Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

The art-imitating-life-imitating-art dimension of The Sopranos seemed particularly uncanny in July 2001, when 16-year-old Robert Iler, who plays Tony's son, A.J., was arrested in Manhattan for robbing two teens on the Upper East Side of about $40. Sopranos fans reacted with a mixture of fascination and disbelief. Iler is not the first actor on the show whose real life matched his screen identity. Tony Sirico, who plays Paulie Walnuts, was arrested twenty-eight times and sent to jail twice for a total of seven years before he became an actor. He was almost a made man in the Mob but stopped himself from taking that final step. He still has a scar where a bullet entered his leg.

Not surprisingly, real-life organized crime figures have become regular viewers of The Sopranos. Writing in the New Yorker, David Remnick reports on a wiretapped conversation between mobsters recorded on March 3, 1999. A capo named Anthony Rotondo and an enforcer named Joseph Sclafani commented on the similarities between local mobsters and Tony's gang. They offered positive critiques of the acting and writing, but Sclafani clearly felt slighted by the lack of attention to him in the episodes. "I'm not even existing over there," he concluded.

The writers' pitch-perfect understanding of their characters' inner world is beautifully displayed in their portrayal of Christopher. Like Sclafani, he feels unrecognized. When he watches a TV news exposé of the Soprano family, he worries only that his name is not mentioned. He is devastated when his colleagues are named and he isn't. In one reflective moment, he laments, "The f------in' regularness of life is too f------ hard for me." His source of suffering is a sense of existential meaninglessness, a feeling of being doomed to an unobserved life where he is a pawn in a chess game beyond his comprehension. He regards his very being as an inconsequential nothingness. When Christopher's name finally does appear in the news, he is ecstatic and speeds to the corner newspaper dispenser, where he removes the entire stack of newspapers to be sure all his friends and relatives are informed that he is no longer a nobody.

This theme of being a nobody runs through The Sopranos. Matthew Bevilaqua (Lillo Brancato, Jr.) and Sean Gismonte (Chris Tardio) are two young goons who work for Christopher at his scam stockbroker operation. Like Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they feel cut off from the action-mere observers of the movers and shakers who shape the events around them. They eagerly inquire of Christopher, "Does Tony ever talk about us?" The answer is a deadpan "No." The solution to their existential angst is one with overtones of Camus's The Stranger — they will establish a sense of authenticity and identity through the act of murder. They pay for it, of course, with their lives. A variation on this theme is repeated when Jackie Aprile, Jr., (Jason Cerbone) and his cronies decide to transcend their status as losers by robbing a group of made men at a poker game. The same consequence awaits them. In Being and Nothingness, his effort to banish the dualism of being and appearance, Sartre declared: "The act is everything."

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