Tony Soprano Made Me Believe In Jean-Paul Sartre

I don’t remember how many years ago it was when I heard “got yourself a gun” playing as James Gandolfini pulled into his suburban New Jersey playground.  What I do remember is being absolutely fascinated with the life of David Chase’s fictional mob boss who fought with the demons that danced in Gandolfini’s character, Tony Soprano’s head.

I didn’t have HBO when the show came out, but I can remember people around me talking about the ducks and how Soprano took care of the ducks.

I can remember thinking, “the hell are the ducks?”

After watching the series for the first time, I never got the connection that Soprano’s therapist, Dr. Melfi, proposed was the reason that Tony worried so much about the water fowl.

“They’re just ducks,” I thought, “who cares?  I’m more worried about the cannoli and the sfogliatelle.”

You know, “leave the gun take the cannoli,” Godfather style.  It’s that part of America that Chase dipped into when he created The Sopranos.  Guns, money, pastry, prosciutto and RICO – all part of what some would consider the lifestyle of a mobster.

I got so caught up in the smoke and mirrors that I missed the point that Chase was trying to make.  It’s a message hidden underneath the bodies that Soprano leaves in his wake, all six and a half seasons worth, even though during the series leaves us clues.

In the second season while talking with Dr. Melfi, Tony produces one of the most prolific existential statements one could expect from the troubled character:

“What’s the point? You go to Italy, you lift some weights, you watch a movie-it’s all a series of distractions til you die.”

I didn’t understand the existentialism the first time I watched the show. Years later, after reading Sartre I get where Tony is coming from. What is the point? All his choices that have been bothering him only matter because he made them matter to him.

At the same time, he’s responsible for his world, whatever happened around him was caused by his decisions. If he hadn’t killed Christopher’s shooter,Matt Bevilaqua, he wouldn’t have had to worry about being fingered for being at the scene.

For all the money and fancy things that Tony has he experiences the pain of a man that doesn’t understand himself. He struggles with a world devoid of happiness. The people that he runs with are just like him-brutal, dark and broken. But this is the only world that he knows and he can’t go into the “witness protection program” because that’s not his life plus he lives by omerta.

Even his family experiences this realization during the series. His mother, Livia, tells her grandson, Anthony, Jr.:

“Why does everything have a purpose? The world is a jungle. And if you want my advice Anthony, don’t expect happiness. You won’t get it. People let you down. And I’m not naming any names, but in the end you die in your own arms.”

Anthony, Jr learns about Friedrich Nietzsche at school which starts a revolt at home when he doesn’t want to be confirmed in the Catholic church.

“God is Dead,” he says.

Tony takes this to Dr. Melfi who tells him:

“When some people first realize that they’re solely responsible for their decisions, actions, and beliefs and that death lies at the end of every road they can be overcome by intense dread.”

There is the good doctor explaining to the world what happens when people read and understand existentialism for the first time. I could be forgiven for confusing Dr Melfi for Sartre, who said:

“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”

Yikes. While there is an ultimate search for truth, the place to start is truly inside of us all. In many ways I think Tony represents so many people’s search for what “it’s all about.” Another person’s world could look so intriguing and something that we may want to get into from the outside but it’s probably not. Things aren’t as black and white as they seem. Scrape away at the paint and you might not like what is underneath.

Then again, should we take our lives to the bright lights of the silver screen with hip hop beats and fancy CGI maybe we would like it better. It could be the perspective that matters. I thought when I first watched The Sopranos that Tony died way too soon. There had to be more things for him to do and more for the viewer to see.

Years later I’m convinced that Tony did what he was supposed to do, he showed that life is short and it’s supposed to be lived to the fullest. We have to ask questions-of ourselves and others-and search for the answers to whatever it is that we want to know. At the end of the day, it is us that answers to ourselves and it is us that are free.