This is going to be in a permanent state of revision. Because I am totally known for actually editing the things I intend to.
The Sopranos begins with a troubled mobster entering psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and his character arc plays out in that context; Tony Soprano’s seemingly irrational behavior is only comprehensible by considering the conversations he has with Dr. Melfi. The show’s fascination with the unconscious makes psychoanalysis an ideal tool for understanding the series, which traces Tony’s spiritual demise as he wrestles with, and fails to resolve, his Oedipus complex. The first part of this essay will examine the relationship he has with his mother and father, the evidence for his complex, and explore how his parents’ demands set the stage for his spiritual struggle. This section will also include a complete analysis of The Test Dream’s dream sequence. The second part will discuss his near death experience at the beginning of 6A, and it will use Kennedy and Heidi (6.18) to show that Tony fulfills the oedipal myth by murdering his nephew, who stands in symbolically for his father, and sleeping with Christopher’s Vegas girlfriend, herself standing in for both his nephew’s wife, Kelly, and Tony’s mother, Livia. This is also the effective completion of the mission given to him in The Test Dream, and for thematic purposes Tony is dead, his spiritual arc concluded in failure. The final section will view Made in America in light of Tony being already dead when the episode begins, highlighting themes of fate, sin, and salvation while providing specific analyses of The Cat and Holsten’s.
Each section and subsection is intended to be relatively standalone, so you should be able to click to something of particular interest and not be lost. But if something seems ridiculous and you have not read what came before it… give me the benefit of the doubt! 😉
Table of Contents
- Introductory Remarks
- Section I: Tony’s Oedipal Arc
- Section II: Oedipal Resolution
- Section III: Episode Specifics of Made in America
“Try to remember the times that were good.”
It wouldn’t be right to briefly talk about the series as a whole, and it would be absurd to ignore the famous Master of Sopranos essay on the ending of the show; additionally, I wanted to put a short discussion of the Seven Souls Montage, since it offers insight into the The Sopranos’ understanding of spirituality and the human being, both central to the analysis to follow.
Commentary on Master of Sopranos
Made in America is the final and woefully overlooked episode of The Sopranos; the ‘controversy’ of the diner scene, stemming mostly from Chase’s decision to end it with an instant, mid-action cut to black, has dominated discussion to such an extent that the other scenes may as well have never happened. The debate is over Tony’s survival – whether or not some creep in an ugly jacket shot him, the sudden, black silence a ‘clue’/ reference to Soprano Home Movies where Bobby says, “you probably don’t even hear [your assassination] when it happens, right?” The most cited resource in this question is the “Master of Sopranos” blog, and the author’s first paragraph of the annotated guide hints at the vulgar analysis (the author himself is aware of this; his purpose was a practical breakdown and I think it is an incredible piece of work — the issue is how the piece has transformed into the only discussion) to come:
“First, this essay will briefly illustrate how Chase set up the “never hear it” concept before the final episode. Then, this shot by shot analysis of the final scene will explain how the 10 second black screen is Tony’s final point of view, and that Tony never heard the shot that kills him.”
The author goes through every shot, prop, and quote in order to argue that the series’ cut to black is Tony’s murder, and it’s a remarkable piece of work because of it; however, this is exactly what makes it vulgar. The beauty of The Sopranos, and any great cultural work, is that its symbolism is left open to interpretation – there is rarely a concrete meaning, and the viewer is left to do the work. The MoS essay is a long exercise in converting the sacred into the propane; a brief section on Tony’s perspective would have been beyond sufficient for the argument, but, rather than being satisfied with a strong case, the author has to travel back through the series and turn every symbol into ‘Tony dies in front of his family.’ Todd VanDerWerff has similar feelings:
“To me, though, it’s a lacking thesis because it relies on the reductionist tendencies of fundamentalism. It robs the mystery out of a series that was always replete with it, and it forces things that could mean many things to mean only one thing. That death foreshadowing throughout the rest of the season could mean Tony dies, or it could mean any one of a number of other, equally grim things. This was always a series that was filled with death imagery, simply because of the world these characters operated within. (Remember Pussy’s ghost in the mirror back in “Proshai, Livushka”?) The more times I watch this series, and particularly this final season, the more I find myself enamored of its refusal to offer pithy answers. It is a show about many things, and the argument that Tony dies works far too hard, for my tastes, to shoehorn it into a “one size fits all” box where plots always have concrete endings.”
The power of imagery and symbols is that they are rarely neat; they connect to something primordial, the part of us that precedes and is only ever echoed by the discrete limitations of language. Pussy’s ghost is a perfect example – it does not refer to anything, it contributes an atmosphere and gives insight into Tony’s psychological state; contrast this to MoS who says the numbers on the football posters – both different – reference popular handgun calibers (.38 and .22). The approach of that essay eats the soul out of the show and its renown has helped turn every conversation about Made in America into the live/die question. Even that would not be so bad if it weren’t such an unimportant question – it satisfies a plot point curiosity, what happens, but has little bearing on understanding the episode or series; the essay makes many insightful remarks about The Sopranos as a whole, but these are in spite of its purpose, not because of it. None of this is to say that the author is wrong in their analysis, but that the purpose of the analysis is ill-founded from the start; in what sense could the important question of this episode be the plot points of a specific scene rather than how Made in America, as a whole, works as the finisher to an entire project? There just is not anything useful to be gained in worrying about Tony’s body.
Brief Commentary on The Series
Tony makes explicit one of the major themes throughout the series when he says, in the pilot, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” This plays out in various ways: earning is harder than it used to be, the code of silence no longer exists, the young guys do not respect the authority of members, and the glamour is gone. The show is filled with mobsters struggling, often financially, with the banality of everyday life – whether that’s affording a mother’s retirement home or making donations to colleges. Whether this idealized ‘best’ ever existed is beside the point; it’s the hope for a better future, belief in an American Dream, that’s dying. Tony wonders aloud, in the same episode, “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.” The world and his expectations, expectations he was brought up believing in, do not match up.
The Sopranos is about this sort of spiritual decay. We watch Tony become a black hole that sucks the life out of his surroundings, as force of nature. Early in the series Tony joked, was relatively in shape, had friends, and had ‘normal’ relationships with his family. As we go along, we watch Tony turn into a bitter, obese creature of lust and greed. He has murdered his nephew; he was circumstantially prevented from murdering his mother and his uncle; he murdered one of his best friends; he has fallen out with his wife and son while losing the respect of his daughter; and, he has developed a gambling problem. In the pilot Tony is joyfully feeding the ducks in his pool, and a central plot point is Tony’s fear of and reaction to the ducks flying away for the season; however, in Kennedy and Heidi we watch a truckload of asbestos get dumped into a marsh, due to Tony, as ducks quack in the background. And, of course, there is the new spectre of terrorism (9/11 happened during the series) and the later seasons are increasingly filmed in shades of gray.
The Seven Souls Montage (sorry to any actual anthropology buffs…)
David Chase wanted to use this song for the pilot; I think that alone speaks to the thematic importance it has for the series proper and, of course, the final season – where it actually played. I wish that the network had let him, since, in my opinion, having the show start off with such an emphasis on the spiritual aspect of the human being would encourage the viewer to see the show as a spiritual story – which it is. It is off of Material’s album Seven Souls, and features William Burroughs reading from his novel The Western Lands, a book “inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead, [in which] Burroughs explores the after-death state by means of dream scenarios, hallucinatory passages, talismanic magic, occultism, superstition, and his characteristic view of the nature of reality.” From the small amount of Googling I have done, it seems difficult to match up the specific descriptions and names with the actual, researched Egyptian understanding of the soul; the Wikipedia article, for example, only lists five souls. What I am going to do is combine observations from how the souls are described and matched to characters within the montage; how the souls are described by this article on ancient Egypt; and how the souls are described in the un-edited song. I am not terribly interested in analyzing which soul is which character, but more in how this piece reflects the series’ understanding of the human condition and the credence it lends to my treatment of Tony’s decay. For example, when we consider his upbringing and struggles, Tony’s body being “populated and surrounded with spiritual and demonic entities whose evil influence caused the diseases and ailments people suffered from” is a perfect metaphor.
Extreme deviations in culture, such as our own to that of ancient Egypt, prevent a full translation – “attempts have been made to equate them with modern psychological terms: The akh is referred to as the Id, the name as the Ego and the ka as the Super-ego. Only, they are nothing like it.” They are, however, like it as far as The Sopranos is concerned; a human being is made up of multiple pieces which play off of and are attached to each other in various ways, and that the process of death is the disappearance of these pieces – even though the comparison is incorrect, there is importance in a desire to compare it with a Freudian framework. I am going to talk about the pieces that are particularly relevant for what I will talk about.
The Name (Ren) –
The song talks about Ren in the context of a director and a film, and according to the Egypt article “knowledge of somebody’s names gave one insight into his being and power over him.” I feel that the series occasionally makes references to Tony’s being directed by Chase, or larger narratives (ie Oedipus); in The Test Dream, it is Chase himself who gives Tony an order, and I am convinced that one legitimate way to integrate the Ojibwe saying is to understand the ‘Great Wind’ as the various transcendent, universal mythologies that govern individuals. Writing this essay then makes me a meteorologist! But also, note the role that names play in the show: Junior confuses Janice with Livia and Tony with Johnny multiple times.
As we are told about the ka, “which usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death [and] is the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead,” we get a delightful image of AJ acting like an immature asshole. This choice plays perfectly with the character: American society under late stage capitalism is basically the land of the dead, and AJ, throughout the 6th season (especially 6B), makes potent observations about culture, consumerism, and hypocrisy, but, of course, the character’s immaturity and general ignorance prevents anyone from understanding him or taking him seriously. “The closest to it in English may be a ‘life-creating force.'”
The Shadow –
You can never escape your shadow – it is attached to your body permanently; this is your “past conditioning from this and other lives.” The Sopranos, and I talk about this in Section III, worries about fate and whether or not Tony is doomed to repeat the decisions of his parents. His conditioning is the entire history of the American mafia, especially his father. We are given the image of a ghostly Adrianna and hear Carmela talking about how much she worries — “all the time;” in addition to being past lives, shadows in this sense are the haunting presences of past deeds (ie Pussy’s ghost).
The Heart and The Remains
The heart is “often treacherous,” but also “the essence of life, seat of the mind with its emotions, intelligence, and moral sense.” We are also told that when the heart tires, the body dies. I whole-heart-edly (heh) accept the theory that Tony was assassinated in Holsten’s, from the physical, ‘what happened’ point of view, but I will argue that Tony’s spiritual and psychological progress ended prior to the final episode; his moral sense, his life, is dead — even his ka attempted suicide after Kennedy and Heidi. Tony is ‘the remains,’ and it flashes us to him digging holes in the dirt, a purely bodily activity and eerily reminiscent of gravedigging. I will show that in Made in America we are given images of Tony from his spirit’s point of view, and that his body is lingering on past the death of his heart – his murder at the diner is the killing of a corpse.
I will probably change my mind later, but for now that’s sufficient and I want to get into what I actually wanted to write about before finding all this tangential crap I had to include 🙂 🙂 🙂
“Says in these movie writing books that every character has an arc, you understand? Like everybody starts out somewheres, and they do something, something gets done to them, changes their life. That’s called their arc. Where’s my arc?”
Section I: Tony’s Oedipal Arc
Tony’s relationship with his mother, and later his father, is central to understanding him as a character, and the show has invested an enormous amount of time in developing them – these issues are largely resolved in Kennedy and Heidi, and I am going to argue that the nature of this resolution concluded Tony’s story of psychological, personal, spiritual development – or lackthereof – multiple episodes before the series finale; Melfi dumps him upon this realization. This argument is central to my understanding of not just Made in America, but the series itself; however, accepting the broad strokes framework of Tony’s spiritual development being wrapped up prior to the finale, wrapped up by the annihilation of his spirit, is sufficient. Bickering over the details does not threaten the existence of the framework. Imagine a film of a yellow sphere flying across the sky – while we can argue about the internal composition of the sphere, there is effectively no debate over what happened. Melfi does not dump Tony arbitrarily in The Blue Comet (6.20), and that entire sequence supports my theory as well.
