The most striking example of this quest for heroic status occurs in the moving episode when the aging mobster Bobby Bacala, Sr. (Burt Young) strives to be "useful" as he is succumbing to lung cancer. He jumps at the opportunity to bump off his godson as a way of going out in a blaze of glory. Only through extraordinary persistence is he able to pull off his assignment, and he is elated as he drives away from the crime scene. His celebration is interrupted, however, when he dies at the wheel. The viewer, like Bacala himself, derives some satisfaction that he has died with his boots on.
Death hangs heavy over The Sopranos. Funerals are a regular feature. When it's not a hit man (or constipated bowels), it's cancer. In the same episode in which time runs out for old man Bacala, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is diagnosed with colon cancer. In a moment of profound empathy, Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) comments, "Another toothpick," a term she learned from her equally empathic mother, Livia, to describe the wasted appearance of the cancer victims in the family.
Ernest Becker, in his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, said that the problem of heroics is the central dilemma of life. Facing the certainty of death, how does one achieve a measure of immortality in an otherwise humdrum life? He describes human heroics as "a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog." The howling is especially shrill in The Sopranos, where being a grunt in the Mafia hierarchy is a dreaded fate.
Death is the great leveler. Every viewer glued to the television set on Sunday evenings knows that death is the ultimate certainty. We all want to make an impact, leave a trace of some kind. We, too, feel like grunts in the game of life. We, too, know that we could be snuffed out tomorrow by a terrorist attack, a coronary or a drunk driver. When we watch Tony and his gang, we see ourselves racing against time to make a mark before the final curtain.
With life imitating art so intensely, it is not surprising that the cast of The Sopranos worries a good deal about whom Chase will whack next. Death in The Sopranos means loss of a regular job. At one point Gandolfini was so worried about getting killed off that he called Chase at home to ask him if his character was in danger.
Even Tony's son, A.J., sounds like a nihilist. When his grandmother Livia (Nancy Marchand) tells him about a group of teenagers killed when their overcrowded car hit a tree, he comments: "Those kids, they're dead meat. What's the use? What's the purpose?" Livia makes no attempt to revise his thinking. She advises him not to expect happiness and succinctly summarizes her view of life: "It's all a big nothing."