The Russian is still out there. He’s never coming back, shivering in the pines, where the sun never shines, probably still planning his vengeance against the mobster whose shoe he ate for dinner that snowy night six years ago. Any other show would have brought back the Russian sooner or later, bringing the revenge story full circle. But not The Sopranos, and the Russian has become just one of the mysteries this show has built its whole mystique around by refusing to solve it for us. Did Adriana really get whacked? Did Ralphie really start the fire? Did Quasimodo predict all this shit? And will Uncle Junior ever get to fuck Angie Dickinson? Our amour fou with The Sopranos is headed for long-term parking, like so many of its most memorable characters. We’ll never see a show like this again.
The Sopranos gets praised as novelistic, but it follows the most banal of life patterns, showing the sheer tedium of being a mobster. It has dead spots, boring plotlines, weak episodes. Characters develop slowly, or don’t. Like viewers, a gangster might get bored, fade out of the action, then come back to find none of his debts forgotten. That’s how we get the painfully detailed development of Junior, Carmela or Christopher; we also get brilliant one-hit wonders like Jimmy Altieri, who I will remember forever for nothing but inspiring Christopher to assess his cologne: “You smell like Paco Rabanne crawled up your ass and died.”
The Sopranos can be a victim of its own classiness — as in the dream sequences, which sometimes smell like David Lynch crawled up David Chase’s ass and died. But from the start, The Sopranos has gotten endless juice out of crushing the fantasy that gangsters know something we don’t, that these are men of honor who play by their own rules. The Corleone family modeled itself on the Roman Empire, but the daydream believers and egomaniac fuck-ups of the Soprano crew are more like the Warhol Factory. (Imperioli was in GoodFellas as a young actor, but he first showed his genius playing a Factory speed-freak in the otherwise worthless 1996 indie film I Shot Andy Warhol.) These are ordinary guys, too dumb or weak to function in the real world, tough guys who turn into helpless little kids when they have to wait in line at the pizza place.
For me, the key Sopranos scene has always been the Vesuvio restaurant after Jackie Jr.’s burial, where Dominic Chianese sings the Italian ballad “Core ‘ngrato,” but he gets interrupted by Meadow, who’s throwing food and singing “Oops! . . . I Did It Again.” It’s over the top — so gaudily sentimental and surreal it might be a dream sequence. But the whole show is in that scene, really — the clash of old world and new world, except with no romance or nobility at stake. Ever since movies began, the primal movie story has been the American gangster story — immigrant Catholics stranded in the New World, fighting for a place to belong. To bury his father properly, Michael Corleone had to move the family out West, where they could become real Americans. But the Sopranos were born into the promised land, never knowing anywhere else, and it’s just ordinary suburban hell. Everything the Corleones went west to find, Tony was born with in West Orange. Every promise Michael made to his wife came true — someday, the family would be legitimate Americans. And this is what it comes down to: the tedium of guilt, the boredom of work, the physical exhaustion of dragging around other people’s bad memories.
Like many other touchstones of twenty-first-century pop culture, The Sopranos was hatched in the late Nineties, predicting a future that never arrived. It was designed for a decade that would be just like the Nineties, except more so, in an America that enjoyed seeing itself as smarter and braver and freer than ever before. Tony Soprano began as a play on the Clinton era’s peace and prosperity, tapping into the nation’s dread of what was hiding under the surface, the fear that the bad guys might be coming back for revenge. A show that began as a satire on Clinton’s America found itself lost in the new decade — but instead of giving up, the show found itself thriving on the chaos.
Little Steven, a.k.a. Silvio, once called one of his albums Men Without Women, a title cribbed from Hemingway as a metaphor for lonely bullfighters, gangsters and rock stars. But as Hemingway knew, the loneliness can get worse when the men are with their women, especially if they’re already married to other men’s secrets. That loneliness is home for the Soprano crew, and we see the physical trauma these secrets carry with them, twisting the characters into cripples.
The show has always been traumatic to watch, less for the bloodshed than for the emotional violence. But there isn’t anything about this show I won’t miss. Great writing, both the flashy lines and the unflashy: The scene where the FBI agent quietly tells Adriana, “If I were you, I’d put my hurt feelings aside for a moment,” is as scary as Michael Corleone telling his sister, “You’ll disappoint me.” The music. The casting. The food. And the Russian, always the specter of the Russian, hiding on the edge of every scene, waiting for a nice clean shot that never comes.