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Tony Soprano: villain or victim? He committed every sin — so why does the audience still root for him?

Tony Soprano, looking more like a villain than a victim. (Photo by HBO)

Tony Soprano, looking more like a villain than a victim. (Photo by HBO)


June 7, 2021   6 mins

The Sopranos is back. Since lockdown started, viewership jumped by 179%, while one of the most popular podcasts of the Covid era has been “Talking Sopranos”, featuring Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, who played Christopher Moltisanti and Bobby Baccalieri respectively.

This second life of the acclaimed HBO series, which ran from 1999-2007, has been given further energy by the anticipation of The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel film co-written by Sopranos creator David Chase, originally scheduled for last month but postponed until September. The film stars Michael Gandolfini, son of the late Sopranos star James, as the young Tony Soprano.

Widely considered by critics to be one of the greatest television series of all time, a recurring question for fans of The Sopranos has revolved around Tony’s moral character.

“Is Tony Soprano a hero or a villain?” as Michael Imperioli asked in one of the first episodes of the podcast, to which Schirripa replied, “I think he’s both.” The fundamental tension of good and evil contained within the same man captivated audiences throughout the show, and is fundamental to its popularity.

“Tony Soprano,” Schirripa explains, “was the first lead character to be a bad guy who did bad things, yet the audience chose to root for him. He’s a murderer, he’s a drug dealer, he’s a thief, he cheats on his wife, he hits all the sins. Yet, for whatever reason, the audience likes him.”

Throughout the series, people who entered Tony’s orbit met their demise. A classic story plot is a man who makes a wager with the devil, but The Sopranos was the first series to get the audience to sympathise with the devil rather than the man. Throughout the series, Tony kills or orders the murders of a number of people: his best friend, the son of one of his close friends, his cousin, his nephew’s fiancé, and then his protégé nephew. Yet creator David Chase, in collaboration with the immense talent of actor James Gandolfini, got viewers to root for a monster. Tony is clearly not a hero. Instead, the question should be: “Is Tony a villain or a victim?”

Tony was the first mainstream television character to portray what villainy looked like from the point of view of the villain — and what we learned is that no one is the bad guy in their own story. He attempts to be a good father and, to a lesser extent, a good husband — and as reprehensible as Tony was, he was still a better man than his own father. During one of Tony’s sessions with his therapist Dr Melfi, he describes how “the belt was [father’s] favourite child development tool.”

These therapeutic sessions were an ingenious way of giving audience members an insight into the mind of a monster. Initially, Tony visited Dr Melfi because he suffered from panic attacks. Dr Melfi traced the origins of these attacks to a dormant memory: as a child, Tony secretly witnessed his gangster father chop off a guy’s finger for not paying off his gambling debts. Dr Melfi also discovered that when Tony was a child, his mother, Livia, threatened to stab his eye out with a fork. In another flashback scene, Tony’s father suggests to Livia that they relocate to Nevada. Livia loudly replies, within earshot of young Tony, that she would rather smother Tony and his sisters with a pillow than move.

Livia’s random explosions of rage cultivated inner turmoil in Tony. She would lose it over inconsequential mishaps and Tony felt like he had to avoid landmines. “You definitely don’t want to get her started,” he coolly says to Dr Melfi.

The American psychologist Thomas Achenbach made a distinction between “internalising” and “externalising” behaviours for how children cope with stress. Internalising symptoms include depression, social withdrawal and eating disorders; externalising symptoms include drug use, aggression and violence. Tony loved his mother so, as a child, could not carry out externalising behaviours. Instead, he responded to stress at home with internalising behaviours such as panic attacks and depression — a fact acknowledged by Dr Melfi in her explanation that “depression is rage turned inward.”

As an adult, Tony’s unacknowledged, barely contained rage against his mother was portrayed in a key scene early in the series. Today, it might be seen as a little too on-the-nose, but in 1999 its subtlety was novel for television. During the episode, Tony learns that Livia has difficulty with her phone’s answering machine. Later, Tony observes one of his employees having difficulty with an answering machine — just like Livia — and Tony beats him senseless. This is meant to indicate Tony’s true feelings about his mother, feelings he turns against himself or directs to other targets.

Tony’s panic attacks later serve as harbingers of fear or violence on the horizon. For example, in season two, Tony attempts to reintegrate Richie Aprile into his crew after Richie is released from prison. During a particularly heated conversation between them, Tony unconsciously realises that Richie will never be satisfied working for him, and that he will likely have to dispose of Richie. After their conversation, Tony suddenly experiences an attack and collapses.

