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.
Anthony Jr. and his friends are caught stealing communion wine from church after coming to gym class drunk. AJ is sent to the school psychologist for evaluation, and the test results are consistent with a borderline diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). A conversation at home that evening between Tony and Carmela about AJ degenerates into Tony and Carmela blaming each other for AJ’s behavior, and then Tony mentions that AJ has Carmela and her “Uncle Lenny” in his “gene pool”.
Carmela: “You’re home. If it’s bad, the A.D.D., They put Anthony in special ed.”
Tony: “Doctor say that?”
Carmela: “No, doctors don’t know anything yet. They started the testing this afternoon. I picked up these books at the mall: “Help me to help my child”. Listen to this, “approximately 50 percent of children diagnosed with A.D.D. Receive help from special education teachers in their school.”
Tony: “We don’t even know that’s what he’s got.”
Carmela: “You’re right, let’s just be ignorant. Why worry about anything now?
Tony: “You blame me, don’t you?”
Carmela: “Who said anything about that?”
Tony: “Go ahead, you blame me.”
Carmela: “I blame myself.”
Tony: “For what?
Carmela: “For what?”
Tony: “For staying with me?”
Carmela: “I have two eyes. “
Tony: “And who do we blame our daughter on? Straight “A” student, national honor society, featured soloist in the choir.”
Carmela: “This isn’t going anywhere.”
Tony: “Like father like son, right? What about daddy’s little girl? What about you? You and your uncle Lenny. My son’s got that in his gene pool. Do I blame you for that?”
Carmela: “If it helps you.”
This is the first mention of genetics in the series after the earlier discussion about cloning, and it sets a precedent for many of the later genetics references to come. Unlike the more generic and entertaining discussion about cloning “cell phones”, this one is deeply personal, and serves as a vehicle for developing themes that are critically important to Tony’s biological family relationships. One is that Tony is not above blaming Carmela for family problems that both of them may be responsible for. Another is that Tony and Carmela want AJ to grow up and become successful in “legitimate” society, and not as a criminal in his father’s image. To the extent that AJ fails to live up to their expectations, Tony and Carmela turn to blaming each other, but neither is willing to change their criminal lifestyle to set a better example.
Ostensibly, Tony is the one who frames the discussion of AJ’s borderline A.D.D. in terms of blaming Carmela’s “gene pool”, and defending the integrity of his own lineage by pointing to their much more successful daughter, Meadow. Tony shows, at this early stage in the series, that among the many rationalizations he is capable of using to avoid taking personal responsibility for his behavior is blaming “genes”, whether it is his or Carmela’s. Carmela seems to be above resorting to genetic insults and rationalizations, by countering Tony’s comparison to Meadow by saying “This isn’t going anywhere” and refusing to take the bait and entering into a discussion of whose gene pool is more corrupt by answering “if it helps you” to Tony’s leading question about whether she thinks he blames her family lineage.
Tony is, however, cleverly perceptive in pursing this line of aggressive self-defense because it is Carmela who has gone out and bought books at the mall about “A.D.D.” and special education, and pre-emptively decided to label AJ’s behavior as a medical disorder and “trait” that they can blame his behavior on, even though the A.D.D. diagnosis was borderline as he only displayed five of the nine diagnostic symptoms, one short of qualifying for the official diagnosis. These strategies, respectively, show how Carmela is adept at avoiding responsibility for her complicity in Tony’s criminal behavior by masking their fundamentally antisocial behavior in socially acceptable forms, and how Tony is so adept at rationalizing away any responsibility at all by blaming anyone or anything else, including AJ for just being a screw-up, or Carmela, indirectly, through her family’s suspect genetic heritage.
