Friday, November 13, 2009


HBO Premiere Of "The Sopranos" - Arrivals

The most compelling aspect of the show, the Sopranos—aside from Edie Falco's perfect acting—is Tony Soprano’s relationship to power. Tony Soprano is a walking explanation of how power works in any context. Power has mysterious origins. In Tony’s case, it’s partly inherited--a product of the unique history of Italian immigration in New Jersey, an underground milieu, and the violent personal successes of his father and uncle. And it’s partly contextual: Tony’s strength wouldn’t be operational in many different contexts but is perfectly suited to the work of cosa nostra. Tony’s power is also the result of a variety of personal traits, including physical strength, cunning intelligence, charisma, sensitivity, machismo, savage humor, and brutality.

As the show proceeds, it’s often hard to know which facet of Tony’s personality is most important to his success. He’s a good negotiator. He knows the rules of the game, both in terms of receiving respect from others in the criminal underworld, and in knowing how city councils and labor unions and gambling consortiums work. He also knows other people. For a sociopath, he maintains the ability to empathize with other people, at least to the extent of knowing what motivates them. Tony sometimes makes mistakes. He’s out of his element when dealing with elite society, and can’t quite control his own wife, Carmella, or his children.

By and large, however, Tony’s recipe for controlling others works well. He’s tender enough with his crew—his cousin for example—to give them each hope that he may well have their best interests at heart. He’s cruel enough to keep them fearful of his ire. He also possesses a wicked sense of humor, mostly geared toward ridiculing, mocking, and degrading those around him. (The scene where Tony realizes that those around him are laughing hysterically at his jokes only because they realize the need to flatter the boss is priceless).

The fact that Tony seeks therapy in the attempt to overcome panic attacks hints at a fatal weakness in Tony’s armor. However, Tony’s developing capacity for introspection is in many ways a testament to his leadership potential. As the therapist’s mentor tells her, research shows that psychopaths don’t gain anything from therapy. Rather, they use therapy to gratify their own egos or, more frighteningly, to overcome barriers to an even more efficient savagery. And this of course is how Tony’s therapy works. He doesn’t really become more humane. He’s unkind to his son, and analyzes his own dreams (at least this is my interpretation of the episode) to uncover—and murder--a government mole in his organization.

One thinks of Woody Allen, who remained in therapy his whole life, but somehow managed to justify the fact that he seduced a young woman who was, effectively, his own step-daughter. As the ultimate television personification of the successful pursuit of power, the Russophile naturally thinks of Joseph Stalin. Although all of Russia was his stage, Stalin had the Soprano touch. He was intelligent, cunning, and brave. Like Tony, Stalin understood people. He knew how to flatter them, persuade them, humor them, belittle them, and scare them. He made friends easily. He spoke persuasively. He was patient in the application of his power, and could wait months or even years to exact revenge.

In the end, Stalin was an effective political leader because he, like Tony Soprano, possessed self-discipline and good, old-fashioned people skills, while maintaining a sociopath’s ability to use force and terror without compunction whenever necessary. Of course, Stalin also used terror when it wasn’t necessary, killing people who posed no threat to his regime. He was paranoid, but probably also executed people for a variety of other reasons, believing that his will was synonymous with raison d’etat as well as communist philosophical principles. Tony Soprano would probably have needed a philosophy to have risen to the level of Stalin as a mass murderer

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