The (Christian) Legacy of The Sopranos, 25 Years Later

Daniel Jung

Watching The Sopranos used to be a sin.

25 years ago, HBO introduced television audiences to The Sopranos, a new kind of storytelling that was not exactly family-friendly.

But a lot has changed within the TV landscape since that first episode, when Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) walked into the psychiatry office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Time and 21 Emmy wins changes perspectives. As a Christian, I believe the lasting legacy of The Sopranos is its deep dive into the antihero as a representation of our own lives as flawed, yet redeemable, people.

We are introduced to Tony Soprano, the North Jersey mafia underboss, in the opening seconds of the very first episode. Tony’s psychiatry visit is spurred by a recent panic attack, but he’s a reluctant patient. He declares to Dr. Melfi, “Look, it’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.” Among a cast of characters filled with con-artists, liars, and thieves, Tony’s declaration is the grandest deceit of the show, as we spend a majority of the next six seasons with the protagonist who calls himself the “sad clown,” in Dr. Melfi’s chair, talking to a psychiatrist.

These psychiatry visits set The Sopranos apart from other organized crime dramas. The antihero has now taken center stage. There have been other shows and movies that highlighted a deeply flawed protagonist. But The Sopranos was the first show dedicated to exploring a near-exhaustive dramatization of the antihero. Although the show didn’t invent the antihero, it certainly excavated the figure to unforeseen depths, spending most of its 77 hours and 55 minutes navigating Tony’s complex hypocrisies.

Creator and writer David Chase has made it very clear that Tony’s moral duplicity is the focal point of the show. Tony’s struggles to balance these ambiguities bleed into all aspects of his life and we get to witness this painful turmoil play out in his relationships.

The show’s fifth episode, "College," is the quintessential antihero episode, offering a scene-by-scene testimony of how Tony’s flawed actions both attract and repulse. In this episode Tony and his teenage daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), leave the suburban streets of North Jersey and venture through the New England countryside, visiting potential colleges and universities that Meadow might like to attend.

Mob bosses in film and TV don’t normally go on college visits with their daughters. But Tony does and it’s during this road trip that Meadow asks her father, “Are you in the mafia?” Tony denies it at first, but it doesn’t take much coaxing from Meadow before he confirms it. This brief moment of honesty endears us to Tony. Many of us know that conversing with an older teenager is a tricky labyrinth of confusions, half-truths, and muddled honesty. Many parents have been in Tony’s shoes.

Yet just when the viewer begins to empathize with Dad-Soprano, Tony sees Fabian “Febby” Petrulio (Tony Ray Rossi). What Soprano does next stains his shoes with blood, both literally and figuratively. Petrulio deserted the mafia and entered the witness protection program. Once Tony catches up with Febby, Dad-Soprano gives way to Boss-Soprano. Between dropping his daughter off at college interviews, Tony tracks Febby down and strangles him with his own two hands, via tightly wrapped electrical wires. We see alternating closeups of the wire digging into Tony’s hands, causing them to bleed, and Tony’s spittle-addled face contorting and grunting as he ruthlessly asphyxiates Febby. There is no music. The only soundtrack is the raw visceral sounds of Tony’s grunts and Febby’s choked gurgles as he kicks and squirms until his veined face goes limp. Tony is both a loving father and a cruel monster.

What Tony does next stains his shoes with blood both literally and figuratively.

The psalmist maintains that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. But it’s easy to automatically disqualify the likes of Tony Soprano. His actions are the testimony of a soulless creature. Surely God’s hands weren’t in the soil when it came time to breathe life into Tony’s nostrils?

But deep in our soul, we know the brutal truth of our own condition. Therein lies the profundity of this antihero narrative. We see fractured reflections of our own humanity in such characters. Antiheroes like Tony Soprano give us reason to look within, sheepishly captivated by a desire to alleviate the tension of our own flawed beauty.

Like Tony Soprano, our lives are marked by a mixture of confusion, half-truths, and muddled honesty. We too often lead tortured and victorious lives, our bodies often keeping the score. There are moments when we are classically heroic in our bravery; in other moments, we are villainous cowards. We can be monumental in our sacrifices only to turn around and greedily hoard our resources. We may not drop off our children and go strangle a snitch, but we will readily abandon our God-given identity to ruthlessly chase down our own castles in the sand. There are moments when it’s hard for us to believe we are the recipients of God’s breath of life.

Yet grace falls, albeit sometimes in trickles. Through bread and wine, through moments of gospel clarity, through still small voices in the midst of torrent and chaos, the Holy Spirit of Christ releases the tension just long enough to see the infinite worth and value our Creator placed within us. In these rare and fleeting moments we can truly believe that the psalmist of Psalm 139 knew what he was talking about.

This is the cautionary hope of the antihero.

The lasting legacy of The Sopranos is that, through Tony, we are given a sober glimpse into our human condition. Tony is stuck in the cycle of the antihero, especially given how The Sopranos ends. But Christians know that God loves us in all our failings, meets those failings with grace, and calls us to live nobler lives in grateful response. We can root ourselves not in the hope that we can overcome our vices alone, but that our Creator, who made us fearfully and wonderfully, is ever present to show us the way back to him.

Topics: TV