It's Not Enough to Not Want to Lionize Your Protagonist
judgment is something that has to be achieved
Entire books have been written about the prominence of antiheroes in the so-called “Golden Era of Television,” and it’s not hard to understand why. Tony Soprano looms as large above the rise of prestige TV as his show does, perhaps the epitome of the charismatic monster, a fuming, stomping bully who has charmed just about everyone who watches The Sopranos despite his violent and predatory nature. Twenty years on from the premiere of that show and we’re still debating how to balance our duty to reject Tony’s violence, sexual aggression, serial dishonesty, and entitlement with the magnetic personal pull he exudes. The question has been particularly prevalent when considering The Sopranos thanks to a widespread distaste for fans who rooted for Tony (among TV critics, at least) and the attendant insistence that the show’s relentlessly bleak portrayal of mob life shouldn’t be romanticized. And indeed we shouldn't romanticize either Tony or the way of life he represents. Indeed, the show portrayed the crumbling mafia establishment as simply a microcosm of a greater American decay, which the NYT magazine’s Willy Staley referred to as a “depiction of contemporary America as relentlessly banal and hollow.”
I do agree that the show repeatedly defied the “cool mob guys whack each other” vision of mafia narratives, and to its credit. It even seemed to evolve over time to defy fans who attempted to push it into that box. But what always annoys me about the conversation is that it has been so relentlessly fixated on the intentions of David Chase, the show’s creator. In an age in which we have come to communally understand that authorial intention isn't everything, I’ve found that the discussion of Tony specifically and antiheroes generally too often falls back on demands that the author didn’t intend for the audience to love a given charismatic bastard. But creators aren’t just responsible for their intentions; they’re responsible for achieving those intentions. And while it almost always succeeds, sometimes The Sopranos is guilty of playing to exactly the prurient interests of fans that Chase seemed to disdain.
First consider the following scene, which is the most direct portrayal of the show’s negative judgment of both Tony and his enablers - the latter representing us, the viewers.
This is, in fact, my favorite scene from the show. As it happens, it’s also a perfect example of how the hoary old storytelling cliche “show, don't tell” can be wrong. This is just straight-up telling; a figure that's immediately imbued with personal and moral authority is practically looking into the camera and saying “Tony is a bad person, and you should stop making excuses for him.” Every Screenwriting 101 class would tell you that you shouldn't write scenes like this. But it's masterful and compelling and much more effective than trying to subtly hint at the intended message, which many screenwriters would muck up terribly. And he’s right. For all of his charisma, Tony is a violent sociopath, someone who’s serially unfaithful to his wife and a casual betrayer of his closest friends and family members. He’s not a good dude, and if the show ever truly lost track of that fact it would find itself in the same strata as all manner of cheap, scuzzy Godfather knockoffs, movies bankrolled on the belief that the mob is cool.
I just wish the show was more coherent and consistent on this central point.
This is, for comparison, maybe my least favorite scene in the show. Some random, unimportant mobster from the New York family that's in a war with the New Jersey family insults Meadow and so Tony hunts and maims him. And that's really it. It doesn't advance the Phil Leotardo story, and thus the conclusion of the series itself, at all. We don’t learn anything about Tony we didn’t already know, given how often we’re reminded that he cares about his family (when not traumatizing or killing them) and that he’s animalistic when angered. The whole plot point seems to serve merely to give viewers one more look at Tony being a badass. To me it lives uncomfortably with the final several seasons of the show, which often functioned as an hours-long rebuke of those fans who wanted to see exactly this kind of scene. I think the series as a whole was guilty of sometimes trying to have it both ways when it came to Tony.
No, you’re not “supposed” to root for Tony in a simplistic way. But it’s also too easy to dismiss fans who did so as just uncultured morons. There’s a reason Tony has charmed so many, and I think The Sopranos walked a thin line - usually very well, but not always. My point here is simply that it’s not sufficient for a creator to not want to lionize a given character. It’s not sufficient for a creator to attempt to judge their protagonist. They have to achieve the artistic feat of judgment in fact. And a lot of people, even some of our greatest creative minds, have a hard time doing that.
