Life, death and gabagool: how The Sopranos explains everything

In 1999, a 40-year old Italian-American man started a course of therapy and created a new template for prestige television. The Sopranos, David Chase’s smash-hit TV series, was about the nasty inner workings of the DiMeo crime family. It was also about a mafioso’s midlife crisis, his children and his marriage, his debilitating anxiety and lurid nightmares.

Related: The Guide: Staying In – sign up for our home entertainment tips

“I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me,” Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) tells therapist Dr Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in the pilot. “But in a lotta ways he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards. They had pride. Today, whadda we got?” Twenty-two years later, we’ve got The Many Saints of Newark, a feature-length prequel co-written by Chase. The TV show set Tony’s crisis against the backdrop of Bush’s America and the Iraq war; the film centres on his coming of age in the late 60s and early 70s, a period characterised by race riots and white flight.

It reveals the forces that shaped him, including his parents, Johnny and Livia (Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga), and his beloved uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). (Adding to its sense of familial lineage, the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, plays Tony.) It deepens the show’s existential preoccupations. Gangsters are the hook but, once he has you, Chase uses the Sopranos universe to explain life, death, loyalty and everything in between. Here’s a brief (and spoiler-laden) taxonomy of his major themes.


Friends will let you down. As Tony puts it: “Family: they’re the only ones you can depend on.” Chase hoped the show’s family focus would attract female audiences to a mob drama, and The Sopranos is fascinated by what it means to give your children a better life, whether that’s Tony and Carmela spoiling Meadow and AJ, or Paulie Walnuts’s mother, a nun, having her sister secretly raise him as her own. It wants to know if it’s possible to escape our inherited family histories of substance abuse and clinical depression.

It understands that family loyalty has its limits, too, as seen when Tony tries and fails to smother his mum with a pillow (typically, her reign of terror outlives her mortal life). By embedding us in the Soprano family for almost a decade, Chase creates a sense of life lived over a formative passage of time: teenagers becoming adults, grandparents passing, marriages faltering and repairing. By the time the 86th episode rolls round, we feel we’ve grown older with them.

Comfort eating

For Tony, it’s deli meat (gabagool and smoked turkey) and a squirt of whipped cream. For Bobby Baccalieri, it’s his late wife Karen’s baked ziti (stashed in the freezer for a dark day). For Ginny Sack, it’s stress-eating chocolate in the basement. “To me she’s beautiful. Rubenesque … To think she’s being mocked,” says her devoted husband, Johnny, when his associates laugh at her weight – an offence that almost starts a mob war.

Unrequited love

Sometimes it’s just unconsummated not unrequited (Carmela and Furio). Sometimes, it’s an act of transference (Tony and Dr Melfi). And sometimes it’s just a midlife crisis (Artie Bucco’s creepy crush on Adriana).


In lesser hands, Tony’s therapist would be a convenient rhetorical device designed to explain – and worse, excuse – the lead character’s bad behaviour. What’s smart is how talking therapy is used to complicate our understanding of the show’s patients, not consolidate it. Tony and Dr Melfi’s discussions reveal how we often dance round our problems instead of looking them in the eye. Her analysis of Tony’s Oedipal complex needles at his taste for self-destructive brunettes, a recurring issue throughout the show.

Related: The Sopranos: from enduring TV hit to the hottest show of lockdown

It doesn’t hurt that Lorraine Bracco’s Jennifer Melfi is one of TV’s great characters, with her own sexual desires and wavering moral compass (and even her own therapist). “You know you can’t treat sociopaths!” insists her ex-husband. Yet in attempting to, she hits on the fundamental question of psychoanalysis: with enough self-knowledge can a person change?

It had a real-life impact: the show’s use of therapy as a source of insight, not easy laughs, helped shift the stigma around men’s mental health and led to more men attending therapy.


Thirteen-year-old AJ Soprano’s hoodies, beanies and posters, emblazoned with the logos of various nu-metal bands, are totems of suburban teenhood. Twenty years on, they spawned an entire Instagram account (@ajsopranoshirts).

