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 and his brother in law, Bobby “Baccala”, are out on a lake in upstate New York on Bobby’s motorboat. Tony is talking to Bobby about the chances of a mob boss ending up in jail or dead, about giving Bobby more responsibility in the organization, and about Bobby’s father, a barber by profession who was also known as “The Terminator” among his mob associates. The dialog picks up below with Bobby talking about getting whacked. Tony responds with a reference to Bobby’s stuffed deer head mounted on the wall of his cabin, but then turns the conversation around to the fact that Bobby has never actually killed anyone in all his years in the mob.
Bobby: “I mean yeah- our line of work- it’s always out there. You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?”
Tony: “Ask your friend in there- on the wall.”
Bobby: “Listen to us. Morbid fucks.”
Tony: “You know come to think of it you never popped your cherry in that regard, right?”
Tony: “Yet your old man was the fuckin terminator-“
Bobby: “I come close, I done other shit, but… no.”
Tony: “Ah salute! It’s a big fat pain in the balls.”
Bobby: “Specially now with DNA evidence. My Pop never wanted it for me.
Said there were times with all the worry when he wished he coulda just stayed in the shop full time. Just cut hair.”
Tony: “To be honest, I’d rather he fuckin shot me than cut my hair!”
This dialog seems to be setting up several possibilities for wrapping up the series, and once again, raises the tension for a possible role of DNA evidence for landing Tony or his crew in legal trouble. Tony is setting up Bobby to replace Chris as his “hair apparent”, but Tony may be thinking out loud about reservations he has with respect to Bobby’s credentials when he brings up the point that Bobby hasn’t yet actually killed anyone in the line of “duty”. Bobby cites “DNA evidence” by way of concurring with Tony about how killing people has become more complicated in the business. As it turns out, Tony remedies Bobby’s “problem” by arranging a hit for Bobby related to their business with their Canadian contacts for back-dated pharmaceuticals. Bobby proceeds to carry out the hit while leaving a DNA trail a mile long after the victim rips off a piece of Bobby’s blood-stained shirt, which, if he hasn’t changed it from the night before, might also contain traces of Tony’s blood from Bobby and Tony’s fistfight during the Monopoly game. Then Bobby throws down the gun on the way out, which he handled with his bare hands.
This scene also figures into the debate over the ending of the series, as Bobby speculates, about being shot, “you probably don’t even hear when it happens, right?” as if Tony should know. The enigmatic series finale, of course, has the screen going blank and no sound, as if to recall Bobby’s comment and imply that the series ends with Tony being killed according to Bobby’s scenario. There are at least two reasons to discount this scene as a foreshadowing of the final episode. One is that Bobby doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Another is that Jerry Torciano, one of John Sacrimoni’s potential successors, is killed during a dinner with Silvio in the very next episode, in a scene where the hit takes place in slow motion with no sound. This is a direct projection of Bobby’s comment about not hearing it, and it also emphasizes the fact that Silvio was taken completely by surprise as he was not in on the hit.
There is, however, one subtle hint of the possibility that Tony’s future might include being whacked when Tony says “I’d rather he fuckin shot me than cut my hair” in a joking reference to Bobby Baccala’s father, who ran a barber shop but was, as Tony also notes, “the fuckin terminator”.
The New York boss, John Sacrimoni has died of cancer, just like Jackie Aprile in the first season of the show, leaving a vacancy at the top of the hierarchy. Phil Leotardo, the acting boss while John has been in prison, has shown little interest so far in taking over as boss, leaving the field to old-timer Doc Santori, who takes out Gerry Torciano, a younger rival, and to Little Carmine Jr., who has already told Tony he doesn’t want the job.
Meanwhile, Phil is presiding over a family gathering in honor of his younger brother Billy on what would have been his birthday. Billy was killed by Tony Blundetto from the New Jersey family, who was Tony Soprano’s cousin. Phil is telling the youngsters in the Leotardo family how his grandfather’s name in Sicily, “Leonardo”, was changed at Ellis Island to “Leotardo” and how the “Madigans” (Americans) disrespected a proud Italian heritage by naming us after a ballet costume. Phil is talking with his friend “Butchie”, blaming himself for not avenging his brother Billie’s death.