A key reason Tony Soprano stopped having panic attacks was that he used his sessions with Dr Melfi as an avenue to relieve the stress and guilt he experienced from his violent actions. Therapy allowed him to feel better while continuing to be a violent criminal — but his conscience was never fully unperturbed. Throughout the series, it is implied that Tony is wracked with self-reproach from his criminal activities. There are two ways he can manage this guilt: by changing the actions that give rise to it, or by reinterpreting his actions so that they no longer produce guilt. Throughout the series, Dr Melfi tries, in an unbiased and nonjudgmental way, to guide Tony to change his actions. But often Tony’s sessions merely enabled him to justify himself and continue his criminal acts.

Gradually, thanks to therapy and medication, Tony’s panic attacks subside. But they resurface near the end of season five. Tony is playing golf with New York underboss Johnny Sacrimoni. Johnny says something that leads Tony to subconsciously realise that he has to do something horrible: murder his beloved cousin to prevent a bloody gang war. His body responds with extreme guilt and stress. He collapses.

Yet armed with an  understanding of Tony’s origins, the viewer can’t help but feel for him. Of course, Tony is also presented as a relatable — a distant cousin to “likeable” — husband and father, under pressure at work with his employees, trying to fit in with his neighbours and caring for his elderly mother, despite her mistreatment of him. But is this enough to understand why the audience roots for such a reprehensible character?

One reason viewers might excuse Tony Soprano’s misdeeds is because we have sympathy for his plight. In fact, researchers at Harvard Business School and Northwestern University have suggested the existence of a “Virtuous Victim” effect, in which victims are seen as more moral than non-victims who have behaved in exactly the same way. People are inclined to positively evaluate those who have suffered. The audience understands that Tony had a terrible childhood, so when we see him do reprehensible things, such as commit violence or cheat on his wife, we find ways to excuse or downplay it.

More intriguingly, recent research suggests that Dark Triad personality traits — comprising narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and duplicity) and psychopathy (callousness and cynicism) — are highly correlated with victim-signalling. In other words, people with dark personalities are more likely to broadcast or feign their victimhood, perhaps to gain sympathy and other rewards, while also getting others to excuse their transgressions.

Does Tony view himself as a victim? He does. In the pilot episode, Tony tells Dr. Melfi that he sees himself as a “sad clown, laughing on the outside and crying on the inside”. He characterises himself again as a “sad clown” in season four, but this time Dr Melfi is sceptical, replying “I’ve never seen it.” She explains that his wife, in a couple’s therapy session, also gave a very different perspective about Tony. Although Tony believes that he responds to inner sadness with outer humour and gregariousness, he in fact expresses his emotions with rage and compulsive eating. Tony views himself one way, but those closest see him as someone completely different.

Sprinkled throughout the show are other indicators that Tony believes he is a victim. In season four, his best friend from high school, Artie Bucco, is in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Tony visits and asks Artie to imagine Tony finding Artie dead, and then asks: “How am I supposed to feel?” He seeks pity from his suicidal friend.

In the following season Christopher, his nephew, accuses him of trying to seduce Adriana La Cerva, Christopher’s fiancé. He tells Tony that he knows Tony was in a car with Adriana alone at night, and that they were going to buy drugs together. Tony becomes enraged and shouts, “So what! I can’t relieve stress every once in a while? I don’t got enough f*****g problems?” Tony’s crew is holding Christopher down, and Tony has a gun in Christopher’s face. Even here, Tony pities himself, and urges Christopher to sympathise with his plight.

Tony is not a sad clown putting on a cheerful face. He wants people to sympathise with him, even as he inflicts violence on them. In a chilling scene, Tony beats up the college dropout son of his late friend Jackie Senior. Tony punches Jackie Junior and tells him: “All I ever did was tell your old man what a good kid you were, and all you do is f******g hurt me.”

By the final season, Tony is even more morally compromised and monstrous than he was at the beginning of the show. But he has fewer panic attacks. Does this mean his treatment was effective? Dr Melfi, in the penultimate episode of the series, terminates therapy with Tony. He responds with dismay: “I think what you’re doing is immoral.”

