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January 8, 2024

‘The Sopranos’ at 25: A New World Tragedy

We still have something to gain from the very best tales of knights, robbers and ghosts.

“The Sopranos” debuted 25 years ago, but what makes it a masterpiece is how much older its themes are.

In 1827 Goethe wrote a poem that begins, “America, you have it better.”

The German genius ended with the wish that America’s children, when they took up the pen themselves, wouldn’t write stories about “Knights, robbers, and ghosts.”

He wasn’t just warning Americans to stay away from childish entertainments and fairy tales — though it’s easy to guess what he’d think of “Star Wars” and other Disney products.

America was a new land with new promise, and Goethe hoped that it would grow up to tell stories that didn’t depend on the bloody feuds and status conflicts of Europe, as attractive as those might be to the romantic imagination.

Could a new nation, born from commerce and ideals of self-government, create the kind of art or entertainment that a continent of ruined castles and equally lawless heroes and villains had inspired?

There’s a German angle here, which is also a “Sopranos” angle: Germany’s knights turned into robbers as the Middle Ages ended and the world of modern commerce began.

The warfighters of an earlier age, and their ethos, were obsolete, but they still felt entitled to their old status — and to live off the labor of others.

The knights, in other words, became gangsters.

Tony Soprano, patriarch of the titular mob family, doesn’t know much about history.

He gets what little he knows from World War II TV documentaries and Gary Cooper Westerns.

He may be Italian, but he can’t tell Machiavelli’s “The Prince” from Prince Matchabelli.

It’s one of series creator’s David Chase’s smart commentaries on ethnic assimilation that Tony takes for his heroes Cooper and America’s generals in the Second World War.

Tony isn’t really Italian at all. He’s not a throwback to the Old World; he’s an American, and throughout the series he clashes with fellow mobsters who take Old World myths and values too seriously.

Religion, family vendettas and honor all count for less than money with Tony.

Voltaire and other European philosophers who hailed the triumph of commerce over feudalism made just that point: Instead of fighting, men should make money and settle their differences with profit.

When one of Tony’s lieutenants is outed as a homosexual, the rest of his mob family and a rival gang are outraged and want the man killed.

Tony is reluctant — not for any sentimental reason but because Vito is a “good earner.”

Paulie Gualtieri, the Soprano goon most in love with mafia mythology, only annoys Tony with his stories of the good old days, and Tony’s equally contemptuous of Paulie’s claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary.

The tragedy of Tony Soprano’s life — not in an objective moral sense but as a character unto himself — is that he’s neither a New World man nor an Old World one.  He’s trying to be both but can’t.

Late in the series, Tony has dreams in which he’s a traveling businessman who’s lost all proof of his identity.

At the very beginning of the series, Tony is disillusioned by present-day America, in which men are no longer, like the characters played by Gary Cooper, “the strong silent type.”

His mob-family heir, Christopher Moltisanti, lacks self-control: he’s an addict with dreams of making it big in Hollywood, a hedonist and escapist — an adolescent, not a man.

Tony is afraid of his biological son, A.J., following in his footsteps, but he also finds the boy weak and aimless, and A.J. ultimately goes to work for another mobster’s film company.

Women don’t do so well in “The Sopranos,” either.

Tony’s daughter, Meadow, rebels against her father’s old-fashioned attitudes about race and sex, and she seems set to become a lawyer or a doctor — but her romances with wimpy modern men fail, and by the end she appears fated to become a mob wife, if she marries at all.

The female psychiatrist Tony sees, Jennifer Melfi, is a symbol of independent womanhood and she is never drawn into Tony’s world, yet she too is missing something and is sometimes attracted to Tony’s simulacrum of traditional masculinity.

“The Sopranos” has its flaws, and it may or may not be the best television show ever made.

But we watch it a quarter-century after its debut, and it will be watched another quarter-century from now, because it brilliantly dramatizes conflicts as old as America, and even older.

What does it mean to be a man or woman in a world defined by sexless money?

In a modern setting, what becomes of all we thrill to and admire about chivalry, cowboys and supposedly honor-bound outlaws?

America hasn’t yet fulfilled Goethe’s call to find new sources for our stories — but we still have something to gain from the very best tales of knights, robbers and ghosts.

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