The Sopranos is fascinated with the unconscious – the impeccable use of dreams as a story telling device and the choice of a psychoanalytic therapist in Dr. Melfi signals to the viewer that psychoanalytic accounts of Tony’s neuroses are not going to be incidental, but explicitly directing the show’s understanding of itself. With that background in mind, let’s look at Tony’s arc through his relationships with his father and mother, and the inevitable oedipal conflict that accompanies them. Advanced apologies for my understanding of psychoanalysis — corrections will be made as they are pointed out to me and as I do more research, since writing this has made me interested in it.
At the start of the series we are introduced to a man with unresolved oedipal issues. Tony’s mother is a bitter old woman who gives him no affection, yet, any time his father is mentioned, she breaks down and waxes poetic about what a ‘saint’ Johnny was. He has an extreme yearning for Livia’s love and, despite the apparent hatred he holds toward her after the assassination attempt, this is a yearning that remains both present and unfulfilled; the source of his hatred is the event that most demonstrated Livia’s absence of love. The Sopranos makes a consistent and strong association between Tony’s sexual interests and his mother, but:
Lacan talks instead of the phallus. What he is primarily referring to is what the child perceives it is that the mother desires. Because the child’s own desire is structured by its relationships with its first nurturer (usually in Western societies the mother), it is thus the desire of the mother, for Lacan, that is the decisive stake in what transpires with the Oedipus complex and its resolution. In its first years, Lacan contends, the child devotes itself to trying to fathom what it is that the mother desires, so that it can try to make itself the phallus for the mother- a fully satisfying love-object. At around the time of its fifth or sixth [year], however, the father will normally intervene in a way that lastingly thwarts this Oedipal aspiration. The ensuing renunciation of the aspiration to be the phallic Thing for the mother, and not any physical event or its threat, is what Lacan calls castration, and it is thus a function to which he thinks both boys and girls are normally submitted. 
Tony generally fails to perform in relationships: he cheats on his wife, and then falls out with those same mistresses; he berates his son for being lazy and weak; he lies and manipulates friends – even Artie – and colleagues; and he goes out of his way to sabotage the personal development of other people – such as Janice with her anger management, AJ’s desire to work as an Arabic translator for the CIA, and Christopher’s attempts to maintain sobriety. The one exception is the role as ‘son’ to his mother, despite the fact that Livia gives him no love and eventually plots to have him assassinated; Tony uses expensive gifts with Carmela to alleviate the guilt he has over his affairs, but he brings Livia a CD player and CDs of her old music, encourages her to be social, and the entire retirement community debacle is a direct result of the seriousness with which he takes this relationship.
In Proshai, Livushka (3.02) Tony talks about his mother’s death with Melfi, claiming to feel relieved that she would not be able to testify against him; however, he begins to berate himself for being a ‘bad son,’ saying that bad sons should die. Tony’s outrage at Janice for not wanting to come to Jersey is a projection of his own emotions. This is more than a cultural norm being expressed in a moment of emotional weakness, and it demonstrates how central Livia is to Tony’s self-understanding: of the children, Tony was the one who wanted to honor her wishes for no service, and when he gives in, angrily, he does not involve himself past footing the bill. At the end of the episode Tony is finishing up Public Enemy, and begins to cry when he sees the mother excitedly preparing Tommy’s room for his return, fluffing pillows (remember, Livia threatened to smother the children!), and showing great love for her gangster child — this is a mourning not for the relationship he had with Livia, but the relationship he needs and never got.
The oedipal issue is regularly played out within the therapist office. In Tony’s dreams, Melfi is both a regular object of sexual attraction and mixed up with his mother (the Freudian term for this is condensation); further, the process of transference that happens in psychoanalytic therapy casts Melfi in the mothering role, as the analysand fills in the broad, generic landscape of the attentive analyst with attributes missing in his own life. One of the early examples of this is in Meadowlands (1.04) – Tony’s dream starts with him admiring Melfi’s legs and he is scared awake by finding that “Melfi” has the face of his mother. There is another clear example in The Test Dream (5.11), where the therapist figure in Melfi’s office is Gloria Trillo. In the conversation, Tony accuses Gloria of doing something that Livia had done, and he bursts out in laughter when Gloria points out his error. Tony then attempts to kiss Gloria. And let’s not forget his intense desire to sleep with Dr. Melfi herself. In Calling All Cars, Tony bemoans, to Melfi (of course), the money he has sunk into therapy — he could have spent it on a Ferrari, and at least that would have gotten him a blowjob!
Not that this is restricted to dreams and the therapist’s office either. Tony himself is to some degree aware that all of his goomah bear a striking resemblance to his mother: emotionally unstable, black-haired women. Irina and Valentina both threaten suicide when Tony leaves them, and Gloria commits suicide – not even mentioning the physically and emotionally violent fights that occur within the relationships. We will get into more detail here later, but the intentional conflation of Livia and his love interests offers support to an Oedipus Complex reading of Tony’s story.
Nothing is ever that simple, of course – Tony is regularly frustrated at and harbors hatred for Livia, exemplified in episodes such as 46 Long (1.02), in which he redirects his anger onto Georgie. Nor can it be forgotten that he was prevented from smothering his mother by pure circumstance; matricide is generally not considered the behavior of a loving son, especially within Italian culture. Crucial here, however, is that the above sorts of situations are given to us in an adult Tony, who carries decades of baggage that conceals the root of his issues. It’s similar to the man who develops a hatred for the love interest he is incapable of winning, regardless of how hard he tries to become what she wants; failing in this pursuit is accompanied by a great deal of emotional pain, but were he to finally ‘get the girl,’ his hatred would evaporate. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that Tony’s discovery of his negative feelings toward Livia coincides with realizing his need for her affection. People are complicated, and categories or complexes – including the oedipal one we are focusing on – are narrative lenses, the appropriate use of which demands giving primacy to the individual’s unique experiences.
Tony does not experience any sort of dissonance from the conflicting attitudes he holds toward his mother, even storming out of session when Melfi suggests that he harbors negative feelings toward Livia (perhaps he experiences it in that moment); however, rather than suggesting that only one of these characterizations could be apt, this is exactly the behavior one would expect from a seriously disordered patient. Glen Gabbard, in his The Psychology of the Sopranos, talks about ‘splitting’ in the context of Tony’s behavior:
The concept of “splitting,” first described by Freud, explains how a person can harbor contradictory attitudes , beliefs and behaviors, keeping them safely separate from one another with a healthy dose of denial. The separation is not as extreme as the division in multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder), because the disparate halves are consciously aware of each other. (By contrast, the primary “personality” in true dissociative identity disorder is generally not aware of the other “personalities.”) The term “vertical split” has been coined to describe this type of defense. The result is that the person is not terribly conflicted by the incompatibility of different sectors of the personality. When others point out the contradictions, he may react with bland indifference — “What’s the big deal?” In fact, the reason for the defensive splitting is to keep these contradictory parts unintegrated so they do not create conflict, anxiety, and psychic pain.
He manages to function by keeping the parts of himself that hate Livia for the terrible person she is separate from the parts of himself that deeply love her – or, at least, deeply desire her love. The extreme yet seemingly contradictory attitudes he takes towards his mother are nothing more than evidence of the relationship’s importance for understanding Tony Soprano; in fact, “traits and their opposites always coexist if the traits are of any intensity.” Anyone who has experienced an individual with borderline personality disorder will be familiar with the speed a disordered person’s emotions can shift – one moment she genuinely loves you, the next she hates you, and – at least in the moment – she sees no discord between these two.
For example, a borderline woman experiences her therapist as all good, in contrast to the allegedly uncaring, hostile, stupid bureaucrats who work in the same setting. Or the therapist may suddenly become the target of undiluted rage, as the patient regards him or her as the personification of evil, neglect, or incompetence, when last week the therapist could do no wrong. If confronted with inconsistencies in his or her attributions, the client who splits will not find it arresting or worth pondering that someone who seemed so good as become so bad.
If someone explicitly pointed out to Tony that the woman who is “dead to [him]” is the same woman he deeply desires love from we can imagine his response: “So what? Everyone wants their mother to like them.” Pressed further, Tony would likely storm out of the session, change the topic, or engage some other defense mechanism.
We are given a direct example of this behavior when Tony asks Melfi to take a vacation with him. This is the most nervous we have ever seen Tony with a woman, his voice cracks, and we also know that, due to transference, Tony is putting into Melfi his own traumas and needs – he is genuinely seeking the love of this woman, it’s the most important relationship in his life (at that time); however, when she turns him down because of his values, who he is, he reacts with an immediate “FUCK YOU” and storms out – though not before calling her a cunt as well. Tony handles the rejection from his mother in the same way – that is the relationship being played out through Melfi – by using anger to protect his own insecurities and feelings of worthlessness. More troubling for Tony, as we will see, is that the sort of person required to win Melfi’s love is the direct opposite of everything he has tried to be for his mother, a woman incapable of love for anyone, even herself.
He sees his success in the mafia as something that should please her; the traumatizing experience of watching his father amputate Mr. Satriale’s finger is directly linked to the happiness of his mother, who is in an atypically pleasant mood while preparing dinner – a dinner that consists of the meat Satriale offered up in payment. This association of manhood and meat is demonstrated when Tony rewards AJ’s football victory with a trip for hotdogs. Furthermore, the innuendo between Johnny and Livia – Johnny talking about how she loves the meat – establishes a sexual connection as well. This experience is so formative that it causes Tony to have, even decades later, meat-triggered panic attacks; his anxiety over the immoral actions ostensibly required to both be a man and win his mother’s affection is too much to handle – his soul, or love? This is the very nature of Tony’s psychological and spiritual dilemma as a character, and it haunts him until the end. Does he follow the path of Kevin Finnerty and leave his mobster life behind, or does he embrace it further and eat himself alive?
The Cost: The Test Dream
Certain thoughts and desires are so troubling, such as erotic feelings toward the mother, that they are pushed into the unconscious and the individual becomes completely unaware of them – this is repression; however, these thoughts are only being pushed away, and remain intact within the unconscious, allowing their existence and nature to be inferred. The unconscious shows up in dreams through dream work, albeit symbolically, and a careful interpretation that takes into account the specific circumstances and history of the dreamer will grant access to these repressed thoughts and feelings. The unconscious is invisible, but its existence and contents can be known from its influence on the other parts of the patient. What this means, however, is that interpreting dreams by putting a common language to the symbols — ie, X represents Y — erases the individuality and ruins the quality of the analysis; while there is a common symbolic language in cultures, the patient is central. This is why an analyst does not say that an analysand’s dream represents X but presents an interpretation as an open hypothesis, which will itself be confirmed or rejected independently.
The Test Dream is an anxiety dream – an incomplete task, an unpreparedness, and a seeming counterexample to Freud’s thesis that dreams serve the function of wish fulfillment; however, when we look at this dream more closely, we find that the anxiety present in the dream is in fact the result of his wish being fulfilled — the wish that Livia would have him as a love object. When he is given his ‘mission’ in the therapist’s office, his fantasy-reality is that accomplishing it would grant him access to his mother; in his waking life, literally nothing could make Livia love him the way he desires. Or, as another example, his experience in Vesuvio’s is fulfillment of his desire to be a different Tony. Dreams can also fail – that your car fails to start does not challenge the car’s purpose as a vehicle. We are given the best of both worlds here: insight into Tony’s wishes and his anxieties in relation to those wishes; this dream sequence is an examination of Tony at his most fundamental level.
But how do we tease out the meaning of a dream? One of the most important distinctions, something Freud’s contemporary critics apparently had great difficulty with, is between the manifest content of dreams and the latent content of dreams:
All dreams have a meaning. Their strangeness is due to distortions that have been made in the expression of their meaning. Their absurdity is deliberate and expresses derision, ridicule, and contradiction. Their incoherence is a matter of indifference for their interpretation. The dream as we remember it after waking is described by as as its ‘manifest content.’ In the process of interpreting this, we are led to the ‘latent dream-thoughts’, which lie hidden behind the manifest content and which are represented by it. These latent dream-thoughts are no longer strange, incoherent, or absurd; they are completely valid constituents of our waking thought.
