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.
Tony is discussing Anthony Jr.’s behavior and evaluation for A.D.D. with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi.
Tony: “My son is doomed, right?”
Dr. Melfi: “Why do you say that?”
Tony: “Come on- this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you how terrible my father was and the terrible things he did to me. And how he ruined my life. I’ll tell you something, I was proud to be Johnny Soprano’s kid. When he beat the shit out of that guy, I went to the class, I told them how tough my father was.”
Dr. Melfi: “Do you think that’s how your son feels about you?”
Tony: “Yeah, probably. And I’m glad. I’m glad if he’s proud of me. But that’s the bind I’m in. Cause I don’t want him to be like me. He can be anything he wants to be. He can be like this guy I knew in high school. His grandfather invented these
little ties that go on the end of salamis, made millions of dollars sitting on his ass.”
Dr. Melfi: “Have you communicated any of this to your son? “
Tony: “Not in so many words. Probably not at all. What difference would it make, you said so yourself. It’s in the blood. It’s hereditary.”
Dr. Melfi: “Genetic predispositions are only that, predispositions. It’s not a destiny, written in stone. People have choices.”
Tony: “She finally offers an opinion!”
Dr. Melfi: “Well they do. You think that everything that happens is pre-ordained? You don’t think human beings possess free will?”
Tony: “How come I’m not making fuckin’ pots in Peru? You’re born to this shit. You are what you are.”
Dr. Melfi: “Within that, there’s a range of choices. This is America.”
Tony: “Right. America.”
This is the third direct mention of genetics on the show, and it serves to draw attention to the idea that the pathological behavior in the Soprano family is a function of both nature and nurture, but in the context of a number of other ambivalent and complex forces making Tony’s life, and the plot of the show, richly complicated. Anthony Jr. has been evaluated for Attention Deficit Disorder by the school psychologist, who has determined that Anthony Jr. is a borderline case. Tony resents the idea that what seems like normal behavior to him for a 12-year old is treated as a disease.
Tony is also worried that Anthony’s disruptive behavior at school might be a sign that he is destined to follow Tony into a life of crime, which isn’t what it used to be, and which Tony doesn’t want for his son. We see the similarities and differences between Tony’s experience with his father and Anthony’s current situation. Although Tony and Carmela are much less dysfunctional than Tony’s own parents were, Tony recalls how he was proud of his father in spite of his realization that he was a criminal capable of violent behavior. Tony realizes that Anthony Jr. may feel the same way about him once he figures out what he does for a living, but Tony knows that there’s no future in the mafia any more and he doesn’t want Anthony’s difficulties in school and his lack of conventional ambition to lead him, by default, to an interest in Tony’s business.
One would think that Tony’s childhood in the Italian section of Newark where the mafia was endemic to the culture would explain his career choice, while Anthony’s experience as a kid growing up in an affluent New Jersey suburb would guarantee his passage into legitimate society. Tony has, however, generalized an assumption that attention deficit disorder is hereditary to the possibility that Anthony Jr. is “doomed” to gravitate toward the same life of crime because heredity is working against him in spite of his more favorable environment. Besides parental influences, social and cultural influences, the decline of the mafia from its golden era of Tony’s childhood, the possibility of genetic predisposition to criminality emerges as a crack in the image of America as a land of freedom and opportunity where even the children of second generation immigrant mafia dons can aspire to follow the conventional American dream.
Tony and his sister Janice are sharing a cigarette by the pool just after Janice has returned to New Jersey after many years away from home.
Tony: “You look sensational Janice- not a line.”
Janis: “Two beautiful kids- you must be proud.
Tony: “Yeah, yeah- how about that, huh? Even with our genes.
This fourth reference to genetics on the show continues to develop the “nature-nurture” theme with respect to the pathological behavior of the Soprano family as a function of both nature and nurture. Tony’s therapy sessions with Doctor Melfi have focused largely on stresses related to his work and his relationship with his mother Livia, but his panic attacks imply something physiologically defective as well. The return of Tony’s sister Janice, and her subsequent prominence in the plot and in Tony’s personal life turns the focus of the show even more toward Tony’s family dynamics amidst the plot lines revolving around organized crime.
Tony, his wife Carmela, his daughter Meadow and his son AJ are sitting down to a dinner of macaroni and cheese.
