In this series, twenty one dialogs that reference genetics from the six seasons of the HBO television series The Sopranos are cited and discussed, in chronological order, from the perspective of a fan who is a geneticist. The context of each citation with respect to the plot and characters will be the main focus of discussion.
There are twenty one explicit references to genetics and DNA in seasons one through six of HBO’s The Sopranos television series about a contemporary mafia family in Northern New Jersey. Five of these refer to forensic uses of genetics, but the rest are more personal. All of them serve a utilitarian function by moving the plot along in the show’s wryly sophisticated trademark fashion, while they cleverly remind us of the central dogma of the whole series, the deepest plot strands that spiral through every episode – the dialectic of nature and nurture that animates Tony’s complex struggles, and the nucleus of Tony’s universe: the family.
What better way to capture the wonderful and complex themes of the series that derive from the biological and criminal families that define Tony’s world view than the metaphor of DNA?
Tony and his crew are sitting around in the back room of Satriale’s Pork Store counting cash and otherwise hanging out. “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero is reading a tabloid copy of “Healthy Living” and comes across an article about cloning. Meanwhile, the television is tuned to a talk show host interviewing mob informant Vincent Rizzo who is commenting on the current state of the mob which, they agree, is in a period of decline as Rizzo asks: “Now, do I mean that organized crime is gonna pack its bags voluntarily and got the way of the Dodo bird?”…
Big Pussy: “Cloning.”
Chris: “Mexicans are huge in that.”
Big Pussy: “It’s fascinating, gotta admit it.”
Chris: “Cause they work as parking valets.”
Big Pussy: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Big Pussy: “What about them?”
Chris: “Cell phones.”
Big Pussy: “I’m not talking about cloning cell phones. Jesus, I’m talking about fucking sheep. Science.”
Tony: “I tell my kids, only God can make a life”.
Big Pussy: “Guy here asks, what if they had cloned princess Di?”
Tony: “I got a list of people as long as my leg I wouldn’t want cloned. The fuckin’ mayor of New York, that’s the guy least likely to get cloned.”
TV talk show continues in background…”so the code of silence…You’re always gonna have organized crime. Always. As long as the human being has certain appetites for gambling, pornography, whatever, someone’s always gonna surface to serve these needs.”
Silvio: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
This dialog highlights series-long themes, not the least of which is the humorous semi-literate conversation about topics outside of traditional mobster areas of expertise. A more explicit theme here is the declining state of the mafia. One reason for that is the relatively low level of formal education among its members, exemplified by the conversation about cloning.
While Tony and Big Pussy might deserve some credit for recognizing and understanding the concept of cloning, Chris Moltisanti who represents the next generation in training in Tony’s crew, has no idea what Big Pussy is talking about, and somehow confuses “cloning” with “cell phones”. This comical and fractured discussion among Tony’s crew about the modern genetic technology of reproductive cloning nicely corroborates the discussion going on in the background television interview about the generational decline in organized crime.
The reference by the television commentator of the mafia going the way of the Dodo bird opens up several lines of metaphorical comparison of the mob to biological themes. The obvious one is obsolescence and extinction from an inability to adapt to modern challenges. Another is the possibility of reviving recently extinct species by cloning, which makes the ensuing conversation about cloning less serendipitous than it might seem otherwise. Tony chimes in about people he wouldn’t want to clone, specifically the mayor of New York (Rudy Guiliani, who is campaigning against crime to clean up the city). Chris, who has already confused clones with “cell” phones, and who Tony refers to as his “nephew” will become a kind of cloning project for Tony later in the series when Tony chooses Chris as his “heir” and starts grooming him as his replacement; albeit mainly to insulate himself from legal exposure, much like one might imagine creating a clone as a surrogate to provide spare parts in the service of greater longevity.
Like most attempts at cloning, this project ultimately fails because of fatal flaws in the cloned organism. It is also a nice example of the devolution of the mob from generation to generation, and of a hall of mirrors relationship between uncles and nephews involving Tony; Tony’s biological “Uncle Junior”; Chris who Tony calls his “nephew” even though he’s actually only a “cousin in law” through Tony’s wife Carmela; and Chris’ father, Dickie Moltisanti. While Tony was mentored by Chris’ father after Tony’s father died, Chris was mentored by Tony after Chris’ father died. Later in the series, Tony installs his biological Uncle “Junior” as a figurehead for the Soprano mob family, mainly to insulate himself from risk as he runs things behind the scenes. After Uncle Junior becomes more of a threat to Tony and less effective as head of the family, Tony grooms Chris for this same role. Tony’s uncle Junior, who Tony remembers fondly from his childhood days and respects as his father’s brother, ends up trying to kill him (twice by the end of the series), and Chris, who is genuinely loyal to Tony, ends up being killed by him.
