Diana Wichtel: genius remembered

By Diana Wichtel In Television

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James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano: he never stopped.

It seems like forever since The Sopranos ended not with a bada bang but with that smash cut to oblivion. Tony, Carmela and AJ gather at Holsten’s. Daughter Meadow is making a corned-beef hash of parking her ill-gotten Lexus. As she heads inside, we hear the diner’s doorbell and then… dead air. Possibly the bell chimes for Tony, taken out by Members-Only-jacket-guy, who went into the bathroom (see The Godfather) moments earlier. Tony might have noticed were he not preoccupied playing all-American families.

We’ll never know. After the finale, fans raged impotently or called their cable companies seeking an explanation, some closure. It worked for me. As Tony’s evil mother, Livia, famously declared, “It’s all a big nothing.” In that last episode, Paulie Walnuts intones, “In the midst of death we are in life – or is it the other way round?”

Perfect. I’ve never revisited the series for fear of finding it eroded by time and Breaking Bad. But needs must when it’s the only way, this side of Twitter, to mark the death of James Gandolfini, gone at 51. Sky’s tribute on SoHo revealed that you can pop in almost anywhere over six seasons and observe the alchemy that occurs when a brilliant actor finds his alter ego.

Some have cited stillness as one of Gandolfini’s gifts. True, he could express more with Tony on life-support than most actors could manage doing the mad scene from Lear. Mostly, like a shark, Tony never stopped. When he finds out his mother tried to get him whacked – it’s ­that sort of family – he storms matricidally off to see her in hospital. “I grabbed a pillow,” he later explains to his shrink, Melfi, “but it was just to keep my hands occupied.” Few actors have lent such animal eloquence to eating. Or just breathing.

The Sopranos maintains its iron grip on the zeitgeist. Moral ambiguity? Mayhem? Denial? Duplicity at all levels? Bingo. Still. This is the market economy taken to its logical, feudal, terrifying conclusion. There’s Tony’s evolutionary meditation on Italian immigrants who poured in to do the menial jobs. Some ended up wanting a piece of the action. “Those other f—s, they were crooks and killers too, but that was the business, right? The American way.”

The show is also absurdist comedy. What better expression of moral indigestion than Adriana’s irritable bowel or Tony’s vomiting, gaseous execution of his pal, Big Pussy?

For Waiting for Godot set in New Jersey, see the Pine Barrens episode, in which two alpha idiots, Christopher and Paulie, lose their way while making collections for an ailing Silvio: “F— you, Paulie! Captain or no captain, right now we’re just two assholes lost in the woods.”

As for language, while generally not for sensitive viewers, much of it is hilarious. There’s Paulie with his “irregardless”. Tony rather sweetly declares himself “a bit miffled”. From the first time he described his profession as “waste management”, meaning was up for grabs. “Revenge,” he once declared, “is like serving cold cuts.”

‘This thing of ours”: it always ends badly. Tony tried to change. “Every day is a gift,” he dutifully informed Melfi. “It’s just, does it have to be a pair of socks?” But it became increasingly clear we were watching six seasons of existential self-loathing. Suicide by instalments. “What f—ing kind of human being am I if my own mother wants me dead?”

That bell at Holsten’s. Possibly it tolled for the whole family, who, as time went on, knew precisely what Tony was and stayed out of greed, habit, love. It also tolled for us, as we grappled with our queasy sympathy for a charming, cold-eyed monster. Being a fan of The Sopranos, a commentator once said, amounts to Stockholm syndrome.

But then, great art makes you feel what you never imagined you could. Thanks for that, James Gandolfini, and rest in peace, wherever it is such genius resides.

THE SOPRANOS, SoHo, Sunday, 6.30pm.

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