Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.
Streaming entertainment has reached new levels the past several months. According to a recent Nielsen report, the total number of hours spent was up 81% year-over-year, equating to an increase of nearly 4 billion hours of connected TV use per week. While many people watched—or claimed not to be watching—Tiger King and Black AF, others were dipping into older fare that reminded them of the days when George W. Bush was the worst of their problems.
Following is my Plague Diary, by way of a meditation on hyper-capitalism and premium cable’s first show that aspired to be cinema. It is intended as a guide for fellow citizens who recently have come to know David Chase’s creations better than members of their own family.
- The show presents the American family as criminal conspiracy. The trope is not the analog state described by The Godfather. There is no in/out, with us/against us. No door closing in Kay’s face to create a firewall between Michael Corleone’s business and the rest of his life. The Sopranos is a product of the Internet age. Information, like capital, flows unbound by physical barrier. The only difference is degree of guilt. A matter of closeness to the crime’s main perpetrators.
- The family is not a unit operator of Judeo-Christian values. It is a collective market-value. Terms like “household income,” “net worth,” “personal assets” are placeholders for the fundamental metric: how well the family has performed in the conspiracy of hyper-capitalist, post-industrial America, where monetary value is generated by corporate executives, investment professionals, and all bad actors who function at mass-criminal level. Value is not labor. Value is ROI on insider information and other species of malfeasance.
- The show’s main conflict is Tony’s struggle to maintain separation between the “family” of his criminal life and the family of his personal life. Tony views himself as a failure because he seeks a binary that doesn’t exist. His struggle results in periodic systemic breakdowns, revelations of Dantean blackness that interrupt the normal flow of capital.
- Dr. Melfi initiates treatment that frames the problem around Freudian conflict. Her approach protects the overall system by steering the patient toward a diagnosis of deficiencies among its component parts. Tony begins to learn the false narrative of mother, as generative force of maladaptive behavioral patterns. For the hyper-capitalist, deprived of the comforts of traditional religion, psychiatry is the new opiate, with prescriptions for even stronger unguents.
- The show’s appeal is the capitalistic relatability of its main character. Tony is the 20th century White Male Provider facing extinction in a globalized, 21st-century economy. His anxieties of sudden immolation are baroque approximations of loss of agency. Downsizing, going from a 6-figure salary to minimum wage, losing house, losing family. The horror stories that rise to the top of everyone’s newsfeeds during economic recessions. These are the blood and viscera that animate his struggle, give its perfidy a sense of valor. Male viewers understand that they, like Tony, are fighting a battle already lost.
- The passenger seat in Tony’s SUV in the show’s opening credits is reserved for viewers. Viewers don’t simply watch. They occupy a physical space. They become part of the criminal enterprise. Their complicity is confirmed every time Tony presses the button that raises the tollgate. Their reward isn’t a cut of the take. It is the vicarious joy of the witness. Tony’s skillful rise from management to the executive level, along with his other criminal acts, gives play to a mobility no longer part of American male privilege.
- The show encounters work as its primary theme. What is done for money, what earning a living means, what all of us are willing to sacrifice for that living. Tony’s closest antecedent is Ralph Kramden, perhaps the only other character in TV history who addressed American class issues. Kramden never separated anyone from their femur. But his get-rich schemes were more than comic gestures. The Honeymooners was a physical framing of post-WW II working-class male anxiety. Every episode was a moratorium on female expectation and male self-worth in the face of working-class labor.
- Meadow occupies the passenger seat in the show’s fourth episode to ask Tony his true occupation. His response is a verbalization of the internal binary he expends so much energy to maintain. He tells her his business is “mostly legitimate,” although he “occasionally” has dealings with a criminal element. Her smirk proves she is ready to attend the prestige colleges she is applying for. It also shows that Tony’s lying is meant to protect himself. He is only truthful when he disregards truth. “Waste management consultant” is the job title he gives Dr. Melfi in the first episode. The show reveals its comic essence at such moments, because, despite the difference in semantic coding, “waste management consultant” is the parasitic role he performs as capo. It is an equally adequate title for what most white-collar workers do in post-industrial, hyper-capitalist America.
- The show’s other male characters amplify the main trope. Uncle Junior is the Tony who sleeps in a narrow bed in Belleville. Paulie is the Tony who fluffs up his mother’s pillows without evil intent. Christopher is the Tony that cries “Plato” into a fist of powdered dreams. Ralphie is the Tony wiping Livia’s blood from his lips. A.J. is the Tony who doesn’t witness Mr. Satriale’s pinky separated at the joint. Bobby Bacala is the Tony who buries the birthday cake. Carmine Lupertazzi is the Tony that counts the liver spots on the back of his hand. “Little” Carmine is the Tony that realizes the box can’t be filled. Detective Vin Makazian is the Tony that jumps head-first into the blackness only he can see.