Butchie: “How you doin Phil- you ok?”
Phil: “Twenty-seven, he was was a fuckin kid. Me, I’m an old man. I’d like to do it over boy, lemme tell ya. I fuckin compromised everything.”
Butchie: “Naah, what are you talking about?”
Phil: “Twenty years inside- not a fuckin peep, for what? To protect the likes of Rusty fuckin Milio? Doc Santoro?”
Butchie: “You were a man Phil- that’s sayin a lot nowadays.”
Phil: “That cocksuckin piece of shit Tony Soprano’s cousin- I can’t even say his name. Murdered Billie. And what did I do about it? My weakness. Sometimes I think it’s in my DNA. My family took shit from the Madigan’s the minute we got off the boat.”
Butchie: “C’mon- what the fuck you talking about?”
Phil: “Leotardo! That’s my fuckin legacy. No more Butchie. No more a dis…”
This scene seems structured to highlight both parallels and contrasts between Tony and Phil Leotardo. Phil essentially announces that he’s going on the warpath to assert his authority as John Sacrimoni’s successor, and to finally take revenge on Tony for killing his brother Billie. Phil is going to get what’s coming to him, and also make sure Tony gets what’s coming to him. Phil’s determination is fueled by a lifetime of pent up frustration and a feeling of victimization for playing “by the rules”: not betraying anyone when he was arrested and doing twenty years as a result of not making any deals, not personally exacting revenge against Tony or his family for Tony Blundetto’s hit on his brother, and even retroactively reclaiming his family’s honor after making a point of his family being renamed at Ellis Island after a “ballet costume” instead of Leonardo da Vinci, at least as he tells it. Phil has the air of someone who has made an irreversible commitment where there’s no turning back. You can feel the tension already heading toward a showdown with Tony by the end of the series. You know, too, that Phil will lose, as he has all along (especially now that we’ve seen the final episodes!).
A parallel that this dialog establishes with Tony is that DNA (family) is a powerful determinant of an individual’s fate. Tony has, throughout the series, whined about the “putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene”, and blamed heredity for his own depression and panic attacks, and also AJ’s. Now Phil is blaming his genes too, for his “weakness.” Tony has consistently overcome these inherent flaws with his compensating strength, cunning, ruthlessness, sociopathic charm and powers of manipulation. Phil, by comparison, has always been more of a follower than a leader, usually backs down under pressure, takes real pride in his loyalty and work ethic, is more rigid in his principles than Tony and, therefore, less able to imagine and rationalize more expedient and self-serving behavior by applying “situational ethics”.
The fact that both men attribute much of their core character to their “DNA” suggests that their archetypal behavior patterns are not going to change, but instead are going to play out true to form. Tony seems to bounce back from his episodes of anxiety and depression with periods of exuberance and excess mixed with anger, violence, sex, drugs, gambling, life and death risks, consolidation of power and extreme self-satisfaction. Phil doesn’t know what any of those feel like: he just doesn’t have the DNA for it. While Tony may be the best bet in a war between him and Phil, any such confrontation is likely to be a detour for Tony, who we suspect will ultimately over-reach and succumb to one or more of his own fatal character flaws, but in a more ambivalent ending than Phil will ever be able to deliver.
Chris and Tony talking at Chris’ house during a barbecue.
Tony: “That non-alcoholic shit any good?”
Chris: “It’s alright.”
Tony: “Less filling, tastes like ass! Ahh this is nice. Bout time you invited everybody over.”
Chris: “Kelly’s idea. She’s been waiting to get her teeth wet with the entertaining.”
Tony: “Good thing- or else I’d never see you.”
Chris: “What are ya talking about?”
Tony: “Steak’s done.”