Tony realizes he can turn Carmela’s medicalization of AJ’s behavior against her by implying that if she’s going to blame his behavior on a psychiatric trait that may be inherited, she must be the guilty party with respect to the genetic source of the problem because of her “uncle Lenny” being in AJ’s gene pool. Tony insulates himself from blame by pointing to their model child Meadow as an example of “Daddy’s little girl”, and by resisting the idea that AJ has A.D.D. in the first place. Tony may seem to be defending AJ by criticizing Carmela for jumping to conclusions about A.D.D., (and by questioning the school psychologist’s methods in their meeting with him) but it’s obvious from Tony’s own behavior that if AJ can be diagnosed with “A.D.D.” then Tony can be as well, so Tony’s instinct to avoid labeling AJ with a psychiatric disorder is probably directed more at protecting himself from any implication that AJ’s behavior is a familial reflection of his own.
There are two more aspects of Tony’s references to heredity worth noting in this context. One is that it establishes Tony as being much more intelligent than the stereotype of a relatively uneducated (compared to the affluent strata of society represented in Tony and Carmela’s upscale suburban neighborhood) first generation college dropout turned gangster. Tony knows, in a clumsy but essentially accurate manner, that A.D.D. is regarded by psychiatrists as an hereditary disorder and he is adept at using that knowledge to his advantage. Many highly educated people, by comparison, are much less cognizant of the extent to which relatively common behavioral traits that have been medicalized as psychiatric disorders and learning disabilities have also been shown to run in families in manner that is consistent with a significant degree of “heritability”. Tony is insightful enough to understand that a diagnosis of “A.D.D.” would implicate him genetically as a candidate for the same diagnosis, and fairly or not, as a genetic liability with respect to AJ’s character.
Although Tony’s ultimate motives might be more twisted and selfish than most parent’s would be in this situation, his intuitive understanding of the science of behavioral genetics is more insightful and clever, up to a convenient point, than one would typically find in many well educated and socially successful (and “legitimate”) professionals. Tony’s preferred strategy of blaming AJ for screwing up, punishing him and moving on (“boys will be boys”, “you can’t put shit back in the donkey”, “what constitutes a fidget?” and “he’s a 12 year old boy: he has a hard-on every ten minutes” ) is not as naïve or ignorant as it might seem to be on the surface.
A second way of reading the explicit references to genetics in this domestic dialog about relatively normal problems in an ethnic Italian-American family’s everyday life is that genetics is being written in to the series to emphasize the extent to which this is a drama about parallel families- The Sopranos as a first generation immigrant family aspiring to the American dream through the immigrant experience of being thrown into the melting pot and working your way out and upward. Success is judged, in large part, by how “American” the next generation becomes.
Tony and Carmela have moved out of the old neighborhood they were raised in, and represent a transition between the immigrants who left their own country and culture to seek new life in America, lived in the ethnic ghetto, worked hard and sacrificed, helped build and enrich their new country and communities, suffered discrimination and prejudice, but made sure their children went to school and to church and had a shot at the American dream- the essentially Americanized suburban affluent kids represented by AJ and Meadow. Tony and Carmela live in an upscale neighborhood, their children go to private schools, eat junk food and consume conspicuously, respect their ethnic heritage and family but are thoroughly American. Carmela is a devoted mother and housewife, Tony works hard to make a living, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he is the head of the Northern New Jersey mafia The Sopranos could almost be a cross between The Honeymooners and The Flintstones. Instead, it is more like a cross between those, Luis Bunuel, Dostoevsky and The Godfather as a post-modern portrayal of American life and values played out in the comical and revealing juxtaposition between the “normal” Sopranos as a classic and ostensibly successful Italian-American family that some 20 million Italian Americans and many other ethnic Ameicans can identify with, and The Sopranos as a crime family in the classical cinematic tradition of the Italian mafia, that few Italian Americans and other Americans can identify with directly, but that all of us are familiar with from the portrayal of organized crime in American popular culture.
