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Was James Gandolfini sucked into Tony Soprano’s fierce dream?

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After James Gandolfini’s premature death in Italy in June, a 2007 post of mine got some renewed traffic. “Sorry Folks, but Tony Soprano got whacked” came out after the mystifying last episode of The Sopranos and asserted that Tony and his whole family will get killed inside the diner seconds after the show’s ending because The Sopranos was a moral drama. And producer David Chase’s moral message was clear: Tony had destroyed a bunch of people’s lives, including his hapless daughter Meadow, whose inability to escape her fate is the excruciating drama of the last few minutes of the show, when she has car trouble and almost doesn’t make it to the diner in time for the ending. But Meadow gets there, tragically. And so she too is “drawn towards the closing vortex”– to quote another great American tragedy that ends with destruction.

I got that post from my wife, who is ten times more psychological and insightful than I am. After Gandolfini’s sad death, she rewatched a few years of The Sopranos. I asked her if she still believes what she told me in ’07. More than ever.

“Over five years what you saw was that this family slowly became entrapped by Tony. You saw the sweet young son turn into a thug. You saw the daughter who had really tried to get out thwarted by the father. You saw the wife recognize what was happening to her life and to her family and simply not being able to give up the power she wielded in the community and the material goods.

“You saw people painfully getting sucked into a vortex of Tony’s mendacious murderous Mafia behavior and the money that came from that. They all try in their own little ways, but they are not able to get out. In the end they were all in Tony’s dream, which was the fiercest and most powerful dream, and this thwarted them.

“In a famous episode, Carmela is told by a wise old Old Testament psychiatrist [Krakower], ‘You will never be happy or out of pain if you stay with this man and I will not accept your blood money.’ Well, I know, that’s implausible– no one has ever heard of a psychiatrist not accepting money. But he’s like an Old Testament prophet, and he looks at her and says, ‘You cannot say you were not told.’

“Meadow has found this boyfriend from LA who’s half-black and half-Jewish and whose father is an LA lawyer, and he goes to Tony’s house and Tony treats him terribly. Get out of here. I think he calls him an eggplant. So the father in LA does some checking, and the kid breaks up with Meadow.

“It was her first step out into the real world. Then she goes out with a mobster’s son. So she’s back in Tony’s dream.

“A lot of people said that Lorraine Bracco was the moral center of the show, Tony’s psychiatrist. But she’s not the moral center. As her shrink tells her, ‘Why did you accept him as a client? You’re allowing him to rationalize his behavior.’ Right; why is she there? Because she’s excited to be in the mob, too.

“Of course Tony himself was trapped in the family legacy. He had the meanest mother on the planet, he knew no other way. But what made the show so alive was, He loved what he was doing. Everyone else was struggling and in pain, but he loved his work.”

I asked my wife whether she felt that James Gandolfini, dead at 51, was also destroyed by Tony’s drama. She shook her head.

“I don’t know that. Of course we know that actors take on their roles. I’ve heard that when Robert DeNiro is playing a character, he’s that character all the time; and whenever he’s not playing someone, he goes into hiding. Was James Gandolfini also sacrificed to this character? It’s possible. But it’s a terrible thing to say.”

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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15 Responses

  1. Donald on August 7, 2013, 1:55 pm

    “I asked my wife whether she felt that James Gandolfini, dead at 51, was also destroyed by Tony’s drama. ”

    Why would you even think that? He was an overweight middle-aged guy. Most of this post was interesting, even though I never got into the Sopranos (watched some of the episodes on cable after the show was finished). But your question is silly.

  2. KeithS on August 7, 2013, 2:08 pm

    “In a famous episode, Carmen is told by a wise old Old Testament psychiatrist [Krakower], ‘You will never be happy or out of pain if you stay with this man and I will not accept your blood money.’ (…) But he’s like an Old Testament prophet, and he looks at her and says, ‘You cannot say you were not told.'”

    This moment was critical for me, because the psychiatrist also told Carmella that her husband was in “the mafia.” This was one of the few times this word was actually heard on the series. The characters didn’t use it, and the audience was trained not to either. The psychiatrist broke this taboo – and uttered the truth.

    Mondoweiss is fulfilling the same role, the same “Old Testament prophet” role in our lives, but saying the truth in the same way.

    • Danaa on August 7, 2013, 6:46 pm

      Well said, KeithS. Mondoweiss as that “old testament prophet”. With only Marc Ellis spelling it out – perhaps a bit too gently for some. Perhaps too painfully for others.

      Who are the ones that need to be told? who is “Carmela”? why, it’s the good Jewish people of the world, and especially in America. they have enabled the mafia, they are all in Tony Soprano’s dream. Some try – tentatively – to find a way out. These are the J Streeters”. But like Meadow, they get sucked back into the “vortex”. The golem keeps winning and as it wins, it grows ever more menacing and out of control.

      The operating word here is “morality play”. Israel is one. The Jews of the world another – swirling on the periphery of the vortex.

