “Old Blood and Guts” sacrifices men’s lives for his own personal glory, commits a war crime or two, and is a general monster throughout. The movie is a product of growing anti-war sentiment in America as the Vietnam War passed its height. It may be his story but Patton is no one’s hero.
Well, not no one. In fact a pretty important person saw the bloodthirsty conqueror Scott brought to life and thought he’d follow suit. Incumbent President Richard Nixon famously watched "Patton" on repeat, enthralled by Scott’s character, in the months before he escalated the Vietnam War by bombing areas of neutral Cambodia.
Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, even said “When he was pressed to the wall, his [Nixon’s] romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of 'Patton'.” Suddenly, the very war "Patton" sought to critique was getting even bloodier after the President saw it.
This isn’t just a problem of the powerful or of a past generation. If you know more than a few young men studying business today you’ll likely find at least a few with a genuine admiration for Jordan Belfort as portrayed in "The Wolf of Wall Street". The greedy, lying, cheating, exploitative character was even an inspiration for several retail investors during the recent Gamestop/WallStreetBets affair.
The real Belfort even weighed in, playing off of his persona from the popular movie to encourage the small time stock traders. Belfort seems to relish in the publicity garnered from the character based off of him and is known to lean into it. Even Belfort, the man on whom the antihero is based, seems to miss that the movie is as much a tragedy as it is a hero's journey.
In storytelling what the protagonist does is extremely important but antihero protagonists like Tony Soprano, like Patton, like Belfort or "Gone Girl"'s Amy Dunne are even more significant in what they choose not to do. The cautionary tales and tragedies of these figures seem to get lost in their personalities or in their sympathetic nature.
Antiheroes are supposed to be sympathetic. The best ones will have us cheering them on even as they commit great wrongs. As Tony Soprano brutalizes debtors, murders in a blind rage, cheats on and betrays his wife he remains sympathetic because we see the story from his perspective.
Antiheroes show us that a villain is not some one-track-minded monster but a person with their own aspirations and justifications. They are compelling because they show us that one story’s one dimensional villain is another’s complex protagonist. That the monster in the night is often more human than we anticipate. In another story Tony would be a villain but this is his story with all the bad decisions and unforced errors that entails.
Tony being a tragic figure is part of what makes the series so relevant 20 years after the pilot first aired. The show is currently undergoing a renaissance with fresh think pieces, cast reunions, podcasts and even a prequel, the upcoming "Many Saints of Newark". A new generation is discovering the prestige TV of old and in "The Sopranos", in its commentary on social issues, on mental illness on the very nature of the American way of life, we’ve found something that has never been more relevant, even if it’s told from our parents’ perspective.
We’re supposed to see at least some of ourselves in most protagonists. They’re written to be relatable. We’re meant to even find ourselves rooting for them as they do wrong but it’s not because their actions are an example of how to be but because they are an example of how not to be. Antiheroes are sympathetic tragedies. There, but for the grace of God, go I. They show us there is a monster in all of us and that being human is deciding whether you want to embrace it or not.
Antiheroes are useful, thoughtful, entertaining protagonists but too often we fall in the trap of fully embracing them and their choices. So root for Tony and all the other wicked heroes but maybe don’t list them under your role models.