In the first season of The Sopranos, the FBI proposes an exit strategy. After Tony Soprano survives an attempted mob hit ordered by his uncle, Agent Harris comes to his hospital room, insists that Tony is no longer safe “in the streets or in jail,” and offers him immunity from prosecution and a place in the Federal Witness Protection Program in exchange for testimony against his Mafia associates. Carmela Soprano seems eager to hear more, but Tony tells her that the government’s offer is out of the question:
“You know he’s right, Tony.”
“Nothin’s gonna happen.”
“Wake up, Tony! It already did.”
“I took an oath, Carmela.”
“What’re you, a kid in a treehouse?” . . .
“Whaddaya wanna do, Carmela? Move to Utah? Be Mr. and Mrs. Mike Smith? We could sell some Indian relics by the road. Maybe start a rattlesnake ranch.”
“This is our chance to get out, Tony. We could start a whole new life.”
The questions raised in Tony’s hospital room dominate the sixth (and last) season of the series. What makes gangsters so reluctant to break away from their partners in crime? How can a gangster - or a “civilian” connected with organized crime - “get out” and “start a whole new life”? In light of the sixth season’s meditations on escape, the series’ closing moments may hold a significance that viewers overlooked while reacting to David Chase’s infamous blank screen. When Tony, Carmela, and their children meet at Holsten’s restaurant, we see a gathering of characters who have had many chances to escape from the Mafia but ultimately decided not to pursue a different way of life.
The first character who tries to escape in Season Six is Gene Pontecorvo, previously a minor figure in the Soprano crime family. (As television critic Alan Sepinwall points out, “if you knew him at all, it was as the tall, skinny guy who’s always seen with [the obese gangster Vito Spatafore] in one of the show’s easier running sight gags.”) After he receives a $2 million inheritance, Gene tells Tony about the windfall and asks for permission to retire and move to Florida with his wife and children. Gene does everything he can think of to convince Tony to take his request seriously. He bribes him with a bag of expensive watches. He reminds Tony that he has been a loyal friend since the two men were basketball teammates in their teens. He laments that the aunt who left him the inheritance was “the only person in my life who ever made me feel special.” He even appeals to Tony’s interest in history, noting that Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, a New York City mob boss, retired and moved to Arizona in the 1960s. Tony listens with care, and what seems to be sympathy, but then he mocks the idea of retiring from organized crime and sends Gene away with a vague promise to think it over:
“Deanna and me and the kids - you know how much we love Florida, right? . . . I was thinking about buying a place in Ft. Myers. Retiring there, actually.”
“Retiring? What are you, a hockey player? . . . You took an oath, Gene. There’s no retiring from this” . . .
“It’d mean a lot to me and Deanne.”
“Ah, let me think about it.”
Gene races home to report that the meeting went well, but the remainder of the episode destroys his illusion that Tony is going to set him free. Instead of seriously considering Gene’s request, Tony exploits his employee’s eagerness to start a new life. First he pockets a sizable “taste” of Gene’s inheritance. Then he sends Gene to Boston to murder a gambler who has failed to pay his debts, knowing that Gene will jump at any chance to increase the likelihood that Tony will decide in his favor. After he takes advantage of Gene’s desperation for a week or two, Tony orders his consigliere Silvio Dante to tell Gene that retirement is “a no-go,” avoiding the trouble of delivering the bad news in person. (What Tony fails to realize is that in addition to pleading on behalf of himself and his family, Gene had been trying to do Tony a favor. He was an FBI informant and relocation to Florida would have made it harder for him to provide fresh details about Tony’s criminal organization.) Gene does escape from the Mafia near the end of the episode, but not in the way he had hoped. Overwhelmed by Tony’s veto, his wife’s bitter disappointment, his son’s relapse into drug addiction, and the government’s demands to cough up more information, Gene goes down to his basement, looks through an album of snapshots taken during family vacations in Florida, and hangs himself.
The next character linked with dreams of escape is Tony Soprano himself. After he is shot in the abdomen by his Uncle Junior, Tony plunges into a mob boss’s nightmare. While a surgeon attends to his wounds, the gangster’s subconscious produces a thoroughly unimpressive doppelganger: a middle-aged sales rep, also named Anthony Soprano, on a business trip in Costa Mesa, California. In some ways, Cosa Mesa Tony resembles the Tony Soprano the audience has been observing for years: he lives in suburban New Jersey; he has a wife and two children; he is balding and overweight. The resemblance ends there, however. Costa Mesa Tony is Tony Soprano minus his association with organized crime. His demeanor is gentle. His haircut makes him look like an eighth grader circa 1963. His conversation is laced with hokey expressions such as “you said a mouthful” and “the whole shebang.” And his claim to fame is something that would bore The Real Tony to distraction: he is part of a sales team that “snatched the brass ring twelve consecutive quarters.”
