Character Study: Tony Soprano

Much has been said about the character of Tony Soprano. I’ve explored some of it on this blog;

What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows:

EVIL PEOPLE DO EXIST

Out-and-out evil does exist in the world. There are people out there who’d like nothing better than to strangle a man with their bare hands.

To pretend otherwise–to symbolically annihilate evil people in fiction–borders on gaslighting. We need confirmation they exist, because now and again we encounter them in our real lives. Dotted throughout history, sometimes they even rule us.

Actually, I find ‘evil’ a word too freighted with religiosity, but I’ve yet to stumble upon a better descriptor for a character like Tony, without resorting to armchair psychoanalasis. (We might also call him a psychopath.)

WE DO CRAVE ANTI-REDEMPTION NARRATIVES

The redemption story has been popular for a long time, especially in America. But the success of The Sopranos showed there was always room in popular fiction for the anti-redemption arc, running alongside. The story of Tony Soprano is the ultimate anti-redemption narrative and, as such, shucks off a lot of the redemption story’s problems. At first Tony looks like this family guy who’s going to turn his life around by going to see a therapist, but eventually the audience learns — as does his fictional therapist — that for Tony, therapy exists only to allow him to continue in his evil ways.

[I]f you were accustomed to traditional TV narratives, there were signs that this might be a straightforward one about a man reforming himself through therapy and the love of his family. After all, the first episode began with what could have been a saint’s conversionary vision of the beauty and vulnerability of the world., contained in a flock of baby ducks. It was plausible, too, given the slightly exaggerated cinematography and design of the first few episodes, not to mention the repartee between Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, and the other gangsters, that the show would ultimately turn out to be a comedy more than anything else. Chase often said, quite seriously, that he was never 100 percent sure that wasn’t true.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

AUDIENCES DON’T NEED AN ‘OUT’

I’m using Brett Martin’s term. By ‘out’, he means ‘a legitimate reason for a character to behave badly’. It was always accepted wisdom that if you wanted your character to behave badly, you’d have to set up the backstory first. As Martin explains:

And then, in week five, Tony strangled a man to death. Right in front of us. In real time. While taking his daughter on a college tour. […] Within a few years of [this episode airing], the idea that a TV protagonist couldn’t kill somebody would seem as fusty and dated a convention as earlier generations not being able to share a bed or say the word ‘pregnant’. What remains shocking in “College” isn’t the death itself; it’s Tony’s unmitigated relish in doing the deed. There is no tortured internal debate–even after his snooping reveals that Petrulio, now masquerading as “Fred Peters,” has a new family and small daughter of his own–no qualms even about Meadow’s presence, other than the inconvenience it poses. Nor is there any suggestion that Tony stands to earn much in the way of credit or prestige by doing away with a rat; indeed, Christopher (whom we’ve already seen dismember a body for disposal in the back of Satriale’s) begs Tony to allow him to fly up and take care of the hit. It is simply a given in Tony’s world: a rat needs to be killed. At least in Chase’s original story, there are none of the “outs'” designed to allow viewers to rationalize and justify what they’re about to see–which is Tony grunting, spitting, exultant, crushing Petrulio’s windpipe with an improvised garrote of electrical wire, the wire cutting deep into his palms from the effort, Petrulio begging for his life between gasps. The scene lasts an unwavering minute and sixteen seconds.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

Martin goes on to describe how the showrunners did not like this storyline one little bit. Executive Chris Albrecht argued that the audience was going to hate Tony Soprano at episode five, after all the good work was done setting him up as a sympathetic bad guy.

David Chase won the argument, as we now know — and the scene is gruelling. But here’s the concession he made: The executives insisted he insert a scene in which the audience gets to see why Petrulio deserves to be killed.

Chase inserted a scene in which it is revealed that Petrulio not only is dealing drugs in town, but is seen trying to hire a couple of junkies to kill Tony and Meadow. Predictably, the scene feels false and conventionally “TV”. It was the last such concession that Chase would make.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

The Sopranos can legitimately be criticised as a violent show which almost encourages its audience to revel in gore. And for an unthinking audience, sure, that’s all it is.

But the example of Petrulio’s murder in season one, episode five demonstrates the complexity of such criticism. In contrast, isn’t it a cheaper trick, and completely disingenuous, for to writer to backstories designed solely to persuade the audience that certain characters are legitimately murdered?

Is there any such thing as legitimate murder? Do writers really want audiences to empathise with gangsters? If so, at what point does the story subvert these allegiances? Ever?

WISH FULFILMENT CAN HAVE AN UNCOMFORTABLE FLIP SIDE

If there are differences between stories for adults and stories for children, it runs along the lines of wish fulfilment. Wish fulfilment in stories for children is wholesome. It looks like this.

But adults are attracted to fantasies which confirm the duality in all of us. By adulthood, we’ve come head-to-head with our baser instincts.

Wish fulfilment has always been at the queasy heart of of the mobster genre, the longing for a life outside the bounds of convention, mingled with the conflicted desire to see the perpetrator punished for the same transgression. So it was for the fictional men of the straight world on The Sopranos, who were drawn to Tony’s flame with consistently disastrous results. […] Likewise for viewers, for whom a life of taking, killing, and sleeping with whomever and whatever one wants had an undesirable, if conflict-laden appeal.

— Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin

When creating our own stories, it’s worth asking the question early on: What particular wish-fulfilment does my story scratch in the audience?