Carmela: ” …did everybody take a vow of silence or something- nobody’s got anything to report”?
AJ: “I gotta write a report on DNA for biology.”
Carmela: “Isn’t that interesting! I just saw, on Inside Edition, how there will be no more unknown soldiers because of DNA now. They will be able to identify every single casualty of combat.”
This fifth mention of genetics, by explicitly referencing “DNA”, albeit through AJ’s dim grasp of the subject, injects state of the art genetic science directly into the dialog. This adds a modern touch to the more traditional sense of heredity through familial resemblance, by referring to the molecular level of mechanism underlying the inheritance of biological characteristics that operates in parallel with non-genetic familial inheritance through culture. This explicit reference to DNA puts the old “nature/nurture” dichotomy into a modern context. Tony’s earlier somewhat facetious remark to his sister (“even with our genes”) could be taken to mean simple familial resemblance that doesn’t clearly separate genetics from culture and other environmental factors, since the context and use is somewhat colloquial, and Tony is adept at picking up new language and working it into his conversation in new contexts whether he knows what it means or not. This explicit mention of DNA, however, in a conversation among members of a nuclear family around the dinner table, clearly identifies a hereditary mechanism that is causally independent of all social, cultural and other environmental factors but is also at the core of our individuality, family and humanity.
Carmela’s animated response to AJ’s contribution to the dinnertime conversation, in which she elaborates on the Inside Edition show featuring the use of DNA to ID “unknown soldiers” unwittingly describes a forensic genetic technology that is a real and immediate threat to Tony in his line of work and which applies to Tony and his “soldiers” just as well as the unknown soldiers Carmela is talking about. Whether or not this introduction of forensic genetic technology into the dialog foreshadows future problems for Tony and his crew remains to be seen.
The family is sitting down to dinner again.
Carmela: “Tony we’re sitting down!”
AJ: “Ma, DNA- it’s invisible right? But guess how many nucleotides are on each strand?”
Meadow: “Tell her!”
AJ: “A hundred million!”
Carmela: “Wow, that’s amazing.”
This dialog picks up where the previous one left off. Here, AJ almost gives a little “mini-lecture” on genetics. Carmela’s response, however, is more lukewarm this time. We know that AJ doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about. Carmela’s “Wow, that’s amazing” comment after Meadow’s impatient “Tell her!” lacks enthusiasm, and Tony is oblivious to the whole conversation. What’s the point of introducing these two relatively technical pieces of information (DNA is colorless, and each strand has “a hundred million” nucleotides)? One is to reinforce the notion that the previous mention of DNA was not just an ephemeral event in the plot line- here we’re being hit over the head with it.
A second observation is that nobody is very interested in it, except AJ, who is the least capable of understanding its significance. Carmela may have unconsciously recognized that her connection, in the previous conversation, to the use of genetics to ID unknown soldiers is a dangerous threat to Tony and she may not be so eager to encourage further conversation about it, especially given the mood that Tony’s in. Tony is depressed and has more important and immediate problems on his mind. Meadow is annoyed.
As viewers, we’ve been alerted to an additional level of complexity to add to the mix of plot lines, character development, dramatic elements, and possibilities for future directions that may, or may not be followed up or played out, and that make the show so much like “real life”. This may be the point of the additional information presented here. The reference to DNA being “invisible” is interesting because, as far as we’re aware, it is as invisible, but potentially as important as our “mind” or “soul” as an explanation for our behavior. Our DNA does its job shaping our nature and development without any conscious effort on our part.
Whether we think of our genetic heritage in the traditional sense of “family” resemblance, or in the more modern sense of our own personal DNA sequence, we know that much of our individuality and humanity is derived from our hereditary biological makeup. We don’t have to be aware of the billions of nucleotides in each of our cells, or of genes switching on and off as we think, act and react from moment to moment in our lives. We can’t really separate out the role that our genes play, on an individual level, from culture, our individual histories and the moment at hand, and all the other causal factors that define our existence and blend into our unitary sense of self.
This is part of the drama that exists in our own lives that is captured so well by The Sopranos – the complexity of our multiple identities as an individual. We understand Tony through his identity as a mafia don, as a father, a spouse, a psychiatric patient, a friend, as an Italian-American, and on and on and on, and now we can view Tony through his DNA as well.
