JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Everything just goes black: time, melodrama, and narrative incompleteness in The Sopranos

by Daniel Fraser

The crash of TV static followed by a choral chant over the HBO logo.

A quick cut to the passing tiles of a road tunnel as the bass and murmured voices of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” kick in. The car-mounted camera drives us forcefully out into the daylight of the turnpike just as the first lyrics are sung: “woke up this morning, got yourself a gun.”

The Sopranos first aired on January 10, 1999, and ran for a total of 86 episodes, ending on June 10, 2007. From the first episode (Pilot) to the last (Made in America),[1] [open notes in new window] the series was both a critical and commercial triumph during the time of broadcast; it has remained one of the defining examples of U.S. television drama.[2] Itis one of the most successful HBO series of all time, winning a number of TV awards and breaking and numerous records for viewing figures during its eight-year run.[3] The Sopranos centered in a self-described “golden age” of U.S. television, an age in part inaugurated by the conditions of production offered by pay-cable services like HBO and Showtime, and an age that transformed the cultural awareness of television as an artistic medium in the English-speaking world.[4] Among other things, this artistic ascendency caused, in 2014, the self-consciously “TV-phobic” journal Cinéaste to present a critical symposium on the television of the new millennium.[5] With shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, the combination of home medium with “a reigning, uncompromising, and, above all, disquieting vision,” the symposium suggested, signified a definitive development in moving-image culture.[6]

Despite this contemporaneous recognition and analysis, and despite the intervening decades of television, something about The Sopranos’vision remains disquieting. The desire to return to the Soprano household almost two decades its door was slammed shut stems from what private investigator Arbogast would call “not feeling entirely satisfied” (Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). How this dissatisfaction is manifested, and how it becomes central to the narrative coding of the show’s structure as a whole, will be one of my central concerns. For now, to get back there, all that’s needed is to follow Tony on his drive home…

As “Woke Up This Morning” plays on, the opening sequence of The Sopranos depicts James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano driving through the industrial and suburban landscape of New Jersey. The landscape, with its gas silos and shop fronts, traffic signs and flat, grey expanses of water is both pulsing and fragmentary. The industrial buildings, traffic, wires and pylons, soon give way to stores, graveyards and houses, all intercut with partial glimpses of Tony, his hands, parts of his face, shot with unstable camerawork mixed up with zooms and pans from inside the closed space of the car. The chopped up cuts and swirling sense of movement thrum with the urgency of modernity.

The New York skyline shown during the credits sequence. It’s a pulsating frag-mentary landscape moving from tower blocks to the gas silos and shop fronts of New Jersey, its traffic signs and flat, grey expanses of water.

Tony lightis a cigar inside his car. The chopped up cuts and swirling sense of movement thrum with the urgency of modernity.

The urban urgency and disorientation is stabilized by the partial figure of Tony who seems at home in the swirling complexity, calmly driving, lighting a cigar. The credits sequence enacts a reverse commute, with the daytime drive not into the city and the office but away from it, back to suburbia after (perhaps) some nocturnal pursuit. The gangster is the sine qua non figure of urban personification (the “Urban Wolf”)[7] and so the move from the city to suburbia exemplifies the shift between two poles, from family to family. This movement away from New York to New Jersey also demonstrates the topologically peripheral character of Tony’s sphere of influence, displaced from the centre of mafia power that is NYC. However at home Tony is in this urban sprawl, he going in the opposite direction: towards Jersey and towards domestic life. From the very outset, a tension is created between excessive energy and domesticity. All the kinetic movement Tony embodies is quite literally driven into the suburban home. This thrumming introduction is repeated at the opening of each episode, and it is a ride that always returns to the same place: the front driveway of the Soprano household, where Tony and the viewer are ready to set out once more into its disconcerting world.

Following this turbulent beginning, the pilot introduces the viewer to its Italian-American protagonist Tony Soprano in a surprising context, the waiting room of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), where Tony has come after collapsing following a panic attack. During the course of his consultation, Tony speaks briefly about his father before entering into a somewhat surreal narration involving some wild ducks that have been nesting beside his swimming pool. The play of weakness and strength, of mental illness and family, and of the surrealistic and symbolic world of the modern mafia that course throughout the show—these are all here present in embryonic form.

