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Tony Soprano is a monster

But his humanity -- and ours -- keeps us hoping for his redemption

With but two episodes left, "The Sopranos" is approaching its endgame. And if creator David Chase does right by us, he'll answer the question that he -- and we -- have mulled since 1999, when a family of ducks first took flight from the Soprano swimming pool. He'll deliver the ironic punch line, or the tragic finish, to the psychological mystery that has had eight years, 80something episodes, and 80,000 miles of analysis as setup: Can Tony Soprano -- loving father, bullied son, long-suffering boss, brutal animal -- be saved? Is there a conscience buried beside all those bodies, underneath the panic and depression?

Because, like Dr. Melfi, and like Carmela, many fans have truly hoped so, despite so much damning evidence to the contrary. For every death Tony is responsible for, and for every goomah he has slept with, he has compensated with charm, childlike sorrow, righteous anger, and a protective love of animals that once led him to murder Ralphie to avenge a horse's death. Indeed, "The Sopranos" has been an almost decade-long viewer tease about Tony's true nature, as he has taken many a step forward -- in therapy, in his marriage, in his compassion for the likes of Vito -- and then two steps backward.

Just when it looks to us like Tony is a man crawling out from a life of ignorance, chemical depression, and toxic parenting, he forces Bobby -- the only innocent left on the crew -- into his first kill. Just when Tony seems somewhat capable of moral awareness, as he talks to Melfi and filters out the bloody parts, he behaves like a sociopath, a codeless maniac like Phil Leotardo. Yup: Just when we think he's out, Chase pulls him back in.

What stops so many viewers from writing Tony Soprano off as just another Jeffrey Dahmer? Why do we still balk at wanting Tony to be punished in the June 10 finale -- by getting thrown in jail, or by losing his own life? Why does the prospect of the Witness Protection Program sound inviting?

Because we keep seeing that glimmer of light in him. A few weeks ago, when Tony stifled Christopher in one of his coldest acts of self-protection and vindication, there were viewers who still found reason to wonder if it was a mercy killing. It's that same spark of optimism and identification that has kept Melfi in the room with Tony, ignoring the possibility that her own shrink recently spelled out for her -- that therapy may only validate Tony's sociopathy. After all that Melfi has seen and heard, she still naively asks Elliot, "What are you saying? My whole work with Tony Soprano, all these years, it's all been a waste of time?"

Melfi, Carmela, and viewers stay in the room with Tony because he stimulates our instinctive belief in some kind of redemption. We like feeling that Tony has the potential to emerge from the thug world he was born into, the world he has kept his own children out of. We can imagine him as a nouveau riche hubby barbecuing in the backyard. We know that he doesn't kill uncontrollably, that a few weeks ago he actually chose not to murder Paulie despite his desire to do it -- something a Dahmer might not have been able to do. Surely he can learn to control his rage, as Melfi -- and viewers -- did after Melfi's rape, when Tony offered a murderous revenge and temptation was in the air?

The show puts us in touch with our own humanity: Maybe even the scum of the earth can be redeemed, as in "Dead Man Walking." Maybe he can find his soul. Are we like him if we want to see him dead?

"The Sopranos" has been able to make us seesaw so thoroughly about Tony and redemption by taking full advantage of the power of serial TV. Chase and his writers have unfolded their portrait of him gradually, with no shortcuts or shorthand, no reductionism. We've seen both his potential to grow, and his resistance to growth, at length (and with the help of James Gandolfini's masterful performance).

"The Sopranos" has had the time that series TV provides to detail Tony -- and almost every other character -- reaching for change and backsliding, over and over again. We see them get better and brighter, as Christopher found sobriety, as A.J. found a purpose, as Meadow found medical school. And then we see them all slip, in a pendulum swing of trying and failing and trying that mimics so much of our existence. Carmela, too, has mustered her own powers many times, and once even broke from Tony; but then she always returns to her denial, where her question about Adriana still rattles its chains.

Some critics have complained about this flipping and flopping, saying that "The Sopranos" is weakened precisely because the characters don't clearly change according to a traditional plot arc. But the back and forths are what have distinguished the series; only the more artificially constructed dramas on TV alter characters overnight and build to simple resolutions. When it comes to an epic like "The Sopranos," messiness is a blessing.

Yes, in later seasons it was sometimes distractingly non-linear to continue to have Tony falling in and out of adultery, or to still have A.J. falling in and out of nihilism. But that rhythm of life has ultimately helped to give the "Sopranos" story its heightened psychological stakes. There is no easy escape from addiction, teen depression, or moral numbness, and "The Sopranos" has never pretended otherwise. But it has always allowed its characters, and its viewers, to have hope -- even though, at least in the case of Tony, that hope is in all likelihood doomed.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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