Sopranos Autopsy

“Oh no, it’s another Sopranos website!  Aaahh!  Run for your life!!”

In her 2001 article for The Nation, “Our Mobsters, Ourselves,” Ellen Willis described The Sopranos as “the richest and most compelling piece of television—no, of popular culture—that I’ve encountered in the past twenty years…”  In the time since she wrote this, The Sopranos has been discussed in countless blogs, websites, online forums, books, essays, magazines, newspaper articles, college courses, radio shows and television interviews.  Fordham University hosted a three-day academic conference devoted to the series in May 2008.  Despite all this, I feel that Sopranos’ individual episodes have not received, to my knowledge, the close scrutiny that they deserve.

Of course, professional television critics such as Alan Sepinwall, Matt Seitz and Tim Goodman offered excellent real-time analysis of episodes in their blogs.  But these blogs often did not cover the entire series or are no longer available.  Professor Maurice Yacowar shared powerful, intelligent observations in his witty episode guide, The Sopranos on the Couch.  But his book, and most critical works on The Sopranos, have a shortcoming: they were produced, for the most part, while the series was still airing.  These publications do not have the benefit of hindsight or later reflection.  The authors’ insights from earlier seasons were never recalibrated with their later insights.  Another common glitch is that many authors were hampered by an obligation—usually a professional obligation—to not allow spoilers to appear in their work.  (This is precisely what constricts Todd VanDerWerff’s analysis at avclub.com.  It is nevertheless an exceptional resource, one that I only discovered a couple of months after starting “Sopranos Autopsy.”)

BUT IS IT ART?
Ellen Willis only went so far in 2001 to call the series a compelling piece of pop culture; even after likening The Sopranos to the literary works of Dickens and George Eliot, she refrained from refering to the series as art.  There has been a long-standing hesitation by critics and commenters to apply the “a-word” to TV shows even though the last 15 years have shown an increase (resurgence?) of quality programming that has effectively elevated the landscape of television.  Arguably no television show has been as instrumental as The Sopranos in legitimizing television as a serious artistic medium.  (But advertisers, network executives and 24-hour news channels still perform daily lobotomies on millions of viewers – The Sopranos helped legitimize TV but did not completely transform it.)

So how does The Sopranos qualify as art?  Chekhov wrote that great art does not need to provide all the right answers, but it does need to ask the right questions.  The Sopranos asks us to think about morality, identity, religion, place, parenthood, duty, culture – and that’s just in the first hour.  The series never provides clear-cut answers, we have to grapple with its uncertain truths just as its characters do.  The series is continually haunted by the ultimate question, and in Season 2, Anthony Jr. articulates this question outright: “What is the purpose of life?”  His grandmother’s response is sinister: “Why does everything have to have a purpose…it’s all a big nothing.”  Some viewers and critics marked this as the moment that David Chase revealed the black nihilism of his series.  It seemed that the series was not depicting violence, betrayal, death and depression just for the sake of drama, but that The Sopranos was in fact a dark-hearted expression of meaninglessness itself.  The progressive darkening of SopranoWorld over the following seasons seemed to confirm this interpretation.

While the series certainly does go into some very dark territory, I think that Chase persistently refutes the idea that life is inherently meaningless.  One way he seems to do this is through connectivity.  Chase has spoken on occasion about his conscientious use of “connective tissue” within the series.  This connective tissue is formed narratively, photographically, musically and through allusion and dialogue.  Connectivity is an important way that Chase argues that it is not all a big nothing, and exploring how connectivity works within the show will be one of the major occupations of this website.

This website will not be overly concerned with providing plot summaries, trivia and production details.  There are other resources, including HBO’s website and Wikipedia, that already do that.  This site is for those interested in a further understanding of the series.  (It should go without saying that every page will have spoilers galore.)  My main goal is to uncover how local techniques—that is, specific operations and arrangements within each episode—contribute to the overall design and significance of the series.  To do this, I will slice up scenes, dissect dialogue, probe characters and their motivations.  I will study the program’s organic televisual elements, such as camerawork, sound editing and set design.  I will examine the TV/film conventions that act as the skeleton upon which the series is built.  I’ll tweak every sinew and joint of The Sopranos that I need to in order to gain a better grasp of it.

Let’s begin this autopsy.

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41 responses to “Sopranos Autopsy

  1. I watched The Drop last week and it was good and James was great in it but the Sopranos will always be his masterpiece. Who knows, maybe he would have done something to surpass The Sopranos but we’ll never know now. Maybe the Drop will seem better with a second viewing, like the Sopranos which gets better and better with each viewing.

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    • You might have noticed in The Drop, Gandolfini raises his glass in a toast in his first scene. Luckily I had my flask with me in the theater, so I raised my bourbon and toasted him right back. Buon’anima James.

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      • I love that! Cheers to your website too, the Sopranos opened up the new “golden age” of TV and it is good to see it get the detailed attention you are giving it.