[D]reams are constructed in just the same way as neurotic symptoms. Like them, they may appear strange and senseless; but, if we examine them by a technique which differs little from the free association used in psycho-analysis, we are led from their manifest content to a secret meaning, to the latent dream-thoughts. This latent meaning is always a wishful impulse which is represented as fulfilled at the moment of the dream.
The episode-specific manifest content in The Test Dream would be Tony’s handling of the Blundetto situation, and his lack of preparedness and procrastination of his ‘job’ climaxes in his cousin’s murder of Phil Leotardo; however, we also find out that Tony has recurring coach Molinaro dreams, and we know that regular people have ‘test dreams’ long after graduation from university. This suggests that the latent content of the dream predates this specific dream sequence itself; old, repressed conflicts are acting themselves out with a Blundetto flavor, and these conflicts are often parent related. The Test Dream, at its core, is an exploration of Tony’s issues with his mother, father, and the Soprano conception of manhood.
The 20 minute (!) dream sequence offers major support to my reading of Tony’s issues and the trajectory of his character arc in the series. To refresh everyone’s memory, this episode takes place as the show begins to put more emphasis on Tony’s chance to redeem himself – only 3 episodes between it and the Finnerty episodes – as well as during his struggles with realizing his father was not some mythological ideal of a man. In Camelot was only a few episodes prior. I am going to argue that the content of this dream shows Tony’s internal struggle over which type of man he wants to be, recognizing that he has to make a choice but is not prepared to decide between mafioso or Kevin Finnerty. His mother (specifically) and mafia family, assign him a symbolic suicide mission; the person he is supposed to kill in the dream is his high school self – the Tony-the-kid and Kevin Finnerty version of himself. At the start of the dream, not having accomplished this mission is shown to be a barrier between him and his mother’s sexual affection. Yet as the dream goes along, we also see it from the perspective of the ‘good man’ Tony, who recognizes the spiritual danger of mafia life and his escape route in turning government witness. It’s worth going through this scene by scene, though I am going to force myself to bite my tongue and ignore
all most of the fascinating opportunities to go on tangents.
This is where Tony receives the phone call that instructs him to kill “our friend” (after the horrifying experience of waking next to one Carmine Lupertazzi offering fellatio). Who the ‘friend’ happens to be will be revealed over the rest of the dream, but this sets the stage for what Tony is supposed to be accomplishing: killing somebody. We can, however, glean some information by knowing who is calling. Before Tony answers the phone, Carmine tells him that “if it’s [the man upstairs], tell him you ain’t seen me.” The Man Upstairs, as normally used in conversation, is God – since Tony is on the top floor of the hotel, this lends extra credence to the idea that Carmine is referring to God; Carmine’s loneliness on the other side, coupled with his desire to hide from God, alludes to hell, separation from God. But we know that the caller is not God. When Tony answers the phone and hears the voice he signals to Carmine not to worry; therefore, if Tony is not in heaven, who could be calling? At the very least the murder he is being asked to commit is not godly. That the voice on the phone is David Chase’s adds the angle that this caller is the ‘author’ of Tony’s life, another reason to suspect – looking at Tony’s life – that he is being asked to do something awful; I also want to mention here that the ‘great wind’ of the Ojibwe saying is the grand narrative that pushes Tony along. Being given instructions by the director of his life also functions as the fulfillment of a certain wish: being told what to do.
The next scene finds Tony in Melfi’s office discussing his dream about Carmine; however, we quickly discover that the therapist is Gloria Trillo. This is another example of Tony confusing the identities of his girlfriends and Dr. Melfi in his dreams, and, between transference and the Meadowlands dream, we know that Dr. Melfi herself is a stand-in for Livia. It gets more explicit, however, when Tony mistakenly tells Gloria that she threatened to put a fork in his eye – she corrects him, telling him “that was your mother,” and Tony spits his water out in laughter.
It quickly becomes sexual for Tony – a few seconds after realizing he had confused Gloria and Livia, he tries to kiss Gloria, who is receptive; however, she puts her finger on his lips and asks him, “Are you ready for what you have to do?” This is not a rejection of Tony’s sexual desires, it’s a reciprocation with caveat: first you have to take care of something. In his unconscious we are shown that, as expected in an Oedipus complex, he believes that if he only does the right thing by fulfilling his mother’s wishes then he will have her affection, sexual and otherwise. We already know that Tony’s task is to kill someone, so when Gloria – who herself committed suicide – punctuates the question by pointing her finger we can assume she is pointing at the ‘job;’ unfortunately for Tony, she is pointing to his own image on a television set.
Within the TV
The adult Tony in the therapy office is replaced by the young, innocent Tony within the TV; he is relaxed, sitting in the back seat as his father drives. His dad even offers to let him ride up front, exactly the sort of special reward a dad would offer his young kid. Johnny’s car is not going anywhere good, however, as everyone in the car is dead, excepting Artie. Even worse is that the passenger seat is filled with two people, Pussy and Ralphie, who Tony himself killed – his dad offered to let him ride up front like an adult; becoming an adult means choosing death for the innocent Tony in the back seat. He asks where they are going, and Ralph tells him “the job” — they then pull up at Tony’s house.
Arriving at Tony’s house could be seen as two possible jobs: the demand to construct a good home life, to be a good father and husband, but, also, that this is the location of his target. The latter happens to be the case, but implicit is his failure to accomplish his other job of being Kevin Finnerty.
Tony’s House [x] (If you have just been reading, I strongly recommend watching the linked clip of this next scene – it’s very convoluted to describe. 1000 words for a picture, an ungodly number more for film.)
Tony is no longer dressed in his brown suit, clean cut and smiling. We are instantly transported to the image of a Cleaver Tony, disheveled, grumpy, and in a track suit. He wanders into the kitchen, startling Carmela, and gets distracted by a scene from the 1974 Chinatown playing on the television; while the movie follows private investigator J.J. Gittes, this specific scene is a fatherly-flavored interaction between an adult and a young boy on a horse – recall too that later in the dream Tony is riding Pie-Oh-My in his house. Tony’s idealization of the good days, his father’s days, combined with the ‘Gary Cooper,’ cowboy, ‘man’s man’ interacting with a child explains why he becomes so absorbed in the television, ignoring Carmela until she tells him to snap out of it, that his head is “filled with this stuff.” In a moment reminiscent of Christopher’s griping about the intolerable regularness of every day life, Tony tells her that “it’s just so much more interesting … than life.”
This is where we have to pay very careful attention, as Carmela retorts that it is his life and gestures to the television as proof — but Carmela is wrong. Now playing on the television is A Christmas Carol, the scene where Scrooge has had a change of heart and is celebrating that the spirits did everything in one night – Christmas is not over and he can change his ways; however, this is certainly not who Tony is. Plenty of ‘spirits,’ such as the sessions with Dr. Melfi, have attempted to show him the horror of his lifestyle, but he has refused to engage, fleeing whenever he gets close and leaving the unconscious in the unconscious. Tony himself tells Carmela she is wrong by pointing at the TV once again, where Tony and Carmela see themselves.
The Tony we see is also going to meet Finn’s parents, but is already dressed, prepared to leave. He seems to have a different relationship with Carmela as well – she adjusts his tie and he helps her with her jacket; Carmela is scared when the mobster Tony comes up behind her, but she is not here. And yet this scene, which, set to any other music, would be loving, is given an ominous flavor by the tolling bell – straight out of a horror movie when the clock strikes midnight, the lights turn off, and the only noise is the groaning of a (probably haunted) grandfather clock; this is the relationship Finnerty would have had with his wife, and it’s in grave danger. This piece of the dream ends with the Finnerty Tony’s teeth falling out. This has been interpreted as Tony feeling insecure, weak, toothless (quite literally), losing power, etc; however, if we look at the teeth in the context of my earlier analysis, there is a very economical treatment: you lose your baby teeth on the way to adulthood. Tony is terrified of this final transition.
Random note about this scene: Carmela says they should take two cars, but then says she will wait in the car. To channel coach Molinaro, she knows she should cleave herself from that bum she hangs out with, but it will never happen.
Tony and Carmela then walk into the restaurant to meet Finn’s parents, but this is the TV Tony from the previous kitchen scene, as we know due to the tooth in his pocket and his dress. He is fascinated and distracted by High Noon, a 1952 Western starring Gary Cooper. In the film, Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) attempts and fails to recruit old friends, townspeople, his predecessor, and even his own deputy to fight a group of outlaws who are out for revenge. His wife begs Kane to flee the town rather than fight, but he insists on staying and fighting the gang on his own. Gary Cooper has always been Tony’s role model of a man: the strong, silent type who did what had to be done – the Tony in the restaurant, the child who is losing his teeth, is realizing that he must confront and destroy his criminal past if he is to survive. Since Tony finds the book The Valachi Papers in the restroom, and since Kane only wins the gun battle with the surprise help of his wife, Amy, we know that Tony understands his escape from mob life requires turning witness with the support of his family.
When Tony and Carmela arrive at the table, Finn says that they were “about to start calling the hospitals;” in the context of the rest of the dream, this suggests that this Tony – who is the young boy, innocent Tony – might have not shown up due to death. He cannot stay long though, as there is “something [he has] to take care of,” and procrastinating this is causing him to lose more teeth – to evolve into the adult, mobster version of himself. In fact, the table refers to “tooth fairy money,” which is the financial reward that comes with a life of crime. Much like riding in the back of his father’s car and being asked if he wanted to ride up front let us know we were dealing with the young, innocent version of Tony, several times it is made clear to us that this Tony is the young one as well. His interaction with Bening, tapping her on the shoulder and being scolded, is childish behavior; Bening reacts to Tony having to depart with the sort of “oh…” that would gives a child; Carmela tells him to show them what is in his pocket in a mothering tone and facial expression, and Tony obliges by showing off his lost tooth with a goofy grin; and, on top of it all, Tony’s general demeanor is the same innocence we saw in his father’s car.
When Tony and Vin head into the restroom, Tony decides to go with Vin because he sees Artie pointing at him to do so; this is important, as we will see that Artie is a sort of positive guide and rescuer in the rest of the dream. This is set up because rather than coming out with just his cock in his hand, or a firearm, Tony ends up with The Valachi Papers (he ‘did his homework’), the biography of Joe Valachi, the first mafia member to turn government witness. Vin mentions that there was no piece behind the toilet, and when Tony counters by saying that this is real life, Vin solemnly states “no it’s not.” Much like the kitchen scene, this is pointing to the difference between the two Tonys – the real life version is the unredeemed mafioso with a deteriorating family, and the fake version is the innocent Tony whose homework is reading The Valachi Papers. It gets pretty fucking confusing keeping track of which Tony is in play for a given scene, doesn’t it?
Blundetto Kills Phil
After Blundetto kills Phil, a man from the crowd accuses Tony of being responsible; he was supposed to kill “that Tony there” to prevent this from happening. Tony responds, “I guess not. I don’t have a piece!” This is another case where it is made clear to us that Tony’s mission was emphatically not to kill his cousin, but someone else (who, from the above, we know to be ‘himself;’ the innocent Tony is the would-be victim of the Tony who follows the devil/Livia’s order, and the mobster Tony is the would-be victim of the innocent Tony who turns witness).
The crowd then turns on Tony, and we get a Frankenstein situation – he is being hunted by a mob. The monster in Frankenstein is, I believe, generally considered to be an innocent creature who wanted affection and companionship; this innocent Tony – we are still with the Tony from Vesuvio’s – feels confused and persecuted, threatened with destruction by the world around him. In fact, we even have the spitting image of his father shoot at him from a window. This both reflects Tony’s castration anxiety, a fear that the father will destroy him, and his understanding that following Johnny’s lessons would kill the innocent Tony; or, perhaps the Satriale’s scene means his father has already done so.
