In understanding Tony Soprano, it’s important to first recognize his creator. No, I’m not talking about Johnny Boy Soprano. That Tony’s father was a boss within the world of La Cosa Nostra is almost incidental. That aspect of his upbringing served as a template for his career path, but sons following fathers into the family business was a common enough trend at that time, it barely requires mentioning. How honestly he comes by his approach to how he uses, drains, and manipulates those around him is what separates Tony from other characters in television history. It’s in fact Tony’s mother, Olivia Soprano, who is most responsible for guiding Tony down the morally devoid path, upon which he finds himself.
If we’re to understand the man, we must understand the nature of his world.
Sanctity of marriage is a huge debate in the United States… for someone I’m sure. The Sopranos recognizes no such sanctity. Rather than humoring an arbitrary debate, David Chase immediately discards notions of marriage as a sacred institution. Instead, writers of The Sopranos move with expedience into expressing an astute, yet largely cynical, depiction of monogamy. Anyone who has ever been in a marriage or serious long-term relationship will attest to the fact that it’s difficult to openly go against the expressed wishes of your partner. It doesn’t mean anyone has to be a pushover, but when your partner has a conviction, you cannot ignore it and maintain any sense of safety in that relationship. There’s a flaccid verbal defiance sometimes, but if you want your relationship to work, you’re going to have to talk it out and come to a compromise. Maybe not the first time, but if you make it a habit of moving in stark contrast of your significant other, you’ll find yourself alone, quickly. Johnny Boy Soprano experienced this aspect of monogamy in spades. No one would accuse Johnny Boy of being a saint, he was a textbook narcissistic mafia guy, just like all the others, but one thing is certain, he wanted out. He also found a potential way. In hopes of managing a restaurant in Nevada for a friend. Johnny Boy planned to move his family, across the country so he could get in on the “ground floor” of a solid investment opportunity. Olivia Soprano, his wife, was having none of it.
As previously stated in part one of my ongoing series of Sopranos articles, relationships are complex. Livia wasn’t wrong for having doubts about a new business venture. Anyone would have reservations about as much. Had Johnny Boy been something like a bank manager, Livia’s aversion to change would have been justified, if not annoyingly cautious in the eyes of an ambitious man. That’s where a discussion and perhaps a compromise occurs. Possibly someone even decides to make a total sacrifice. Marriages and relationships are teams. You work together for the best of the team, not the individual. Losing a secure job as a bank manager and risking it on a restaurant is a huge risk which could affect your partner. Everyone must be taken into account.
But Johnny Boy Soprano wasn’t a bank manager, he was beating up shop-owners and cutting off pinky fingers to collect on loan money. He was running illegal scams, screwing honest people out of their earnings, and risking prison time for himself. And lest we forget, occasionally he had to murder people. That Soprano Sr. saw his lifestyle as a means to an end, rather than his preferred line of work, spoke of his intrinsic nature. He dealt with immense stress, and probably like his son would experience later, loads of guilt. When he presented Livia with the prospect of leaving this thing of ours in pursuit of earning a legitimate living, it should have been met with relief, and seen as a solid move toward sustainability. The vast majority of gangsters are either killed or go to prison. A dead or imprisoned bread-winner is no good to his family. Also, let’s consider the fact that maybe she could have also had a moral objection to the violence, theft, and extortion Johnny Boy was involved with. If for no other reason, than for the sake of her children.
Marone, her own flesh and blood, raised in a life of crime, and gradually entering into it themselves. Rather than jump at the opportunity to relieve herself of this ghoulish existence, she met it with staunch hostility.
Johnny Boy was capable of murdering grown men with his bare hands, without pause, but he couldn’t stand his ground against Livia Soprano. It isn’t because he’s weak, it’s because Livia is far stronger than anyone within the series. Her skeletal grip, to some extent, remains clamped around the throat of every character on the show. As Johnny Boy stood before Livia feigning the confidence of a worthy opponent, threatening to take his children and go to Nevada without her, he buckled at her threats to smother the kids with a pillow, should he attempt such a move.
