Hero or Villain: We Decide #2
Part two of our series looks at the head of the New Jersey Mafia as played by the magnificent and sorely missed James Gandolfini.
For Tony Soprano a 'whacking' was just good business, if someone had to go then they had to go. Tough decisions had to be made as the boss of a Mafia family and such responsibility meant not displaying a shred of weakness or remorse. The stress of walking such a ruthlessly tight line weighed him down yet in order to keep his empire intact human lives were as disposable as the garbage he purported as his real business.
Though the final scene hinted heavily at his demise viewers knew it was only a matter of time until he himself got 'whacked'. For years he had escaped the feds so soon enough it was all to come crashing down. That he watched families ripped apart by his own family business meant that eventually his wife and children were going to have to suffer too. It's just business.
Hero - You could see that despite the outbreaks of violence Tony understood that what he was doing was wrong and sought help through psychiatry. Seeking treatment was a healthy sign that he was a troubled soul and even if it meant running the risk of being found out as weak he knew it was better airing out his grievances than letting them manifest further in fits of rage. He was a loveable rogue and in public he came across as affable and charming with a cheeky, disarming smile. Occasionally there was a childlike simplicity to his behaviour, mostly played out by the affection he held for animals. For instance, the ducks in his backyard and 'Pie-O-My', the horse whose death was so traumatic it led him to kill Ralph. Then there was the angry exchange when he discovered that Christopher had accidentally smothered Adriana's dog while high. With Adriana he flipped his car to avoid hitting a creature in the road. Would a monster look out for God's creatures like that?
Remember, he had little option than to assume such a position of authority. This was someone who had seen his own father commit horrible deeds and knew that that was the life for him. Plus, you could not help but feel sympathetic after meeting his narcissistic mother and his teeth-gnashingly annoying sister, Janice. The big brother even took care of Richie's body when Janice shot and killed him. He was also tied down by Omerta and antiquated views on homosexuality that he himself questioned, specifically in light of Vito's outing as gay and his seeming reluctance to have him killed off. He stuck by his friends and looked after bereaved families financially out of his own participatory guilt. After all the suffering he helped orchestrate he still put on a smile on his face, it made you wonder whether he really wanted to be a gangster at all.
Villain - That fiery temper would never be truly quelled and incidences of domestic violence, as well as taking out his own friends, hint at how much of a reprehensible character he was. No matter how much viewers tried to love him, David Chase would include an incident to shock and remind us of his supposedly true character. In an early episode he bumped into a former gangster relocated by the witness protection program. Upon discovering that this man had a family he hesitated then killed him anyway. That is the true measure of the man who knows what he is doing is deplorable but feels that he must do it anyway for the greater good, because that is how he has been brought up to behave.
Like many characters his actions became increasingly darker but most memorably he killed his own beloved 'nephew', Christopher. His own protégé. However, there was a sensibility to the whackings more often than not. He killed Tony Blundetto mainly because he knew that had the New York Family gotten to him first it would have been a far more painful death for his childhood friend and possibly a bloody war. You could barely accuse him of acting senselessly as you could see him weigh up and even discuss his options. These were the sorts of decisions you could not wish on anyone. Particularly, there was the execution of Sal which must have been painful but having discovered he was an FBI informant Tony was left with no other option. On a lesser note there are the extra-marital affairs though you can try to excuse him as this was also the Mafia tradition of a 'goomah' aka 'a bit on the side'.
Quotes - "Listen to me, the only reason I did this is because you're my nephew, and I love you. If it were anybody else, they would've gotten that intervention through the back of their fucking head."
"What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?"
"All due respect, you got no fuckin' idea what it's like to be Number One. Every decision you make affects every facet of every other fuckin' thing. It's too much to deal with almost. And in the end you're completely alone with it all."
Verdict - Hero
As the head of a Mafia family, Tony Soprano does not have a get-out clause. His line of work means that he collects enemies with every ruthless decision he makes but he still has to make them. He's constantly weighed down by Mafia tradition and Omerta which occasionally means whacking his own childhood friends for the greater good. You get the sense that at times he wants no part of this life and he worries that every whacking brings him closer to damnation. He's a family man who would do anything to protect his family and even though he is a gangster by trade he is still a hero.