Remembering James Gandolfini By Meeting Tony Soprano

By  · Published on July 10th, 2013

Long before (at least in entertainment years) we were gifted with all sorts of television shows that focus squarely on the rise and fall of lovable, fallible, and infuriating anti-heroes, there was Tony Soprano. Following James Gandolfini’s untimely and heartbreaking death last month, television’s reigning king of the twisted anti-hero, Bryan Cranston, tweeted “I’m saddened by James Gandolfini’s passing. He was a great talent & I owe him. Quite simply, without Tony Soprano there is no Walter White.” And there would also be no Don Draper and thus two of my favorite current and all-time television shows would not exist.

Which makes it all the more egregious that, as of a week ago, I had never watched The Sopranos. You can start throwing tomatoes or trash or mean comments now.

Not watching The Sopranos was unquestionably a gap in my Gandolfini-watching experience, and particularly bizarre when you consider that my favorite Gandolfini performance was from Not Fade Away, the first movie directed by Sopranos creator David Chase. Clearly, there was something about these two together that worked for me, but the prospect of working through six seasons of television seemed daunting. Well, daunting until I started.

The Sopranos is culturally ingrained in enough of our shared pop consciousness that I approached the series already knowing a decent enough amount about it (which is a veiled way of saying I’d seen the series finale’s final minutes and already had my own theories about it). The truth is, I had never previously watched The Sopranos because I was under the (false) impression that it was particularly gory (and I do not do well with gory), a strange assumption that I’ve held on to for years, though I can’t pinpoint exactly who or what made me think it in the first place (was I just equating it with other mafia movies? Which would be a mistake in about twelve different ways, now that I think about it).

The Sopranos is not gory – it’s violent, to be sure, but it doesn’t rely on blood and guts to convey major shock value, just one or two well-time bullets are quite good at doing that. You don’t need gore when major characters are being bumped off left and right, or when someone’s own mother is complicit in their planned hit, or when an entire episode about the feds trying to plant a bug is so captivating you can’t breathe for a whole hour. You also don’t need it when a raised hammer or raised knife or raised baseball is threat enough. Basically – The Sopranos is not gory and I feel nothing but deep personal shame that such a weird assumption kept me away from the show for so long.

In less than a week, I’ve burned through the first two seasons of The Sopranos and a handful of season three episodes, a feat made easy by the holiday weekend, the currently sticky temperatures of New York City that make me not want to venture outdoors, and a Sopranos-loving live-in boyfriend who owns said three seasons on DVD and was eager for his own rewatch. I’ve binge-watched plenty of television, including recent sessions with both House of Cards and the fifth season of Arrested Development, along with a previous mind-bending tour of the first four seasons of Breaking Bad, but the experience of watching that much Sopranos is unique. It gets inside your head and stays there (and it also makes you want to eat a lot of pasta and be suspicious of everyone around you) – and while that’s surely due to all kinds of different elements (the music, the settings, the dialogues, the unexpected hits, the eye-popping outfits, the flashback sequences that only further my hatred of Mad Men’s similar flashback sequences), it’s also mainly due to Gandolfini’s performance.

The fear in watching The Sopranos so close to Gandolfini’s passing was that spending that much time with the actor would make me miss the man. That has not happened, and that’s entirely a credit to the late actor’s prodigious talents. I’ve watched nearly thirty hours of The Sopranos in just about a week’s time, with the vast majority of that time spent squarely on Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, and I’ve never spent even a moment thinking about Gandolfini – he is only Tony Soprano for me. I’m fully invested in Tony Soprano, and I have been from start to finish (fine, from start to current midway point). It’s the exact performance that everyone says it was – it’s superlative, it’s all-time great, it’s transformative. It’s also a completist exercise, because no matter how much I thought that I admired or understood Gandolfini’s great talents before watching the show, I simply didn’t. I could not have.

Though I don’t miss or mourn Gandolfini as I watch The Sopranos, and I don’t even miss or mourn him immediately following the end of an episode (when I am still in Tony-land), I miss and mourn him now, as I write this, weeks after his passing. With more than half of The Sopranos left to watch, it’s a sensation I’m trying to get comfortable with (it’s not working so well).

Have you ever watched The Sopranos?