Almost eight-and-a-half years later, the closing of the series sees Tony Soprano waiting in a restaurant for his family to arrive, listening to Journey’s “Don't Stop Believin” on the jukebox, when a mysterious man enters and walks into the bathroom. The scene, among other things, pays homage to one of the most famous moments in The Godfather where Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone performs a double execution in a restaurant, an act that forces him into hiding in Sicily.

A restaurant double murder: Here,Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Such a scene that replays itself several times in The Sopranos including the finale. Tony, Carmela and AJ in the finale, waiting for Meadow to arrive, listening to Journey’s “Don't Stop Believin” on the jukebox, when a mysterious man enters and walks into the bathroom.

Tony’s immediate family, his son AJ (Robert Iler), his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), and finally his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) arrive and the scene intensifies before a sudden interruptive cut to black which sends them all into darkness forever.

No show

The infamous series-ending cut to black has been an object of fascination and debate among both audience and critics alike.[8] Many viewers have interpreted this cut as indicative of Tony’s death, often by identifying certain codes and portents in the series which gesture in this direction.[9] This kind of interpretation may have come from the show’s undeniable penchant for symbolism and codification: its repeated use of dream sequences and their analysis alongside (as we shall see) murmurs of the supernatural and foreshadowing.

The show’s undeniable penchant for symbolism and codification: a dream sequence which sees Tony dousing himself in gasoline.

Annalisa replacing Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi in a dream sequence. The Sopranos' repeated use of dream sequences and their analysis colliding as the dream becomes analysis.

Closure is also, on the psychic level, something the audience desires, the catharsis of bad deeds punished within the frame of some moral order. At the meta-textual level, this problem of wanting narrative closure may impel such audience response to the final sequence and the consequent recalcitrant comments to their "bloodlust" made by showrunner David Chase. At the time of broadcast and the furor around the ending, the audience displayed an overwhelming desire for “justice” in the form of Tony’s demise, a desire Chase reacted against in no uncertain terms. The man the audience had “cheered on” as they “gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat” for the best part of a decade was now someone they wanted dead: “They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly.”[10] Far from settling matters, however, Chase’s own apparently conflicting comments about the ending exacerbated the issue.[11]

Whatever the source, appeals to fixity and fatalism seem to go against the very core of the show. At the base level, closure is a perception of structure;[12] resolution facilitates affixing meaning. The now infamous “cut to black” which ends the series is a stringent denial of such resolution. As the lyrics to the Journey song playing in the final scene tell us: Oh, the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on.

The relation between this lack of closure and the narrative structures of The Sopranos as a whole remains largely unexplored, particularly in view of the final season when the show hurtles like a blue comet towards its end. What The Sopranos does, perhaps more successfully than any major drama of the last thirty years, is present a picture of the American psyche at the turn of the millennium that is tied directly, and internally, to the problem of narrative. Putting the American psyche into analysis is hardly a new concept in film and media. It is a staple, in particular, of the melodramatic form. Indeed, Hollywood melodrama itself displayed a repetition-compulsion for  expounding the theories of Sigmund Freud on screen especially in its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. (See Undercurrent, Whirlpool, Secret Beyond the Door, Shockproof, The Cobweb, etc.)

Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum in Undercurrent. Part of Hollywood melodrama’s repetition-compulsion for expounding the theories of Sigmund Freud on screen.

The trouble began…from the opening of Minnelli’s The Cobweb. More Freudian exegesis from the heyday of melodrama.

And more…Joan Bennett in Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door

And more…From the opening credits of Whirlpool. Putting the national psyche into analysis is a staple of the melodramatic form.

Unsurprisingly, given the reception history of male-coded genres like the gangster film, where “melodrama” does appear in the critical literature on The Sopranos, it is almost uniformly pejorative and/or comes in the guise of a negative definition.[13] There are some efforts to classify the series as a combination of post-Godfather mafia decline and domestic melodrama, or within the paradigm of the nineteenth century novel, but these remain limited.[14]

Carmela and Tony in a domestic scene. In the critical literature on The Sopranos, where melodrama appears it is almost uniformly pejorative and/or comes in the guise of a negative definition.

Tony and his mother Livia. Efforts to classify the series as a combination of post-Godfather mafia decline and domestic melodrama, or within the paradigm of the nineteenth century novel, remain limited.

Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows. Genre, in particular melodrama, provides a useful framework for analysis as genre is “first and foremost a boundary phenomenon,” one that provides a conceptual space for exploring the interactions between works of film/TV and their social context.

Melodrama: the U.S. mode of narrative par excellence. Robert Stack and Lauren Bacall in Written on the Wind.

Against this however, by using the important work on melodrama done by Thomas Elsaesser, Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams,[15] one can begin to understand how The Sopranos stands at the pinnacle of that “golden age” of television produced in the 1990s and early 2000s. Utilizing genre, in this case melodrama, as a framework is useful in that genre is “first and foremost a boundary phenomenon,” one that provides a conceptual space for exploring the interactions between works of film/TV and their social context.[16] In fact, a sense of contestation is what is most productive about genre analysis: in the erecting and eroding and motion of boundaries, its analysis “tells us not just about kinds of films, but about the cultural work of producing and knowing them.”[17] Melodrama, specifically, offers a pertinent space for this work as the U.S. mode of narrative par excellence.[18]

Melodrama “defines a broad category of moving pictures that move us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims,” a form that: “seeks dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths through a dialectic of pathos and action.”[19] Understood within the framework of (a male-coded) melodrama, the modern mob drama, at least since 1970 with the release of The Godfather, operates as a way capable of sharpening or putting excessive tension on this set of relations. Through the figure of the mob boss a dialectic of pathos and action is intensified and directly presented as a struggle.

In these “Felladramas,” the excessive kinetics of the early gangster film, a genre reaching its apex in the 1930s with films like Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar, is re-presented in and through the domestic melodrama, with its constrained social pressures and claustrophobia. The mafia film has the potential to expose certain contradictions of the melodramatic form and its relation to self-understanding, because it performs the dialectic of pathos and action embodied in the struggle between family and family respectively.

To take two famous big screen examples, Goodfellas retains a hyperkinetic, garrulous sensibility amplified by voice-over and the fluidity of tracking shots. This sensibility, though re-presented in a contemporary vernacular, actually, in mafia terms, renders the film more “classical” in tone, closer it its 1930s counterparts. Its infamous opening line sets us up for retrospection. Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. The Godfather conversely, is a film of measured pauses, words given their full heft, often amplified with classical music. The mafia world and the domestic world are indissolubly connected, not least because so many of the principal characters belong to the Corleone family. Perhaps the apex of this entanglement of the two worlds is the christening montage at the end of the first Godfather film, where Michael’s oath in the church vowing to be a responsible godfather to his sister’s child is intercut with a series of murders making him Godfather. What is presented is not merely a shocking juxtaposition between family and family, but their ritualistic and cinematic union.

Michael Corleone renouncing Satan as he becomes godfather. What is presented is not merely a shocking juxtaposition between family and family, but their ritualistic and cinematic union. Moe Greene murdered during the massacre which makes Michael Corleone Godfather—part of the christening montage whose clear distinctions have, by the time of The Sopranos, been constitutively eroded

"There's differences, Christopher, ok? Between the Luca Brasi situation and this." Christopher misquotes The Godfather after killing a rival in the garbage business

A crow haunts Christopher’s initiation ceremony: symbolism and portent are at the core of mafia narrative.

Times have changed. Socio-historical conditions have eroded certain forms of community to the extent that such a Godfather-esque juxtaposition is no longer possible, such clear distinctions have been constitutively eroded. As a result The Sopranos, as I hope to demonstrate, offers something different. And this difference stems from the ways in which the series makes the problem of narrative part of its own internal struggles: with mental illness and death, with the coded world of the mafia and its symbols, with its intertextual struggle with The Godfather, with the episodic nature of the televisual medium, and with the possibility of closure as such.

Rather than simply avoiding mechanisms of closure or diffusing them through cycles of regeneration, the final season of The Sopranos takes the lack of closure as its primary structuring narrative mode, internalizing it through a series of deliberate failures to end. In this way, The Sopranos presents not some kind of re-figured classicism: there are no tragic heroes or mythic returns.[20] Neither can it be reduced to some form of vulgar postmodern recycling. This space of failure and incompleteness, where the impossibility of ending has become part of the show’s self-reflexive structure, propels The Sopranos to the event horizon of a certain form of narrative television. It is, in a sense, the last mob drama.[21]

Warning signs

Symbolism offers an easy path to examine some of these ideas, and The Sopranos is not one to shy away from signs and symbols. Into the fabric of the show are deeply woven portents and projections, intertextual references and knowing gestures, particularly to other fictional mafia texts. Indeed, the continual foregrounding and “super-saturation” of intertextual,[22] cultural and literary references invites the activity of de-coding and interpretation. This mass incorporation offers a kind of postmodern jouissance.