This conversation also establishes a thread of genetics themes and dialogs that recur on a regular basis throughout the series, mostly concerning family relationships and the hereditary basis of psychiatric disorders, and occasionally referring to forensic genetic issues. Although we don’t know yet, at this point in the series, whether this dialog about cloning is a one-time topic of conversation or a precedent for further references, it serves to highlight a feature of Tony’s character that is quite relevant to future roles of genetic dialogs in the series – an earnest streak of self-serving hypocrisy. Tony interrupts the inane conversation between Big Pussy and Chris to state “I tell my kids only God can make a life”. This may be the payoff line for the ultimate meaning of this dialog. First, Tony brings up his own family by mentioning his kids, and if The Sopranos is about anything, it’s about Tony and his “family”.
It might seem to be a stretch to read too much into this scene, but the fact that this is just the second episode of the entire series, and it begins with this dialog about the fading fortunes of the mob and cloning, which is shown, uncharacteristically, before the opening credits and theme song, gives it an unusually prominent position and emphasis. In the first episode, Tony talked with Dr. Melfi about his attachment to the family of ducks that visit his backyard pool, and they discuss a dream he has about the ducks. The conversation about the ducks is so emotional that it brings Tony to tears, and Dr. Melfi quickly realizes that the ducks symbolize Tony’s family. The reference here to the Dodo bird might serve as a symbol, not only of the declining fortunes of the mob, but as an ominous parallel to the ducks as a symbol of Tony’s family. This might explain the emphasis in the dialog on cloning, which is about genetic identity and reproduction, and serves to reinforce the anxiety Tony feels about the security of this family and the prospects for his children given his “profession” and the danger it creates for his otherwise innocent children. While Chris evolves into Tony’s prime candidate for his eventual “replacement” as head of the New Jersey Family to mediate between Tony and the conduct of day to day business, Tony does not want his own son (“AJ”) to assume his role as head of the mafia in Northern New Jersey.
In spite of his anxiety about his family, Tony continues to run the mob. This streak of self-serving pity and hypocrisy which is enabled by Dr. Melfi’s therapy sessions, during which the most prominent discussions about genetics occur later in the series, is highlighted perfectly by Tony’s comment that “only God can make a life”. Tony, who kills people for a living, apparently only reserves making a life for God, and sees no contradiction in his sharing in the divine privilege of taking a life. Tony’s feelings for the ducks, which later generalize to a fierce defense of the lives of various animals (e.g. Pie-O-Mie, Adriana’s poodle) is another fine example of this self-serving hypocritical contradiction and selective self-righteousness.
As the successive genetics dialogs unfold in later episodes, we might wonder why an exquisitely crafted series about organized crime features recurring, explicit dialogs about genetics. The easy answer is that forensic genetic evidence will contribute to Tony’s demise, but this is not the case. The most meaningful references to genetics occur in dialogs about Tony’s biological family, and in particular about the hereditary nature of psychiatric disorders and behaviors that characterize Tony himself- depression and anxiety in particular. This latter focus serves two key purposes. One is that it feeds into Tony’s concerns about his family, and how the fate of his children, especially AJ, is shaped by both nature and nurture. The other is that while the “nurture” part of the equation is something we can influence, the “nature” part is not. The payoff to the series’ worth of genetic dialogs, in the end, is that Tony uses the fact that depression and anxiety are hereditary as an excuse for his own character flaws and those of his son AJ, just as he uses his years of therapy with Dr. Melfi as more of a rationalization for his chosen behaviors rather than as a tool for insight to generate therapeutic changes in his own behavior and in his son’s.
Although most of us could not come close to identifying with Tony Soprano in his role as a sociopathic head of a mafia family, how often in our own lives do we take personal credit for the things we are most proud of about ourselves, and at the same time avoid blame for our weaknesses and failures by attributing them to our genes, the stars, fate, the government, our employer and any other convenient mysterious forces beyond our control? The genetic dialogs in The Sopranos are one of the many universal, non-mafia themes in the show that humanize the characters and allow us to identify with them and care about them in spite of their criminal behavior.