- The show’s male doubling is not psychological. Its duality is surface, offering mechanistic reproductions of Tony with minor variation. The characters are echoes of failed agency within a system without binary, without choice. They have the same reality as the identical twins “Spoons” and Patsy Parisi. Both are in the Mafia. One is killed in the first episode of season 2. The other, played by the same actor, rises high in the organization late in the series. Their mirrored criminality comments on the mirrored criminality of Tony and the show’s other male characters. Together they form an empty loop, a closed circuit of narcissism that is the show’s operating system. A cultural critic might situate these hyper-male doubles somewhere between the mass-production of Warhol’s Marilyn portraits and the de-sacralized repetition of the “selfie.”
- There is similar doubling among the show’s female characters. Dr. Melfi is the Carmela who knows that Cap d’Antibes isn’t a new fragrance. Charmaine Bucco is the Carmela who gets a cramp after swimming with Tony. Janice is the Carmela who upgrades from ghost house to death house. Meadow is the Carmela that doesn’t know about the AK-47 next to the good china. Adriana is the Carmela wearing next-season’s Jimmy Choos. Tony’s mistress Irina is the Carmela drunk-dialing her future. Gloria Trillo is the Carmela that can’t find her way to a 5,000-square-foot home with in-ground pool. Rosalie Aprile is the widow Carmela going home with the cute French waiter. Angie Bonpensiero is the window Carmela moving forward in a new Camaro. Svetlana Kirilenko, Junior’s web-site-building home-health aide with one leg, is the Carmela on firmer footing.
- Freudians would locate Livia as the show’s female primary. But they would be making the same mistake as Dr. Melfi. Tony didn’t choose well choosing Carmela. Carmela is the Livia upgrade. Time and circumstance have unseated Livia, with Carmela as this generation’s new female primary. According to the show’s tribal dynamic, she is the one against which the other women define themselves. Her power is formidable but also relative, possessing agency only as long as Tony is the male primary. Her concerns about Tony’s demise are informed by this principle. It is why she wants to know where the money is. It is also why she begins diversifying her power portfolio. Studying to become a realtor is her way of developing alternate agency.
- Livia’s loss of status has made her dangerous. There is no clearer expression of the lethality of the “family”/family binary than her attempt to have her son killed. Like her namesake from I, Claudius, she is the scheming mother that will kill anyone who opposes her will. She doesn’t live long enough to present an ongoing problem, but her methods live on with Janice, who manipulates Richie Aprile to go after Tony the same way her mother manipulated Uncle Junior.
- Whereas Livia was marginalized by time and circumstance (primarily gender), Janice is marginalized by her attempt to escape the “family”/family binary through youthful rebellion, which took her halfway around the world. Her penniless return in middle-age marks her with the ambition to obtain her rightful place within the hyper-capitalist enterprise.
- Every season offers ritualistic engagement with this anxiety. The names of Tony’s nemeses change; the pattern remains constant: The enemy is dispatched; his blood becomes the gravy of the celebratory meal. In the season 1 finale, the meal is taken at the new Vesuvio’s during a violent rainstorm. In season 2, it’s Meadow’s graduation celebration. In season 3, it’s Jackie Jr.’s funeral dinner. The other seasons repeat this pattern, except for the last. In season 6, episode one, the meal is interrupted before it even starts.
- The show waits until season 6 to begin a true examination of its landscape. Staring straight ahead, Agent Harris’s partner utters H.L. Mencken’s most famous line. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” he intones over the steering wheel. The irony of the statement lets slip how the show creators feel about the millions who have watched the past five seasons, only seeing the trope. Agent Harris is the chorus. His commentary escapes as breathless aside, punctuated by the contents of his stomach spraying between his fingers. Its surface is the artist disgusted by a fawning public, its semiotics motioning toward a literal bringing up, a physical manifestation of the show’s consumer-driven, hyper-capitalist sickness.
- The landscape is approached across the spread pages of The Western Lands. In the soundtrack to the opening sequence Burroughs speaks as author and surrogate of the show’s creator. His words bring hipster cosmology to a show that has resisted an analytical lens. Characters appear in montage, each tagged as one of seven souls from the “Egyptian Book of the Dead.” Its narrative function communicates that time has passed. As semiotic device, it presents conflicting images of birth and age and anxiety that culminate with Carmela waking up between the ragged frame of her stalled spec house. Its iron beams dotted with rust, its roof a failed canopy of torn plastic strips. The panorama suggests a death-dream, an inter-zone between life and death where these souls reside. The show asking the viewer to awaken with Carmela, even join the search for meaning beyond a hyper-capitalistic system where monetary value is the only value.
