Church, Family, and Honor in The Sopranos
August 27, 2010
I’ve spent the last few months watching (and finally finishing) The Sopranos, the end of which I had missed off at college and the first few seasons I was too young to really appreciate (except my vivid, scene-by-scene memory of the pilot). It really is brilliantly done, and from time to time I’m going to be throwing out my thoughts on it’s vision of contemporary America. There are some mild spoilers in this post (and probably will be in all my Sopranos posts — if it’s anything major, I’ll note it in the text). You’ve been warned.
Part of the show’s genius is the way it positions itself to offer commentary/criticism regarding late 20th/early 21st century American life. It isn’t simply that it took a new angle on the mob flick by showing the bourgeois ordinariness of large chunks of their life (barbeques, college trips, Paulie’s plastic-coated furniture, Sil carefully re-assembling antique lamps in his office at the Bing), but that it juxtaposes that ordinariness and what — to Tony and A.J. especially — seems like its core emptiness, with a more archaic honor-bound system. So it’s not really a critique of contemporary American lifestyle; it’s a critique of contemporary Americans trying and failing to incorporate older ideals into their lives. For the men, it’s the mafia; for the women, the Catholic Church.
As Christopher says when discussing the 12-Steps: he always had trouble with the idea of the Higher Power, so he decided to make the oath he took when he was made that power. And, he implies, its the corruption of that oath by others — who may or may not realize it — that drives him to use again. AJ, spiraling into a depressed angst quite similar to his father’s, attempts to seek refuge first in criminal life (the attempt on Junior’s life — for honor‘s sake; his brief friendship with the Two Jasons, essentially college-age gangsters) and later in a briefly-considered idea of joining the Army.
On the other hand, the wives are all strikingly religious (if not strikingly orthodox in their practice): Carmella is concerned from the beginning with Hell and salvation; Paulie’s mother wants him to be more penitent; her sister was a nun; Ginny Sacrimone is involved with Opus Dei; the only characterization given to Phil Leotardo’s wife is that her religion is perhaps genuinely (and deeply) conservative; the wives — even the less religious — are regularly shown interacting as members of a pastoral family/community (as the men are part of their own “Family”). Tony’s sister’s New Age spiritual-not-religious thought is treated quite harshly by the show. On the other hand, priests and psychiatrists seem equally incompetent.
The important thing is, however, that these honor systems can’t effectively survive in contemporary society. Tony talks about the old days: Strong silent types who didn’t turn informant; today, he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see who might flip. The old system fails to check rage: Tony’s, Tony B’s, Phil’s, etc. The women tend to go through the motions of Catholic practice more than live a Christian life, despite trying sincerely from time to time. Carmella and Tony separate, and she’s willing to sleep with another man; Paulie’s family is not as perfect as he thinks, or they pretend to be — as they want to be seen. And all of these women are raising families with men they know to be murderers. No one, faced with a hollow contemporary world, is able to successfully integrate a system capable of imparting meaning into their lives. The mafia and the Church become just as empty as bourgeois ordinariness.
There are, however, two characters who straddle the worlds of mob and religion: Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti. I need to give them some more thought before really fleshing this line out, but in brief: Paulie was an altar boy; he serves as secretary of a church foundation; he’s superstitious; he believes in the sanctity of nuns and priests; he’s affected by calls to make confession; he has a vision of the Virgin Mary. And until he has the vision, he doesn’t see any conflict between the two systems. (It may also be relevant that Paulie is, frankly, the most effeminate male character on the show: unmarried, obsessed with his hair, white shoes, and physical appearance, clearly and openly a “mama’s boy,” his home resembles a spinster’s apartment more than a mobster’s residence — there’s plastic on all the furniture!)
Christopher is shot and goes into a coma in the first season. When he awakens, he tells Tony that he had a vision of his father and several other mobsters in Hell, and was made aware that this was where he would be when he died. A man he had murdered gives him the message, also to be given to Tony and Paulie: Beware of 3 o’clock. (Paulie is terrified — perhaps the 3 is the Trinity; perhaps I’m overreading; Tony couldn’t care less.) Christopher has no other religious expressions in the show — except his remark, made several times, that “Tony Soprano is the man I’m going to Hell for.” Unlike Paulie, he’s not religious, though he seems (despite his statement about the Higher Power) to believe in God, Heaven, and Hell — but unlike the religious Paulie, he knows the system he has chosen is wrong, that it can’t impart meaning because it is sinful: and he can’t bring himself to do anything about it.