Saturday, June 9, 2007

Our favorite murderer
In one episode, Tony callously murders his nephew Christopher -- then in the next reveals his most wounded, deeply sympathetic side, wrapping his arms around his suicidal son while groaning, 'My baby, my baby.' Neither of these is the 'real' Tony, for there is no 'real' Tony -- there are a multiplicity of Tonys, and at every moment he is free to choose. 'The Sopranos' is existentialist TV: To paraphrase the legendary French capo Jean-Paul Sartre, Tony's existence precedes his essence.

'The Sopranos' is built not just on moral ambiguity, but moral obscenity. It achieves this by graphically depicting the most brutal events, while suspending all judgment about them. This holds true for the good guys and bad guys alike. Actually, there are no good guys. FBI agents are icy zombies. Priests are corrupt and confused. Psychiatrists are backstabbing pedants, trotting out neat phrases like 'sociopath' that illuminate nothing. Married men are only as faithful as their options. Married women are manipulative and self-serving. Human behavior of any kind, from adultery to blackmail to murder, has no transcendental meaning. If Tony Soprano can strangle somebody and then return to checking out a college campus, it doesn't mean he's a madman. It's what he does. ...

Art serves a cathartic function by exposing the unspoken, the repressed, the taboo. In this case, the taboo is our moral code -- a rigid, black-and-white, self-righteous insistence that what we are doing must be right and no one must question it. In Bush's America, this code has become singularly oppressive. But it predates Bush. It's the way we simplify the world, the story we tell ourselves to make sense out of life's senselessness.

Among its many other achievements, "The Sopranos" has allowed us to mock that frozen certainty. For seven years, it has been a saturnalia of ethical meaninglessness. It has given us a precious breather from sanctimony, a holiday from the tyranny of right and wrong. It has thrown us into the big, blue, endless sea and let us swim. It's scary being out in the middle of the ocean, no horizon in sight. But it's liberating.

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