The sudden death of the actor James Gandolfini at the age of 51 reminded lots of people of those years watching “The Sopranos” and the main dramatic allure of the show in watching a mafia chieftan deal with panic attacks and fears of being emasculated by his mother. Make no mistake: “The Sopranos” was violent (brutally so at times), incredibly profane, and set in a world that was arguably something of a moral inversion–a world where up was down, where killing was “just business.” Yet I knew people who are pretty sensitive toward all such things who neverthless devoured the show episode after episode.
And somewhere along the way many viewers–including those of good moral fiber–found themselves liking Tony Soprano. You didn’t want to see anything bad happen to him. Goodness knows by most any moral reckoning and calculus he deserved to have something bad happen to him–it would only be just for a man who murdered as many colleagues and rivals as Tony did. Yet you ended up rooting for the guy and were deeply interested in his character, his motivation, his love and devotion for his family.
Why is that? What makes someone like Tony Soprano–or Hannibal Lecter or any number of other anti-heroes–interesting even to people who know better? As many of us know, this is similar to the age-old question about why the devil in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” seems at times to be the more dashing character in the poetic tale. Are we interested in such figures as case studies in evil? Or is it more perverse: do otherwise morally serious people vicariously engage their darker natures by channeling it through a Tony Soprano? If at times we wish we could whack upside the head one of our enemies–but if we know we would never do so–do we get a charge out of seeing Tony do it on our behalf?
I have questions but no firm answers. As my friend Neal Plantinga once suggested, maybe we are drawn in part to what is good about such characters. Evil figures in movies are often highly clever, highly intelligent. So are we curious to see these good things–themselves part of what is best in humanity–in action even if the “action” in question is terrible? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s because for now a big part of the human drama and of our everyday lives stems from pushing up against evil–combatting evil, resisting temptation, dealing with terrible people and events is part of the color of our lives and resolving the tensions that surround such issues is often what lends vitality to novels and plays and movies. (But can we imagine a drama–say, in the kingdom of God one day–that will still be vitally interesting even if all evil has been banished from the scene? I hope we can imagine that but for now, sometimes it’s a stretch!)
As I watched some clips from “The Sopranos” on CNN after Gandolfini’s death, I remembered enjoying scenes like the one where Tony has to answer his daughter’s direct question if he was in the mafia (his explanation that he was a waste management consultant was maybe working until Tony then blurted out, “There is no mafia!” That’s when his daughter knew the truth!). Yet if I knew Tony in real life, I’d be afraid of him, in dread of him, and I hope I’d also desire his salvation. There’s not much sense in hoping for the salvation of a fictional character, of course, but maybe just maybe getting to know someone like Tony from a safe distance reminds you why every person–no matter how jaded, broken, or perverse–really does need saving and deserves the same grace that saves me.
And perhaps if liking Tony Soprano can remind us of that important fact, then liking him might not be so bad after all.