No one gets out.
Once a member, always a member. Livia’s involvement in the lives of her family is not a revolving door, it’s a locked cell. That Johnny Boy cheated on Livia and kept a mistress for decades, is more a testament to his need for meaningful human interaction and companionship, than a reflection of his lack of consideration, as he didn’t have a companion, he had a captor. This situation isn’t something a person can just leave. It is spoken aloud that Livia “wore [Johnny Boy] down to a little nub” by the time he died. Why? Because she was joyless and only drew satisfaction from draining the spirit of those closest to her. Livia fed on Johnny Boy’s humanity until there was nothing left.
This is the nature of family, as depicted on The Sopranos. In season four we’re exposed to the revelation that we are seeing shades of Johnny Boy Soprano juxtaposed across Carmella Soprano. At first we feel vindication in Carmella’s outburst and refusal to accept her situation any longer. She’s finally standing up for herself, for her children.
Carmella has been broken by her relationship, she’s being driven to the point of madness. It’s a powerful performance when she dramatically declares her marriage is over. Yes, there is hostility, but it’s from the withering heart of a broken person. Tony, having observed his parents’ relationship, determined long ago it was his his mother’s role in the marriage that provides the upper hand, and follows in suit. Finally, at the end of all that display of emotion, Carmella’s outburst is all for naught. Carmella was never going anywhere.
No one gets out.
My hypothesis is that Livia was incapable of love. If you look up analyses online, you’ll see many references to Livia being capable of love, albeit in her own strange way. That’s not a point of view I buy into.
It’s often pointed out that Livia was kind, and genuinely happy to see, Meadow and AJ, sporadically throughout the run of the show. That’s because Meadow and AJ were more than an arm’s length from Livia, emotionally speaking. While Livia’s sheer existence wasn’t feasibly capable of being hidden from Meadow and AJ, the gravity of her destructive nature was.
If Livia was to pull Meadow or AJ into her close circle, she’d have to make her personality seem enticing. So she treated her grandchildren with an air of kindness, gave them gifts, money, and even engaged in conversation occasionally that didn’t carry an unmistakable undertone of doom. As Lucia’s role in the lives of her grandchildren is limited, the only way she could hope to lure them in is of their own volition.
Meadow never really succumbs. She might be the only member of the household who recognizes the toxicity of her world and just wants to get as far away from all of it as she can. Smart girl.
AJ, on the other hand, is more sentimental. He catches a glimpse of Livia Soprano when visiting with her, if only for a moment. Olivia lets slip that “it’s all a big nothing.” AJ gains a modicum of perspective of where he comes from, where his father comes from, and what his own fate may well be. Over the span of the series AJ wrestles with the notion of futility, succumbing to a suicide attempt, which is of course thwarted by Tony.
No one gets out.
Olivia Soprano projects love and support onto people, going out of her way to make sacrifices so she can use that as leverage to make people feel indebted to her.
Livia doesn’t do favors, her allegiance is to herself, period. She needs constant attention and care, basking in how much time people dedicate to maintaining her upkeep. Demanding loyalty without question, but never once giving it to a single human being. When denied that loyalty, she tries to have people killed, even those closest to her. Her own son on two separate occasions.
She corrupts anyone dumb, desperate, or unfortunate enough to enter her world.
Olivia Soprano isn’t really a character, she’s more of a setting. When you see her, you’re seeing Tony’s reality personified, the embodiment of our thing. Long before the moment David Chase forced us to “stop believing,” Livia had already warned us that this world, this thing of ours, her essence… is a big nothing. Alluded to by Carmella at Livia’s wake as capable of wreaking chaos “from beyond the grave,” Livia’s shadow continues obscuring promises of light in the world she represents. Her promise of the void is masterfully fulfilled by La Cosa Nostra’s only son: Tony Soprano.