- Among the body count: Eugene Pontecorvo tries to leverage an unexpected inheritance into a luxury home outside the zip code of his bloody profession. Vito Spatafore finds an ambitious future boss underneath all the weight he’s lost. After digging in his backyard for a significance he once possessed, Uncle Junior discovers a long-dead enemy in his dining room. His gun is aimed at Pussy Malenga, the bullet is absorbed by Tony. Unfinished business is addressed. In the case of his nephew, it is the successful completion of the failed shooting from season 1. As with the puke-strewn episode opening, the show returns to dark humor. The shot to the stomach punishes Tony for his consumerist gorging. It also gives physical manifestation to the show’s existential crisis: the hole that Tony once felt in his life has become a gaping red canyon due north of his bellybutton.
- Kevin Finnerty is Tony without the trope. A dishonest salesman who sold a Buddhist monastery a faulty heater, he is presented as half of a new binary, this one framed by the banal criminality of the 21st-century American middle-class: push inferior product, only support for the first ninety days.
- Dream Tony is no better. He makes no attempt to return Finnerty’s bag. When the hotel where he stayed can’t find him a room, he checks into a different hotel—with Finnerty’s credit card—then treats himself to a meal. Just as Real Tony drops out of Seton Hall after a few semesters to follow his father into “the business,” Dream Tony embraces the easy option as the only viable choice. He shares his Mafia double’s preference for corporate brunettes but not his success separating them from their navy-blue stockings. Deprived of the working-class Italian-American accent that gives place to Real Tony’s immigrant journey, Dream Tony is a failed binary in beige khakis whose success selling precision optics has not translated into personal insight. He is the dream approximation of the show’s suburban White Male Viewer who has delighted in Real Tony’s transgressions.
- Dream Tony stumbles forward, unable to manage himself and the baggage of another self. The registration desk at the military tradeshow asks for an absolute. Dream Tony offers his face and a face on a greasy Arizona driver’s license that don’t match. The monks with the faulty heater laugh at the binary. They invoke the Buddhist principle of Samsāra—continuous change in a world where there is no separation between people, between objects, where individual concerns dissolve into a single flow of Being.
- Dream Tony does not hear them, does not understand how they have answered his question about Finnerty—and his single-malt effusion, “I’m 46-years-old. Who am I? Where am I going?” Dream Tony prefers the same blackened grouper to untying the knots of the binary. He even begins to entertain the theory that he has been Finnerty all along.
- Samsāra is more than a casual reference. It raises a tent to Real Tony’s struggle with the binary. Withdrawal. Annihilation of Self. Disengagement from the hyper-capitalist enterprise. Surrender of the attempt to find balance between “family” and family. Samsāra shields from the sun while offering a path for the breeze. It’s Real Tony’s spiritual shelter to becoming a government witness. Reassignment as reincarnation.
- Tony returns from the Land of the Dead without the mnemonic benefit of a harp. Kevin Finnerty is his Eurydice, his secret song that hums against his tongue but whose lyrics dangle just beyond his lips. Tony makes passage through a white sheet of light, thrown across the screen for a few silent moments before narrowing into a surgical penlight beam. A feeling of renewal, of possible redemption, is accented by the sudden beeps, metallic ticks, hard electric purrs of the hospital equipment.
- Tony’s time away has meant temporary withdrawal from the hyper-capitalist binary. His wordless awakening brings stasis in a different species of hotel. Here the sin is treated as physical wound; the underlying evil only tended through indirection. Invisible hands tack a Native American adage to his pin board. The monks from his dream return as characters from Kung Fu. Their words echoing from Tony’s in-room TV bring back the music of his vision with a message that hides behind childhood memory. Mr. Schwinn, Tony’s rocket scientist fellow patient, sings a similar song before his voice is taken by cancer. His rendition transforms the Buddhist score into the invisible symphony of quantum mechanics. Tony delights in the rhythm—electrons bouncing against photons bouncing against bosons bouncing against tau tau neutrinos, their constant exchange of matter, of space, of energy a negation of the binary, a replacing of the hyper-capitalist price tag with Samsāra’s infinite value. The forgotten words draw close to the rim of Tony’s cracked lips. Viewers are left to wonder if he will remember enough of his Underworld song before returning to the Underworld of his life.
- The other characters pretend that Tony hasn’t walked at the shoulder of Tiresias. When he is released from the hospital, they gather around him with bialys wedged with butter. They hand him the hot coffee of respectful sameness. “Live Free Or Die” the show warns from a dented New Hampshire license plate. The tone is jarring for a show that has made a game of hiding lessons behind its back. Its message reminds us that Tony’s journey into the Afterlife is a milestone that can’t be uncrossed.
