Tony Soprano: And I don’t want to hear about the freaking economy either! I don’t want to hear it. Sil, break it down for them. What two businesses have traditionally been recession proof since time immemorial?
Silvio Dante: Certain aspects of show business…and our thing.
Tony Soprano: Now that’s it. That’s all I’ve gotta say. Frankly, I’m depressed and ashamed – “For All Debts Public and Private”, The Sopranos, 2002.
In the influential 2009 book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher describes the pervasive, depressive feeling “that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” In the most famous iteration of this, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history”, in which liberal democracy and the untrammelled free market had triumphed as the final form of human political organisation. But Fisher identified a darker strain of this ideology in gangster movies such as Scarface, The Godfather series, Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction which made “claim to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality.”
This world view was a key facet of The Sopranos, which ended it’s original television run ten years ago this June. Between 1999 and 2007, the show documented the tormented life and times of New Jersey Mafia boss Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant, sadly departed James Gandolfini as a figure both comical and terrifying. The series freely borrowed the Mafia-film tropes of murder, mayhem and perverse family values established by The Godfather and Goodfellas (along with numerous cast members from these films). But it repurposed the trappings of operatic crime drama for an intimate focus on the domestic sphere and characters’ inner lives. Tony’s relationships with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), toxic mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) and his exasperated therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) get more screen time than conflicts with other mob crew and brutal whackings. Creator David Chase brazenly positioned his show as belonging to a lineage of classical tragedy, with characters making sly allusions to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare.
And it succeeded in these lofty goals, almost immediately becoming a cultural institution, while massively raising the bar for what was artistically possible on serial television. I was 15 when e.tv began screening it in South Africa, and vividly remember being blown away by the fact that a weekly series could be as detailed as a Scorsese or Coen Brothers film. (And as a former altar boy I could appreciate dialogue like, “What kind of degenerate gets high at their own Confirmation” and “Act like a good Catholic for fifteen fucking minutes”.) It inspired a renaissance of sprawling, self-consciously novelistic shows like Deadwood, The Wire and Breaking Bad. In his history of this era, Difficult Men, Brett Martin argues that such works were “the signature American art form of the first decade of the 21st century”. Such a claim would have been inconceivable prior to The Sopranos.
Throughout its seven year run, the series embodied the bone deep cynicism of capitalist realism. While the mob characters are avaricious and violent, every authority figure in it, from sleazy priests to for-sale politicians, are at worst completely venal, at best pathetic. But this nihilism is offset, through dream sequences and hints of the supernatural, with suggestions that the characters live in a moral universe. Tony’s nephew and heir apparent Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) awakens from a coma convinced that Hell (in the form of an Irish pub) is waiting for him and his compatriots. The quick-witted Paulie Walnuts (played by real life former mobster Tony Sirico) convinces him that it’s probably just Purgatory.
The show was as much as much farce as tragedy. The comedy comes from the keen focus on greed, overblown machismo and melodramatic personalities. A particular specialty were the malapropisms – “revenge is like serving cold cuts”, “There’s no stigmata connected with going to a shrink”, “Create a little dysentery in the ranks”. The show excelled in contrasting sentimentality with ruthless behavior. In Season Two, Tony has to dispose of the body of his psychotic associate Richie Aprile (David Proval) after he is accidentally murdered by his fiancée, and Tony’s sister, Janice (Aida Turturro). The two siblings appear to have a heartfelt conversation, before Janice asks him where he buried the body. With sarcastic glee, he says, “We buried him… on a hill overlooking a little river, with pine cones all around” before snapping “What the fuck do you care what we did with him?” Later, Christopher’s downward spiral into heroin addiction results in some of the funniest scenes of the series. His fellow mobsters are encouraged to stage an intervention, which ends with him insulting everyone present (“I’m going to kill myself? The way you fucking eat you’re going to have a heart attack by the time your fifty”). Even after getting clean, he manages to extort other addicts by encouraging their gambling problems.
With this gallows humor, came a profound sense of foreboding which seemed to seep into every shot
With this gallows humor, came a profound sense of foreboding which seemed to seep into every shot. From the first season, which concludes with Tony telling his family, “try to remember the times that was good”, there are signs that the boom times are over. Visually, the settings become more wintry and desolate with each year. The effect is similar to what Benjamin Kunkel observed about the novels of Don DeLillo – a charting of “the underground rivers of dread and waste flowing beneath the bright clean surfaces of capitalist prosperity”. Appropriately, the airing of the final season coincided with the first eruptions of the 2007 Financial Crisis, which ushered in a new period of global economic stagnation.
Tony maintains that he is just a blue collar guy trying to cut a few corners. An absurd conceit, because in reality he is an upwardly mobile criminal entrepreneur. Despite the outlaw reputation, organised crime is thoroughly integrated into the circuits of global capitalism, with gangsters exerting violent control over illicit flows of drugs and human trafficking. As Roberto Saviano describes the Neapolitan Camorra: “The logic of criminal business, of the bosses, coincides with the most aggressive neoliberalism.”
And as capitalism becomes more rapacious, so too are gangsters enriched and empowered. Neoliberal reforms in Mexico and Eastern Europe produced massively wealthy criminals like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a narco trafficker who regularly appeared on the Forbes list of the most powerful people in the world. More recently, Jordy Cummings has described the shady goings on in the Trump White House as an encounter between “the Tony Soprano wing of the American bourgeois and the Russian mafia state”. The confluence between state power and criminal success in South Africa is evidenced in the career of gang boss Radovan Krejcir. During the 1990s, he made a fortune from privatisation in the Czech Republic, while also dabbling in murder and kidnapping, but fled arrest and ended up a fugitive in Johannesburg. From his hilltop mansion in wealthy Bedfordview, he oversaw a network of drugs and vice, aided by corrupt police officials. All evidence suggests that he was the architect of a string of underworld assassinations, from Teazers founder and alleged human trafficker Lolly Jackson to Cyril Beeka, who worked for both Sicilian mafioso Vito Palazzolo and the National Intelligence Agency (Beeka even accompanied Mo Shaik to the fateful Polokwane Conference in 2007). But these type of killings are not just limited to flamboyant villains of the criminal underworld. As conflicts over power and patronage have become more heated, assassinations have become a grimly regular feature of political life throughout the country.
In terms of ambition, The Sopranos closest rival was the Baltimore drug war epic The Wire. Both shows tackle social decline, but whereas The Wire angrily maps the decaying institutions which entrench poverty and deprivation, The Sopranos is about the mostly self-imposed suffering of its protagonists. They have achieved a substantial level of material comfort, but the lavish meals, massive SUVs and McMansions come with crippling depression, anxiety and uncontrollable rage. A nihilistic mantra repeated throughout the series is “it’s all a big nothing”. In the end, material success and family loyalty are just meaningless distractions on the way to an ignominious death. There is no possibility of life beyond predatory accumulation and lukewarm pleasures. Such a sense of deflation, of foreclosed future is central to the psychic experience of capitalist realism. In the decade since the show ended this frigid neoliberal consensus has begun to crack. Political challenges like Jeremy Corbyn’s recent electoral advances offer a sense of alternate futures. As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, the comedic existential misery of The Sopranos stands as a magnificent account of “the big nothing” at the supposed End of History.