Sopranos: Violence Guilt Trip?

I’ve watched The Sopranos ever since it first started, and it remains one of the two episodic shows that I refuse to miss each week (South Park is the other, when they show new episodes). While it does feature violence, sex, and very raw language, it also has had compelling characters, intelligent writing, and intriguing themes and story arcs that keep me watching to see what happens next. One person described it as a soap opera for men, and there is some truth to that, but the First Mate follows the show as closely as I do.
One sequence this season was unexpectedly disturbing, and I suspect it was for David Chase and the Sopranos team as well. The episode which aired the Sunday after the Virginia Tech massacre had a story line involving a disturbed young man of what appeared to be Korean or Chinese descent, who violently attacks Uncle Junior at the end of the hour. That created a lot of buzz on the Internet for the coinicidence — the show was taped months before it aired — and got Ron Rosenbaum of Slate to consider the connection between artistic violence and the real deal:

And in my simulated Abu Ghraib cell, I began to elaborate on another theory about what was going on: I began to wonder whether The Sopranos as a series was acknowledging that its casual treatment of violence could be a source of the casual violence that seems to be an increasing part of American culture.
True, Sopranos violence is not glamorized, a la The Godfather, or ironized and aestheticized a la Quentin Tarantino. It’s more that it’s trivialized, made quotidian and all the more accessible somehow to those like Carter Chong who see mobsters as celebrities. Not for nothing is Uncle Junior seen in the mental institution signing photos of himself for one of the orderlies to sell on eBay! Nice touch. It captures the show’s complicity in commodifying violence. …
What that outburst suggests to me is that The Sopranos’ creators are acknowledging that making violent goons whose whole lives are essentially one long killing spree—they don’t kill 32 at a time, but they’ve probably killed a comparable number in their lifetime—seem so sympathetic, even in some ways admirable (“family” values, etc.), might have real-world consequences. As Chong’s mother puts it, “You’re becoming a bully,” and it’s because of “that gangster.”
Almost as if in their final season they’re engaging in what I would call laudable introspection, though some might see it as admitting to feeling guilt.

The simulated Abu Ghraib cell is being used in an Errol Phillips documentary on the detention scandal — along with fake mortar shells and a few other stage items Rosenbaum describes. I’m not sure why a documentary requires replicas; is Phillips making a drama or a documentary? That seems like a good question for a media critic.
Rosenbaum uses Abu Ghraib to make the argument that publishing the pictures of the abuse and humiliation may have desensitized Americans to the use of torture, and that The Sopranos desensitizes us to violence and gangsterism. That’s why he thinks that Chase is using the last nine episodes as an apology. Jerry Seinfeld did something similar in his last episode; he made clear that the main characters were actually jerks, and rather unsympathetic ones at that. It was brilliant and courageous, and the backlash against it proved how many people Seinfeld made uncomfortable with that revelation.
So has Chase decided to do the same with Tony, Paulie, Silvio, and the gang? Absolutely not — because he’s been making Rosenbaum’s point for the entire series. The whole balance between Tony’s two families has to do with keeping violence of his one world from affecting the other — and failing miserably to do so. Tony has to whack his daughter’s boyfriend (and his dead friend’s son) when he gets out of control. Close friends keep disappearing “into the Witness Protection Program”, and everyone knows not to ask too many questions. Early on, AJ looks up a Mafia fanboy site on the Internet and discovers his whole family tree; in another episode, he has a set of trading cards that feature murderers.
Chase has overtly and subtly addressed the themes of glorified violence and criminals. The quotidian aspect of it on The Sopranos is how utterly unglamorous the lifestyle and violence is. It degrades everyone around it. Carmela knows exactly what Tony is, and she still can’t bring herself to admit her own complicity — nor to ask enough questions to see what happened to former insiders like Adriana. No one escapes its influence, not even the kids, which is why we see Little Vito this season go Goth and grow more disturbed.
Quentin Tarantino glorifies violence — in fact, he fetishizes it, and yet Rosenbaum seems to let him off the hook because Tarantino makes it “ironic”. Chase makes it realistic and shows it to be degrading and corrosive. Which one has more need of the guilt trip?

7 thoughts on “Sopranos: Violence Guilt Trip?”

  1. To criticize “violence” per se is meaningless. Violence is nothing more, and nothing less, than a manisfestation of extreme human conflict. And human conflict is inherently neither moral nor immoral. We must judge it in context.
    William Shakespeare used violence effectively to make much larger moral points. “Macbeth” anyone? “The Sopranos” does the same.

  2. Arabs see much more violence, and real life violence at that, with the continual looping of beheadings, car bomb blasts, and various massacres shown on Al-Jazeera. If an Arab audience is shown one dead Palestinian child over and over and over again, doesn’t that single child assume more importance than 100 dead Jews in a pizza parlor who are just mentioned in passing and never shown?
    I quit watching The Soprano’s after their first year because I did not want to look at that sort of blood-shed. I can acknowledge it, that it exists, but I don’t want to look at it.
    But I wonder at the difference between the two civilizations when what is shown to Americans is make-believe violence (which I won’t watch) , and what is pumped into an Arab’s consciousness is Real Life, overtly spurting, and constant. Which civilization is more human as a result … which civilization is more likely to win?

  3. I wish I could read beyond the first paragraph — won’t do it since I haven’t seen the latest few episodes (temporary cash flow thing, no HBO).
    My take on a show like Sopranos is that it allows the audience to consider some what-ifs. What if I didn’t have to follow the rules? What if I could take what I want, who I want? It satisfies a curiosity which is maybe stronger with males than females. But in the end I think we want some reassurance that an ethical life is worth leading. That selfish behavior doesn’t pay. And that’s why there will have to be comeuppance for Tony this final season. I expected a violent climax this season.
    … wish I knew what was going on. The Sopranos is obviously an adult-oriented show — I’m more concerned about the 8 yr. old with the Southpark shirt emulating Cartman because the adult(s) in his life has no clue as to what that show’s about.

  4. ;-/ “I expected a violent climax this season.”
    One of the many reasons I’m not a writer. “… violent, climactic end to the series” might have been a little better.

  5. The simulated Abu Ghraib cell is being used in an Errol Phillips documentary on the detention scandal — along with fake mortar shells and a few other stage items Rosenbaum describes. I’m not sure why a documentary requires replicas; is Phillips making a drama or a documentary? That seems like a good question for a media critic.
    One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen is The Thin Blue Line by another Errol… Errol Morris. That uses extensive recreations to help guide the story. It’s a technique many documentaries use to good effect.
    As far as the Sopranos goes, this season especially has Chase doing his best to not paint these guys in a good light. Which is tricky since you need to keep them somewhat relatable so the audience can identify on some level with them.
    It will be interesting to see what Chase chooses as the last impression of Tony Soprano.

  6. “… violent, climactic end to the series”
    If I were a betting man, I’d guess more a Godfather II ending.

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