The relative indifference of the rest of the family to AJ’s enthusiastic update on his technical understanding of DNA may also reflect the fact that unless we’re talking about a cure for cancer, a way to slow down aging or a way to enhance socially desirable qualities in ourselves or our children, most non-scientists aren’t particularly interested in the technical aspects of genetics. They are, however, often fascinated with the mythology of genetics on a personal level, and eager to use “genetics” in the service of rationalization, justification, or personal historical revisionism as an integral part of the “story” that all of us have the privilege of constructing, after the fact, to explain and justify our existence and our behavior. Our current understanding of genetics is sophisticated enough to know that genes are a real and integral part of what we are as a species and as an individual, but it is still incomplete enough so that we can’t explain exactly what we can attribute to our genes versus everything else that defines us as human and as individuals. This is very convenient because we can, like Tony does, pick and choose what we want to take credit for ourselves in our individual lives, versus what we want to blame on our genes or on myriad non-genetic factors whether real or imaginary. Our DNA does not, by itself, determine anything about us with that much precision other than the amino acid composition of the proteins in our bodies.
Why does AJ note, specifically, that there are “a hundred million” nucleotides on each strand of DNA? I suspect that one reason is to convey a sense of the immense complexity and density of genetic information so as to telegraph to the viewer that in spite of the amazing precision and objectivity that DNA fingerprinting may permit when it is used for forensic identification, adding psychiatric behavioral genetic elements to the plot will only make Tony’s character that much more complex and multivariate.
This is very rich material for Tony (and all of us) to work with in the show and in our own lives, respectively, and raises legitimate questions about how much control we really have over our lives and circumstances.
AJ is visiting his grandmother, Livia, in the hospital after overhearing a conversation at home where Janice is trying to talk Tony into authorizing a “Do Not Resuscitate” order for Livia.
AJ: “Gramma- what’s DNR?”
AJ: “DNR- it’s initials, like, I do this report on DNA, but I heard Dad and Aunt Parvoti talking about your DNR- so is that, like, similar?”
Livia: “Huh? You mean Janice- Janice- they were talking about me?”
AJ: “About your DNR. Cuz that’s what’s confusing- like DNA, everybody’s got that.”
Livia: “She thinks I should have a DNR?”
AJ: “Or that Dad should give it to you or something. Because what if you went into a coma or something? But DNA doesn’t prevent comas, does it? I don’t know- I gotta do this report by Monday.”
AJ’s innocent conversation with Livia about DNA triggers Livia’s realization that Janice wants a DNR (do not resuscitate) order on her medical chart. Livia wastes no time in accusing Janice of plotting against her, talks about Janice’s teenage drug use with her nurse in front of Janice, and even goes so far as to call Carmela as if to begin giving her instructions on what to do “if something should happen” to her. Livia appears to be on the verge of giving Carmela information about money she wants to leave to the children, but Carmela, who is unaware of what’s going on between Janice and Livia, hangs up on her. This juicy plot development is set up nicely by the two earlier dinnertime conversations with AJ about DNA.
A more distant plot connection, that may just be a coincidence, is suggested by AJ’s confused non-sequitur from “DNA” and “DNR” to DNA and comas:
“Because what if you went into a coma or something? Because DNA doesn’t prevent comas, does it”?
Besides moving the plot along nicely with respect to the dynamics between Tony, Livia and Janice, does this reference also foreshadow Tony spending part of Season VI in a coma? Uncle Junior finally succeeds in doing in Season VI what he failed to do in Season II by shooting Tony and putting him in a coma. AJ’s question about DNA and comas could be taken two ways: on the one hand, shared DNA doesn’t prevent Tony’s own relatives from trying to kill him. On the other hand, once Uncle Junior succeeds, through his dementia, in nearly killing Tony, it’s the voices of Tony’s own children that are foremost in Tony’s consciousness when he awakes from his near death experience.
Tony’s emergence from the coma also occurs right after an imaginary conversation in which he tells a hotel bartender that he’s recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and that his uncle also has memory loss and it may be hereditary (see dialog 12 below). These juxtapositions suggest that the relatively few but conspicuous mentions of DNA in connection with Tony, Livia, Uncle Junior and death, dementia and comas are meant to reinforce the core dramatic elements that constitute the “DNA” of the entire series.