A good example of a failure to achieve narrative judgment is Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps my least favorite of his films. Scorsese has been dogged his entire career by claims that his movies sympathize with those we should not sympathize with. The stock response, which I usually agree with, is that Scorsese does not intend for us to see, say, Henry Hill from Goodfellas as an admirable figure. Yes, he typically makes his protagonists charming and seductive, and there’s little doubt that most people get a thrill when they watch the early parts of that film or Casino, which show the money rolling in, the high times. But Scorsese is a consummate moralist, a term which has a bad reputation but which can be essential in an artist, and he assiduously portrays the downfalls as well, the ugly reality as bad behavior sews the seeds for an inevitable sad downfall.
And this moral dimension, I think, has something to do with what we mean when we talk about greatness in a filmmaker. I love some of Quentin Tarantino’s films, but as much fun as (say) Kill Bill is, it lacks the sense of coherent internal moral perspective. Boogie Nights is as much about the long slow sad fall as about the initial rush of fun and success, and that’s part of what makes PT Anderson who he is. In Kill Bill revenge looks cool and mostly stays looking cool. That's OK - Tarantino is a stylist above all else, and a gifted one. I myself value image above all else, whether in movies or novels. But I do think that the are registers of artistic moral sentiment that someone like Anderson reaches that Tarantino doesn't, and it has something to do with their relative stature. (But I invite the outraged pro-Tarantino comments below!)
So what’s the difference between Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas? (Or Taxi Driver, a film where the tendency of some in the audience to sympathize with the protagonist is even more disturbing?) While I’m sure the intent to critique and judge is the same, the effect is not, for me. When I watch Goodfellas I do indeed feel a twinge of envy for the camaraderie and freedom enjoyed by the characters. But I also recognize that they’re awful, destructive people who are causing immense harm to those around them, and inevitably it ends in a very dark place. I never doubt that the film bears no romantic feelings towards them. In contrast, Jordan Belfort’s negative impact on society is more diffuse, less obvious, spread out on a larger scale, which I think requires finer tuning of the moral apparatus than we get. Belfort’s clearly causing harm, but his life is so glamorous, his mistress is so hot, his cars are so expensive…. To me, the subtle judgment isn’t sufficient to overpower the glitz. I can accept the fact that Belfort never really pays for his destructive ways in the movie, as he didn’t in real life. That is, after all, the more astringent option when it comes to social critique. But I want the movie to make it clearer what a travesty that is, and for me it never does.
You’re of course free to disagree on that score, but what I want to insist here is that “Scorsese doesn’t want you to like Jordan Belfort” isn’t a defense. My job is to read the text and draw a reaction from it; my reading might be faulty, but that’s a different issue than a failure to read the creator’s mind.
I really just ask that these questions of characterization and judgement remain alive, to be debatable, rather than shut down through appeals to the author. That includes films I like very much that sometimes attract devotion from people who have comprehensively misunderstood their moral conclusions. (What I take their morals to be.) I’ve already laid out my take on Fight Club’s message in this space, and I do think that all we can really do about the knuckleheads who saw the movie and formed their own fight clubs is shake our heads and insist on better, more persuasive visions of what the movie is all about. (Please don't start Project Mayhem.) But we should also admit that Tyler Durden is an immensely charismatic figure, and that there’s a reason Travis Bickle has adorned so many dorm-room walls. I think both of those characters, and so many more, have to be charismatic for the real dramatic work to be done, for the implied judgment to have teeth. But if I recognize that, I also have to recognize that it’s natural for some people to fall all the way in, to just be flat-out and fully charmed with the characters we are “supposed” to both enjoy and abhor. That’s the stakes of great art, man. It’s always a high-wire act.