      Everyone else has bit parts on that particular show. Which may just be a parable. Which will not go on forever, because no show does, and there is no “forever” anyways.

      What’s the key message of the bible, the old testament version – retribution? the importance of historicity?

      No wonder the new testament had to come back with another theme – redemption.

      Too depressing otherwise. Humans must have hope, don’t they?

      Given though what [some? many?] Christians did with redemption (historically speaking) it looks like they got sucked into the vortex as well – may be because the retribution was still making its way around?

      So perhaps the time is fast coming for a New New Testament. Don’t ask me from whence or when.

  3. Pamela Olson on August 7, 2013, 2:11 pm

    I never watched The Sopranos, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad lately, and it seems like something similar. The main character ruins everyone’s lives, ostensibly for the noble goal of providing for his family. Literally dozens of people die because of his actions (mostly indirectly, but some very directly), and he only rarely seems the least bit troubled. The ends (providing for a family that is frankly starting to hate him, and should hate him) always justify the means, until pretty soon he’s just going blindly on his own (evil) momentum.

    It also reminds me of Goodfellas. Once down-and-out people get a taste of the good life (and the power and esteem that go with it), who wants to go back to being a regular wage-slave schmuck?

    For that matter, it reminds me of many folks in Washington… whose actions kill a lot more people than any petty criminal. Who also believe it’s better to be part of The Family than out on the street with the regular Joes, working for an honest living like a sucker, with no one to kiss your ass and give you titles and awards. (I have a feeling a lot of people in Washington would simply have no idea who they were if they left the Beltway and all its accoutrements.)

    Of course, it’s all in the noble name of creating order in a chaotic world. Richard Haass said on the Daily Show the other day that if the US didn’t maintain its hegemonic power in the world, the result would be chaos.

    I’m sure every empire (and spokespeople for empire) have told themselves the same thing as they meddle and burn and kill and pillage (without ever casting a glance at the actual things that cause instability — many of which they are directly responsible for).

  4. American on August 7, 2013, 2:16 pm

    I’ve seen several movies James Gandolfini was in in a variety of characters—thought he was a hell of an actor and sorry we wont be seeing him any more.
    Saw an interview with him also and he said the Sopranos role was ‘so dark’ when you think about what Tony actually did that he had to ‘turn off’ thinking about the character when not filming.

    There was one other TV show I watched, ‘Breaking Bad” which I thought illustrated
    more about how “addicting” the money- power thing can be to what was once an ‘ordinary’ or average person who started out thinking about getting something for his family ….but then the power and control became it’s own high, more enthralling than the money or family.
    Whereas in the Sopranos crime families the money came first, last and always and the power and violence employed was just a way to get it and keep it coming.

  5. Xpat on August 7, 2013, 3:25 pm

    The Old Testament shrink’s line is indeed memorable.
    The reason The Sopranos was so compelling is because it is a morality drama about the paradoxical moral codes of suburban middle class. The opening credits reinforced this central message every week. The camera follows Tony Soprano’s commute from the grungy city where he makes a living as a Mafioso to his tony, suburban home with his church-going wife and all the other accoutrements of suburbia. This transition is pitched at middle class Americans who, every day, “do what they need to do” to make a living in the city. They go home to a very different life each evening. A different morality rules their evenings and weekends with the wife and kids. Suburbia is about escaping the bigger realities and consequences of our lifestyle. For the purposes of Mondoweiss, the West Bank settlements serve the role of affordable suburbia. Middle class Israelis wanted the suburbia they saw on American propaganda movies and TV shows.
    It’s no coincidence that American Jews fled the cities to create Jewish suburbia not long before the settlement project in Israel got underway. Israelis, too, want the perfect life in their settlement (or Tel Aviv) bubble knowing full well, yet willfully turning a blind eye to, what it takes to enforce the occupation and domination of Palestinians. Their sons and daughters go out every Sunday morning to do the dirty work that allows their parents to live the dream.

  6. Obsidian on August 7, 2013, 5:38 pm

    Here’s Phil sucking up to Celebrity again. Now, sadly, dead celebrity.

    Man, what kind of storm do you have in your head?

  7. marc b. on August 7, 2013, 7:13 pm

    I watched one season or so of ‘the sopranos’. it was well done, for what it was, but pretty stereotypical eye-talian mafia stuff, even with the addition of anti-depressants and psychoanalysis. (I always thought a good SNL spoof of the show could include gandolfini and co. in black face doing their schtick.)

    as for ‘breaking bad’ three episodes was all I could take. formula: take a white male, build in excuse for murderous, criminal behavior (e.g. fatal illness + household bills), and set him loose to commit mayhem amongst brown competitors. in other words, a closet racist’s wet TV dream. (in one episode, the main character and his lil’ buddy sidekick are kidnapped by bad, generic Hispanic drug dealer, and most of the show is spent with the camera on the put upon hero as he tries to extricate himself, first through a failed poisoning attempt, and by ultimately shooting bad guy or bashing his brains in with a shovel. I forget which. i’m guessing the shovel since that’s more erotic, with all the breathy swinging and sweating that comes with manual murder.)

    ps my pet theory on gandolfini is that a combination of high blood pressure, red wine, Viagra and Italian prostitutes did him in.

