The Chicago Syndicate: Warming Up for The Sopranos' Swan Song

Monday, June 11, 2007

Warming Up for The Sopranos' Swan Song

With the end coming for Tony Soprano, wanna bet on his last words? I figure one word will do:


If he says "Mama," the Oedipal gangster is ending where he began, though I'm not wagering money. Placing bets about the end of "The Sopranos" with offshore Internet gaming companies would be too ironic, even for me.

Or, Tony might offer up a pathetic "I'm sorry," after he's been betrayed by a friend, the universe contracting in that last moment of excruciating clarity, when there's so much to say but no time left to say it. But the only one he could tell is Paulie Walnuts, so why bother?

Then again, Tony might live. And his last words could be, "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," as he sits in the witness stand, ballooning out of his suit, staring glumly at old colleagues at the defense table.

He'd have something in common with real-life Chicago mobster Nick Calabrese and his old pals, who will show up soon in the federal building in Chicago for the upcoming and historic Outfit trial, to the dismay of those who simpered that the Outfit was dead and that Chinatown tough guys are the stuff of fiction.

Either way, it's been a fine ride, and I've loved it and laughed along with it, and tonight it's over, with "The Sopranos" final episode on HBO after an eight-year run.

I'm old enough to have witnessed other pop-culture spasms of ritual mourning for television shows, and loathed them all, cringing at words like "iconic" and "touchstone" being applied to what escapes the idiot box. I've been nauseated by eulogies of comedy/dramas about sex-crazed Army doctors in Korea or sex-crazed alcoholics in Boston sports bars where everybody knows your name, even the drunken mailman. But here I am, in ritual, reeking of incense, and I can't help it, because "The Sopranos" was great drama and great TV.

What a premise: the dysfunctional suburban gangster family and the boss undergoing therapy, appraising the legs of his psychiatrist week after week, and the whiny children and the wife who made her bargain with blood money and decided to keep it. And the guys, Paulie and Big Pussy and Bacala, and Christopher seduced by Hollywood like others before him, and Silvio, who ran the strip club, yet was appalled that his teen-age daughter could be seen as a sexual object by a soccer coach.

The hook was a natural, and for years we sat safely in our living rooms, enjoying characters offered up as the last unrepentant white males, saying what they wanted, grabbing what they wanted, smoking, drinking. And we remain locked on the other side of the screen, in an increasingly bureaucratic, timid and politically correct modern American landscape.

No wonder Tony Soprano's crew stood out like broken thumbs on the hands of a mannequin in a window.

Corruption was the constant theme, not only the pimping and the muscle stuff and the gambling, but corruption with the stain of legitimate business upon it. It was realistic, too, in its analysis of politics. Organized crime can't survive without the support of politicians and judges and police officials, in those towns where billions of dollars in public works and development deals are skimmed. We viewers understood all this, if not in our bones, then somewhere in the inarticulate ligaments of our wrists, as we signed our names on tax forms. But millions were also turned off by the show when one of the gangsters had his questionable sexuality challenged by a dimwitted stripper, and he beat her to death in the parking lot of the Bada Bing. A woman at work was visibly shaken by the scene of the stripper's murder and could not believe they could be so cruel. But that's what they are, I told her. That's who they are. They're criminals.

They run suburban abortion clinics and rely on our respect for privacy to shield them. They're shot down in the vestibules of fried chicken restaurants at morning meetings, pawing the glass doors as they fall. And if they're lucky enough to die shriveled with age, as did the ruthless Chicago Outfit hit man Marshall Caifano, then their children fill their coffins with crucifixes asking Jesus to save them.

"The Sopranos" creator David Chase told the truth and created characters that are aped by the wise guys, and the guys who ape wise guys on Rush Street, much as their grandfathers aped the fictional persona of Edward G. Robinson's "Little Caesar," a case of life imitating art.

It was art, as Chase allowed his characters to reveal themselves. "The Godfather" films glamorized the wise guys, and though many Italians know the lines from those films, many -- including my wife who is now hooked on the show -- felt insulted by Tony Soprano, and argued that he glorified crime. But in the end, is Tony glorious? In the episode preceding the finale, he was hiding out in a dump, on a bed without sheets, in his clothes, staring at the ceiling in the dark, cradling a gun, waiting to be betrayed.

I expect he calls on his mother when, and if, he goes. But don't bet on it. Gambling's illegal -- unless it's government-approved.

Thanks to John Kass

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