Artie is the one who rushes Tony to safety in Johnny’s car, and Tony is riding up front this time. Artie is the better role model, the better version of a man, or what Tony on some level sees as the role model he wishes he had; this is why when he sees Artie smoking he asks, “the fuck are you doing to yourself?” Compare this to when Johnny, who died of emphysema, asked if anybody minded earlier in the dream, and there was no complaint – Artie is something that can still be corrupted. We next see Tony having sex with Charmaine as Artie watches and talks about how great it is; from the way Tony is calling Charmaine in real life we know that she represents the moral life, the good wife, so no surprise that his ideal (well, better) role model would be selling her merits.
Earlier in the dream Tony was transfixed by a Chinatown scene that showed a boy upon a horse. Tony, being on top of Pie-Oh-My, is signaled to still be the innocent form – especially with the exchange where he argues with Carmela that he will pick up after his horse, much like any child argues with his mother to get a pet. We also see it in the way Tony shows off his handgun to Carmela with a “check this out.” When Tony says that he has to go, it’s in the tone that he has to do something he doesn’t want to, something sad. In my opinion, this shows Tony’s state of mind: he still feels himself to be an innocent, at his core, but now he has a piece and is obligated to do something he does not want to; a sad clown.
Tony descends into the high school – this is where the test in his recurring dream will take place. When he puts the suppressor on his weapon he is not just looking grimly at the trophy case, but at himself as well; yet, as he enters the dark locker room and searches for his target he is terrified like a child – this is Tony facing one of his deepest issues.
Coach Molinaro in a way represents the dreams and ambitions of the young Tony, the archetype of a caring father figure (we learn from Carmela that the coach was likely genuine in taking an interest toward Tony), and his conscience. This is the only explanation for the confused and conflicting reactions that the coach gives, saying that Artie was the “worst of the bunch” while also admonishing Tony for wasting his talents as a leader and abandoning his dream of being a coach; a mobster would see Artie as pathetic and weak, but a civilian would praise ambition for a non-criminal life – this duality in the coach is only unified by his critical nature, which is likely why he is cast as a devil (Tony finds him in the dim underground, wearing a bright red jacket and smoking). The conversation with Molinaro illustrates how confused Tony is by the conflicts inside of himself: no matter what he does – much how Finn turned into AJ in the restaurant – he has made some kind of failing. The coach gives voice to his shame in taking the easy way out, in ignoring his “little secret” of wanting to be a coach himself, but also in seeking psychotherapy and blaming his mother instead of / more than his father.
Tony recognizes that as long as he is not prepared to do what has to be done, which is to make a choice in one direction or the other, the coach will never shuttup. We will see that he finally makes that choice in Kennedy and Heidi, ending the conflict for good.
Regardless of one’s opinions on the little details, the important take away from this dream is that Tony is conflicted within himself over the lifestyle choices he has made and that the next part of the show deals with him reaching an ultimate decision. Parts of the dream are from the perspective of the gangster part of Tony who wants to please his mother (especially) and his father, and other parts are from the perspective of the Kevin Finnerty version of Tony. Each, in turn, want to take out the other one: the gangster through means of murder and the Finnerty version by means of government witness. The interesting part of this dream is the extensive focus it gives to male figures, focusing heavily on Artie, the coach, and Johnny, and this represents the increasing role that Tony sees for his father; the very resolution of this arc is the symbolic murder of Johnny.
The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Section II: Oedipal Resolution
Tony begins the final season of the show by being shot by his uncle, one of his father figures; Melfi asks him about his dad, and Tony’s flashback goes straight to him and Uncle Junior playing catch. It is no accident that this leads us straight into the Kevin Finnerty dream, a sequence in which Tony discovers the existence of a different version of himself, realizes that he is on the road to hell, and comes out of the coma with a desire to live in a different way – it’s the same journey the show has taken us on, a crisis of self-exploration founded in his father’s violence. In The Test Dream, Johnny is a sniper from the window, aiming at Tony, and in Members Only Uncle Junior is going off about the Kennedy assassination as he is being arrested; this series is about Tony becoming Kennedy, embracing his assassination by his father figures. This section is going to examine the Kevin Finnerty near death experience at the beginning of Season 6, explain how it demands a certain action for Tony to be saved – which in turn means the child is not yet dead and salvation is still possible – and ultimately how Tony instead chooses the path toward hell when he symbolically murders his father and sleeps with his mother in Kennedy and Heidi – the oedipal complex is not resolved, but fulfilled. Both of those analyses are going to demonstrate that this is primarily a spiritual arc, and this will require a detailed exploration of Tony’s peyote trip and “I get it!” moment as well.
Join the Club (6.02) begins with a shot of Tony that simulates his being in a coffin; this is identical to the way that Made in America starts, an important fact to remember since, as the bar tender replies when Tony asks what Cosa Mesa is like, “around here? It’s dead.” Since, because of the show’s spiritual background and the intermingling of the ‘real world’ and Finnerty’s world (Paulie talking, Meadow’s voice calls to him, the doctor’s flashlight), I think that the Kevin Finnerty arc should not be understood as a dream or hallucination but an actual life after death experience – he is in a sort of limbo, a dual state of being both alive and dead, Tony Soprano and Kevin Finnerty; this interpretation echoes the ‘separateness is an illusion’ and the monk’s comments that one day everyone will die and there will be “no me, no you.” This means that entering the Inn at the Oaks would not just be a metaphor for Tony’s real life death, it would literally be him entering hell; and of course it’s hell – he would have to abandon Kevin Finnerty’s briefcase (life) to be allowed entry. Where else would all of Tony’s family be? What else would be dressed up in white lights and tranquil beauty with an aggressive, creepy doorman? Where else would Livia be? The lobby’s TV asks, “are sin, disease, and death real?” and we know, at least in the show’s world, that the answer is an emphatic yes.
Tony’s experience in Costa Mesa can be summed up by the existential fear he expresses at dinner: “Who am I? Where am I going?” Time to look at each of these.
“Where Am I Going?”
I want to start here because it is the simplest question with the most intuitive answer, and also because it will make understanding “who am I?” easier. If you skipped over the analysis of The Test Dream you will be fine, but I think that reading it provides a solid background for both of these questions.
Tony feels absolutely confused and lost throughout Join the Club and Mayham (6.03), stranded in the middle of nowhere, alone. This confusion, or his state of being ‘lost at sea,’ is reflected in his not knowing what the lighthouse-like beacon is. The bartender offers him no advice as far as things to do, places to go, and one of the saddest, and therefore my favorite, endings to an episode is Tony sitting in his hotel room, beacon in the distance, as Moby’s When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die plays. I mentioned above that the lobby television was playing one of those awful religious infomercials about sin and death; despite the crudeness, this lets us know that Tony’s journey in this afterlife limbo is spiritual and religious, a morbid reflection on the reality of his sins and the soul-disease, Alzheimer’s as the metaphor here, caused by those sins. When, after posing that question, a cross fills the screen, Tony gets both engrossed and uncomfortable, rapidly turning away and rushing off. This is very, very, very important as it is one of the bookends to the Season 6 spiritual arc – he reacts almost identically to the image of the devil in Kennedy and Heidi, as the comparison picture shows (it’s more clear in motion, as you get to see how he turns away).
After falling down the stairs, Tony wakes up to find he has been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimers; the hereditary disease of his family, “my uncle has memory loss,” a potent metaphor for the slow moral decay caused by criminal life. He is, for obvious reasons, distraught by this news – he considers it a death sentence. He is on the road to death, a spiritual death; however, the doctor tells Tony to talk to his doctors back home – the affected areas of his brain are not dead, just oxygen deprived, and Dr. Melfi represents a chance to take a different road and restore those black spots to life. No accident that Tony tries to contact Kevin Finnerty with the help of a monastery. This overlaps with the question of who Tony is: he is a man that, as shown in The Test Dream, has not yet made the final decision to kill the innocent Tony – salvation is still an option.
He understands the answer to this question concretely after he goes out past the beacon, having been told what it is by the voice on the phone, and has the unnerving experience at the Inn at the Oaks which, as mentioned above, is a not-terribly-disguised hell; but he does not have to join his family yet, he is not fated, and the sheer terror that he has – he wakes up knowing he does not want to go back there – leads to his temporary change of heart.
“Who Am I?”
Tony is understandably confused to discover he has mis-taken the identical looking briefcase of a man who shares his appearance, but he is also horrified to have lost his own: Tony’s entire life was in that briefcase. This immediately tells us that the man we are looking at is Tony Soprano, but Tony Soprano with someone else’s life; this is the man Tony could have been, and the man who he still has, to some degree, within himself — the bar tender tells Tony that Kevin Finnerty “left before you and never came back.”
I want to clearly note that this version of Tony (referred to as Finnerty hereafter) is not a moral saint to be contrasted with Tony’s moral degeneracy – he sold a monastery faulty heating equipment and refuses to take responsibility, and he fully intended to cheat on his wife. We also learn that he has been working too much and the couple has been experiencing emotional distance because of it. Finnerty is a normal, flawed, but ultimately good human being – but even the best of us are held accountable for our sins; the monks appear the moment that he books a hotel room with a ‘stolen’ credit card, and it is the monks who “need to find someone to take responsibility” in the time between life and death.
“Who am I?” is a question that neither Tony nor the viewer receives a direct answer to – Meadow calls him back to the land of the living, he’s not Tony Soprano or Kevin Finnerty, but some confused combination of the two; a superposition of Soprano and Finnerty, and only when judged by the Lord, after death, will we know which state he is in – this death and judgement take place in Kennedy and Heidi. Junior’s calling Tony “Johnny,” and Meadow telling AJ how seriously Tony takes Italian family values hints at the form this event will take. As if my continual reference to Oedipus hasn’t given it away.
When Tony comes out of the coma there are some immediate changes in his character; the Seven Souls track was wanted for the Pilot, and the regression-to-innocence that he experiences is, in a way, condensing the entire series into one season – Tony becomes angry when Paulie makes a negative comment about Livia. He takes the Evangelical pastor seriously, as Christopher looks on in total confusion, and the pastor drives home that salvation is not just what happens after we die, but involves salvation from ourselves when alive. When they pray together in the hospital room, Tony is not just humoring, he is beginning to take it seriously; he has seen the other side, knows the path he is on, knows the reality of sin, death, and disease, and desires to treat every future day as a gift.
To really drive home that the new Tony is the younger, highschool version of himself that we saw in The Test Dream, we are given another scene where he is deliberately treated like a child. After Tony tells Carmela that he does not feel like himself, she shows him the book she brought him – it was all they had, “but you like dinosaurs!”
In the celebratory, sing-song voice that any mother would use with a toddler; for the moment, Tony really does have a second chance. At the end of The Fleshy Part of the Thigh (6.04), he is smiling up at the sun and trees while church bells ring in the background, and the sound of wind is audible – recall the Ojibwe saying – as Tony watches students exit a high school. The most depressing aspect of this scene for me is that his path ultimately leads to the man of Made in America, who, when Carmela tells him that dinner will be at Holsten’s, is smiling up at grey skies and still, leafless trees —- as a crow caws in the background.
Kennedy and Heidi
Kennedy and Heidi is one of the most important episodes in the series – if the Kevin Finnerty arc represents the start of a spiritual journey, or the revitalization of the battle he’s been slowly losing over 5 seasons, Tony’s murder of Christopher represents the end of one. There are a few reasons to put such a high priority on this particular event. The first is that, as will be shown shortly, Christopher is acting as a proxy for Tony’s father — I have traced the oedipal conflict throughout the show, and this is the moment where the son kills the father. Secondly, Christopher simultaneously stands in for Tony himself; this is a murder-suicide, with one of the bodies walking away. Third, he sleeps with a Livia-looking sexual partner of Christopher who is explicitly playing the role of Mother. Finally, the peyote trip is a toxic spiritual experience that leads to Tony’s final, and temporary, understanding of the choice he has made and the story he has concluded. We will go through each of these in turn; I am going to take for granted that you are broadly familiar with Tony’s growing hatred for his father figures over seasons 5 & 6, but the important moments will still be referenced.
I want to give credit to this essay, Tony’s Vicarious Patricide, as it examines Tony’s feelings for his father with more depth and breadth than my own. We have points of departure on other pieces of the analysis, but our understanding of the murder’s meaning to Tony is basically identical. If you need more convincing after my bare-bones version, read Fly’s and have your world changed.