Chris: “Ya think so?”
Tony: “It keeps cookin even if it’s off the flame, the juices. Alright, so what’s up with you? You been like a ghost lately. You’re around one second, next thing you’re gone.”
Chris: “I was by The Bing the other day.”
Tony: “For like five minutes.”
Chris: “You know, you of all people should understand how hard it is for me to be around that place.”
Tony: “I should? Why?”
Chris: “Because you’re in therapy. You understand the human condition at least… Still doin that?”
Tony: “Turn those ribs!”
Chris: “Truth is, between the booze and the strippers over there, half of them are fuckin coke heads. It’s hard, you know? And Satriale’s, that fridge full of beer, you know how tough it is to eat sausage and peppers without a cold one?”
Tony: “Why don’t you just quit? If you wanna beer, too bad. Show some balls!”
Chris: “I got balls.”
Tony: “I can’t eat eggplant no more because of my stomach- might put me into a relapse. Now believe me I’d like to but I don’t.”
Chris: “It’s not that simple.”
Tony: “Well make it simple.”
Chris: “It’s a disease! I inherited it. You know the problem with my mother.”
Tony: “I gotta be honest- this whole disease concept. I think it’s bullshit.”
Chris: “So you know more than the leading scientists?”
Tony: “I know a crutch when I see one.”
Chris: “So my Dad? You obviously musta knew he had a crutch.”
Tony: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Chris: “C’mon Tone- huh? Between the coke, the vodka, whatever the fuck else he was squirtin up his arm. Let’s be honest about the great Dickie Moltesanti- my Dad- your hero- wasn’t much more than a fuckin junkie.”
Here Tony’s genetic hypocrisy reaches new heights. He accuses Chris of using the “disease” concept of addiction (“It’s a disease! I inherited it.”) as a crutch for not having the balls to resist temptation (like Tony does by not eating eggplant!). All along, however, Tony has blamed heredity for his panic attacks and depression, and for AJ’s too! Tony’s line of argument comes back to bite him when Chris mentions that it’s not just his mother who struggled with alcohol addiction, but his father, “the great Dickie Moltesanti” who Tony viewed as his mentor in his early days in the mob, and Chris now describes as a “fuckin junkie”. The bond that Tony had with Chris’s father is reflected in the bond that Tony has with Chris, and Chris has trapped Tony into painting both he and his father with the same brush- alcoholics and drug addicts with no balls (and a chronic liability to Tony as a consequence).
Tony must also realize that his idealized memory of Chris’ father was naïve, and that Chris, by implication, must have few illusions about Tony’s character flaws and vices as well. In one brief moment the special bond between Tony and Dickie Moltesanti, and by extension between Tony and Chris, is shattered by Tony’s realization that Chris already sees both his own father and Tony, and himself for what they really are- textbook cases of psychopathology. At least Chris is more honest about his own behavior. In this respect, Chris understands “the human condition” far better than Tony- who generally just understands and cares about his own condition and has little use for anyone else’s problems other than to figure out how he might profit from them. Unfortunately for Chris, he understands, and reveals too much, and without Tony’s illusion of carrying on a tradition of mentorship (not to mention grooming a second in command to do his dirty work) Chris is no longer ”protected”, and he’s probably already a dead man in Tony’s mind at that point. Tony has already begun testing out Bobby Baccala as an alternate for Chris, and now Bobby, his brother in law with a good mob pedigree, a notch in his gun, money in the bank with Tony for taking care of Uncle Junior all those years, is looking like a much better bet to inherit Tony’s patronage than Chris.
Tony talking to Dr. Melfi about AJ’s depression and despair resulting from losing his girlfriend, Blanca.
Tony: “Anyway, I was comin here to quit, had it all planned out, but guess what? My son is talking suicide- so now I’m trapped here forever.”
Dr. Melfi: “My God- what did he say?”
Tony: “His girlfriend- fiancé- whatever, she broke up with him. He’s beyond devastated.”
