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Little Miss Sfogliatell’

Suffering and Absolution in The Sopranos

Here’s a sentiment contrary to much of what we’ve published here on Gusto: “Not every problem can be fixed with food.” So spake the sagacious A.J. Soprano on a show concerned chiefly with three things: capitalism, sin, and baked ziti. Spoilers ahead for The Sopranos.

Italian-American food can seem so pervasive in stories about the Mafia because its story is emblematic of the American immigrant experience. The wave of Italian immigration into the U.S. at the end of the 19th century forced an entire culture to adapt to what was readily available—that is to say processed meats, larger portions. A trace of the true self exists in the false self. Got any macaroni and gravy? 

The mob, on the other side of the same coin, is the much-mythologized story of an illicit economy that operates under the economic rules of capitalism but above its moral ones. Instead of memos and conferences, you have sit-downs and coercion at gunpoint. Instead of layoffs, you have “whackings.” The explicit violence of the mob reveals the implicit violence in any capitalistic society; instead of winners and losers, you have the alive and the dead. There’s nothing but brutality. Inequity. Pain. Above all else, absurdity. 

How do we escape the guilt we all feel from this implicit violence we know exists in our daily lives? Well, therapy, obviously. But Tony Soprano, boss of the Soprano crime family, after seven years of therapy, goes nowhere. He can’t break out of his indulgent lifestyle and the violence that permits it, even though the show gives him seven seasons of chances to do so.

Tony binges. A glutton through and through, he binges on alcohol, drugs, sex, and more than anything else, food. Because food, as wonderful as it is for bringing us closer to others, is not the answer to the problem of personal responsibility. Instead, we hide from our true problems behind it. 

At the end of season one, Tony talks to his family at Artie Bucco’s restaurant during a scene so idyllic I thought it was a dream sequence; he tells them, “Someday soon, you’re gonna have families of your own, and if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments like this, that were good.” The entire conceit of the show is encapsulated in this moment. Tony set Artie’s restaurant on fire earlier in the season and is now proselytizing the sanctity of family. 

Or consider the season finale, which took place at a dinner table. What the food and the dinner table represent, namely family connection and commitment to the people close to us, are ultimately just the necessary setting for what is a completely disinterested future. Tony lives, Tony dies, Tony grows angel wings and soars out of Holsten’s, it doesn’t matter. The universe slouches forwards and the answers to our questions about it all, unfortunately, do not lie in the onion rings (best in the state!).

That’s the blessing and the curse of food writing; you can find the poetry in even the smallest things, the meaning in all the morsels and mealtime conversations, but you never get closer to changing. The great lie of any type of analysis is that it is an end in itself. It is a stop on the journey, the destination is something far greater. Fail to acknowledge this, and you remain like Tony at the end of the series, drenched in guilt and absolving yourself through psychotherapy and family.

If you think religion is the way out, think again. Father Phil, a character who literally stands as a mouthpiece for God, uses the innocent façade of food to masquerade his deeply repressed sexual feelings for the women in his life. Carmela even calls him out on it!

Food in The Sopranos eventually comes to represent the gluttony of the everyday American, be it the literal indulgence in plates of “fat and nitrates,” as Meadow puts it, or the psychological absolution of guilt by masquerading one’s shadow aspect as an innocent acolyte of tradition. Food, like religion, is not our ticket out of guilt in the modern world, as much as we’d like to pretend it is.

This might seem like an overly cynical take, but The Sopranos is an overtly cynical show, one that spends seven seasons telling us, in Emily VanDerWerff’s words, that “though people can change, most are unwilling.”

So, what’s the way out of this endless cycle of self-justification? The “stagmire,” as Little Carmine would have it? The answer might be in Little Miss Sunshine

Gabagool is the trigger for many of Tony’s panic attacks, which Melfi connects to Marcel Proust’s madeleine from his tome In Search of Lost Time, where a bite of the cookie releases in him a torrent of memories. Little Miss Sunshine, the movie playing during Silvio’s last appearance in the hospital, references both Proust’s and Nietzsche’s belief that true change only happens through suffering. Regarding Proust, Steve Carrell’s character says, “…he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing.” 

Paul Dano’s character is a Perspectives student who reads Nietzsche for the first time and decides that no one understands him, tortured soul that he is. Tellingly, Nietzsche was unapologetically pro-suffering. The Nietzschean Übermensch is the person who can find meaning and growth in the suffering, thereby not only overcoming the pain of life but evolving because of it. And since society is relentlessly evolving, it behooves us to change with it. 