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  2. Thank you for making this most amazing website. I’m currently rewatching this series with my high school senior son, and we’re having the best time analyzing the show. I first watched the show in a HUGE binge last spring, and have to say, am getting much more out of it the second time, especially since I read this blog. Here are the strengths of this blog, and your writing style in general: you have a great conversational tone, but the thinking/critique is really high level; you thin slice well. You are excellent at breaking apart dense ideas, providing examples, and then contextualizing ideas/content. Most importantly, at least to me, is that the way you point things out, especially visual examples, has somewhat trained me to do the same.

    Thanks for a great blog. I plan on using this as an example of excellent writing and analysis in the courses I teach.

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    • Thanks, I appreciate that. The Sopranos still feels so fresh and current that it’s easy to forget it first began airing 15 years ago, which makes it “ancient history” in the minds of many young people – so it’s great to hear that your son is getting so into it. Happy Viewing to both of you!

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  3. I recently started a Sopranos rewatch, and your episode analysis is enhancing the experience immeasurably. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful, insightful work.

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  4. Hey Ron I really enjoy your analysis of Sopranos, when will the new ones be coming out?

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  5. Awesome site! Really enjoy your analysis after I watch each episode. 😀

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  6. thank u for doing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Having recently embarked on my 10th viewing of this incomparable series, I have just come across your site Ron & am now having a great time viewing an episode & then reading your analysis, which is providing even more Soprano hidden gems, most of which I thought I had previously uncovered. Little did I know. Great stuff & I am sure I am not alone in hoping you can get the site finished soon

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  8. I’m stunned by the level of depth you are bringing to these recaps. I always knew the Sopranos to be a deep show but holy crap I wouldn’t have guessed how clever it could be! Like the double meaning of “Boca”, and a hundred other examples. I truly hope you can complete the site, but thank you for what you’ve done so far.

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  9. Impressive site! Doing a rewatch now and I’m trying to decide if its better to read your recap and then watch the episode, or watch and then read….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have been waiting for this blog to finish S05 and S06! I have learnt a lot from your posts! Please post your take on the rest of the episodes. Keeping my fingers crossed! Thank you!

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  11. Hi Ron, I just stumbled upon your blog. I’m so glad. It’s super smart and insightful. The Sopranos, like any great work, deserves a second, third look. As an Italian American, I totally agree w/ Melfi’s son that mob films are classics of American cinema. But more than that, David Chase has created something rare, timeless and important.
    RIP James Gandolfini.

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  12. This blog is to The Sopranos what Wesley Morris and Mark Kermode are to film. You elevate the show, and your insight makes me want to watch it again, and work toward my own thoughts regarding the show and other qualities that speak to literature and art. Cool shit, bro.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Ron! When will you post your analysis for the next episode??? I have been checking every day. I love your site tremendously!!! Your insight is great! Thanks…Claire

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  14. Hey Ron! Dying to read your “Calling all cars” analysis…..Like patience on a monument.😉

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  15. Hi Ron!

    I am watching the Sopranos for the first time and reading your blog has really helped me understand the larger picture. This show is truly a masterpiece. I am only on Season 4 right now, but I look forward to reading your Season 5 + Season 6 analysis. Keep up the good work!

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  16. Excellent Analysis

    Liked by 1 person

  17. So, have you given up, or will we see some additions to this WONDERFUL site soon?

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  18. First, glad to see 4.11 has been posted! I have been eager to read your thoughts on that one, as well as the rest of the series.

    We recently discussed the timeline of this show in a post I made on your excellent analysis of 4.01. In my comment, I noted that someone should try to make a Soprano’s timeline. A timeline for a show like this is not of any particular importance, but simply because I’m really anal about stuff like this, I needed to try my hand at making one. So here are my findings.

    Note: while I tried to do the best job I could, in no way would I claim this to be perfect. Even at points when I thought I had it all figured out, the show would throw a curve ball by veering back in time or ahead in time (based on cultural references made or seasonal events that took place in particular episodes), so consider this an approximation at best.

    Season 1: June 1999 – October 1999
    1.01 is obviously 1997, but let’s retroactively bump it up to 1999, since otherwise there’s a two year gap between the pilot and 1.02. Actually, I would have placed this entire season in 1998 (the summer/fall before it aired), but the events of 1.04, for example, make clear that the action takes place in 1999 (that episode in July, to be more specific)

    Season 2: May 2000 – June 2000
    Without a doubt the hardest season to pinpoint. We have a clear end point, as the finale is Meadow’s graduation, and the banners place her in the Class of 2000. The rest is tricky, as we know it’s only been a few months since the events of 1.13, but 2.01 features a scene with Tony and Janice out by the Soprano’s pool. In the Northeast, pools are rarely opened prior to Memorial Day weekend, so, theoretically, all the action of the season takes place over the course of a single month, which seems unlikely. But then, there are no seasonal changes throughout the season at all – it seems to be summery from beginning to end. The timeline is further confused by the fact that much of the season is spent covering Meadow’s college applications and school sponsored college nights, none of which would take place a month before graduation.