Dr. Melfi: “Would you like me to recommend someone for him to talk to?”
Tony: “Carmella’s getting a referral from his own pediatrician.”
Dr. Melfi: “Oh.”
Tony: “After that incompetent you sent Meadow to? …So I suppose now comes the inherent fuckin grillin about how I feel about all this.”
Dr. Melfi: “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Tony: “Y’know friends of mine, they got sons his age, an, they’re happy, ambitious, they fuckin take life as it comes.”
Dr. Melfi: “I know it seems that way, but do you really know these other boys?”
Tony: “I know what I see. My son curled up on the couch in a fetus position, when he should be out bangin coeds.”
Dr. Melfi: “Have you talked to him?”
Tony: “Till I’m blue in the face. We both have. But now we’re afraid to talk to him because of what he might do. Obviously I’m prone to depression- a certain, bleak attitude about the world. But I know I can handle it. The kids though. . .It’s like: when they’re little, and they get sick,… you’d give anything in the world to trade places wid’em- so they don’t have to suffer. . . and then to think you’re the cause of it…”
Dr. Melfi: “How are you the cause of it?”
Tony: “It’s in his blood, this miserable fuckin existence…my rotten fuckin putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul…”
Dr. Melfi: “I know this is difficult. But I’m very glad we’re having this discussion.”
Tony: “Really? Really- because I gotta be honest, I think it fuckin sucks.”
Dr. Melfi: “What does?”
Tony: “Therapy- this- I hate this fuckin shit! Seriously, we’re both adults here right? So, after all is said and done, after all the complainin and the cryin, after all the fuckin bullshit, is this all there is?”
In season III, Episode 39, “Army of One” Tony blames AJ’s behavior on “that putrid, rotten, fucking Soprano gene”. At that time, Dr. Melfi responds to Tony by saying “when you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself, and that’s what we should be talking about”. Here, years later, it’s déjà vu all over again for Dr. Melfi. This time, Tony sounds like he’s the victim, because now he has to continue therapy when he was about to quit. He’s learned nothing, and blaming genes again is getting old: “my rotten, putrid fucking genes have infected my kid’s soul”. By the end of the discussion, it’s starting to sound like Tony’s the one who’s depressed, but when Dr. Melfi tries to draw him into talking more about it, he just complains about how therapy sucks and asks “is this all there is”? Unbeknownst to Tony, Dr. Melfi’s own therapist has supplied her with a recent journal article supporting the idea that sociopathic patients tend to use therapy to make themselves even better at manipulating other people, including the therapist. Tony went into the session thinking of leaving Dr. Melfi and ends up by taking her willingness to treat him for granted and just complaining about how useless therapy has been. By the end of the session he seems to have convinced Dr. Melfi that her therapist may have been right: after all the bullshit, this is all there is.
AJ has tried to drown himself in the pool, and Tony and Carmela are talking over coffee at breakfast the morning after AJ comes home from the hospital.
. Tony: “I can’t shake it.”
Carmela: “Shake what?”
Tony: “I’m depressed.”
Carmela: “Excuse me?”
Tony: “I’m depressed.”
Carmela: “I’m telling you- don’t you start now.”
Tony: “What does that mean?”
Carmela: “It means what it means. I have enough on my plate. I don’t need you adding to it with your bullshit.”
Tony: “Bullshit? It’s an illness- an it’s fuckin hereditary.”
Carmela: “Thank you. I know. I am intimately familiar with the Soprano curse. Your father, your uncle, your great grandfather who drove the donkey cart off the road in Avellino- all of it.”
Tony: “So you think it’s a joke?”
Carmela: “Am I laughing?”
Tony: “Then what are you saying?”
Carmela: “He didn’t get it from my family- that’s all I’m gonna say.”