Many, many characters on The Sopranos suffer. Angie Bonpensiero suffers not only the complete and abrupt unknowing of Big Pussy’s fate (sound familiar?), but she suffers the indignity of continued harassment by Tony and embarrassment in front of Carmela. In one scene, she’s seen giving out samples at the grocery store. Carm finds this embarrassing for Angie, but it can also be seen as Angie shedding that behind which she hides her full potential, as she literally gives away food. It is after this that we see her evolve into one of the most high-functioning people on the show. She takes this suffering and reinvents herself, fundamentally changing and rising above Carmela especially, whose own addiction to Tony’s lifestyle makes her resent Angie all the more.

Because while Tony represents the outward violence and brutality of capitalism, Carmela represents those of us addicted to its indulgent lifestyle, stuck in the tension of hatred towards it and dependence on it, frustrated and longing for an escape we can never find. Even worse, Meadow and A.J. represent future generations, by which creator David Chase seems to tell us that there simply is no easy escape from the cycle, whether you’re a college dropout or a Columbia grad.

Suffering is the only true way out of this vicious cycle of indulgence that only seems to beget more guilt and self-loathing, because it is the only thing that fundamentally changes us. Ultimately, you can’t control what happens in this world, and pain is going to come your way. How are you going to create meaning from this pain? Are you going to retreat to drugs, like Christopher? Are you going to indulge your machismo and violent tendencies instead of owning up to yourself and making a change, like Melfi gives Tony so many chances to do? 

Suffering is something we must embrace and not shy away from. If The Sopranos is about people who want to change but can’t, one hypothesis Chase gives as to why they fail is because they don’t fully acknowledge their suffering. They cover it up, chiefly through food. 

Tony and Melfi’s therapy ends with her realizing that someone like Tony will not only refuse to grow and learn from therapy, but will use the lessons learned in therapy to improve his illegal actions. The same can be said about food and what it means to us. If we want to grow and change, food can promote that and bring us closer to ourselves and to other people. But if we have no desire to because we’re comfortable in our old ways, we will use food as both sword and shield; it becomes at once the absolver and the indulgence. I wish someone would write 95 theses about this.

Food is a wonderful thing, and it can help us find meaning in our suffering. When Artie Bucco, after six seasons of humiliation and denigration by Tony and the Mafia (they stuck his hand in a pot of boiling marinara!), finds himself with burns on his dominant hand and an ego torn to shreds, he finds his meaning again through a recipe for rabbit from his father. It’s a powerful scene, because it’s Artie finally being honest with himself and facing the future in the best way he can. As Hemingway wrote, “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” 

The fatal flaw of so many characters on The Sopranos is their belief that they are defeated when they’re not even destroyed. Maybe the way out of this self-pity lies in the Ojibwe saying that makes its way to Tony’s hospital room in season 6A.

The world is bigger than us. Food can represent that enormity, the beauty of nature and our ultimate subordination to it, and can reveal in us the ability for goodness and concordance that we all have inside of us. But we have to stop hiding behind our myopic view of it.

Only when we are honest with ourselves can we find the uninhibited beauty in what we eat. 

Will you be indifferent?

POSTSCRIPT: So what, no fuckin’ ziti now? 

My take on The Ending

As we’ve discussed above, The Sopranos is full of people who talk a lot about changing, but who don’t. Instead they believe. Believe in God, believe in themselves, believe in others, you name it. I don’t think Chase is a proponent of atheism, but I do believe he’s interested in the idea of how to act in a post-God world — by which I mean a world whose people have to make their own meaning since industrialization shattered the omnipotent notion we had of religion. 

The song goes, “don’t stop believing,” but Chase ends it after  “don’t stop.” Abruptly. Because the idea isn’t to believe anymore. It’s to do. Don’t stop, that powerful imperative from one of the most iconic American songs, is a call to action.

Showrunners are like gods. They create and control lives, the choices people make, will manifest occurrences that can be punitive or merciful, and exist in a mode of time that is separate and more infinite than that of the characters in a TV series. Chase sets up all sorts of possibilities for Tony’s fate and then cuts us off in an attempt to clue us into how it feels to have your God be killed. That’s why it’s so visceral. 

But he tells us, in his final words, “don’t stop.” Not believing, but being. Because ultimately it isn’t our beliefs that make us who we are, it’s our actions, how we conduct our being in our every waking moment.

When confronted with the indifference of the world, don’t stop. 

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