- Numerous references to watches give urgency, a sense that time is running out for the show’s hyper-capitalist constructs who have thrived without mortal limit. Vito curses into the stainless-steel face of his Oris Worldtimer when he thinks more time has passed on the odd-job his boyfriend Jim helped him get. The clock-bearing puppet from Saw appears on a TV Christopher is watching moments before Christopher’s girlfriend Kelly announces she’s pregnant. Eugene Portecorvo bribes Tony with an expensive watch when asking him to retire, a request he bolsters with the mention that his own father died at 52. The urgency of time replaces watches as totem of capitalist agency. Their consumerist power comes with a new dead-serious warning. “Live Free Or Die” isn’t a call to patriotism. It is a four-word kōan whose teaching maps the show’s bloody final chapters: to reject Buddhist infinitude for the temporal realm is to commit to a death-dream.
- The show’s pathos is the inability to possess the vision. It’s a sentiment that has been present in the show from the start. The ducks in Tony’s backyard are his first flash with ungraspable Buddhist infinitude. They fly from his fingers but return with migratory frequency, to make comment on Tony’s deeds. Friggin’ ducks. They become the wall-mounted Big Mouth Billy Bass, reminding Tony in animatronic song of his guilt. They become the raven Christopher spies at the basement window when he rubs his hands against a laughing flame. They become the yacht Tony steers wildly, showing off for A.J., creating a violent wake that capsizes the smaller boats in the bay. They become Cosette, Adriana’s toy poodle that Christopher sits on. They become the rotors of the helicopter that almost mince Tony into a million tiny Tonys after a drunken night at the Native American casino.
- The Buddhist Either/Or is Tony’s slow-motion death sentence. Since he is incapable of the withdrawal required (of becoming Kevin Finnerty in real life), he becomes a gambler, a thing his father warned him not to be. It’s his half-empty estimate of where he stands in the universe. It’s also a last grasp at joy, while still embracing the old “family”/family binary. His desperation drives his growing depravity, committing acts that would have repelled him not so long ago. Viewers gasp at Tony’s murder of Christopher as gesture, at his aggressive seducing of Christopher’s Las Vegas mistress as the Adriana he never bedded, at the dumping of the asbestos on the ducks, at Dr. Melfi’s realization that his expressions of empathy have been part of his long-con of her and everyone playing along at home.
- The show reveals itself as self-destructing hyper-capitalist construct as it enters its final chapters. Like the Dot-Com Bubble or the 2008 Housing Crash, the show becomes the reckoning of its own overvalued, unsustainable market. Its demise is foretold in Johnny Sack’s daughter’s disastrous wedding. What was the ultimate Debordian spectacle in the Godfather collapses upon itself as Tony faints upon entry and Johnny Sac as Don Vito equivalent is carried away in tears at its conclusion.
- Tony’s showdown with Phil Leotardo attempts to make the show’s long-haul worth it. The con is that there isn’t a gunman waiting at the end of Tony’s driveway. The final excursion is made when the viewer moves across the table to travel between Tony’s ears, the long-hoped-for trip for most of the show’s male viewers not lasting very long—the “midnight train” of Journey’s biggest hit stopping suddenly in the darkness.
- The show’s ending is its own non-binary. Everyone who loved it is right. Everyone who hated it is also right. The former are hip to the auteur middle-fingering expectation. The latter are closer to the show’s emotional temperature. Tony’s mixed feelings of anger and nothingness, of feeling cheated, are no longer a character’s therapist session dialogue, they reach from the screen, achieving subjectivity, becoming the viewer’s direct emotions, with an immediacy that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional, bloodbath ending. The show dramatizes of the brutality of hyper-capitalism. Enchanting the consumer, before letting everything drop, is the most accurate simulation. It is the emotional experience of anyone conned into a reversible mortgage or being handed a cardboard box on a Friday afternoon at work. There is no “getting’/”not getting” the ending. Its body is animated by its intellectual argument as well as its emotional truth.
- Lovers of the gangster trope forget they have already been given the ending they wanted. Christopher’s Saw-meets-the-Godfather mash-up was the expected serving of gore at the show’s last meal. The black screen of Nirvana complements the temporary blackouts Tony was experiencing at the show’s beginning.
- People we lose stroll into the diner disguised as someone else. The ding that scores Tony’s final glance is a buzzer, a bell tolling the end of a life breathing ashes.
William Lessard has writing that has appeared or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Plume, BOOTH, Hyperallergic, the New Delta Review, and the Poetry Foundation. His visual work has been featured at MoMA PS1 and is part of the special collection at Poets House.
Image: Stu Watson