Friday, 16 October 2015

Why Tony Soprano is One of the Truly Great Television Characters

by Evie Howarth



The show explores the difficulties he faces as Tony Soprano tries to balance his role as a father and husband while also trying to meet the demands and requirements of his leading criminal organization.  In the pilot episode of this series, we are given our first introduction to Tony Soprano and the director makes this a very unique experience by using many different techniques such as camera angles, dialogue, lighting and sound. 
The first time the director presents us to Tony Soprano is when he is seated outside his therapists (Dr Melfi) office.  Interestingly he is shown as very resistant to the idea of therapy.  This idea of resistance to getting help is reinforced by the frequent silence that occurs between Dr Melfi and Tony – Tony clearly not wanting to open up about his feelings.  This silence could also suggest that Tony’s feelings and thoughts are beyond words.  Tony’s body language whilst he is sat down in the office shows his un-interest and resentment towards what he is having to endure.  He is sat with one leg resting on the other, so that his right ankle rested on his left knee (his left foot remained on the ground).  His body language reflects that of uninterest and boredom also emphasising his resistance to therapy – something which he believes will not help him.  It is interesting as to why the director chose to open the pilot episode with such an apparently uneventful and awkward scene, however it provides the audience with their ability to create their own reaction to Tony Sopranos’ demeanour. 
In the next scene the impression that we get of Tony is that he can act in a very infantile nature and be quite juvenile.  His infantile nature could give a sense of regression.  Regression is a defence mechanisms identified by Sigmund Freud. According to Freud there are times when people are faced with situations that cause someone so much anxiety that they can't deal with it and they protect themselves by retreating to an earlier stage of development.  This is shown by the way that Tony reacts to a family of ducks appearing in his pool.  Tony self-abandoningly wades into the pool whilst still in his dressing gown and begins feed and talk to the ducks.  This behaviour that Tony is exhibiting is very childlike and it could be argued that Tony is showing more interest (possible due to Tony’s lack of communication) in the family of ducks than his own family.  The ducks represent a sense of peace and the fact that Tony takes it one step further and physically gets in the pool with the ducks almost portrays a desperation to lead a similarly peaceful life to the ducks.  For Tony the ducks represent something with freedom and liberation; something which Tony craves and desires but cannot reach or achieve.  The question that would then be asked is What does Tony want freedom from and where does he want freedom to? The ducks have a huge significance in this episode and on Tony himself, as when the ducks later fly away and don’t return, Tony has a panic attack as he feels like his “family” has left him.  The significance of his reaction to the ducks leaving could be related to a fear that his real family might leave him one day - in one of Tony’s therapy sessions with Dr Melfi, he admits that since the ducks have left he has been depressed.
We learn through one of Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi, that he dreamt a water bird stole his penis, which suggests that he has a fear of losing his masculinity.  Although Tony at first suggests the dream relates to his having seen the film The Birds on TV, Dr Melfi asks Tony what kind of bird it was that stole his penis, and he says it is a "seagull or somethin'.”  Melfi responds by telling Tony that a seagull is a form of waterfowl, which suggests Tony is substituting the seagull for a duck; linking back to the family of ducks who flew off from his pool and caused his first panic attack.  This could be explained as the male characters might tie their masculinity and virility (represented by phallic symbols both literal (in the case of this dream) and metaphorical) with their superiority in their families; in Tony’s case, his mobster family and his family at home.  Tony connects his loss of masculinity with the disappearance of the family of ducks which again suggests his own fears about the loss of his own family, life and even his identity.  We assume that Tony’s fear lies with his biological family however it could also express his fears regarding happenings in his mafia family.  Tony’s dream about the loss of his penis reflects the Freudian theory of castration anxiety, which is the idea of feeling or being insignificant; there is a need to keep one's self from being dominated (whether it be socially or in a relationship).  It also refers to the fear of being degraded, dominated or being made insignificant; this is usually an irrational fear where the person will go to extreme lengths to save their pride from being damaged - this is something which is clearly evident in Tony Soprano’s personality.  This reinforces his multi – layered personality and hints at the vulnerability of his character.

On the outside, Tony appears strong, abrasive and not someone that you should mess with however we get the impression that underneath all that there is a sensitive and vulnerable man.  This is emphasised by the fact that when he has his first panic attack the song "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from La Rondine, by Giacomo Puccini is playing in the background.  La Rondine is Italian for a swallow and could be a reference back to the ducks that greatly impacted Tony – Tony is also seen reading a book about birds in the beginning of this episode emphasising his interest in the creatures.  The fact that the filmmaker uses Italian opera music could be a reference back to Tony’s Italian heritage.  The use of the opera music whilst in the background of the panic attack scene, slows down the pace of the scene and we are drawn to the facial expression and vulnerability that we see in Tony’s face when we are a given a close up shot.
Later in this episode, the filmmaker uses a low camera angle, so that the audience are looking up at Tony whilst he is having a meeting at a café with some of his mafia colleagues.  In this scene Tony is presented as powerful and the fact that he is leading a double life is now clear due to the low camera angle.  This low camera angle creates more suspicion and gives a more covert feel to the meeting of Mafia men.  It also gives a sense of confusion for the viewers and makes them feel a sense of powerlessness within the scene.  The background of a low angle shot is normally just the sky or a ceiling, as it is in this scene; this lack of detail about the setting could also cause a sense of disorientation to the viewers.   On top of this, the added height that this angles gives the characters in this scene may make it create fear and insecurity in the viewer, who is psychologically dominated by the character on the screen.  Interestingly the low camera angle in this scene is a stark contrast to the camera angle when Tony is in the garden cooking at the barbecue; this could also represent the stark contrast and atmosphere between when Tony is with his mafia colleagues and when he is with his family. 
Overall the filmmaker uses a variety of different methods allowing the audience to understand and explore the character of Tony Soprano on a deeper level rather than just face value.  The filmmaker is successful in showing us the many different sides to Tony and the attention to detail in this episode is immaculate.  The extent to which the film maker goes to in order to allow the audience to uncover a new layer to Tony’s persona is clearly evident in the many techniques that the filmmaker uses.  The episode comes full circle as a previously hesitant and guarded Tony ends up by revealing that sometimes talking openly about your inner feelings helps. 







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