The Price of Power - A Sopranos Retrospective

January 10, 1999 was a landmark event for television.  Building on the narrative foundation of classics such as Crime Story, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Hill Street Blues, David Chase incorporated familial drama akin to '80s classics such as Dallas and Dynasty into the tried and true gangster formula.  The result was a new era of small screen entertainment.  The Sopranos revolutionized television and served as the prototype for long form visual storytelling.  What followed was six seasons of Shakespearian tragedy, violent retribution, and a surreal exploration of the mind of a sociopath. 

James Gandolfini's legendary performance as mob boss Anthony Soprano set the standard. While having a villainous protagonist is nothing new, Gandolfini's extraordinary ability to accrue empathy with the viewer, even when conducting repugnant business is a near preternatural feat.  Coupled with Edie Falco's layered approach to her role as Soprano's conflicted wife Carmela, the duo guaranteed that the show would be analyzed and discussed for years to come.


One of the more intriguing aspects of the show was its approach to power dynamics.  Underneath the executions, marital infidelities, and familial struggles, The Sopranos is a story about the cost of attaining illicit power.  Each season explores this theme through various narrative and visual tactics.  Season one focuses on the destruction of Tony and his mother's corrupted relationship.  In an almost inverted Oedipal fable, Tony barely survives an assassination attempt only to be given evidence that it was his mother's fault.  One of the more intriguing details is that Tony receives this information from law enforcement (the first of several disclosures throughout the series). 

Season 2 shifts the focus to Tony's inner circle, culminating in the death of one of his closest friends.  While the psychological interplay between Dr. Melfi and Tony is a highlight, it is the final episode, in which a mafia-tinged style version of You Can Never Go Home Again plays out aboard an ominous yacht.  Preceeded by the series first delve into the surreal dreamscape of Tony's mind, the ultimate revelation that the "code" means little to those who uphold it is heartbreaking, yet another reminder of Gandolfini's talent.  This is one of many times the series creates a bifurcated structure in which the viewers simultaneously love and despise the characters for their various acts.


In the third season, the loss of innocence is the focus as Tony's children are drawn into his world, culminating in his daughter experiencing the cost of his lifestyle first hand.  It is here that the series begins to give more depth to the supporting cast, such as Lorraine Brocco’s soul crushing performance as Dr. Melfi.  The amazing Joe Pantoliano is brought in as an adversary who continues to haunt Tony throughout the series.  While perhaps the weakest over all season, the heartbreaking finale is also one of the most memorable. 

The fourth season focuses on the death of Carmela and Tony's marriage.  After years of infidelity and lies, the pressure of manipulating his cohorts while trying to maintain a double life finally gives way to marital oblivion, culminating in the outstanding Whitecaps episode.  Edie Falco's unbridled fury is not only indicative of a scorned partner, it is also a fascinating dissertation on someone who helped build their kingdom of ruin.  Organized crime is more than gangsters and guns in the world of The Sopranos.  It is a criminal subculture woven underneath the guise of Italian pride and false ideals of machismo and loyalty.  When Tony and Carmela are at their worst, the show is at its best because it exposes these truths and lets them gestate in the foreground before predictably hiding them once again behind Tony's charm.  

Season five sees the introduction of Phil Leotardo, the “final boss” of the series as well as Steve Buscemi's unforgettable turn as Tony Blundetto.  While Steve Schirripa's Bobby Baccalieri is the heart of the show, Buscemi's masterful guest turn showcased artistic sensibilities in an already undisputed champion of Sunday evening.  Blundetto's fall is showcased from nearly the first episode, and yet, as Tony ultimately turns to fraticide, the audience is helplessly enraptured with split loyalties between the two Tonys.  It is also evident from the first few episodes that not only will the story most likely end on a darker note, it's clear that Chase had a finite vision for all of these characters.  

The final season was split into two parts and sees every character either find salvation or comeuppance.  Sprinkled with more of the surreal, particularly during Tony's gunshot coma, there are elements of Twin Peaks present, techniques that would later be mimicked in the outstanding HBO series, The Leftovers.  As the story winds towards its inevitable conclusion, Chase pulled yet another surprise, choosing to end with a cut to black, leaving the fate of Tony and his family uncertain.  The ambiguous coda has sparked endless debates, yet it is clear from the pilot episode that the finale is an organic one, as the true price of power is not something anyone, even Tony Soprano, can see coming.


Available now for streaming through various HBO platforms, The Sopranos maintains relevance, and artistic importance 20 years later.  Featuring a once in a lifetime ensemble, unique (but restrained) surreal sequences, and absolutely unapologetic subject matter, this is, simply put, one of, if not the greatest television shows ever made. 

--Kyle Jonathan