Jul 3, 2013

Great Piece On James Gandolfin, Tony Soprano and Criminality

 David Chase

We describe films as philosophical if they hit a few discordant notes, provoking the audience to ask itself a question or two. In contrast, the writers and actors of HBO series The Sopranos managed to argue a complex, controversial, challengeable thesis on corrupt human nature. (David Chase is silent on the degree to which we all have traits like the criminals on his show. The therapist’s character was consistently unlike the other’s.) Due to its scope and serialization, the didacticism of The Sopranos is unprecedented. And the candidates for precedent ought to include Seneca and Plato, since they also tried to convince their audience that vicious behavior destroys character and that when power is given to such a character, tragedy ensues.

 Stated outright, the point seems obvious. Who says crime pays? But, as Seneca and Plato also knew, we weaken our position on the matter when ill-gotten gain is available for display. We often see with our own eyes that short cuts get people someplace quicker. To become convinced otherwise, we have to become convinced of the nature of internal, psychological rewards. But this is not easy to get us to do, as Seneca and Plato also know. We’d have to get inside the head of a bad guy to prove what is needed.

He paces, he grimaces, his eyes dart, he cries, he can’t think back, he has to edit everything he says, he lies to everyone including himself, he trusts no one, he is never satisfied. And in the final season, he has nightmares where he tells his therapist the truth; he has to grab and hide a bloody tooth from the cuff of his suit pants while at a meeting with his son’s therapist. He also buys a watch engraved with “you are my life” for his wife, after leaving town to have yet another affair. But you can go on and on: Chase’s examples are nearly endless, and they are unforgettable. They drive an ancient thesis home. And so effectively.

Plato also warned what would happen to a person who attempts to pursue, at once, the typical goals of a life (family, say) as well as others (say, the gains of crime). This person would be fractured by these incompatible aims, and Plato writes that they would be in a sort of internal “civil war.” He has us imagine that parts of this person “bite each other, fight and try to eat each other.” (Plato, Republic, 589a) Plato explains that, if this person gains power, it exacerbates the already disorganized condition of the person. Despite the public appearance of “having it all,” the potential is for such a person to be less happy than any of us. They have, in addition to more common tensions, worries about enemies and usurpers. Plato writes that such a person is like “an exhausted body” which “is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life.” The situation renders one friendless and terrified. (Plato, Republic, 579c-d)

It is easy enough to read Plato, nod and agree, but, again, we put up all sorts of resistance to this claim. We don’t really want to believe bad behavior has these consequences. We hope for exceptions, case by case and in general. And it is Chase who really puts our hankerings to the test. Because Tony is shown to suffer so vividly, we want to exonerate him. Because he is so charming, we want to believe him — to take Tony at his word. He voices things for the gullible, like “I don’t know about morality, but I do got rules.” “I do everything for my family.” “I’m a good guy, for the most part.” He likens himself to “a soldier” (just one in a different sort of war). And how we wish that the bad guys might be on our side: T-shirts were printed up after 9-11 depicting a menacing Sopranos cast ready to take on the terrorists for us.

It is because The Sopranos has had so much time with viewers, so many characters, so many plots, that he has been able to school us as he has. Forget about merely being “provoked” to think — this series required that we theorize about ethics, happiness, rage, parenting, therapy, materialism, and ego. Chase set us up to like Tony, and he set us up to believe that his therapy would get to the bottom of things. And Chase, never revealing his hand more than in this final season, is showing that no proposal other than his own (the classic one) can explain the behavior the characters display. Tony’s a good guy at heart?

 The murders of the final season (in particular, the unprovoked one of his nephew) put that to rest even if other decisions he rendered cold have not. Even the most thoughtful viewers, like philosophers Ron Green and Scott Wilson, are likely to want to revise the views they stated in Philosophy and The Sopranos (Open Court Press) where they opined that “in this world of criminality, Tony reveals a degree of moral integrity that makes his character appealing” and that Tony “cares about the principles of family, loyalty to Italians, loyalty to his crew.” Chase allowed us to think as much, for a time.

But viewers have learned the lesson in the only way lessons are learned — through getting emotionally and intellectually involved, and then corrected.

The success of The Sopranos will have put an end to the easy use of the expression “thick as thieves,” any fawning over any “omerta/code of silence,” and the notion that thieves have any honor and that scammers are glamorous. In philosophical ethics, among even those who have read Plato’s description, a common counter-example to normative claims about character has been the “principled Mafioso” — the guy who rejects society’s code, but lives by his own internally consistent code of family protection. Contemporary philosophers have taken this possibility so seriously as to use it to reject classic accounts of character.

We can’t really claim that integrity is conventionally ethical, since even a Mafioso can have integrity. How to argue against this fantasy of the goodish-bad guy, which was being treated as a kind of trump against ethical accounts of character?
The Sopranos has ended that fantasy. No philosopher will have the gumption to posit some “principled Mafioso” now that we have Tony. He is our era’s contribution to the characters that have shaped philosophical thought. They focus our attention like no dry description. They show us the content and limits of our humanity. Achilles, Medea, Tony Soprano.