In The Sociopath Next Door, author and psychologist Martha Stout explained how some people weaponise pity to manipulate others: “More than admiration — more even than fear — pity from good people is carte blanche. When we pity, we are, at least for the moment, defenceless… All in all, I am sure if the devil existed, he would want us to feel very sorry for him.”


Rob Henderson (@robkhenderson) is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.
robkhenderson

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Sue Julians
Sue Julians
2 years ago

Great piece.
though I didn’t root for Tony. Every time he committed an act of violence, it reminded me how evil he was and how deluded his self-respectability and sense of honour. This was the beauty of the sopranos for me, you want to like him and are encouraged to sympathise with his angst, then you regroup.
maybe this is the female lens. I found Carmela just as interesting, more so, since she could maintain the illusion of being a good wife and mother, when clearly understanding what the family business was and her husband’s role in it. And her smoothing things over and ignoring someone ever existed when they were whacked on the instruction of her husband.
unusual for this genre that there were such strong and complex female roles. This is why I kept watching, almost all other similar series spectacularly fail the Bechdel test.

Jonathan Oldbuck
JO
Jonathan Oldbuck
2 years ago
Reply to  Sue Julians

Carmela is at the centre of one of the greatest scenes in the series when she is given the ultimate truth bomb by the Jewish psychiatrist.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Oldbuck
Karl Schuldes
KS
Karl Schuldes
2 years ago

I thought the same thing!

Sue Julians
SN
Sue Julians
2 years ago
Reply to  Karl Schuldes

Oh my. How could i have forgotten that scene! I just watched it back, thanks for flagging. Devastating!

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
2 years ago

An insightful analysis by the author. I think another aspect of the show that made it work so well was the contrast between Tony Soprano and the other mafia members. Tony had the rudiments of a conscience and at least sometimes tried to do the right thing, but those around him were amoral thugs. They never questioned their actions and, I suspect, never lost a moment’s sleep.
I’ve come to think of the early 2000s as a golden age for television. In addition to The Sopranos there were shows like The Wire, Band of Brothers and the quirky but brilliant Six Feet Under. I’m afraid Hollywood may have sunk too deep into the progressive mire to produce shows like that again.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

What happened to your splendid comment about the Wuhan Lab Leak?
It was the most popular of the day, and then suddenly disappeared?

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
2 years ago

About 24 hours after I posted the comment it was removed ‘pending moderation’. It was later reinstated.
That was unusual because the comment was not flagged for moderation when I originally posted it. I’ve now had several comments flagged ‘pending moderation’ when I posted them. I have absolutely no idea what triggers the moderation filter because the offending comments were entirely bland and certainly didn’t include strong language. All the flagged comments were eventually posted to the comments section, presumably after a human being had reviewed them. I even deleted one of my comments that was pending moderation because I was so fed up with this moderation system.
We all recently learned that people who don’t subscribe to Unherd will soon be blocked from participating in the comments section. Apparently participating in discussions is a benefit of membership. I am now so sick of the arbitrary moderation policy that I’ve begun to question whether I will renew my membership when the time comes. We’ll see how Unherd develops and whether it can find its niche once covid is no longer the main source of discussion.
I notice that you are not a member of Unherd, Mr. Stanhope. I will be sorry to see your comments disappear after this week.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Thank you.

borrieboy
borrieboy
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Coincidentally, we’ve just finished watching The Sopranos through for the third time and are now rerunning The Wire. Sadly nothing of a televisual nature, either here or from the US, comes close to the integrity of these, as well as Boardwalk, Six Feet & Band of Brothers. Well said.
There now remains a massive space which program makers could fill with quality product. Whilst Billions & Succession aren’t bad, compared to the above, they’re lightweight.
As to Tony, on a final point, as someone also mentioned here too, the others around him are worse… Richie Aprille, Ralphie, Paulie, Christopher, Phil Leotardo, Johnny Sack, Janice etc. In fact the only one who you could feel slightly sorry for is Bobby Bacalliari.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I never felt this as described by the article, and you.
To me he was nothing but pure evil, and I am always amazed by hearing people rooted for him. I always hoped they would kill him off, but never did – I guess this is some facet of people, that they just cannot see evil and loath it, but rationalize it – as it says. Satan always makes himself attractive, and so people fallow him. I did watch the show as there is so very little I can bare to watch on the streaming services, but did not much like it, although went along for the story, and what happens next.

I have seen evil in my long and weird life, and it never is attractive to me because of that, because I have seen the real thing.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
MJ
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, it was a good time for television, with great writing combined with better production values. Things have really gone of the rails since then.

