I grew up in Long Island, New York, among a broad swath of Irish, Italian, and Jewish families, many of whom emigrated out of the deeply ethnic ghettos of New York City. And not “The City” of Sex and the City and the like, but the New York of Brooklyn and The Bronx and Staten Island.
My stepfather was one of those guys, a tough Jewish kid with a big nose who literally bludgeoned his way out of the sweltering hell of The Bronx, escaping his own brutal father, a butcher, and into the relative luxury of the Navy, lying about his age to enter the military at the tail end of the Second World War. If not for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my step father would have bludgeoned his way into Japan from the tail gun of a naval fighter.
Something I’ve never written about before is how much James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano reminds me of my stepfather at times. It’s the little things. The raise of an eyebrow, a thick guttural roll to an expression, the sarcastic and dark twinkle behind a joke that could well be anything but, the dark brown eyes under thick eyebrows that always seem to sigh, “So what do you want from me?”
Of course, Tony Soprano is a fictional character, a mob boss who lives in a big house with his family of four in North Jersey, while my stepfather fell into a frustrated yet largely successful half-century as an accountant. But that Gandolfini can convey such a range of emotions, usually without words — especially now, in this sixth season of The Sopranos, coming back from a near fatal gut shot wound — is testimony to some of the finest acting I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m reminded of a scene in the pilot episode, when Tony discovers that his cousin Christopher (always played with powerhouse charisma by Michael Imperioli) is toying around with leaving the “family business” to write screenplays about the mob life. Enraged, Tony charges toward the camera and Christopher, a bull with hysterical energy and frightful purpose. At the last moment he pulls back, however, and extends a gaping paw and playfully taps Christopher’s cheek, his face now bright and cheerful, the face of the man you know you’re always going to follow because there’s no other way and no other choice.
And back to Season Six, we have a Tony Soprano continuing to recover, continuing to take back the reins on his North Jersey empire. Aside from a troubled and recently booted out of college son (like father like son, AJ will certainly be one to keep an eye on as the final extended season plays out), Tony’s domestic life has rarely been better. Indeed, wife Carmela (Edie Falco, who equals and at times bests Gandolfini pace-for-pace) seems relieved to give up her own inner moral qualms about living la vida mafia and thrilled with Tony’s reflective and family-oriented manner, never more so than when Tony sweetly explains to daughter Meadow the importance of living to see a new member to the family line sitting in his lap.
Now just well enough to be back at “the office,” Tony is acutely aware that his absence has produced a power vacuum. And as the oddly prescient Dr. Melfi alluded to during Tony’s first post-coma therapy session (perhaps she too felt Tony’s loss and was quick with advice to ensure his good graces?), when the cat’s away, the mice will play.
Meanwhile, a rather vast and sprawling B story line plays out, a pattern that series mastermind David Chase has used several times this season already. This week, we see acting New York boss Johnny Sack have a brief spell from prison to see his daughter Allegra get married. During the wedding itself, we see Tony give in to his cross-river rival and friend’s wishes for the second time. In this instance, he agrees to clip Rusty Millio (Frankie Valli), who Johnny refers to as a “cancer” on his own ability to strengthen his grip on power from behind prison walls.
When Tony asserts to Christopher (now a Captain in his own right, a man who orders hits with very little compunction) that they bring in a shooter from Naples to keep things quiet, Christopher immediately balks, calling it “a pussy move.” Later, at the end of a lavish wedding that straddles the line between classy and gaudy, Johnny Sack is forced to return to handcuffs by federal marshals just as Allegra and her new husband Eric (and don’t think that Eric’s non-Italian ethnicity isn’t a subtle foil for Meadow’s fiancee, Finn) are leaving the reception for their honeymoon. Johnny, as stoic and tough a New Yorker as they come, breaks down in tears on the way to the government-owned Suburban.
In mob culture, the big dog rules while the rest of the pack drools. Anything that shows the hint of weakness, femininity, or softness is shunned at best and punished mercilessly when manifested (and yes, this week our dear Vito, while getting his dance on at a gay club, was finally outed in a way that could spiral into all kinds of complications for Tony and crew). When Tony witnesses Johnny Sack’s close friend and confidante Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) belittling the man, a man who had just been humiliated in front of all of his friends and loved ones, we can see the old mechanisms of the brutal crime lord that was slowly ticking and grinding and churning back to speed.
But Tony isn’t the man that he was. He wears an enormous vertical scar on his abdomen. He’s so weak that he collapses when forced to take off his shoes in order to pass through security at the wedding.
And it all comes to a head in a scene that easily takes its place in the very best of The Sopranos canon. I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention that this episode is directed by the great Steve Buscemi, who always seems to make his turn at The Sopranos helm one of the season’s best. We’re in the back of Satriale’s, a place where mob men are men and where guys who “had to go” get chopped up before transportation to local shallow graves. Tony sizes up his troops as the camera slows down to the pace of the leader’s thoughts. He’s heavy, hobbled, slow: the vulnerable leader of the pack. Finally, he seizes upon his new driver, a young kid with massive muscles and a quick temper. Tony lays into the kid with a made up story no better than a schoolyard charge of, “What’d you say about my mother?”
Finally, Tony takes a swing and puts the kid on the floor. But that’s just the start of it. Tony knows that the kid can’t control his temper, that he’s young and stupid enough to actually take a swing at “the skip” in front of all the other guys. And he does, too, and what follows is one of the most viscerally disturbing (satisfying?) yet brief on-screen scuffles I’ve seen in some time.
It ends with the kid driver passed out and Tony in the bathroom hurling his guts out, reddened chunks of himself launching, spiraling from his gut, payment of his physical self and spiritual soul to stay on top of the heap for one more stretch of time. In between bouts of vomiting, he stares into the mirror, grinning harshly, teeth pink.
For all of Tony Soprano’s cautious strategies and alliance building with the New York families, at heart he’s a guy who succeeds in a savage, simplistic world by punching the other guy in the mouth and then saying, “So how do you like that?”
I had a strange and often strained relationship with my stepfather. He couldn’t comprehend that I would never know how good I had it, what with my riches of the 1980s, the microwaves, the MTVs, the Nintendo products, let alone a constant and unending run of meals and electricity and a warm and safe house out in the suburbs. Many years later, before he became seriously ill, we enjoyed a period of improved relations. It was meeting the woman I would later marry that did it, oddly enough. I think I became a man in his eyes for the first time, something more than a soft child blind to the concept of hardship.
I should add in closing that while he would sometimes taunt me to hit him, I never did and, to his credit, he never threw the first punch.