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This was the first real week of withdrawal. On Dec. 8, HBO’s “The Sopranos” ended its fourth season. Before us lie nine long months without a fix — no new betrayals from Paulie Walnuts, no fresh intrigue from Johnny Sack, no suspicious disappearances, no sulking goomahs. From now through September 2003, we’ll have only the palliatives — the reruns, the DVDs, the magazine articles, the awards ceremonies, the exponentially increasing numbers of specialty books — and, at long last, the time to consider why the life of a New Jersey mobster has mesmerized America’s upper middle class. Certainly, David Chase’s series — the story of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), their two children, and Tony’s crime partners — is extraordinary. “The Sopranos” probably offers the best coalescence of superb acting, sublime writing and stunning execution in television history. Every episode sustains — and probably demands — repeated viewing: whether to admire each program’s perfect balance (e.g., an episode that opens in the intimacy of a young couple’s morning ablutions ends in the hostile silence of the Sopranos’ cavernous bathroom); or to appreciate Chase’s wry scene transitions (e.g., “Some men just have to travel at their own pace,” Carmela warns her daughter in a domestic scene that segues into the post-debauchery emergence of the Soprano crew, drunken, disheveled and wobbling precariously on the arms of call girls); or to relish the series’ amazing melding of sound and soundtrack (e.g., a plaintive cowboy ballad, overheard on the late show, recurs to express Tony’s otherwise-inarticulable sense of loss). But Chase’s boldest stroke isn’t technical, it’s substantive: In “The Sopranos,” Chase has rewritten the gangster saga to capture the essence of America at the millennium. The mobster plot is our national story, an indigenous American genre that’s always turned to a single task — the investigation through allegory of the socio-economic system upon which the nation rests, patriarchal capitalism. It’s a format that has generated masterpieces, including the two legendary films that Chase’s wiseguys cite as catechism: “The Godfather,” an American “Oresteia” that shows the correlation of economic power to moral decay, and “Goodfellas,” a brittle expose of the nation’s descent into bourgeois venality. But even the genre’s best examples have always used gangster life as a metaphor, segregating the Mafioso’s distinctive world from ours in order to provoke insight. “The Sopranos” does something altogether different: Chase’s message isn’t that mobsters offer us analogs, but that at the dawn of a new century, we are all gangsters. Even the allegory-challenged “AJ” Soprano, the high school student whose struggles with Nietzsche and “Billy Budd” occasionally interrupt mob life, should recognize what the Mafia offers cultural satirists. “This thing of ours” is the ultimate capitalist enterprise, an institution that produces no product other than profit — generating demand for a restricted commodity and then rigorously controlling distribution in a defined market. If that sounds like Merck Pharmaceuticals and Royal Dutch Shell, it should. Nor does any other institution offer as clear a portrait of patriarchy. Organized crime maintains its male hierarchy through secret rituals, inviolable rules, and intricate codes of speech. “You sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’?” Tony asks another capo. “I didn’t say nothin,’” comes the response, an answer understood by both bosses to be an endorsement of murder. And in truth, the gangster saga teaches us the most about ourselves through its violence. Rather than hiding off-camera the aggression that our limitless acquisitiveness entails, the mob story foregrounds the exploitation and greed that underlie America’s standard of living. Chase identifies Tony Soprano’s place in consumer culture using the sharpest opening sequence in prime time. Lying within sight of — but pointedly separated from –capitalism’s glittering towers, the Sopranos’ territory consists of the unattractive residue of American materialism: immigrant neighborhoods that emerged and died with the factory system; poisoned sites where goods were first produced and shipped, and later left to rot; isolated mom and pop businesses, barely surviving the encroachment of the malls. Tony passes through this terrain to disembark at the embodiment of middle class aspiration — a sprawling house that, after years of dogged acquisition, lacks nothing that money can buy. In fact, the Soprano residence — simultaneously a