The Sopranos gains authenticity and credibility by portraying both the “normal” and“criminal” Sopranos families with amazing accuracy, depth and realism, and achieves a unique level of artistic quality by combining all of these with dialogs and plot developments that rival classic film and literature and set a new standard for television while also succeeding commercially and becoming, itself, a recognizable part of modern American popular culture. As a modern recasting of classic gangster stereotypes, both the “normal” biological Soprano family and the mafia family are presented through Tony’s main character. Tony’s character is, therefore, incredibly complex, and here I propose to read even more complexity into Tony’s character and The Sopranos saga by highlighting and translating the series’ recurrent and conspicuous references to genetics in the context of Tony’s two families.
Why, in a series about a mafia family in affluent Northern New Jersey, would the writers reference genetics, DNA and heredity 21 times in 86 episodes and emphasize the genetics of psychiatric disorders rather than, for instance, forensic genetic applications? David Chase, and the show’s writers, have clearly gone out of their way to insert some fairly sophisticated and detailed references to genetics into many of the episodes.
Given the role that DNA evidence could have played in the show to cause legal problems for Tony and his associates, and given the fact that recent media events like the O.J. Simpson trial, and other television series such as CSI have made forensic uses of DNA a common concept in contemporary American culture, the absence of forensic genetics as a significant plot element in The Sopranos is so unlikely as to be conspicuous.
Even though bodies are routinely cut up in Satriale’s butcher shop, and significant attention is paid to where and how they are disposed of, and we are teased with plenty of instances of DNA evidence being left behind for the FBI to discover (ranging from imported Italian hit men smearing blood on a map while driving away from a job, to Bobby Baccala’s father crashing his car after carrying out a hit, still covered with the blood of his victim, and Bobby Baccala in one of the final episodes, carrying out his first hit, leaving behind a piece of his own blood-smeared shirt splattered with his victims blood, and probably also with blood from his fist-fight with Tony the night before just to mention a few instances) nobody ever comes close to being convicted from DNA evidence, and the FBI never once even refers to DNA evidence despite all the surveillance and indictments. The only references to forensic genetics in the series (below) are by Carmela on how DNA was used to identify “unknown soldiers” by the military, by AJ’s principal to trick AJ and his friend into admitting that they broke into the school and stole a geometry test, and two complaints in Season VI about forensic genetic complications in the disposal of dead bodies and whacking people in general.
The majority of references to DNA in The Sopranos signify the powerful biological family ties that torture Tony throughout the series (e.g. his relationship with his mother, and with his sister Janice), define him through his relationship with children and his extended family, and challenge him by reminding him that his panic attacks are a trait he shares with his father, his “great great great grandfather”and (below) his son. We know when the plot is thickened by events and feelings pertaining to his biological family, because they are often couched in terms of genetic references. Since Tony’s biological family life is so inextricably bound to his criminal family life, explicit references to genetic terminology and concepts helps to keep the two “families” separate and distinct, but also highlights the dynamics of the interactions and tensions between them. Tony’s biological family is more of a hindrance in his job as mob boss than it was for his father, as modern obligations to children and spouses create conflicts with “work” and vulnerabilities that can be exploited by the FBI (much more so than in the “old days”). Even Paulie Walnuts, who isn’t married and preaches against marriage for mobsters, is obsessed, compromised and traumatized by his devotion to his mother.
The use of genetics in The Sopranos, however, is not just superficial or expedient- it is, like the larger work, unusually sophisticated, nuanced and imbedded in multiple layers of meaning. The fact that the plot of the series is tied, from the first scene of the first episode, to Tony’s visits to his psychiatrist gives us an exceptional level of insight into Tony’s character as he and Dr. Melfi discuss his life, his feelings, his problems, and their analyses of them. These conversations occasionally turn to discussions about the genetic bases of various psychiatric disorders that afflict Tony and AJ (e.g. namely panic attacks, depression and A.D.D.), but these conversations, particularly Tony’s habit of blaming his genes for the manifestation of these traits, also conflate references to genes with references to family ties and with references to Tony’s concept of what makes him and others tick, ranging from their strengths and weaknesses to their innermost character and sense of self.