The irony of Tony trying to convince Carmela that his depression is not “bullshit” (it’s an illness- it’s fuckin hereditary”) after Tony’s earlier conversation with Chris Moltisanti, where Tony accuses him of using the heredity argument about his alcohol addiction as a “crutch” is not so much lost on Tony as wasted. Carmela proves to be more than a match for him, and decides that if he’s going to blame genes, then it’s not her family’s genes that are the problem. Tony gets no sympathy from Carmela, and later in the same episode, he revisits the issue with Dr. Melfi.
Tony with Dr. Melfi, discussing AJ’s suicide attempt.
Dr. Melfi: “It could have been a cry for help.”
Tony: “Weren’t you listening? He did cry for help. He’s lucky I came home and heard him.”
Dr. Melfi: “I mean the botched attempt. On some level he may have known that the rope was too long to keep him submerged.”
Tony: “Or, he could just be a fuckin idiot. Historically that‘s been the case. Me and Carm were getting along so good too. My father and his panic attacks. My fuckin demented uncle. Not to mention the other one- the fuckin retard.”
Dr. Melfi: “You think there are other reasons why your son is so unhappy?”
Tony: “He’s got the world by the balls. Every fuckin advantage- an he hits one little pothole and he goes in hysterics. Yeah- I know. Still I’m not takin the rap- not completely. She coddled him, his mudder. I said it before. Every little problem she’s right there to pick him up an wipe off his tears on her apron strings.”
Dr. Melfi: “Children need to feel safe.”
Tony: “I’m sure that made him into the man he is today.”
Dr. Melfi: “Are you ashamed of him?”
Tony: “Yeah- actually I am. Coward’s way out. Isn’t that what they called it?”
Dr. Melfi: “I think whoever said that didn’t understand depression. But you do- don’t you?”
This is the final genetic dialog in the show, and also Tony’s last session with Dr. Melfi before she cuts Tony loose as a patient to face his fate in the final episodes. Tony pulls out all the branches of his family tree this time, suggesting that AJ failed in his suicide attempt because he may be an idiot, and cites his fathers anxiety attacks, Uncle Junior’s dementia and even his obscure institutionalized uncle “Erkely” to support his comment “historically, that’s been the case”. Then Tony indirectly implicates his own genetic contributions again (“Yeah, I know. Still I’m not taking the rap- not completely”) but quickly spins that into a clever genotype by environment interaction argument, blaming Carmella for “coddling” him. Tony has said, in previous sessions, that he is, himself, tough enough to handle the depression that runs in his family, but here is a way that he can shift the blame to Carmella. If he can’t blame Carmella’s genes, why not blame the combination of his genes and her maternal environmental influence? Dr. Melfi as much as calls him a hypocrite by reminding him that he should understand the struggle of dealing with hereditary depression, after he says he’s actually ashamed of AJ for taking “the coward’s way out”. At this point in the series, blaming his genes is only one of the key internal and external defenses and rationalizations that has been stripped from Tony (e.g. as he is about to be set loose by Dr. Melfi, Chris and Uncle Junior are out of the picture, Phil Leotardo is on the warpath, the FBI is closing in) and, ironically, one of the characters most sympathetic to Tony is now the FBI agent Harris! Tony is being nicely set up for some kind of resolution of the series in the final two episodes. At this point, it’s easy to see how David Chase chose the ending he did since there are so many ways Tony could finally get what’s coming to him that it would be a shame to have to waste the myriad plot lines and potential endings that would not be realized. It’s also easy to see how the cryptic ending might alienate many fans who have become so faithfully addicted to trying to figure out how it’s finally going to end.
Keeping with a genetic perspective on the final episode, Andrew Greeley of the Chicago Sun Times (“An Ending with No Meaning”, June 15, 2007) wrote a “bio-existentialist” commentary on the series’ ending saying that it had no meaning because the series had no meaning because life has no meaning, but that it doesn’t matter because “humans are genetically programmed to hope”. I hope that future critics of The Sopranos take note of its genetic themes and dialogs (Possidente, B. Science, Letters: “Genetics and The Sopranos” 317:596, 2007) and I thank David Chase and company for including them.