Italian-American identity

Was Christopher Columbus a racist coloniser or bold Italian explorer? The Sopranos was always a few steps ahead of The Discourse, questioning the dodgy hero narratives attached to historical figures back in 2002. A vocal group of Indigenous Americans protest the town’s annual Columbus Day parade. Several members of the Sopranos clan are enraged (#NotAllItalians), though there are flashes of truth and humour among some of the more unflattering stereotypes. Elsewhere, the rituals of Italian-American family life are explored with attentiveness and subtlety, from the non-negotiable Sunday dinners to the way the men frequently hug and kiss one other.


The mob has a long history of “greasing” the trade unions (Martin Scorsese made a film about it, The Irishman). Unions provide labour for construction companies, such as those owned by associate turned rat Jack Massarone and controlled by Ralph Cifaretto. For workers, unions bring better pay, higher safety standards and a pension fund. For mobsters, it’s a guarantee of what Tony calls “that W-2 in perpetuity”, a handy official document that declares legitimate, taxable income. It also means cushy “no-work” jobs for their crew, deployed to ensure that everyone knows who’s really in charge.

How to survive a night in a snowy forest

Don’t take Paulie Walnuts, who – as the lauded Pine Barrens episode makes clear – will inevitably end up losing a shoe.

Interior design

“He killed 16 Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator,” Paulie Walnuts says in the Pine Barrens episode, after mishearing Tony’s call about the Russian interior ministry soldier who escaped the boot of his car. “His house looked like shit!” Christopher Moltisanti responds. He’s a rarity in a show obsessed with interior design: it’s a passion of Carmela, who ogles real estate and later studies for a licence in it. In season five she even convinces Tony to buy her a “spec house” as an investment property. One season earlier, Carm’s ponytailed crush Furio renovates and repurposes his garage as a guest house for his ageing Neapolitan parents. The Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen of North New Jersey has some tips for transforming a small space: pillows (for cosiness and romance), “a light coloured ceramic tile” and “mirrored backsplash” to “amplify” the room.

Male fragility

Long before the term “toxic masculinity” went mainstream, there was Tony Soprano, exploring the link between repressed emotion and physical violence on a weekly basis. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? … He wasn’t in touch with his feelings,” Tony tells Melfi in their first session. By articulating his anxieties, the macho Tony is forced to face his fears, from his children not needing him to impotence, death and, of course, his mother. James Gandolfini is alternately cuddly, sexy, hilarious and terrifying, a masterful study of the vulnerable male ego.


For Uncle Junior, “Life is only death”: by the end of the show, he is out of prison but on house arrest, his social visits confined to attending funerals. Luckily for him, they’re comically plentiful given the death toll his family has racked up. Hits are ordered on beloved characters, mercilessly “whacked” for offences from informing to homosexuality or just plain bad luck. From family members to fiances, surrogate daughters and former best friends, nobody is safe.

“How many more people have to die for your personal growth?” Dr Melfi asks the trigger-happy Tony. But murder is only one aspect of the show’s grim fascination with the end, which sees characters such as Christopher and Tony returning from near-death experiences and being changed by them. “Listen, after this, from now on, every day is a gift,” says Tony after emerging from a coma. Inevitably, it’s not long before he returns to his natural, miserable state.


After discovering 19th-century German philosopher “Nitch”, a newly enlightened AJ tells his Catholic parents: “God is dead.” He’s soon put right by Big Pussy’s son Matt, who tells him: “Kierkergaard said every duty is essentially a duty to God.” As for Nietzsche? “He wound up talking to his horse. And I know what you’re gonna tell me. Sartre, right? Sartre was a fucking fraud. He copped it all from Husserl and Heidegger.” For most Sopranos, enlightenment is fleeting – AJ forsakes existentialism for a cushy job; Janice trades her yoga mat for a gun and born-again Christianity.


The Sopranos repeatedly returns to the idea that excessive consumerism is a symptom of moral weakness, demonstrated through Carmela’s all-too-ready acceptance of gifts bought by Tony’s blood money. She admits to a priest that she has “forsaken what is right for what is easy” because she wanted the lifestyle, the palatial house and “money in my hands”. A mink coat, a Hermès scarf and a cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton wallet are just some of Tony’s attempts to pacify her, a tactic he also tries with son AJ, who receives a fancy drum kit upon learning his parents are separating.


