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Tom Gliatto Headshot

The Talented Tony Soprano

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Am I the only person frustrated with Tony Soprano? The show was beautifully written and paced and cast and acted, yes yes all that, I even liked the finale -- and I have to say this season's scene in which Tony killed Christopher in a supreme act of improvisatory slit-eyed cunning probably will be remembered one of the finest moments in American TV history. But what does the guy mean, in the end? Despite all the years in therapy and the near-death experience -- it seemed to be some sort of welcoming party to a WASP hereafter -- in the end did he glean any truth about himself, any real knowledge that would crystalline into one fine dramatic thought? It seemed ridiculous that Dr. Melfi should conclude so late in the game that Tony was a sociopath, that this was a psycho con job: Were we supposed to agree with her? If so, why was his therapy the framing device for the series? Otherwise, we spent all this time with the Jersey mafia equivalent of the talented Mr. Ripley, which is fine as suspense but worthless as human psychology.

In the finale, Tony was still complaining about his mother, and his last meeting with Uncle Junior, senile and briefly resuscitated by a flash of grand nostalgia for his criminal past, felt as if it should have been between him and Livia. So there was something genuine underneath the man's vast rhino skin. But what?

This may be why in any given episode I gravitated toward Edie Falco's Carmela: A woman well aware of her complicity in enjoying the prosperity that comes with a life of crime but able to avert her eyes, most of the time, and continue along with half-hearted satisfaction as suburban mom and real-estate dreamer. She clearly knew at least that she was meant to be a moral creature.

You could argue that Tony is complex and ambiguous and we can't sort out from him the sentimentality and self-sustaining delusions and depressive tendencies versus the small black lump of coal that is his thinking criminal intelligence and, perhaps above all, an animal instinct for survival. That may be. These sorts of contradictions can exist in one person, sure, render them irreducible, and that goes for both dramatis personae in Shakespeare and celebrities like Princess Diana. I think Tony remains a cipher, but bigger: a volcano crater full of dead ash and some eternal fire. Was he human, though?