Emblematic of this is "Proust's gabagool", the motif in the third season where Tony and Melfi discuss the relationship of meat to Tony's panic attacks (Fortunate Son), which harks back to Tony seeing his father chop off a butcher's little finger when he was a child. Melfi links the meat to the madeleine, as a motif on the link between violence, food, sexual awakening and mafia initiation. These compound meanings are there, but are clothed in the greaseproof wrappings of pastiche; and do not hold for long. Rather than being traumatic, Tony describes the experience as 'a rush'. And in response to Melfi’s analysis he gives a response that is both dismissive and receptive: ‘all this from a slice of gabagool!?’

The notion of some form of primary text has no place here. The Sopranos knowingly occupies a space of repetitions, re-codings, pastiches and parodies that only intensifies in the final season. Silvio goes in for treatment for his asthma (Mayham), lying with a mask over his face in a manner that foreshadows his coma. In the same episode, during Christopher’s first movie pitch meeting, the writers are told by Silvio they can’t call the main character in Cleaver “The Butcher” because of an “actually existing” Butcher “out of AC.” In the postmodern world, the original event is always already a repetition. That kind of repetition, in Frederic Jameson’s analysis of the postmodern period, becomes an objective characteristic of the common social situation to which both “modernist” and mass cultural works of art react. Repetition structures the horizon of expectation, the desire for certain embedded genre/moral etc “codes” to be adhered to.[23]

Pitching Cleaver. The notion of some form of primary text has no place here. The Sopranos knowingly occupies a space of repetitions, re-codings, pastiches and parodies that only intensifies in the final season. Foreshadowing: Silvio with his inhaler. In the postmodern world, the original event is always already a repetition.

The meaning of these objects and signs is often much more complex than their presentation suggests. A striking example occurs at the end of the first season when two would-be assassins are sent by Tony’s uncle, Junior Soprano, to murder Tony. When the attempt on his life takes place, Tony has just come from a new stand where he has bought a bottle of orange juice.

This then, is a nod to the fruit so closely associated with death in The Godfather. Some of the most memorable examples being: the oranges that tumble across the street when Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone is shot; they also appear on the dinner table shortly before Jack Woltz wakes up with a horse's head in his bed; and perhaps most recognisably, Vito’s death from a heart attack in the garden comes moments after he puts an orange rind in his mouth, making faces to amuse his grandson.

Vito Corleone at the fruit stand. After he is shot oranges tumble across the street.

Vito’s death from a heart attack in the garden comes moments after he puts an orange rind in his mouth, making faces to amuse his grandson.

However, in the case of Tony the symbolism is completely overturned. Not only does Tony prove himself more than able to dispatch the two killers, the incident is the jump-start which shocks him back into life. In fact, most of the references the show makes to The Godfather exhibit an overturning, or even a mocking, relation with respect to the predecessor’s world of codes and symbols. The Sopranos emphasises its “realism” through this inclusion of mafia pastiche, a melodramatic re-casting. Obvious examples include: Salvatore “Pussy” Bonpensiero appearing to Tony as a talking fish; Christopher Moltisanti not being able to work out who can ask for a favour on their daughter’s wedding day; and, naturally, Silvio Dante's hilarious impression of Michael Corleone.

This is also true of allusions to Goodfellas. In one early episode (The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti), Christopher re-enacts a scene from Goodfellas by shooting a seemingly disrespectful clerk in the foot, the irony here being that it was actor Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, who suffered the wound in the earlier film. Likewise, in another episode (The Test Dream) Frank Vincent’s Phil Leotardo murders someone (Angelo) in a manner that recalls his own murder in Goodfellas where he played the character Billy Batts.

The hunted becomes the hunter, pt. 1: Michael Imperioli's Spider gets shot in the foot, Goodfellas.