After meeting daughter Meadow’s biracial college boyfriend Noah, Tony opens a kitchen cupboard to a packet of microwaveable rice. The sight of Uncle Ben’s smiling Black face literally causes him to faint. “Is it my fault you’re twice as likely to be robbed by a Black?” he asks Meadow when her bike is stolen by an African-American kid. Tony’s prejudice runs deep, though the show suggests such attitudes are inherited when his mother Livia is openly racist towards her Haitian nurse. They’re common across wider mob culture, too, with Tony and co insisting that Jackie Jr’s murder outside the Boonton projects at the end of season three was by an anonymous Black drug dealer (the hit is really carried out by his own cousin).

One episode tackles the theme head-on, when a rapper named Massive Genius invites Christopher and his girlfriend Adriana to a party. There are parallels between the blingy lifestyle enjoyed by gangsters of all ethnicities, as well as the kind of social mobility that can’t be bought.


As in life, so in art, class identity is tied up with ethnicity. Tony’s Italian immigrant grandfather was a working-class stonemason who helped build the local church. Within two generations, the work has become white collar, the children Ivy League-educated, the family house a shiny McMansion. Yet there remains a tension between a mafioso’s reputation and his ancestors’ hopes of assimilation. In season one, Tony is encouraged to regale the members of a fancy golf club with gossip about real-life gangster John Gotti. Their delight is obviously sneering, with Tony’s snooty neighbour (and fellow Italian!) Dr Cusamano later declaring “membership’s closed”.

Sex work

From the dancers at the Bada Bing! strip club, who earn extra giving private dances to VIPs, to the exchange of presents for loyalty that accompanies being a mistress or goomah, the show gets that sex is often a form of labour. At one point, Tony sleeps with his mother’s former nurse, Svetlana – something of a grey area, given he pays her salary.

Power manicures

The impeccably groomed Carmela is never seen without a full set of French-tipped acrylics, while the younger Adriana prefers a long, sculpted red. But well-tended talons aren’t just a source of power for mafia women – in the Pine Barrens episode, Paulie Walnuts gets a manicure, too.

The indignities of old age

“This Alzheimer’s thing is an act!” Carmela insists of her mother-in-law as the show finds dark comedy in the line between Livia’s mental deterioration and her Machiavellian streak. The same is true of Uncle Junior, whose dementia becomes painful to witness. (Although is he using it as an excuse after accidentally shooting Tony?) The body’s physical decline is explored, too, with the proud Junior keeping his cancer diagnosis a secret from other members of the family.

The difficulties of screenwriting

Christopher has dreams of writing his own movie. It takes six seasons, an “Acting for Writers” class gifted to him by Adriana, a run-in with writer-director Jon Favreau (who steals one of his anecdotes for a screenplay), a set visit and a 19-page attempt for Chris to realise he’s better off getting someone else to do it. His slasher film Cleaver (“Saw meets the Godfather II”) ends up being written by fellow addict JT Dolan – which turns out to be its own kind of hit job.


Dreams are our subconscious speaking, such as when Tony’s penis falls off and a bird flies away with it, or when he imagines his mother as Dr Melfi. Dream sequences are used extensively throughout The Sopranos, but none more ingeniously than in season two, when Tony’s food poisoning-induced hallucinations prompt an epiphany that there’s a rat among his ranks.

The war on terror

The shot of the Twin Towers that appears in Tony’s rearview mirror in the opening credits was removed in season four, a year after 9/11. “Mom really went downhill after the World Trade Center,” remarks Bobby Baccalieri. Indeed, the event’s shadow looms over the rest of the series, with the characters becoming increasingly paranoid and patriotic. AJ even considers joining the army to “go kill some fucking terrorists” after “Bush let al-Qaida escape into the mountains”.

Waste management

By the end of the show, the intricacies of Tony’s nominal profession remain a complete enigma. It’s no surprise, then, that Tony Soprano still feels like shit.

The Many Saints of Newark is released 22 September