Judy Posner
JP
Judy Posner
2 years ago

Personally, I think that the answer is much simpler. It is all about Gandolfini. He was more than just a good actor. His charm and charisma just oozes from every pore. His almost infantile, minor speech defect. The list is endless. While the rest of the characters are certainly interesting, and especially his wife “Nurse Jackie”, Tony is almost indescribable with his nuanced expressions and larger than life presence. A huggable teddy bear in a criminal persona. Long live the Sopranos!

Jonathan Oldbuck
JO
Jonathan Oldbuck
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Posner

This is true. There are countless scenes when Gandolfini goes through several emotions within a matter of seconds. He had an almost unmatched dramatic ability to portray human complexity with all of its self-contradictions.

Dorothy Slater
DS
Dorothy Slater
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Posner

Absolutely agree. For me, the combination of acting by , Gandolfini and the script by David Chase made the Sopranos a once in a lifetime television event . Except for the Wire, there is no other show that was so addictive I would wait for it to return during every lengthy pause. Even Mad Men bored me after while and I lived through those days.

Alix Lee
Alix Lee
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Posner

I think that’s right. I had the same feeling about the protagonists in Top Boy, which I think got close to Sopranos for quality crime drama. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so interested in those evil characters if they hadn’t been so attractive and thus somehow people I could sympathise with. Shallow, huh?
The other great touch re: Tony Soprano as psychopath, sadly not discussed in this great article, were the plot lines around Tony’s distress when animals were killed, notably the racehorse in Ralphie’s stable. He cried more about that animal than for any human’s suffering, even his own…

John Lewis
JL
John Lewis
2 years ago

Tony is an evil revoltingly amoral bigot, completely unapologetic to the world if not to his subconscious anyway for his thoughts and actions.

The trope of the compelling anti-hero is well known and obviously relevant here. However with the relentless media and entertainment pushback against so-called toxic masculinity and unacceptable attitudes Tony, warts and all, has become more appealing than his palpably loathsome character ever deserved.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Lewis
kathleen carr
KC
kathleen carr
2 years ago
Reply to  John Lewis

It sounds a bit like I Claudius- I think his mother was called Livia ( played by the splendid Sian Phillips)-the fascination was to see what awful thing happened next . Like the Romans the Soprano’s are an Italian family who continue with their traditional ,if gruesome , values.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

Another show that has great characterisation is Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel.

Jonathan Oldbuck
JO
Jonathan Oldbuck
2 years ago

Great detail here. Rob clearly knows the show well, which you can’t say about all discussions of The Sopranos. I think years of blu ray watching, recent streaming and You Tube has helped a lot, not just to grow a new audience but to help those who first watched the show 20 yrs ago appreciate all its complexities. For instance, none of us appreciated first time around the astonishingly rich foreshadowing that occurs everywhere (esp with Vito).
It’s the greatest TV show ever partly because it is the densest; character is the driving force behind everything which is shown in many ways beyond dialogue and plot: dress, photography, comportment, not to mention endless deeper themes of philosophy, politics and literary allusion. (Sometimes this can sound highfalutin but the dialogue is not above very effective base and crude humour either). Though Tony is the central player riven with moral complexity all of the other characters are equally compromised and display both weaknesses and virtues. Nobody escapes, everybody can be self-serving and hypocritical. Perhaps this is also why the show is so compelling in our current era of moral purity and Soviet-level intolerance of heterodox opinions. After all, Meadow was one of the first SJWs from hell.
Rob made good points about Tony’s self-pity, but he is further explored through other personas like Gary Cooper, the general, the captain, the skip, “toxic personality”, the gambler etc.
It’s also brilliant because it’s true to life and funny, despite ostensibly being about criminality and deviance. Half of the family scenes in Tony’s kitchen could be played with a laughter track and would fit into a classic style US sitcom. Family anxieties, kids growing up, petty jealousies and slights, all portrayed in intelligent ways. (“Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this”). In this regard The Sopranos is one of the finest black comedies with salty dialogue the likes of which has never been heard before. What about the jokes!!?? There’s too many to mention. I could die laughing listening to Paulie sometimes.
p.s. it also helps to know Goodfellas inside-out
p.p.s. Rob’s Twitter feed contains a sensational Sopranos scene when Tony gifts Meadow Davey Scatino’s sons’ car which he took in lieu of a gambling debt. Just brilliant!