Why Did Tony Kill Christopher?
There is a rational explanation behind Tony’s murder of Chris, the most common one being that a drug-addicted criminal with a family is just a yet-to-be-actualized rat and, of course, the immediate danger that Chris’ reckless driving presented to Tony’s life. Combine that with a moment of opportunity and we understand the killing; however, Tony did not kill Christopher for rational reasons — he was running on emotion. The expression on his face is not the one of a person killing their nephew out of mafia necessity, but it is an expression of pure, cold, rage. This raises the question: what was motivating Tony’s actions in that moment?
We get the obvious clue with the way the camera keeps cutting to the branch through the baby seat and how Tony has to bring the branch up to everyone — he’s fixated on it. Not only is he fixated, but he brings it up to cast Christopher in a negative light and justify his own lack of remorse or, honestly, positive feelings about the murder. That he saw this detail as capable of playing both of these roles speaks to how significant the disregard for the child’s life is for Tony; the seat was “mangled beyond recognition.” This can be easily pushed into the box of “Tony loves animals and kids,” but I think that is too easy, especially when we consider the season’s context; specifically, Tony is going through a struggle with his father.
For the first part of the series Tony’s focus is singularly on his mother — Livia is the one who whittled Johnny down, who prevented him from going to Vegas and escaping (1.07), who was controlling him by threatening to smother his children (note that Tony smothers his surrogate son, Christopher), but, on the other hand, Tony portrayed Johnny to himself as a relatively good father. This changes, and here are a few examples: Tony is clearly jealous that Bobby’s father has protected him from having to carry out a murder (6.13) — SR. “never wanted it for [him]” — and this motivates Tony’s petty revenge in forcing Bobby to kill the French guy; he meets with his father’s mistress and learns why his dad was not at the hospital (5.07) – this gives him some sympathy for Livia and is another example of Johnny neglecting his parental duties; the most important, however, is the massively formative event of watching Satriale lose his finger (3.03) — not only is that poor parenting that had a traumatic impact on Tony, Johnny, after that event, drives home to Tony how important it is to never gamble, and Tony’s massive gambling problem is an outrageous rebellion against the most important lesson his father taught him (there is no way Tony ever forgot this; he was quite possibly even consciously aware of it while gambling — either way, it is undeniable that this would add a certain psychological power to his gambling losses).
So not only is there the obvious outrage that Tony would feel over the wanton disregard for a child’s safety, Tony sees himself in that baby seat — the child damaged by a hypocritically neglectful parent who continually espouses his love for his children. In this way Tony is reconciling himself with his father by killing Christopher, who symbolically plays the role of Johnny; however, and this is important, Christopher, as Tony’s surrogate son, is also playing the role of son, simultaneously. When Tony throws his Cleaver mug into the bushes he is throwing the parental conflict out of himself; a real resolution.
This is going to become more convincing as we look at the other pieces of this episode.
Not only does Tony kill Christopher (Johnny), Tony goes off and has sex with Christopher’s partner, a stripper friend in Vegas — this is the fulfillment of the oedipal myth, Tony has killed and taken on the role of his father and has become the object of his mother’s affection, the only thing he ever wanted. But I want to make very clear that this is not just a random coincidence: Tony specifically goes to Vegas to have sex with that woman, as Mother, whether he was consciously aware of it or not. Proof of this is the circumstances under which Tony schedules his trip; at 32:50 in Kennedy and Heidi, there is a brief shot of Tony staring down Kelly’s shirt, lustfully, as she prepares to breastfeed, and the moment that the baby begins to suckle he ‘catches himself’ and turns away from the balcony — the very next thing he does is schedule the Vegas trip and pay a visit to Christopher’s ‘friend.’ Kelly bears striking resemblance to his Livia-lookalike girlfriends, and she is the symbolic father’s wife – the scene lingers until the moment the baby latches on, the moment that Kelly is most clearly cast as Mother. Furthermore, Fran (Johnny’s mistress) compares Tony’s father to JFK throughout In Camelot, and Tony sees Kelly as Jackie Kennedy when she enters Christopher’s wake.
The girl in Vegas also sets up the link between Christopher and Tony past some random ‘shared partner’ hookup when she tells Tony, post-coitus, that he reminds her of Chris; furthermore, Tony takes this as saying that he fucks like Christopher. Now when you compare the physical appearance of Tony and Chris, let alone the way they carry themselves, no sane person would see a resemblance; the similarity is in the shared role they play – he has taken the Father’s role with the Mother. Additionally, Tony initiates the peyote conversation by mentioning that she and Christopher had taken it together; the resemblance has moved from purely symbolic to spiritual — indeed, she mentions that Christopher talked about “some sad shit,” but Tony seems “actually sad.” A deep link is created between these characters.
Let’s look at the nature of this spiritual connection in how the peyote trip plays out.
We immediately know that this trip is going to be significant by the setting in which he takes the peyote; in addition to the inherent religious significance peyote possesses (it’s integral to certain Native American religious practices), we have a dim room with candles spread about — if you have ever attended a Christmas Eve candlelight service, it has quite a similar atmosphere — and, to really play it up, the peyote looks wafer-like and is consumed ritualistically with a single shot of liquid. Additionally, we get the scene of Tony staring up at the bathroom light, reminiscent of the light he saw coming out of the coma, the light that reminds us of his desire to truly change; however, this time the light emits an irritating buzz, causing Tony to chuckle to himself as he also realizes not just his failure to change, but his further descent into hell. This peyote trip may turn out to be a significant religious experience, but we cannot forget that it is taking place in Sin City as indirect consequence of a murder – there is not going to be any true transcendence here. In contrast to Tony’s Kevin Finnerty experience in limbo, with the white Inn at the Oaks and a guiding beacon which terrify him of hell, this is a revelatory spiritual experience in hell.
When the two first enter the casino we see the images on two gaming machines – the first is a violent volcanic eruption labeled “Pompeii,” and the second is the image of a grinning devil. Play on Mt Vesuvius and eruptions as symbols of doom is frequent throughout the series, and this image is only revealed, viewer-privileged, in the foreground. Tony notices the devil and it has an emotional impact on him — it’s hard to say what it was, but his expression takes on a sudden somberness, like he’s unnerved, and it immediately motivates the two of them to keep walking. Look above at the image comparing his reaction to the cross in Join the Club and the devil in this episode. Maybe this is the beginning of his realization that he is not anywhere good.
Enter the roulette wheel, which – and this is an important detail – Tony points out follows the same principle as the solar system. There is the interpretation of the orbitting of the ball around a center, even if by centripetal force, but there is also the more meaningful treatment of the solar system/the universe/the natural state of things being akin to a game of chance – we feel like we have a say, that we make choices, but at the end of the day it is mostly out of our control. Both of these end up being relevant to understanding his “getting it.” This is where Tony’s gambling luck demonstrates its turnaround, and he is quite confused when he begins to win; earlier in the episode, prior to hooking up with Christopher’s ‘friend,’ we are specifically given a scene of him losing at roulette — however, the confusion vanishes as he eventually realizes “he’s dead” and begins to laugh hysterically, collapsing to the floor as the dealer looks at him with disgust; note that the dealer is clearly Native American, and he is viewing Tony’s peyote trip as something obscene and disgusting rather than something properly meaningful. After Tony decided to let the police handle the pedophile soccer coach, he came home laughing and drunk, stumbling around the downstairs hysterically saying that he didn’t hurt anyone as Meadow looks down on him from above. In this episode we have a similar situation — Tony is intoxicated and rolling around hysterically upon realization of something he did; however, with the similarity there is the difference — at the start it is a celebration of a positive moral choice, but by the end we have him reacting in an identical manner over doing something abhorrent. Tony really is the devil he sees in the casino.
And, last but very far from least, an incredibly substantial detail is that his bets — 24B/20B/24B — are the ages of his children, driving home that it is the parental relations that are important here — his gambling luck has changed as he situates himself not as a rebellious son fearing castration but as the father himself.
Both of these are vague statements that nonetheless reflect to very deep and significant psychological events within Tony – there is no “reading too much into it” in reading deep unconscious, psychological meaning into the expressions. That’s the only possible way to analyze these, and it’s clearly what they point to; psychotherapy is the show’s major medium for Tony’s genuine expression, and we have been given the significant events and issues in Tony’s life necessary to understand him. Let’s start with the first.
This is not about Christopher, though on some level there is an awareness that Tony can do whatever heinous shit he wants without it having any karmic impact – kill your nephew? No problem, here’s some good luck. Harkens back to the ‘principle of the solar system’ as meaningless ordered chaos and chance. Johnny Soprano is the one who Tony realizes is dead – he killed him, as discussed above, by murdering Christopher. In betting with the ages of his children Tony is assuming and profiting from the role of neglectful parent – or, rather, recognizing his ownership of this role, overcoming a psychological barrier.
But let’s look at the fact that Tony’s killing of Christopher was killing both father and son at the exact same moment (how appropriate that Christopher is a surrogate son throughout the series; this makes him perfect to play the role of surrogate father as well). This truly is the assuming of Johnny’s role, as the very act of doing so involves engaging in a violent act against his own child — and Johnny directed massive amounts of violence at Tony, physical or not. That these events lead to a change in Tony’s gambling luck speaks to an act of reconciliation with his father, or a degree of resolution of his issues with Johnny; gambling loses its strength as an “issue” when it is not leading to financial ruin — a gambler who always wins is not a “live problem” in the same way as one whose luck meets the expected distribution. This is a much better resolution than simply having Tony decide to stop gambling, as so long as gambling is seen as a rebellion or concession to his father Tony’s behavior is subservient to and defined in relation to Johnny — to keep gambling and have it turn out well is the best way for Tony to truly come into his own, by winning on his own terms entirely. He has not just rebelled against the father and come out okay, he has transcended both his father and his lessons; a sort of Aufheben.
Oedipus Discovers Himself (“I Get It!”)
This is what Tony gets with the desert sunrise. In trying to describe the experience to his associates back at the place, Tony stumbles and is lost for words past “the sun… it came up.” But that truly is what he got. It is no accident that sun and son are homophones, and this entire arc resulted in the son overcoming and rising above his father and truly realizing it. But you’ll notice that Tony’s reaction in the desert is not one of glorious transcendence — he starts crying, the expression on his face is the one a person gets upon the realization of some absurd, almost tragic, truth. He realizes that he has overcome his father, but he also realizes that he, contrary to what he told Melfi in In Camelot, “wants to fuck [his] mother.” Or, at this point, that he has effectively done so.
In The Second Coming, Tony attempts to explain to Melfi what he saw, or understood, on his peyote trip — he begins with his discovering, with certainty, that there is “more than this.” Anyone who has done hallucinogens, or been fortunate enough to have a Mystical Experience, will not be surprised at this insight; these are intensely spiritual experiences, and, as discussed above, we have been given numerous cues as to the significance of this essentially religious adventure. He follows this with a very specific thing that he grasped onto:
“This is gonna sound stupid, but I saw at one point that our mothers are… bus drivers. No, they are the bus. See, they’re the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey. And the problem is that we keep tryin’ to get back on the bus, instead of just lettin’ it go.”
This is powerful support for my reading of Tony’s arc. Incest with one’s mother is a return to the womb in the truest, and most profane, sense of the phrase — Tony’s timeline here is, first, the murder of his father; sexual relations with his mother; significant, spiritually intense peyote trip with the mother; profoundly horrible realization; in psychotherapy, where the most important truths about Tony are given to us, expression of the continual desire to ‘get back on the bus.’ To some degree, Tony’s ‘more than this’ is the recognition of an oedipal mythology that transcends any individual person – indeed, this narrative is the great wind carrying him across the sky.
How appropriate that Kennedy and Heidi ends with asbestos being dumped into a marsh as ducks quack in the background: Tony no longer cares about losing his family; Kevin Finnerty was killed in the car crash, and the murder was consummated in the spiritual, and literal, desert of Las Vegas. He cannot help opening up to AJ’s therapist about Livia in Made in America – the issues with his father are done for, and he can be the full focus of his mother again. Look back to my analysis of The Test Dream — in The Second Coming, Tony is having group therapy with AJ and Carmela, and sneakily pulls a tooth out of his pant leg. There is none of the horror or wonder that was present in the dream, he is totally nonchalant about it – a nonchalance specifically intended to juxtapose Tony’s violent mob life and the attempted suicide of his son. It ties in beautifully.
