A few years ago, I sat in the audience at an event where master visionary, Martin Scorsese was the guest of honour. This gentle soul, who heralded from the New York borough of Queens, touched on his film The Departed, a film which had clinched his long-overdue Academy Award. When questioned on his plot-driven film, an anomaly for Scorsese, he acknowledged the overall absence of plot-driven projects in his repertoire. It wasn’t so much an aversion to plots, he said, as it was a gripping fascination with character. This desire to explore complex character and the human condition had eclipsed any need to deliver on a revolutionary plot, and this approach has characterised his moviemaking career. Scorsese remained perpetually perplexed at audiences fascination with plot, because that’s not where the magic lies. ‘It’s all about characters, plot is insignificant,’ he finally said.
It’s all about characters. Plot is insignificant.
Feeling compelled to write about The Sopranos (1999 – 2007) as I did, really boiled down to the desire to examine the incredibly complex characters in more depth. As the individual, moving parts of the series, they elevated the whole. After all, when you retrospectively look at the show’s broad storyline, very little unfolds by way of plot. But when plot is prioritised, it is never at the expense of character. It was the phenomenal cast that accelerated the plot, rather than vice versa.
Most of the 86 episodes, spanning over 8 seasons, are an hour long, allowing viewers to take a deep dive into the mindset of the compelling character of New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano. David Chase, The Sopranos’ creator, is hailed as one of the pioneers of long-form television. Arguably, it was Chase who incited the trend of high quality, character-driven television, which wouldn’t come to mainstream prominence until years later with the advent of streaming services. TV has the capacity to exhume even the most complex of character traits over time, something that filmmakers could only dream of.
To undergo a character study on Tony Soprano, is to open up a never-ending can of worms. From the very first scene of the pilot episode, when he sits uncomfortably in Jennifer Melfi’s office, we are thrust into a new and fascinating world. Through the prism of his confessions, and oftentimes his concessions and evasive answers, we gradually build out a perception of the formidable mob boss. In many scenes, Gandolfini can seem docile, cold and unfeeling. In others he can appear apathetic, conveying little by way of indication to what he may be thinking. In others he courts this magnanimous trait, reeling those around him in, before striking while the iron’s hot. His robustness of character is a staple trait, of a man required to simply survive in his line of work.
Show, don’t tell.
In my personal opinion, one of the most incredible trademarks of the series, is how his character is revealed through his relationships with the women in his life. The relationships he has with them are all unique and the interactions with his daughter, wife and therapist, in particular, in their own way illustrate a different facet of his character. Through exposition of his interactions with them, Chase succeeds in building a more rounded view of Tony. It’s true that Tony is surrounded by his barmy troop of Italian-American henchmen for a large proportion of the show, but arguably it’s when his wise-guy lifestyle contaminates his personal life, where we as the viewer get the pay-off.
Take Meadow, his eldest daughter as an example. By and large, the Soprano children are no different to other teenagers, but what Chase tapped in to with Anthony Jr. and Meadow Soprano, was their adolescent transition running in parallel with the maturation required to exist within their unusual family dynamic. While Meadow lives up to conventional tropes as a petulant teenager, from the outset however, her character illustrates how close and yet so far she is from her father’s world. When these lines start to blur, that’s when it gets interesting. As the eldest child of Tony, there is a distinct and subtle exposition of a softer side to his character when he interacts with Meadow.
To illustrate the unique sentiments this relationship brings to his character, I recall a particular episode with Meadow’s boyfriend, Jackie. As the son of the former mob boss, Jackie is no stranger to their world and this element bonds him and Meadow, with Tony even giving the relationship his seal of approval. In this episode, Jackie is running amok, taking drugs, going to the strip club and skipping college classes. Tony corners him in the bathroom at the club and pins him against the wall. It’s at this point where the most powerful mob boss in the state is completely stumped for words. ‘I’ll be honest,’ he says with gritted teeth. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with you yet.’ This one moment of pause is an extraordinary reaction for someone who always seems to be two steps ahead. His reticence to lose the rag completely is hampered by the reality that his daughter is now connected to his dangerous world in very real way and because of this, cannot react in a way that he habitually would. For me, when you’re not entirely sure how a character is going to react in a given moment, that’s pure gold.
Keep them guessing, always.
Twenty years on and it is still one of the most masterful pieces of television out there. The fascinating dive into the wiseguy world is brought to life by gently intertwining the formalities of the business, with the normalities of family life into one, unbreakable fabric. There’s a famous episode in which Tony’s wild sister, Janice murders one of his associates in her house and in a panic she calls her brother. Tony and his wife Carmella meanwhile, are locked in a bitter domestic about her suspicions around his infidelity. Tony takes the call, slams the phone down and tells his wife that he’s going to his sister’s house. As the viewer, we are focused on watching Tony mopping up his sisters’ house, in utter chaos in the aftermath of the murder, when suddenly a call comes in. Tony answers, and it’s Carmella on the other line who stays silent. Cleverly, the writers had juxtaposed two family ordeals in tandem, one ordinary and the other far more severe. It subtly reminds us of the warped world that these characters live in, where murder or an argument can just happen, because that’s everyday life with the Sopranos.
Through Gandolfini’s superb internalisation of Tony Soprano, the audience are treated like adults, perpetually waiting to see how he will react to any given situation. One of my favourite directors, Elia Kazan, summed that one up nicely, ‘Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.’