This is a very modern and complex use of genetics, as a surrogate for our individual identities, our “nature” and as a potential explanation for differences between our selves and everyone else. Modern genetic science has defined the essence of the human species in terms of DNA, has mapped out patterns of heredity for complex human traits that run in families, and has begun to associate specific genes with specific diseases and disorders, including psychiatric disorders. Tony may not understand genetics or the fine points of scientific discourse, but he grasps the essence of these perspectives, and uses them brilliantly and comically (a trademark of the series) to his advantage in avoiding responsibility and blame for his behavior, both in therapy, and at “work” by cleverly using what he learns in therapy to enable and rationalize his pathological behavior outside of it.
The Sopranos has also been recognized for representing complex ethical and philosophical dilemmas, some that are only slightly exaggerated forms of compromises that we might make in everyday American life, and some that are commentaries on the extremes of human behavior, with Tony’s individual actions evaluated against a backdrop of multiple forces that shape our behavior in ways that can’t really be teased apart for any one individual.
These include, in Tony’s case, his Italian heritage, his mafia family history, his nuclear family and his manipulative mother in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, mid twentieth century American culture, references to world war II, references to the gangster genre of film featuring The Godfather most conspicuously, but also references to terrorism, Nietzsche and existentialism, Lao Tzu, Buddhism, various perspectives on human behavior from modern psychiatry, and of course, genetics. The references to genetics, as a causal influence on human behavior, is unmistakable from the careful references to genetics by Tony’s psychiatrist. Doctor Melfi explicitly acknowledges biochemical influences on behavior as she freely prescribes Prozac and other drugs, but also couples the pharmacological treatment with intensive psychotherapy.
One of the most impressive aspects of the treatment of genetics in The Sopranos is its sophistication. Not only does AJ (below) correctly cite an approximate number of nucleotides in a human chromosome, but Dr. Melfi, in her discussions with Tony of the genetic bases of psychiatric disorders, never adopts the simple-minded stereotypic straw-man of genetic determinism that is so common in popular culture. Instead, she is careful to distinguish between genes and self, and by her ambivalent but long-term commitment to therapy with Tony, she is modeling the fact that behavior is always a product of complex interactions between biological and non-biological factors, even in the case of someone as deviant as Tony Soprano. She believes that therapy can change him and help him, despite any genetic predispositions.
As if to remove any doubt that The Sopranos is firmly rooted in modern scientific and philosophical world view, near the end of the series Tony meets a fellow hospital patient who is a retired physicist who explains, at some length, a quantum view of reality. Genetic theory is much simpler than theoretical physics, even if human behavior is more complex than the more predictable laws and equations describing the non-living world, so if the show’s writers can tackle 20th century physics, they are not likely to screw up modern portrayals of genetics, and they don’t. In an uncanny parallel to the statistical nature of reality described by modern physics, modern genetic theory describes statistical evidence of genetic influences on behavior, but stops short of predicting absolute genetic effects on the behavior of individuals for a number of reasons: genes can determine the amino acid sequence of a protein, but can’t directly control anything beyond that in a cell, and individual behavior is a complex interaction of genetic and non-genetic influences throughout one’s individual development and history, impossible to describe by any deterministic model on and individual basis.
There are no simple answers, or as we know now, simple endings in The Sopranos, and the show’s writers take full advantage of the power of genetics, as one of many such forces influencing our lives, as a symbol of fate, chance, destiny, kinship, individuality and uniqueness, as well as uncertainty in combination with the many other forces that can reinforce, modify or over-ride genetic predispositions and potentials in ways that can only be realized by playing them out until one of an infinite number of historically constrained and multiply contingent events actually occurs, or not.
The Sopranos is remarkable in the way that it explicitly recognizes and incorporates genetic factors into Tony Soprano’s personal history, character and behavior with a level of sophistication, complexity and indeterminacy that is dead-on accurate in principle. Empirically speaking, the technical practice among quantitative geneticists of estimating a precise numerical heritability for a trait isn’t much more or less informative, for an individual case, than Tony’s method of estimating one’s risk based on the number of affected relatives.