We find ourselves in Made in America, Tony’s story over a few episodes ago, and now his body is lingering on, moving of its own accord, no soul inside of it. We are given multiple shots where Tony is watching himself, and these cuts are taken to establish the sudden blackness being Tony’s experience of death; you never hear it when it happens. This is pretty undebateable, and Chase has said as much in interviews, but let’s note that the distance between Tony and Tony-seen shrinks each time the technique is used — if we take for granted that the scene at Holsten’s ended with Tony being physically shot, we can also see this as the moment that the viewer and viewed are unified. Normally we hear stories of spirits who are unable to reconcile themselves with their bodily death and therefore linger in the world, but this is an example of a physical body that has outlasted its spirit, and Tony’s spirit is watching his body, patiently waiting until that magic moment when they can be together again.
It’s like… America. This is still where people come – to make it. It’s a beautiful idea. And what do they get? Bling? Come-ons for shit they don’t need and can’t afford?
Section III: Episode Specifics
This section is going to deal with specific scenes of Made in America that are thematically interesting; the one exception is the Seven Souls Montage, which I am going to include here because of its importance to my understanding of season 6 and therefore the series finale. I would strongly recommend having read the previous two sections before reading the Holsten’s analysis, but other than that these should all be successful standalones. In here you will find discussion on the Seven Souls, the orange Cat, fate, America’s spiritual decay, and, of course, Holsten’s.
Fate, Cycles, and Freedom
Tony’s story is the battle over his soul. Because of this, the show regularly deals with questions about the characters’ potential to change their ways. Will Tony choose the easy path of mob life or renounce his sinful lifestyle, turn witness, and start a new life with his family? Will he resolve his parental issues by rejecting the cycle of hatred and violence or by indulging in it? All of these characters are born into a certain culture and family, and we have to wonder if, as Carmela says of AJs future in The Test Dream, “the die has been cast” or an individual can break free of his or her environment.
The philosophical question of free will broadly hinges on the degree to which an individual is determined by their genetic, psychological, and environmental conditions: “As a theory-neutral point of departure, then, free will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in the manner necessary for moral responsibility.” There is no doubt that the show rubs our face in the determining power of the shadow, but how accountable for their actions are we to see these characters?
Its focus on Catholicism, sin, and the occasional moralizing therapist, demonstrates that the answer The Sopranos provides is anyone is capable of breaking the cycle, but that doing so requires a monumental effort, severing oneself from corrupting friends and family, and most people will take the easy way out. In Made in America, the viewer is made depressingly aware of the Sopranos’ failures to break the cycle – it’s the same principle as the solar system, and Tony is the sun keeping the planets in orbit; however, the surprising appearance of Hunter shows us that it’s possible. Tony’s failures are well-accounted for throughout this essay, so I want to focus on the other members of his immediate family.
Tony is only ever a more powerful version of his father, and Janice is a slightly modified Livia. Her final scene with Tony is spent reminiscing about family stuff and thinking about her future with Bobby’s kids. We know that Janice is a complete narcissist, a terrible parent, and that any child she has guardianship of will suffer. The show makes the connection to Livia explicit by having her tell herself she’s a “good mom,” and that she left “ma and all her warped shit behind.” Janice mentions that she has been through therapy, but every word she speaks echoes Livia — her final scene in the series is spent trying to scam money out of her mentally incompetent uncle who mistakes her for Livia. The talk of therapy also reminds us of Tony, who has, despite regular therapy attendance throughout the series, turned into a black hole. I think it’s disappointing to note that, at least on first watch, the viewer is surprised by the genuine emotion Janice shows for Bobby – these are not the crocodile tears or the acute melodrama surrounding Richie, but she actually cared for him, deeply. Yet, despite this, her selfish and manipulative ways, her denial and self-pity, and Livia’s ghost all dominate her.
One of the ultimate tragedies is AJ’s fate – he gets a lot of shit as a character because of how unenjoyable he is to watch. The viewer gets frustrated at his incredible ignorance and general incompetence, and the whiny tone of voice he is so intimate with; however, this is a boy with a father who hates him, is ashamed of him, and a mother who constantly tells him what a failure he is – that final conversation at the dinner table brings up critique after critique of AJs previous and current plans. While Carmela is certainly more loving than Livia, AJ experiences the same abuses of a mobster father and a mother he can never please (is it any surprise how, like Tony’s girlfriends are all black haired, Rhiannon is eerily similar to Carmela?). This is a horribly depressed kid with an impossibly difficult background, and yet he still finds a way out. Or he would have, if not for his parents. When AJ comes down the stairs to that family discussion, he looks identical to Tony, bathrobe, jewelry, and behavior. In order to stop him from following through on his plans to make the world a better place by learning Arabic and joining the military (the naivete of youth!), they get him a job working for a porn company – sorry, he did Cleaver, he’s branching out – with the ultimate carrot of running a nightclub. After this conversation, Carmela sees AJ and Rhiannon gorging themselves on junk food while watching television of equivalent quality — she’s finally satisfied that nobody else has escaped, and goes back to her home design magazines.
If AJ experiences the force of an active undermining, Meadow is a testament to the toxic influence that family can inactively have on a person; she was going to be a boring, surburban pediatrician – everything Tony wanted for her – but the simple act of seeing her father taken away by the authorities so many times convinced her to become a lawyer, to protect the individual from the State (“of New Jersey?!”). We are later assured that this is going to be the job of a mob lawyer, not the humanitarian work that Meadow was doing during her schooling. This could easily be mistaken as, although a non-ideal one, an improvement over the previous generation; however, in choosing this pathway Meadow is going to be far more complicit in the mafia’s crimes than Carmela ever was.
Carmela and Hunter
We know that Carmela has had her chance to change earlier in the series; she attempted to leave Tony, but was bought back into the fold and distracts herself with real estate. In this final episode we are seeing her not as a person who has failed to redeem herself, though this is the case, but a person who is actively sabotaging the efforts of others to change. It is an unexpected visit from Hunter, however, that truly shows us how unbearable Carmela finds the success of others to be – just like Tony. Meadow’s friend has turned her life around from a partying college drop-out and become a med student, exactly the life path that Meadow’s parents had hoped for her. Carmela does some incredibly passive-aggressive, bitchy shit and wonders out loud the last time that she saw Hunter, “right before [she] dropped out of college!” But when she discovers the true turnaround that Hunter has managed to accomplish, her tone changes completely and she gets out of the room ASAP.
Hunter’s success, and the decision to bring her back for a 30 second scene in the final episode, is a testament to Chase’s conviction that people do have the power to change but, as Coach Molinaro said in The Test Dream, most will take the easy way out. This girl was doing meth, got kicked out of school for drunk driving, and had none of the makings of a varsity athlete, but she still rose above that and is successfully working her way through med school. This is the perfect segue into a discussion on what Made in America says about moral accountability in The Sopranos.
Sin and Salvation
The focus on Catholic guilt supports the interpretation that these characters have sufficient power and opportunity to break free of the circumstances of their birth; this entire aspect of the show would be meaningless if, for example, Carmela never actually had the chance to take the kids and leave – moral responsibility requires free will. These next two scenes deal in these themes of guilt and the possibility of salvation.
Funeral Reception [X]
Spirituality in The Sopranos often manifests through Catholic symbols – Paulie sees the Virgin Mary in the strip club, Tony ritualistically takes peyote in a manner that echoes Communion, Christopher’s dream of being in hell, Paulie’s spiritual crisis, and the above, a famous Latin antiphon, is no exception. Understanding this hymn is simple but important: it refers to our state as sinners, a death-in-life; the penalty for our sins is death, a weight which was only lifted in the crucifixion of Christ, whose symbolic death – with the promise of resurrection it could never be real death – freed us from our own Eternal Deaths. This chant is both an admission of guilt and a cry for merciful deliverance.
At the table, Paulie, his character quirk of fucking up sayings in full form, misquotes this as ‘in the midst of death, we are in life.’ This flips it on its head – no longer are we the spiritually dead, rather, we live our lives in the spiritual wasteland of consumerism and meaningless spectacle; yet, Paulie is ‘corrected’ by Meadow. This correction not only follows logically from Paulie’s version – our spiritual wasteland is filled with other people, sinners – but establishes the simultaneity of both statements. The Sopranos’ later seasons’ curiosity with duality, One being both and all, is in full form here: aggressive commentary portrays our society as decaying, immoral, and lost, but any society is composed of individuals who not only create it but are created by it.
Bobby’s funeral is full of mobsters, complicit in his death, engaging in gluttony. After sitting down at the table, Paulie unbuttons and unzips his pants; the action is intended to release pressure on his very full stomach, but it also carries an inherent sexuality, and sexuality is nothing if not a Catholic taboo – Paulie unzipped himself immediately after expressing interest in the deceased’s niece. Death in the midst of death. We find ourselves thrown into the empty husk of America and, no food in sight, we begin to consume our own selves. Dr. Melfi quotes pieces of The Second Coming to Tony in 5.10, and the same theme, the idea of the end, of something needing to happen, is only more present in Made in America. This makes it a particularly appropriate poem for AJ to quote – things have fallen apart and the center cannot hold, but will we be Delivered? He sums it up for us: “It’s like… America. This is still where people come – to make it. It’s a beautiful idea. And what do they get? Bling? Come-ons for shit they don’t need and can’t afford?”
Also in this scene, for all of five seconds, is the featured image of this post – Tony and Carmela eating in front of the painting of a smoking volcanoe, presumably Mt. Vesuvius (they are at Vesuvio’s!). It’s doom on the horizon, threatening to explode and devour the Roman city at its base and, as Tony reminds the viewers, Italians are the Romans (1.03); however, it’s a painting, completely static. Carmela is facing away, unable to look at it as she eats – like the piss-smelling safe house, seeing it forces her to acknowledge her husband’s lifestyle; however, Tony is looking, the threat a smoldering volcanoe represents being one of the few things he has insight into.
But we must also look at this painting from the perspective of the viewer. The volcanoe has a spotlight on it – it stands out to us, but we know that for Tony and Carmela it’s even more apparent. In the same way, however, Tony and Carmela are in a spotlight for the viewer — the long, dark hallway funnels our perspective straight toward them, and the light at the end of the tunnel is death. And our perspective is close to the ground; we’re at its base. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” but we are left with a building anxiety for the eruption that will never come.
The Eruption [X]
I enjoy that AJ’s ‘polluter’ was destroyed as a result of his parking on a pile of dead leaves – nature’s revenge and all that. But more interesting is AJ’s reaction to the explosion because, aside from the obvious response to one’s car exploding, he’s giddy about it. He tells his therapist that “ever since it blew up [he felt], like Cleansed or something,” not because it was a polluter, but “just watching it go, that huge fireball– you have no idea.” My first impression was that the vehicle was supposed to be a metaphor for Tony – the viewer’s desire to see him killed (isn’t the live/die controversy simply proof of this desire?) stemmed from a cleansing sense of justice, the need for crime to not pay, the need for the viewer’s absolution from having identified himself in Tony week after week. AJ is in awe when the car seat, the one he had just been sitting in, is melted by the explosion’s heat; the viewer’s seat, couch or chair, will not be melted – there will be no explosion.
AJ had been driving this “polluter,” participating in the gross consumerism and environmental destruction that an SUV represents (which makes his listening to Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) pretty cute as well; the show is full of AJ speaking truth and being an idiot simultaneously), and he feels the cleansing power of the explosion — the polluter is destroyed, some sort of justice has been done, and AJ can now go about the rest of his life without it – he even is glad about not getting a replacement. But like the viewer who sees Tony as alter ego, when the end comes AJ gets up out of his seat, enjoys the cleansing euphoria of the explosion, and moves on as if nothing ever happened; the explosion is crucifixion and salvation.