  8. tokyobk on August 7, 2013, 8:03 pm

    David Carridine spent his life playing at Kung Fu and Eastern meditation.

    Probably there was additional joy for Gandolfi in eating plates of wonderful, awful for you, food, smoking cigars and drinking much more wine than the daily good shot of resveretrol. That lifestyle probably did get reinforced by his Tony role which no doubt was how fans shouted out to him.

  9. Keith on August 7, 2013, 9:06 pm

    “In a famous episode, Carmela is told by a wise old Old Testament psychiatrist [Krakower], ‘You will never be happy or out of pain if you stay with this man and I will not accept your blood money.'”

    Isn’t it interesting how the media portray Jews as basically wise and morally upright, and the Italians as mafiosa. When do you ever hear about the Jewish mafia and the intimate relations between the Chicago mob and Jewish lawyers like Sidney Korshak? Or how media moguls like Lew Wasserman had mob connections? For those interested, I highly recommend “Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers” by Gus Russo.

    • KeithS on August 8, 2013, 2:45 pm

      Actually, they did mention this on the show. Tony’s psychiatrist had her own psychiatrist – played memorably by famous film director Peter Bogdanovich. He brought up the Jewish mob. In addition, Tony’s accountant was Jewish and was shown to be as deeply corrupted as the rest.

      Italian American groups, protesting the show, pointed out how a show about corrupt Jews would be impossible on today’s TV. I think it’s still worthwhile to point out the double standards. For example, can anyone picture a film about a troubled Jewish family saved by a wise, kindly WASP psychiatrist? The new Woody Allen film, for example, has a “Bernie Maddow” character – played by Alec Baldwin.


  10. PilgrimSoul on August 8, 2013, 3:11 pm

    Loved everything about this post. Agree also with KeithS about Mondoweiss playing the role of the truth-telling prophet. So can we all, if we make the choice.

    “You saw people painfully getting sucked into a vortex of Tony’s mendacious murderous Mafia behavior and the money that came from that. They all try in their own little ways, but they are not able to get out. In the end they were all in Tony’s dream, which was the fiercest and most powerful dream, and this thwarted them.”

    I argue that this dream of aggression, power and evil is so difficult to escape because one has usually been victimized by it, or lived in daily fear of being victimized by it. (With Tony it was his mother, who tried to have him whacked because he knew too much.) The victim internalizes the aggression because it is the only way the self can survive it, and later acts it out. This is the way aggression and evil are disseminated in the world. The former victim becomes an aggressor, who makes new victims. In my book I refer to this process as trauma bonding, but once in place it also has many of the characteristics of an addiction.

    When used by ruthless governments, it can bond people to its vision of a transcendent violence. Hitler put it this way: “The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.”

    If one interprets “The Sopranos” as an analog to American life, and the language of its violent characters as metaphors for the soul-destroying violence of Empire, most of us–most Americans, I mean–are playing out the role of Carmella, who is either an enabler of, or an accomplice to, Tony’s murders. But there is a way out, as Krakower tells her, which is to leave Tony and start speaking truth to the kids, while there’s still a chance they can choose a different way. I’m not talking about internal exile. I’m talking about being a radical truth-teller.

  11. jd65 on August 8, 2013, 5:44 pm

    Is this short article intimating that James Gandolfini is dead because he played Tony Soprano? Wow. Wildly disrespectful and, imo, intellectually childish. James Gandolfini was a great actor and, from what I’ve seen, a great person. He obviously had some unfortunate health issues coupled w/ some bad choices. But his death had nothing to do w/ his playing Tony Soprano. WTF? Gimme a break.

    If you haven’t yet seen it, I would suggest seeking out and watching “Romance And Cigarettes” for anyone interested in Gandolfini’s gift. Great, great actor. RIP.

  12. W.Jones on August 8, 2013, 8:49 pm

    The interview with Dr. Krakower is here:

    Ms. Soprano is right that the Catholic Church strongly looks down on marriage. In fact, I think Orthodox Judaism does as well, which is partly where the Church gets its view from. It would be interesting to see what a clergy or psychologist from one or the other denominations would say. Naturally, traditional Judaism and Catholicism have good, moral reasons for their position, although if she actually wanted to get a divorce and could not resolve the problem, then she is allowed to. So a “traditionalist” might not rule it out, either. The screenwriter naturally wasn’t either, and it’s a tough problem she was faced with.

    • Xpat on August 8, 2013, 10:52 pm

      “Ms. Soprano is right that the Catholic Church strongly looks down on marriage.”
      Only for priests.

      Orthodox Judaism is full of divorcees. Being traditionalists, it took that community a little longer than mainstream society to accept divorce and it’s less common there. But divorce is by no means uncommon in the Orthodox community. Unlike some other religions, even in pre-modern times, divorce was always a legal, kosher option.

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