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Oldbuck
borrieboy
borrieboy
2 years ago

The best one was when Christopher & Paulie had to whack the Russian and got lost in the snowbound woods, having failed to kill him. Bobby & Tony came to their rescue the next day. Bobby, pointing out a warning sign en route to the rescue which read “Bears Left” said (I paraphrase) “when we first came out here hunting when I was a kid with my dad, he saw that sign, turned the car around and went home”. That’s an example of the kind of observational writing which elevated The Sopranos beyond the normal.

Jonathan Oldbuck
Jonathan Oldbuck
2 years ago
Reply to  borrieboy

Pine Barrens is brilliant for many reasons. My favourite part is when Tony explodes into laughter when Bobby appears in the kitchen wearing his hi-vis hunting gear. Not only is it just funny, it also plays into the long-running bullying and petty sniping of/at Bobby by Tony. Bobby’s earnest decency and honesty (it’s all relative!) comes to be appreciated and envied by Tony in the last season.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jonathan Oldbuck
borrieboy
borrieboy
2 years ago

From what I’ve read, that particular scene wasn’t scripted and Gandolfini genuinely cracked-up at the sight of Bobby…

Jonathan Oldbuck
JO
Jonathan Oldbuck
2 years ago
Reply to  borrieboy

I think the story was that Steve walked in wearing a jockstrap or something similar.

Michael J. McEachern
MM
Michael J. McEachern
2 years ago

What made Tony Soprano was so believable was his view of himself as a soldier of sorts, in a battle between “family” and the law. Reading the words of real mobsters in true crime publications just confirms the above and killing close friends or even relatives is justified by the victim’s cooperation with the law (the enemy) making one a traitor or by simply following the boss’s orders without question. Tony’s psychological problems and therapy are not believable and in real-life mob situations would undoubtedly result in death by reason of risking the “family” business. Tony also showed acts of kindness that wouldn’t be typical of real mobsters, apart from being “big tippers” to show off. Bravo for the Sopranos; we won’t see its like again.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
2 years ago

The ending of The Sopranos is widely considered unsatisfactory. Certainly, from a personal perspective, it left this viewer wanting more. The makers should have developed an entirely different ending based on the end of Newhart in which Tony passed out in a panic attack and then woke up next to Bubbles in The Wire.

ralph bell
RB
ralph bell
2 years ago

I hope viewers can offer the same sympathy for the majority of inmates in our prisons who also have very difficult and disadvantaged childhoods that affect their criminal acts.
People have also been fascinated and in awe of gangsters and people who command power and fear.
Very interesting commentary on the manipulation of victim status.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
2 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

Theres a glamour for the fictional criminals -as portrayed by attractive or at least charismatic actors like Edward G Robinson that I would imagine the real people didn’t have-they just terrified people

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
MJ
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
2 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

One of the things about tv shows like this is that typically actors have a lot of charisma, often even when they are playing unlikable people. There are real criminals like that, of course, but many aren’t appealing in the least. I always think about a film like Dead Man Walking which was interesting in that while looking to create empathy, it purposefully didn’t make the criminal appealing to the viewer and attempted to minimise the charismatic appeal of Sean Penn.

mark taha
mark taha
2 years ago

Isn’t it a tradition to root for the outlaw? d**k Turpin,Jesse James, Billy the Kid,Dillinger-I was always on the gangsters’ side watching classic movies or the Untouchables.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
2 years ago

Audience fascination with characters like this is at least as old as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” …

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 years ago

Unfortunately I never saw the Sopranos as my Chief of Staff deemed it ‘unsuitable’.

However I was in Rome in June 2113 when lead actor James Gandolfini Esq, was fatally struck down by a Heart Attack.
Sadly the Italian papers reported that while his corpse was en route to the Mortuary/Hospital, some despicable toad stole his very expensive watch!

andrea bertolini
andrea bertolini
2 years ago

“Tony is clearly not a hero. Instead, the question should be: “Is Tony a villain or a victim?”” Typical of our age: everyone is a victim, no one is ultimately responsible for his actions.

mac mahmood
mac mahmood
2 years ago

We have a parallel in geopolitics. Israel. Western audiences in general seem to think that the zionists led a terrible life in Europe, so when they see them perpetrate reprehensible things like terrorism, ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate bombings, wholesale human rights violations, etc., they find ways to exonerate them and blame the victims