In this sense AJ is even correct with his insight in the therapist’s office. Even though the car being a polluter (and Tony is easily a polluter / golem) is true, and even involved, AJ’s cleansed feeling is the absolution of his own sins – SUV as proxy. Rather than being glad a polluter was destroyed, he is the polluter, and the SUV is just a symbol (queue relevance of Dylan song as well).
Further, this section from Baudrillard has added a different spin on it for me (this is not a reading through Baudrillard, see the note):
“There is certainly a chain reaction somewhere, and we will perhaps die of it, but this chain reaction is never that of the nuclear, it is that of simulacra and of the simulation where all the energy of the real is effectively swallowed, no longer in a spectacular nuclear explosion, but in a secret and continuous implosion, and that today perhaps takes a more deathly turn than that of all the explosions that rock us.
Because an explosion is always a promise, it is our hope: note how much, in the film as in Harrisburg, the whole world waits for someting to blow up, for destruction to announce itself and remove us from this unnameable panic, from this panic of deterrence that it exercises in the invisible form of the nuclear. That the ‘heart’ of the reactor at last reveals its hot power of destruction, that it reassures us about the presence of energy, albeit catastrophic, and bestows its spectacle on us.”
Already spectacular is the simple power of the explosion compared to most everything else in the series. We had Vesuvio’s (Mt Vesuvius) and Phil’s gambling place, but the overwhelming majority of the show deals with slow death – the death of Tony’s family (both), the death of his soul, the death of the American dream, the death of security (9/11 happened between seasons and dramatically changed the tone), etc. AJ is acutely aware of eternal war in the middle east, terrorism, climate and fossil fuel issues — he very much sees the slow march toward our inevitable destruction.
AJ and Rhiannon are listening to Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), and his (basically girl)friend says that “it’s like about right now.” These are the same problems we’ve been wrestling with for decades – 2017 and the song is still about right now. Nothing has actually happened – the consequences have just had more time to pile up. We experience terrorism as security lines at airports and an ever expanding surveillance state, not as violence. But the car is different. This feeling of explosive change, something happening, induces such excitement – the terrible heat, sound, and fire of the explosion against the gray, quiet backdrop of autumn/winter woods. The nature of the event does not matter, just that there was an event.
Many fans attempt to cast the cat as a specific character – this is likely due to the animal’s obsession with Christopher’s picture. They see the cat as a reincarnation of either Adriana or Christopher; however, not only is this motivated by a desire for a neat and tidy accounting rather than being given to us in the episode, it leads to some forced interpretation in certain scenes (ie Paulie in front of Satriale’s). Still, the cat is definitely important – enough so to use CGI – and I’m going to argue it should be treated as a vague symbol of spiritual death, the moral decline that hangs around the crew. A portent of corruption.
Very early in the episode, Tony visits Carmela at his family’s safehouse, and she immediately tells him that Meadow smells ‘that odor’ too. This is quickly followed up with concerns of toxicity and a desire to return home. The show has never hidden the fact that Carmela is morally troubled by her lifestyle and survives by ignoring the source of her luxury (her back is to Vesuvius); however, having been forced to a different house in direct consequence of her husband’s violent lifestyle, she is no longer able to sweep its fowl 🙂 odor under the rug.
The cat also showed up during the ‘big storm,’ and is happily taken in by the mobsters as they hide out; near the beginning of The Blue Comet, Agent Harris comments to Tony about the weather they have been having: “End times. Ready for the rapture.” Implicit in this statement is a reference to The Second Coming, a poem with an increasingly prominent role throughout these final episodes, but this is also a clue to the animal’s representation as a ‘corrupting aura.’ The show regularly uses weather as a vehicle for deeper content, and the association between the context of the cat’s arrival and the “end times” attitude of the final episodes cannot be ignored. And past taking the cat in, the crew is even proud of it for catching mice in the cellar – the cat is spiritual death and through it the mob profits. Note that the cat is catching mice, not rats; rats are mobsters who have broken the code of silence, but mice are cute and innocent (maybe this is my love of animals colouring my interpretation though :D) – the cat is not preying on the mobsters, but civilians. Not coincidental that Tony attributes the odor of his family’s safehouse to piss when he and his associates are in the midst of a cat.
Paulie as Spiritually Alive
Everyone likes the cat with the exception of Paulie, who is horrified that they brought it back home to Satriale’s, says cats are “snakes with fur” and that the old Italians say you cannot put them around babies because they will “suck the life right out of them – ” to which Benny retorts, “you’re the only baby here.” Paulie is unique among the characters in how seriously he takes the supernatural. He is deeply traumatized by the dead Mikey Palmice’s warning of 3 o’clock; his experience with the psychic leads him to cut off all funding to his church because the priest, who was supposedly supposed to protect him from spiritual baggage (Paulie literally believes in indulgences), has been ‘slacking off;’ in this episode, Paulie shows up to an empty Bing and you can see him nervously, and grimly, checking the stage for Mary. That this specific character would have a superstitious problem with the cat needs to be taken as a serious sign that there is something spiritually ‘off’ about the animal.
Paulie can be the most selfish character in the show at times, but it’s important to not forget that he is also one of the most genuinely introspective; the scene where he and Christopher discuss character arcs is Paulie at his best. He asks Christopher what is bothering him, and takes a seat to listen to an explanation of ‘arcs’ with true interest. It is hard to imagine anyone in the crew, even Tony, behaving in such a receptive manner. The events in the above paragraph demonstrate that Paulie, unlike Tony, is still torn over the destructive nature of his lifestyle; spiritual life does not require holiness, it just requires activity. Perhaps the most clear way to put this is that Paulie’s soul is still in play.
The Cifaretto Crew
There is a surprising amount of time spent on Paulie’s refusal of this job offer; not only is it seemingly contradictory to his character traits, but the viewer is given no clear explanation for the rejection – just Paulie looking deeply unsettled both after turning Tony down and after the eventual acceptance. This has led people to speculate that perhaps Paulie has cooperated with New York and sold out Tony, and his emotional turmoil is the attempt to reconcile this choice with the faith Tony places in him; however, once we recognize the true nature of the cat (though IMO there are myriad respectable interpretations) there are two obvious clues.
Before that, however, it’s worth a brief discussion of what taking on the role would mean for Paulie. He is deeply, deeply superstitious – this has been made crystal clear throughout the series (again, see above!) – and he finds the chain of the deaths and disappearances of anyone who captains that crew unnerving; he has recently had a scare with cancer, and though he sells it as not wanting to die off and leave Tony in the lurch, the decline has to do with his simultaneous fear of death and desire for life. If he accepts the offer, then, he will be prioritizing Tony and money, in that order, over life. You can already hear the cat purring.
Absence and Presence; Dead and Alive
The scene in which Tony asks Paulie to take on the position is the same one in which Walden explains to him the cat’s behavior re: Chrissy’s picture and Paulie, in response, picks up a broom to get rid of the cat once and for all; unfortunately, at that moment, Tony walks in, protecting the cat by his presence alone. Tony sends Walden out of the room before making his request to Paulie, and Walden takes the cat with him. Without the presence of the cat, the request is denied, Paulie asks to mull it over, and he exits the building with his well-practiced ‘disturbed contemplation’ facial expression.
The second conversation takes place in front of Satriale’s, the tables empty except for Paulie and Tony; stark contrast from earlier seasons where the crew was always hanging out, reading papers and shooting the shit. This backdrop makes it seem as if Paulie is the last man standing. Paulie once again finds the strength to deny Tony, and explains the reasoning behind his thought process (which, of course, Tony scoffs at). The different ‘sides’ the two characters are on is further made explicit in when Paulie shares the story of his encounter with the Virgin Mary, something truly close to his heart, and Tony jokes that he should have said something sooner – they could have sold jugs of holy water! Paulie is life, and Tony is death; he is having a conversation with the devil himself. Eventually Tony, in the beguiling manner expected of Satan, manipulates Paulie into accepting the job. The way he frames his acceptance, however, is incredibly odd – clearly a deliberate scripting choice: “I live but to serve you, my liege.” Tony immediately gets up and leaves the table, his task of corruption complete, and Paulie assumes ‘the expression’ the moment his back is turned.
This is where the connection between the cat and this sort of spiritual death becomes most apparent. Paulie goes back to sunning himself and, in the same instant, the cat walks into the scene and begins sunning itself; Paulie has agreed to follow the devil and is therefore reconciled with the cat, his adversary for the episode.
The Master of Sopranos blog analyzes the scene in order to determine a future event – the death of Tony Soprano, but doing so ignores the fact that this death already happened. The start of the episode, where Tony wakes up to organ music as if in a casket, is not the foreshadowing of a death to come but the reanimation of a corpse – “it is not a question of death as the extinction of life, but death-in-life, death with all the substance and power of life.” The above picture shows a man sitting by himself, loneliness in a crowd; Tony is centered in the frame, still, as life, happiness, energy happens all around him – it’s as if he’s not there at all (camera work all episode paints Tony as spectating himself). This is not a funeral or a last supper, it is a wake, the remembering of the deceased – AJ quotes his father by reminding the table to “remember the times that were good;” poetically, Tony forgets he said it and criticizes AJ for his sarcasm.
“Tony’s flipping through the jukebox; it’s almost like the soundtrack of his life, because he sees various songs. No matter what song we picked, I wanted it to be a song that would have been from Tony’s high school years, or his youth.“
The diner is full of people and images who explicitly or indirectly reference events over the course of the series, and the paintings and jukeboxes are not present in the actual Holsten’s – they were explicitly put there for this episode. All of these things reference a time past. Jukeboxes? Football posters from the 70s? A series that opens with Tony talking about how he came in at the end is closing surrounded by the ‘good times’ from his youth, his father’s days. The image in the center, while intentionally reminsicent of The Inn at the Oaks, is a New Jersey high school. Images of footballers are also appropriate; despite not having the makings of a varsity athlete, Tony took football seriously in high school and was thrilled that AJ joined a team. Recalling my arguments above that Tony’s arc consisted in the murder of his innocent, ‘highschool self,’ this is a strong case for the final scene being a counterforce to the overwhelming depression and pessimism in the rest of the finale; this is nostalgia for when times were better, for when Tony was alive.
“It was my decision to direct the episode such that whenever Tony arrives someplace, he would see himself. He would get to the place and he would look and see where he was going. He had a conversation with his sister that went like this. And then he later had a conversation with Junior that went like this. I had him walk into his own POV every time. So the order of the shots would be Tony close-up, Tony POV, hold on the POV, and then Tony walks into the POV. And I shortened the POV every time. So that by the time he got to Holsten’s, he wasn’t even walking toward it anymore. He came in, he saw himself sitting at the table, and the next thing you knew he was at the table.“
The Master of Sopranos blog appeals to this directorial decision in order to substantiate the argument for the cut to black being a cut to the (now dead) Tony’s PoV; however, we can also ask what it means for Tony to “see himself.” I have argued that his character arc effectively ends with the resolution – or, rather, fulfillment – of his Oedipus complex. From that point on we are left with a spiritually dead Tony, a man who has made and carried out the choice to follow the mafia lifestyle and embrace his nature as golem.
It is a regular trope for the spirit of a deceased individual to remain ‘earthbound,’ failing to make a full transition to the other side – a “deceased person’s soul whose energy lingers in the physical world and has not yet crossed into the spiritual realm.” There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon, but one of the reasons The Psychic Library (I know, I know. I know.) lists is the need to right a wrong: “especially in the case of an individual [who] has been murdered, the soul will make every effort to stay in the physical realm to reveal clues surrounding the mystery of his/her death, in the hopes that those involved will be brought to justice.” I would not bother to quote such a well-known theme from such a terrible website, but their phrasing is perfect; more than being a setup, the scenes where Tony ‘sees himself’ can be read as his spirit watching his body.
On the face of it this sounds a tad absurd, but look at how the episode started: an overhead shot of Tony, framed to make it seem like he was in a coffin as organ music played on the radio. As mentioned, with image, in the Section II comments on Finnerty, a similar shot starts Join the Club, an after death experience. In an after death or out-of-body experience people report seeing themselves from above. Tony is dead in the spiritual sense, the sense that matters, and throughout Made in America we are given glimpses from that perspective — the spirit lingers as the body walks forward; the remains. Those of us who are convinced by the Master of Sopranos argument that the final shot represents Tony getting shot should be happy here, as the transition time grows shorter and shorter, culminating in the wrong being ‘righted’ when spirit and body are united in death.