    Season 3: September 2000 – Late January 2001
    The easiest season to pinpoint, as it starts with Meadow settling in at college for her freshman year, and the finale features references to the 2001 Super Bowl

    Season 4: September 2002 – September 2003
    The trickiest part here is figuring out whether the story picks up in 2001 or 2002. It obviously starts in September (AJ has just returned to school), and progresses into October by 4.03 (Columbus Day). Though there are references that could place us in September 2001 (the newspapers AJ gets at school are from 2001), things seem far too “normal” to be directly after 9/11, and references made to 9/11 make it seem like time has elapsed. So, I place the start in September 2002. By 4.10 Svetlana notes that her boyfriend is in Florida for Mets Spring training, and by the end of the season we seem to be in the fall again (Meadow’s birthday is in September, isn’t it?). This season seems to cover the longest span of time.

    Season 5: March 2004 – November 2004
    Things start off with the weather still cold (Benny needs his fleece, after all), and we know it’s 2004 with all the references to the released mobsters as the “class of 2004. The season progresses through the summer months (the pool party in 5.08, Meadow’s sweltering apartment in 5.09), by 5.12 leaves are on the ground as Silvio takes Adriana on a fateful ride. And who can forget Johnny Sack’s face full of snow in the finale?

    Season 6a: April 2005 – December 2005
    Like Season 2, the end is the easiest part to figure out, as the final scene of the season takes place around the family Christmas tree. Carmela goes out to rent Cinderella Man in 6.11 which released on DVD in December 2005. We seem to start in the spring, based on weather and the Terri Schiavo references.

    Season 6b: July 2006 – March 2007
    The headline on Tony’s Star-Ledger flashes “2007 Budget Passes” as the headline, but if you freeze frame, the article is talking about the New Jersey government shutdown which took place in July 2006, and also references the Carolina Hurricanes winning the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals. By 6.17 it’s clearly fall (dress styles, fall colors on trees as Paulie destroys Christopher’s yard, etc), and Carmela notes that she and Meadow saw Rachel Ray on Leno (she appeared on the show in early November 2006). 6.18 features Chris and Tony listening to The Departed soundtrack (the movie released on October 2006). In 6.19 Meadow talks about watching Borat at home, which would place us early into 2007. By the finale, everyone is dressed for winter.

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  19. Well, at least you’re still responding to comments. I’ll keep checking. Really looking forward to your season 6 observations.

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  20. Just found your site and it looks like a goldmine. I’m currently re watching the series, which I’ve seen AT LEAST five or six times through. Sometimes I watch episodes out of sequence simply because they’re so artfully crafted. It still never gets old and I’m still noticing new details. Looking forward to reading through all your articles.

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  21. We want Whitecaps
    *clap**clap**clap**clap**clap*
    We want Whitecaps
    *clap**clap**clap**clap**clap*

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Hey Ron,
    Haven’t seen a new post in months… is this AMAZING site still active?

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  23. Hello, I just wanted to tell you how brilliant you are in writing these write ups! I am such a HUGE Sopranos fan that I’m probably on my tenth go around of the entire series..and still learning something new. I’m so obsessed with the show that whenever I go to the Willowbrook Mall I have to drive over to North Caldwell to drive by the house. I also always drive by Livia’s house in Verona when in the area. I literally live within 15 minutes of all the locations i.e., Holsten’s, Nori Sushi, the motel from “College”, Bada Bings, Fairfield Motors, etc. – where so many great scenes were shot. I still get in awe knowing that the great James Gandolfini and the other brilliant actors were in those actual spots. Anyway, I just discovered your site two days ago and now learning even more with your in-depth comments & observations. You truly are amazing. Just wanted to thank you.

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  24. Thank you!
    Your site is my favorite part of the whole internet.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Really excellent write ups here. Hope you keep it up!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Incredible analysis. You’ve done a wonderful job pulling together different sources and information for each episode. Please, please, please keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Amazing work! I was wondering if you have plans to continue/complete your season 5 episode entries at some point?

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  28. Hey Ron..really you are helping so much by giving so many perspectives on the greatest show ever…and I am dying to read your take on the most edgy episodes..season 6 “Join the club” and “Mayham”…hoping you write them soon.

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  29. So happy to have found your blog! I am a giant fan of film analysis (could watch the Zizek “Pervert’s Guides” movies over and over) and your insights are the best. My boyfriend and I are watching the Sopranos for the first time, and after each episode I can’t wait to read your take. Don’t worry, I don’t mind spoilers. It’s been absolutely excellent so far. We just saw “poor” Ralphie’s exit. Your observations make it even better. Please keep ’em comin’! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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