This is part of an ongoing series of reviews as I watch The Sopranos for the first time. If you want to know why I’m doing this, check out part 1 here. This article contains major spoilers and discussion of sexual violence.
After seasons 1 and 2, I wondered if we’d look into Tony’s conscience. We spent 26 hours of television exploring his identity – who he is and how he got that way – but it was all largely retrospective. We never looked at how his inner turmoil might lead him down a different road, or at the very least make his current one more difficult.
Season 3 definitely took time to consider these ramifications. In his biggest bout of conscience so far, Tony is haunted by the death of a stripper who showed him kindness, seeing her in his daughter Meadow. He feels guilty not because he couldn’t save her, but because his world chewed her up.
More than anything though, season 3 focused on the very idea behind the mob itself: power. Where seasons 1 and 2 touched on the idea, they spent more time looking inward at who is a part of this world and what makes them tick. This season focused on the incentives in this equation or, more accurately, what the mob can do for its members.
Everyone is looking to gain power and influence where they can. We’re introduced to Ralphie, a man looking to climb the ranks in Tony’s operation by any means necessary. He plays a fatherly role to Jackie Jr., the son of Tony’s predecessor, and tutors him as he seeks to make his own name for himself.
But there are many different kinds of power, and they are not always equal. The FBI begins the season trying to bug a lamp in Tony’s house in hopes of catching him discussing illegal activities in his basement, where we’ve seen him conduct several heart-to-hearts with. It takes them almost the entire first episode of the season trying to get the bug in position, working in teams with great precision and coordination. However the entire power of the FBI is rendered useless when Meadow decides she wants to bring the lamp to school to help her study. In “Pine Barrens,” Paulie and Christopher, Tony’s top two guys, botch an execution and are left stranded in a snowy forest where they wander for hours, powerless to the forces of nature.
“Employee of the Month” gives us an even more obvious power dynamic, where Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi is brutally raped in a parking lot. Sexual assault carries many connotations about power, with assertion of dominance and imposing gender roles being two of the more prominent. The justice system fails Dr. Melfi, and the episode builds to the moment where Tony and Melfi meet for a session in which we are sure she will ask him to give her the justice she deserves. “Do you want to say something?” Tony asks her, inviting her to use his power. “No.” Her response is filled with resolve, the choice to not use the power she has access to is a power unto itself.
Tony’s powers, while extensive, still fail him to change what matters to him most. When he tries to intimidate Meadow’s boyfriend Noah because he’s black, he drives Meadow away and directly to the boyfriend he was trying to get rid of. His affair with Gloria gives him a sense of freedom and reaffirms his masculinity, the source of his power. But when things go south, it’s Gloria who wields power over Tony, threatening to tell his family everything, and turning that power onto herself, fulfilling her self-destructive urges.
The shortcomings of Tony’s power is never more apparent than the season finale “Army of One.” Despite his best efforts through the season, Tony was unable to save Jackie Jr. from his own mistakes. As he stands beside his casket, and with his son having been expelled from school, Tony laments at his inability to save the ones he loves.
In its third season, The Sopranos continues to explore the minds of its characters in rich and layered ways. While this season did not provide the crisis of conscience I was hoping for or expected, the choice to inspect the different types of power that these characters wield was probably more interesting. This season succeeded in undermining the “difficult man” archetype better than so many series that would come after The Sopranos, pointing out the flaws and imperfections that come with it, and offering alternative kinds of power that are just as, if not more, effective. Tony would do well to learn that kind of soft power.