Meaning in the Various Wall Decorations
Much like the eternal debate over Tony’s fate in that final scene speaks to the bloodlust of the viewer and our subconscious desire to see the mobster put to a violent end, I could sum up the most interesting part of investigating the various posters and paintings in one way: we are picking apart, down to the very numbers on play jerseys, objects of the past in order to bring meaning into not just the present, but the future; advertising, which takes nostalgic symbols and transforms them into future promises, reflects the same thing about our society. It’s my opinion that this alone vindicates Chase’s negative view on American culture, the society of the eternal, empty, meaningless present.
I was going to avoid doing this entirely, because being so explicit is an act of violence against the show, as far as my heart is concerned, but the football poster on the right hand side is just too in love with my reading of the final scene and the show to leave alone — that I discovered this without ever intending to analyze the specific numbers also motivates a “there’s something to this” attitude. Anyway, do note that I am relying on the people who run the various fan wikis to not have fucked up some ages. The numbers quite naturally match up to formative ages/events that represent Tony’s trajectory as an adult. Without further ado, the right poster:
- 1971 is the year Tony watched his father cut off Satriale’s finger, at the age of 11.
- 22 is the age Tony committed his first murder, Willie Overall.
- “Super Dave” Philip, with a Phil-ish looking old man under it, refers to Tony’s fathers days.
This is self-explanatory in the context of my arguments further up. He learns from his father what a man is supposed to be and then associates this with what his mother requires; then, at 22, he makes his father proud by choosing that version of manhood, dealing the fatal blow to Finnerty-Tony, even though the wound will take decades to finish bleeding out.
The High School Painting
This happens to be the image of a high school, but it also bears a striking resemblance to the Inn at the Oaks. The Inn is present in the Kevin Finnerty episodes, where Tony experiences himself in a different way, and he is forced to make the decision between entering the building with his ‘family,’ leaving the Kevin Finnerty briefcase behind, or abandoning his ‘family’ and head toward Meadow’s voice – the choice to live. This, combined with the Journey -as in a journey – song give us symbols of transition. The entire scene is a rememberance, a what was, and a what could have been.
Cat hangs over his shoulder, Tony’s ‘right hand man.’ Just like the path of Finnerty is open to Tony in this time period, the high school era that Holsten’s has taken us back to, so is the path of the cat – of corruption. That the Bengals are the State Champions reminds us of which path Tony chose; the cat is his familiar. Think back to the Seven Souls and the Egyptians’ love for cats.
The Reddit Sopranos community has been very helpful. I have submitted pieces of this essay for comments along the way, and they have clarified my thinking and offered new perspectives in various areas. The littlest things will inspire connections that I hadn’t yet seen. I also want to thank the members there for directing me to The Chase Lounge, and of course the users of that forum, whose ideas have generated insights as well. I want to specifically mention the forum owner, Fly, as I cite their essay on Tony’s vicarious patricide, which is a more elaborate, more in-depth version of my own. Anything that seems ‘stolen’ is accidental, mutually discovered, or just the passive result of hanging out in the community – please let me know if you think you or someone else should have specific credit for something and I will gladly make the note.
I also want to apologize to anyone who actually knows something about psychoanalysis or art critique because… yea. I got no illusions about myself.
Please let me know if anything needs elaboration, changing, is wrong, and so on and so on.
I didn’t bother formatting these at all, condolences/apologies/etc. MLA can go bugger off.
 To be clear: a lot of excellent analysis takes place in that essay, but the ultimate purpose is unfortunate. I highly respect that work, and I do not find anything wrong with it; I am just taking a different approach to the series – or, better, not so much a different approach as a desire to answer a different question.
 He has a dream about his penis being carried off by a bird, and in therapy this is connected to the ducks flying off. The script gives us Tony’s anxiety about the ducks leaving as representative of the age of his children, Meadow heading off to college, stuff like that – fear of losing his family; however, we can also see it as fear of losing his family. He came in at the end and is witnessing the decline of the American mafia, and connected to this is a sense of lost masculinity. For guys like Tony who grew up with mobsters, being a man simply is to be a tough guy (hence ‘what happened to Gary Cooper’ being a repeated conversation point, and Tony’s hatred of his son) – the collapse of that framework is also the collapse of the strong, tough-guy male. Similarly, he will in a sense lose a patriarchal role as his children grow and move out.
 The scene with her reading the paper about sociopaths was not intended to say that Tony was a sociopath – the show would be ruined if the main character was not a normal human being forced to do soul-eating things. It’s nothing more than that push over the hump that allowed her to accept that Tony would never make progress as a client, that his journey of personal growth was finished, now and forever.
 I intentionally overuse the word ‘spiritual’ throughout this essay because of its ambiguity; we all have a sufficient sense of what ‘spiritual’ means, but it has a vagueness which protects my analysis from getting too concrete. That sentence sounds like the most pretentious shit imaginable, but I’d rather have the line of thinking on record than field complaints about a refusal to nail down a definition, let alone a consistent one.
 Tony departures magazine steak recipe – he wants to know how to make a steak, “should have asked [melfi] for the recipe.”
 Yea I fucked up the note #s and I am so not fixing them all right now. This is also 5. Lorraine Bracco received an award from the American Psychoanalytic Association in 2001 for her portrayal of Dr. Melfi. This demonstrates two things to us: the show is being written by people who are both knowledgeable about psychoanalysis and that there is great fruit in viewing Tony’s therapy from a psychoanalytic perspective. Both of these combine into a third thing, that we can expect the show to be very amenable to a psychoanalytic reading of events, dreams, and symbols.
 A curiosity here – for half a second I wrote “Jennifer Melfi” instead of “Dr. Melfi.” Does this reflect a sexism? Or substantiate reports that viewers actually experienced transference through the therapy sessions?
 Probably one of the worst jokes I will ever make. For those of you not #woke, here is the Fountains of Wayne song about how hot Stacy’s mom is.
 Tony talks about his difficulties with his mother with AJs therapist in Made in America. About how she was a very difficult woman and there was not much love in the house.
 I am so not qualified to reference this type of thing. Luckily this is a blog.
 In fact, what is going on here is Tony taking his hatred for Livia, and displacing it onto himself.
 Gabbard, Glen. The Psychology of the Sopranos pp 36-37.
 McWilliams, Nancy. Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. p 40.
 McWilliams, Nancy. Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. p 116.
 This is why blind experiments on dream interpretation accuracy, where the psychoanalyist is supposed to make predictions about a dreamer with nothing more than the dream content, is a fatally flawed endeavour.
 It was pretty amusing reading Freud and coming across digs at his critics for not understanding basic concepts. Reminded me so much of Kant’s continuous bitching throughout his Prolegomena; it’s so appropriate considering Kant’s … “issues” … with sex. I am of course taking Freud at his word here.
 Freud, Sigmund. Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest. (1913)
 Freud, Sigmund. A Short Account of Psycho-Analysis. (1924)
 Telling of his dream encounter with Carmine: “He was staring straight at me. He didn’t look dead. I mean, deader than he ever did anyways.” Note that the camera perspective makes it seem as if Tony is saying this almost to us. This is relevant for understanding Tony’s state of being throughout the final episode – death-in-life.
 Wordsworth, William. The World is Too Much With Us.
 Not sure on a better way to put it; he’s framed as if he is a corpse at a viewing.
 I cannot help myself. Have to mention that the rocket scientist’s metaphysics is pretty embarrassing – the whole concept of our separateness from each other being an illusion because of quantum field theory is either one of two things: completely reductive and false or the statement of physicalism that we are all ultimately made of the same stuff; that latter case is a trivial truth masquerading as a deep insight (assuming the truth of physicalism – or more generally any monism – for argument’s sake). Regardless, it is thematically relevant and, really, the ramblings of old Back To The Future looking scientists should probably be read metaphorically by default.
 Tony both sees his father as Kennedy and himself as Kennedy; it’s a weird mix. At the end of In Camelot, Tony is clearly casting himself in Kennedy’s role, Carmela in Jackie’s, when he says that (pure bullshit as much as he knows, mind you) Jackie thought the marriage was over. In The Test Dream and Join the Club, he is again the assassinated Kennedy, being shot at by his father figures. Yet, at the same time, Johnny is very much given that role — classic Sopranos, vague and interchangeable.
 This is an argument for psychoanalysis being a bourgeoise activity, as the family unit, the isolated child-mother-father, is contingent on a specific social organization; capitalism naturally divides labor and society into smaller pieces, and this sort of family unit seems inconsistent with many previous cultures and eras. Yet, the ruling ideas always being those of the ruling class, this organization is perceived as eternal and natural, and Tony would definitely see it to be a transcendent mythology. Freud would point to the unique ‘staying power,’ so to speak, of Oedipus Rex as evidence for it being a transcendent mythology; indeed, it was that insight which motivated his theory.
 [X] Brief scene of Butch walking in Little Italy, on the phone with Phil. We see a tour bus pass by and get to overhear the guide saying that “[Little Italy] once covered over 40 square blocks, but has now been reduced to one row of shops and cafes.” Significance is self-explanatory — funny that, during the 45 second conversation, Butch managed to walk himself into Chinatown.
 Script taken from here, since the clip is not on YouTube and my new computer has no drives with which to play my DVDs. Based on memory it’s accurate.
 In this interview Chase comments that “the way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted ‘justice.’ They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly.”
 Baudrillard, Jacques. Simulacra and Simulation, p 55. Treat this as inspiration from, not a reading of the scene through Baudrillard.
 Everyone is fundamentally aware of the unsustainability of our current trajectory; there is no difference between the climate deniers and the environmentalists here. In fact, the climate deniers are to some degree in a more truthful position – the environmentalists are still engaging in a ritual of prevention, as if it’s not already over. No secret to them that carbon taxes and green energy investment cannot alter our path — this is just the public theatre of denialism; they neuter the truth of climate change rather than denying it, but both merely aim to protect the status quo and deflect an emotional trauma of powerlessness. Inaction in the form of action.
 Interesting to note in this scene that Paulie says he has no arc; while Tony has descended into the depths of hell completely, Paulie has managed to stay a human being throughout his life.
 Kudos to the various people who tied in the rocket scientist’s (philosophically embarrassing) metaphysics to think of Schrödinger’s cat. I first saw it in one of the comments on the MoS blog, but there is also this essay on duality in The Sopranos.
 With the understanding that the cat is tied to spiritual death, and remembering above how Tony’s killing Christopher was not just the fulfillment of his arc but the moment of his death; the rest of Kennedy and Heidi is a spiritual journey of Tony realizing this for himself, and accepting it. It seems quite natural for the cat to be deeply interested in a photo that represents such enormous sin and baggage.
 Remember the incident in Kennedy and Heidi where Tony sees the image of the cartoon devil, becomes unsettled, and quickly moves to a different area. While the entire peyote journey culminates in Tony’s realization and acceptance of being the creature that he is, it’s rare that we get such explicit imagery.
 Camatte, Jacques. Against Domestication.
 I’m like 95% sure that Master of Sopranos did the work on this one, so I’ll give credit there, but the final episode is constantly shooting scenes as if Tony is watching himself; ie, look how this final scene with Junior starts. It’s a sort of haunting, where Tony is dead but the body remains – death with all the substance and power of life.
 Greenberg, James. This Magic Moment.
 Peruse the Psychic Library and educate yourself about Earthbound Spirits here. I hate myself for giving these whackos traffic, but more power to them. I’m sure Quasimodo predicted all of this.
 The difference between the relative well-being of Tony’s children versus Johnny’s children is not that the son was a better parent — the real factor of difference is Livia and Carmela. Mobster fathers are almost universally absentee, shit parents, and this places a heavy burden on the wives; Tony makes fun of Bobby, unique for his homelife behavior, for helping Janice load strollers into the car, saying that he “didn’t do that shit.”