Christopher re-enacts a scene from Goodfellas by shooting a seemingly disrespectful bakery clerk in the foot, the irony here being that it was actor Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, who suffered the wound in the earlier film.

The hunted becomes the hunter, pt. 2: Angelo in the trunk of Phil’s (Frank Vincent’s) car.

Frank Vincent, as Billy Batts in Goodfellas, half-dead in the trunk. In The Sopranos Frank Vincent’s Phil Leotardo murders someone (Angelo) in a manner that recalls this earlier fictional murder.

In this manner mafia texts repeatedly function within the fictional world of The Sopranos as a way for the latter to assert its apparent reality over the former’s fictionality—establishing a difference which the viewer realizes in fact unites them. On the level of the show’s narrative, this might well represent Tony’s attempt to break free from the old mob ways of doing things, a fact brought up by the main antagonist of the final season, Phil Leotardo, and framed in terms of a disrespect for the symbolic: “They make anybody and everybody over there. And the way that they do it, it's all fucked up. Guys don't get their finger pricked. There's no sword and gun on the table” (The Blue Comet). In both cases an attempted rupture occurs, to break free from the shackles of fiction and symbolism respectively, to extend beyond the confines of the show’s own structure.

This distancing from mafia codification is also representative of the dissolution of stable carriers of meaning. The structure of the mob, which Tony gives great importance to (Army of One) is as atomized by contemporary capitalism as other social communities. Even the military school, which Tony and Carmela are preparing to send AJ to, has partially supplanted “the corps, the corps, the corps” with the idea of being an “Army of One.”

The freedom sought is a freedom from the epistemological framework which conditions the mafia drama. This is a space defined by duplicities within personality, cycles of criminal activity, violence, blood ties and so on. An explicit reference to the desire to escape from this suffocating influence comes in the final season when Tony’s son, AJ, furious about Tony’s shooting and hospitalisation at the hands of Tony's Uncle Junior, goes to kill the latter in the home where he is being kept, using a method knowingly inspired by the restaurant scene in part I of The Godfather.

After failing to go through with the plan AJ is arrested. Tony comes to his rescue but is furious. He rails at AJ for being so stupid but AJ turns on his father calling him a hypocrite, accusing him by saying that when they watch The Godfather together Tony always remarks that the scene is “his favourite scene of all time.” Exasperated and breathless Tony says: “You make me want to cry…It's a movie. You gotta grow up” (Johnny Cakes).

However, all is not quite as it appears. Many of these attempts to escape the boundaries of the mafia narrative and its codified network, to uncouple from its fictional history, have something else which unites them: their ultimate and necessary failure. Pussy’s talking fish routine in Tony’s dream sequence confirms Tony’s suspicions about Pussy being an FBI informant and results in the latter’s death at sea (Funhouse). The favor asked for at the wedding of family boss Johnny Sack’s daughter results in an old-fashioned hit on one of the captains, Rusty Millio (Luxury Lounge). Tony’s exasperation with AJ having copied the film for inspiration turns to rage at him for having done nothing, of failing to kill Junior. In each case the transition fails, the dark world of the mafia returns with a vengeance. The quasi-theological “code” proves exceedingly difficult to kill.

Killing Pussy in Funhouse. Pussy’s talking fish routine in Tony’s dream sequence confirms Tony’s suspicions about Pussy being an FBI informant and results in the latter’s death at sea.

Rusty about to get whacked. The quasi-theological “code” of the mafia proves exceedingly difficult to kill.

This is key to the melodramatic make-up of the mob drama: an emotional dynamic “whose social correlative is a network of external forces directed oppressingly inward, and with which the characters themselves unwittingly collude to become their agents.”[24] Though, as we shall see, even these forces start to dissolve.

It is this failure, at the level of form as well as content, constructed through an interplay between opposing forces whose transgression continually collapses, which The Sopranos uses to propel itself to the edges of its own medium. This failure, like the action of a collapsing star, expands as the final episodes unwind the structures that have held the show together before that final moment of blackness. It is an idea which gathers force until eventually, at its apex, a few moments before the whole of The Sopranos is about to draw to a close, the unstoppable force that is Tony Soprano finds himself sitting at a table in a restaurant, waiting for his family to arrive, as a strange, unidentified figure makes his way into the bathroom.