The most conspicuous difference between the real thing and his double, then, is that Costa Mesa Tony has no power. He tries to attend a conference without photo ID (he has lost his wallet and briefcase), but has to take no for an answer - from a pretty young woman the Real Tony probably would have viewed as his next conquest. He tries to check back in to his hotel, but the desk clerk tells him there are no vacancies. Then he tries to seduce a businesswoman he meets in a hotel bar, but once again he is thwarted. The woman says, “This isn’t gonna happen,” and Costa Mesa Tony ruefully accepts her decision. Later, in the most startling section of this extended dream sequence, a Buddhist monk mistakes Costa Mesa Tony for a businessman who has swindled a monastery, slaps his face, and knocks him down. The viewer hates to imagine how The Real Tony would have retaliated. Costa Mesa Tony simply bawls in shock and disbelief: “He hit me! Did you see that?”
As the season continues, Chase and his staff of writers play a series of variations on the theme of escape, staging one subplot after another in which characters break away from the mob and then return. Vito Spatefore is spotted dancing in a leather costume at a gay bar, flees to a small town in New Hampshire, begins a relationship with a male short-order cook, and then goes back to northern New Jersey (and a hideously violent death) because he misses the money and power he had enjoyed as a captain in Tony’s crime family. Christopher Moltisanti achieves his lifelong goal of producing a movie (a gangster/slasher hybrid called Cleaver), but then he returns to the day-to-day business of the Mob and drops into an early grave, with an ice-cold assist from Tony. Carmela Soprano is dazzled by Paris during a vacation with her friend Rosalie Aprile, but then she flies home and resumes her routines as a gangster’s wife. Meadow and A.J. Soprano have love affairs that take them away from their father’s milieu, but their ensuing breakups send them right back to the nest. Late in the season, Tony indulges in what may be the most bizarre Sopranos escape fantasy of them all. Annoyed by the grief engendered by Christopher’s death (Tony thinks his nephew’s addictions have jeopardized the entire Family and everyone should be pleased that the weak link has been removed from the chain), Tony flies to Las Vegas, checks in to a posh hotel, and spends several days impersonating Christopher. He has sex with a stripper Christopher had known for years. He gets blitzed on psilocybin. He shirks his responsibilities, wallowing in pleasure at the expense of the Family. All of this Christopher-like behavior quickly vanishes, however. When Tony gets back to New Jersey, nobody is interested in hearing about his psychedelic visions. His high times in the desert (like Vito’s attempt to begin a new life with his lover Jim and Carmela’s trip to Paris) were nothing more than a vacation; as soon as he gets home, he is expected to get back to work, to continue to take care of his family and his criminal organization.
Each of these subplots follows the same essential pattern: a character breaks free, gets a tantalizing glimpse of life after organized crime, and then returns to business as usual. The kind of escape Agent Harris offered (leaving the Family, starting a new life, and never going back) seems unattainable for Chase’s characters. The characters who do “get out” in Season Six pay horrific prices for their freedom. Gene commits suicide. Ray Curto and John Sacramone die of natural causes. Vito, Christopher, Bobby Baccialieri, and Phil Leotardo are executed. Silvio Dante is shot and slips into what seems to be an irreversible coma. Uncle Junior’s dementia becomes so severe that he can no longer recognize Tony or remember that he spent decades in the Mafia.
The dreams of escape highlighted in Season Six, it seems to me, may shed light on the series’s famously ambiguous final scene. Consider the way the scene unfolds: Tony arrives at Holsten’s, sits down alone, and draws his wife and children to him like a magnet. Carmela joins him first. She has repeatedly tried to break away from Tony through flirtations with other men and separation/threats of divorce, but as the series closes she is still at his side. The next arrival is A.J. He has spent most of the last season trying to distance himself from his father’s way of life (through his engagement to a blue-collar Latina, for example, and a half-baked scheme to enlist in the Army), but all of his plans have fallen through. At the end of the season, he takes a job - arranged by his father, of course - with a mob-connected film company. The last Soprano to arrive is Meadow. She, too, has searched for ways to get out of her father’s shadow, but nothing has panned out for her, either. After her efforts to become an M.D. or a public-interest attorney come to nothing, she accepts a job offer from a criminal defense law firm. Thus, her career will center on the protection of well-heeled criminals like her father. When Meadow enters the restaurant, Tony’s triumph at the end of Season Six becomes complete. Not only has he gone to war against Phil Leotardo, a New York Mafia boss, and won. He has prospered as a gangster without severing his ties to his loved ones. All of that fretting in Season One, it seems, was unnecessary. Unlike the ducks in Tony’s swimming pool, his wife and children prove incapable of leaving him.
From guest contributor Alex Pitofsky