This has been one of my favorite shows since the beginning, and this final season is nothing short of stunning. A few months back in Commonweal, Cathleen Kaveny penned a thought-provoking essay entitled "Salvation & ‘The Sopranos’", where she explored themes of sin and redemption through the lens of this mafia show. Kaveny explores the role of fate, and uses some anecdotes from the show to conclude that a main moral of the story is that "we are trapped in a world ruled by an inexorable fate that seizes upon our moral failings in order to bring about our ruin." Moreover, "the world of The Sopranos ... seems infused with a cosmic retributive justice, which even Tony himself dimly perceives, although his own time of reckoning has not yet arrived." A dark message...
The show is downright pessimistic in its approach to redemption. Kaveny provides three examples of the subversion of redemption: redemption through psychotherapy, redemption through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and redemption through Christianity. In the first case, Tony Soprano's experience with therapy allows him to understand the pernicious impact of his dysfunctional family on his nature. But not only does he not change, he deliberately conspires to make sure his sister Janice's therapy does not work either. In the second case, Tony and his cousin Tony Blundetto mock Christopher's attempts to stay sober, and Christopher himself encourages a friend from AA to get mired in gambling, with inevitable results. Finally, the Christian theme relates to Tony and Carmela's relationship, where Carmela carries substantial guilt relating to her complicity in Tony's "business". After a threatened separation, he agrees to reconcile only for "blood money", $600,000 for a house she wants built.
Kaveny wrote this before the final episodes began. But the themes of fate and retributive justice only grow more stark with each passing episode. Tony's visions when he lay in a coma at the start of the last season are absolutely crucial, and form the backdrop for everything that will happen. There, he saw himself as somebody named "Kevin Finnerty" (infinity?) trapped in a place he could not leave. His cousin Tony Blundetto, whom he murdered, invited him into a house, where he thought he could see his mother. That was his fate. There was no way he could avoid it. But avoid it he did, as he came out of the coma. And least for a while. Avoiding danger, and cheating fate, is a theme in Tony's life. He avoided going to jail with his cousin because an early panic attack caused him to be absent on that fateful night when Blundetto was arrested. But Tony can feel things closing in. In the first two episodes of the new season, law enforcement officials are waiting as his gate each morning. Once case is over a dropped gun from a few years back (ironically, during an incident when Tony escaped the FBI takedown of New York mob boss Johnny Sac), but that dies. Tony's anxiety grows. In the most recent episode, the FBI are digging in an area where the body of Tony's very first murder victim is buried, and Tony is scared. But again, somebody else takes the fall. Retributive justice. But for how long can be escape his fate?
Tony's years of therapy, combined with his near-death experience, have led him to the realization that his life is precarious, not to mention the salvation of his soul. But he cannot change. When we awoke from the coma, there was a moment that suggested he wanted to be free, but he could not do it. At the same time, he realizes he is trapped in a deep pit. When he was young, he looked up to Pauley; now, he sees Pauley as pathetic, a joke. The old stories from the past now irritate him. Likewise, Uncle Junior has become a caricature of his former self in a mental institution. Johnny Sac, once a ruthless and all-powerful boss, dies from lung cancer. Phil Leotardo and Little Carmine are tired of the life, and want out. Christopher continues to distance himself. A feeling of lethargy, or resignation, hangs over the entire season. It almost feels like everybody is playing their part, going through the motions, but with little conviction.
And yet, at the same time, tension is everywhere. If feels like something is going to explode. The first episode of this season showed Tony, Carmela, Bobby and Janice enjoying themselves playing cards at a lake house. But you just knew something was going to happen, and it did-- Bobby attacked Tony for insulting Janice. Tony's response is not violence. No, he seals Bobby's fate in another way: he instructs the guy who has never killed anybody to commit his first murder. An amateur, Bobby leaves plenty of evidence at the scene. And in the most recent episode, tension mounted when Tony and Bobby were on a fishing boat, as the fate of Big Pussy was in everybody's mind.
And so, we do not know how they will meet their fate, but meet it they will. There are a million permutations of how cosmic justice could be served. And yet, can there be hope for redemption? The darkening atmosphere suggests not. There is certainly no sign of grace or redemption in David Chase's created universe. This is not the Lord of the Rings; it is the antithesis of Tolkien's cosmology. At the end of the day, is David Chase trying to tell us there is a radical division between grace and nature, a bridge that cannot be crossed? That might not be a Catholic message, but it is one that might well resonate with contemporary culture.