Old Jersey Real

“The Sopranos” wasn’t only a great show or even a classic. It was a masterpiece, and its end Sunday night is an epochal event. With it goes an era, a time.

You know the story, and if you don’t, you’ve absorbed enough along the way as you overheard people chat Monday morning around what we still call the water cooler and mean as the line at Starbucks. A New Jersey mobster with a family, a business and a therapist makes his way through life. It was a family drama that was a mob drama, but in some hard-to-put-your-finger-on way it was the great post-9/11 drama of our time.

“The Sopranos” first aired on HBO in 1999, but rewatching the first season, there’s an air of preamble to it, as if something were coming. Something was, and the show really got its shape and mood from what followed in September 2001. Sometimes this was subtle—Tony goes to his old uncle’s place upstate and suddenly thinks about going to live up there where it’s safe, where the birds fly on the lake. Sometimes it wasn’t—in the bar, he reads from a newspaper story about how unprotected the Port of Newark is. I remember this because at the time I’d begun to worry about the Port of Newark.

That kind of thing happened a lot with “The Sopranos.” It was real, Old Jersey real (Satriale’s butcher shop, not the mall) and primal. It was about big things, as all great drama is—the human hunger for dominance, for safety, for love; the desire to rise in the world; the need to belong to something, to be a Jet or a Shark, a Crip or a Blood, and have mates, homies, esteemed colleagues or paisans; how we process the hypocrisy all around us, in our families and among our friends, as we grow up; how we process hypocrisy in ourselves.

Because it was primal, its dialogue was pared to the bone and entered the language. You disrespecting the Bing? You wanna get whacked? And other famous phrases, many of them obscene.

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The drama of Tony, the great post-9/11 drama of him, is that he is trying to hold on in a world he thinks is breaking to pieces. He has a sense, even though he’s only in his 40s, that the best times have passed, not only for the Italian mob but for everyone, for the country—that he’d missed out on something, and that even though he lives in a mansion, even though he is rich and comfortable and always has food in the refrigerator and Carm can go to Paris and the kids go to private school—for all of that, he fears he’s part of some long downhill slide, a slide that he can’t stop, that no one can, that no one will. Out there, he told his son and daughter, it is the year 2000, but in here it’s 1950. His bluster, his desperate desire to re-create order with the rough tools of his disordered heart and brain, are comic, poignant, ridiculous, human.

Tony SopranoTony became a new and instantly recognizable icon, and his character adds to American myth, to America’s understanding of itself. It’s a big thing to create such a character, and not only one but a whole family of them—Uncle Junior, Christopher, Carmella. This is David Chase’s great achievement, to have created characters that are instantly recognizable, utterly original, and that add to America’s understanding of itself. And to have created, too, some of the most horrifying moments in all of television history, and one that I think is a contender for Most Horrifying Moment Ever. That would be Adriana desperately crawling—crawling!—through the leaves in the woods as she tries to flee her lovable old friend Silvio, who is about to brutally put her down.

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Here is a question that touches on the mystery of creativity, and I’ll probably put it badly because I can’t define it better than what I’m going to say. David Chase is the famous and justly celebrated creator of “The Sopranos,” the shaper of its stories. The psychological, spiritual and emotional energy needed to create a whole world, which is what he has done, is very great. It is a real expenditure, a kind of investment in life, a giving of yourself. You can’t do what he does without something like love. Not sentimentality or softness or sweetness, but love. And yet in a way, if you go by “The Sopranos,” Mr. Chase loves nothing. Human beings are appetite machines, and each day is devoted to meeting and appeasing those appetites. No one is good, there are no heroes, he sees through it all. The mental-health facility is a shakedown operation where they medicate your child into zombiehood and tell him to watch TV. Politicians are the real whores. The FBI is populated by smug careerists. In the penultimate show, a table full of psychotherapists top each other with erudite-seeming comments that show a ruthlessness as great as any gangster’s. I guess I’m asking where the energy for creativity comes when you see with such cold eyes.

Not that they’re unrealistic. They’re not. One of the reasons the show was so popular—one of the reasons it resonated—is that it captured a widespread feeling that our institutions are failing, all of them, the church, the media, the law, the government, that there’s no one to trust, that Mighty Mouse will not save the day.

In Mr. Chase’s world, everyone’s a gangster as long as he can find a gang. Those who don’t are freelancers.

And what he seems to be telling us, as the final season ends, is that all your pity for Tony, all your regard for the fact that he too is caught, all your sympathy for him as a father, as a man trying to be a man, as a man whose mother literally tried to have him killed, is a mistake. Because he is a bad man. He has passing discomfort but not conscience, he has passing sympathies but no compassion. When he kills the character who is, essentially, his son, Christopher, he does it spontaneously, coolly, and with no passion. It’s all pragmatism. He’s all appetite. Tony is a stone cold gangster.

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There have been shows on television that have been, simply, sublime. In drama there was “I Claudius,” a masterpiece of mood and menace—“Trust no one!”— from which writers and producers continue to steal (see HBO’s “Rome.”) And PBS’s “Upstairs Downstairs.” A few others. “The Sopranos” is their equal, but also their superior: It is hard to capture the past, but harder to capture the present, because everyone knows when you don’t get it right. It takes guts to do today.

David Chase did, and he made a masterpiece. I’ll be watching Sunday night, but I’ll wake up that morning with a blue moon in my eyes.