home and a status symbol — represents the dramatic conflict that makes the series so compelling: Chase pits family (children) against family (crime syndicate) in a complicated struggle between what is owed to the future and what we want — the power, the profit, the consumer goods — in the here and now. The collision knocks Tony Soprano flat on his back, and his collapse, diagnosed as an anxiety attack, leads to psychotherapy. Yet the mobster’s sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) are more than a plot device. Psychoanalysis is the examination of our self-justifications, and in placing his protagonist on the couch, Chase forces us to examine the lies we tell ourselves in the name of our lifestyle. Chase’s joke may be that for Americans whose principal endeavor is acquiring, devouring and dumping the remains, Tony Soprano’s defining falsehood — “I’m in waste management” — has become our national truth. Over the course of three seasons, Chase has shown that the contemporary godfather has plenty to be anxious about. In “The Sopranos,” patriarchy is on its last legs. Its lieges are aging and foolish, its heirs undisciplined, its lieutenants inept and malleable. “Guys these days, they got no time for the penal experience,” Tony complains of the growing number of informants. There are new kinds of bosses and new codes: A black gang lord dismisses violence in favor of the more intimidating threat that he’ll call in his lawyers. Ultimately, Tony and his comrades make their pilgrimage to the wellspring of their faith, Naples, only to find the Sicilian Mafia run by a woman. Chase’s point seemed to be that the end of the gangster’s world — and the very real economic system it represents — was at hand. And it was. When the series’ fourth season began, Tony Soprano’s drive took in the void where the World Trade Center had stood. Year Four felt different from the start. Certainly, Chase and his team were winding toward what industry-watchers knew was the end of their contract. But the season’s 12 episodes suggested an even more fundamental — and inevitable — reckoning. America’s pitch-perfect protagonist, Chase’s thoughtful mob boss, had lost the illusion that we can be simultaneously devouring and good. Whatever the rest of us chose to believe, Tony Soprano, at least, was ready to acknowledge the crimes we commit to keep gas in the SUV. Chase’s allegory showed an America that had awakened suddenly to the world’s judgment. Appropriately, Chase targeted our national gluttony and the sense of entitlement that sustains it. The series has always been funniest in showing the extent to which our daily efforts to get ahead are barely distinguishable from organized crime: Its gangsters used their most ruthless skills to get kids admitted to Ivy League schools, to provide seniors with more attentive medical care, to assist elderly mothers in transition to a nursing homes. But this year, Chase depicted our national ambition as monstrous. Tony, at his heaviest, tempted fate with incessant eating –homemade scones, Krispy Kreme donuts, a crumb cake devoured direct from the box. And in a single brilliant episode, Chase exposed our murderous defensiveness to the world’s criticism of the gorging: When a Soprano family subordinate remarks on Ginny Sack’s appalling obesity, her well-connected husband contracts to have the speaker shot. In Year Four, Chase’s protagonist sees his life for what it is, and it sickens him. In an understated twist on pop culture’s best- known metaphor for American capitalism — “The Godfather’s” famous “offer he couldn’t refuse” — Tony weeps over a dying racehorse, the sacrifice of innocence to power and profit. Lacking the will to further explore his rationales, or realizing that none is adequate to the system he has perpetuated, Tony walks away from analysis. “I thought you wanted to change,” Dr. Melfi insists. The response — “I guess not” — comes as a resignation. In the series’ last episode, Chase’s protagonist attempts a final reconciliation between America’s ideals and its economic structure. Tony maneuvers to buy Whitecaps, an exquisite beachfront retreat that epitomizes the balance of wealth and refuge. “It kinda reminds me of the Kennedy compound,” Tony says, and Chase’s stylized photography reinforces the memory of our noblest national idyll. But Tony ultimately reneges on the purchase: The way he has lived reaches out to claim him, and he can’t walk away from it. Neither, it seems, can we. Contributing writer Terry Diggs teaches law and film at Hastings School of the Law and Golden Gate University.

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