Studying Storytelling: The Sopranos

This post is Volume 1 in an ongoing series called "Studying Storytelling." Read here for more on this series.

Sometime in the middle of 2014, older HBO shows made their way to Amazon's Prime Video service . This has been...a mixed blessing. For the first time, all of HBO's classics were available to non-subscribers and those who were not willing to pony up for DVDs. I love having access to the content, but, man, it can be a black hole. I've got other stuff to do!

Ultimately this is a testament to the quality of what HBO has created. Of the shows that became available, two of them ("The Sopranos" and "The Wire") were ones I decided I would absolutely make an effort to watch in their entirety. I chose "The Sopranos" first.

When I set about watching "The Sopranos," I was interested in doing so more for its pop culture cachet than anything else.  During its run from the late 90's through 2007, I rarely had access to HBO so I had only seen tiny fragments of the show. My knowledge of it was primarily through other people talking about how great it was and how much I would like it. I wanted to know what I had missed.

I'm happy to report that everyone who said I would love the show was very much correct. I anticipated enjoying it, but I did not anticipate being impressed by it the way I was. I was so impressed by it that as the last few episodes approached, I began drafting a blog post about what I had learned and observed about storytelling by watching it.

This is that post, though I've changed it substantially from the fairly straightforward review I first envisioned. "The Sopranos" has been written about to death. What could I possibly add to all the analysis thrown at the show over the years? What's left to say that hasn't been said?

To a certain extent, probably nothing. But I thought approaching the show from the perspective of someone trying to learn better, more interesting ways to tell stories might work. I've chosen three elements of the show (out of many possibilities) that I did not expect to encounter when I started watching. Some might seem obvious in hindsight to those who watched the show, but they weren't things I knew about going in.

Here they are:

Three Storytelling Takeaways from "The Sopranos"

  1. The show had really great, deep supporting characters. They weren't just stock characters out of the mafioso cupboard, and they had great storylines of their own.
  2. I expected the show to be gritty and dark. I knew it was violent, and I expected it to be as realistic as possible. I did not anticipate it to use surreal imagery or dream sequences, and I certainly didn't expect those elements to be as effective as they were.
  3. It's really funny! The show incorporated a surprising amount of humor. It used that humor to heighten scenes and sometimes to let the tension out of them in cathartic ways. Sometimes it even seemed to revel in its own silliness to remind you it was just television after all.

Just FYI, there may be some light *spoilers* ahead, but the show's been off the air for going on eight years so that's on you at this point. I'm not going out of my way to annotate them.

Great Ensemble Characters

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano was the clear star of the show. He was eye of the storm around which the rest of the world spun, and I think he's one of the great characters of modern storytelling, an outcome of not just great writing but incredible performances by Gandolfini. Though the character was by no means the first, Tony Soprano ushered in the era of the anti-hero embodied by characters like Walter White ("Breaking Bad"), Don Draper ("Mad Men"), Lisbeth Salander ("The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), and more. These are characters we find compelling despite their moral and personal failings. We cheer for them but don't feel good about it.*

But "The Sopranos" had more than just one great central character.  It had an incredible panoply of secondary and tertiary characters with their own stories -- something even many very good shows don't have. I expected the narratives around Tony's immediate family to be pretty good, but I did not expect there to be so much going on with other characters. I feared there would be a lot of retreading on ground well-worn with mob movie stereotypes.** Every show gives its supporting cast some kind of story from time to time, but I think few are as complete and as interesting as those on "The Sopranos." These weren't tagalong arcs that did little more than prop up the central narrative or just give viewers time to catch their breath rom the good stuff. They were complete narratives in their own right.

For expediency and space, I've picked just two examples, deliberately straying from Tony's immediate family to demonstrate how deep the show went with characters that did not demand screen time just because of their proximity to Tony. Yes, their arcs were affected and even driven by Tony at times, but they were not wholly subservient to him. There are probably another dozen characters who could merit their own write-up.

Dr. Jennifer Melfi

Tony's therapist could easily have had her own show. A spinoff around her life could have shown what her relationships with other clients were like while delving further into her own issues, not entirely dissimilar from the premise of the recently debuted "Better Call Saul" where Bob Odenkirk's sleazy lawyer character from "Breaking Bad" got his own show.

Consider the following insights we saw into her life on "The Sopranos."

  • Difficult relationship with her on-again, off-again ex-husband Richard
  • Tensions with her son
  • Struggles with alcohol and drug abuse
  • Faces a sexual assault
  • Professional insecurity, largely due to her relationship with Soprano, but which causes problems in her personal life
  • Her own therapist, Elliot, is also part of her social life which leads to some awkward moments

Hit shows have been made on much less substance than that. The show does make Dr. Melfi important right from the beginning, but I was surprised at how much time it spent developing her own stories. There's a lot going on here for a character that could easily have been used as just a simple mirror to Tony Soprano, which was more or less what I anticipated.

Bobby Baccalieri

I thought this was one of the coolest shots in the whole show.

Bobby's arc was one of my favorites. It's a tragedy with some undertones of Macbeth, but rendered in a fully realistic world. There are no Weird Sisters spinning prophecy, but there is plenty of foreshadowing accomplishing much the same thing.

Where he begins mostly happy as little more than a babysitter to Uncle Junior, Bobby becomes cursed with ambition at the goading of his second wife, Janice who is Tony's sister. She pushes him to want more, and for a long time you get the sense he's never quite sure whether he wants it. His evolution from the big softie who was the only "made guy" who hadn't killed anyone to one of Tony's most trusted captains was unexpected.

He was, in most circumstances, such a kind, tender-hearted guy that it was easy to root for his ascendance in the family, but that meant I was cheering for him to become a more willing and capable criminal. That was a powerful realization, one that hit home all the harder in Bobby's final scene.

Effective Use of Surrealism and Dream Sequences

This is an area where some people disagree, and I understand why completely. Using dream sequences in particular is risky. They can be dreadfully boring. They can put off an air of faux-artistry, as if the writer is trying to show you the real truth, man (which is exactly what they're trying to do when you get down to it). For some who didn't like those elements, I suspect it was due to wanting the show to stick to being a mob drama.  Weird, surrealism and hallucinations might be off-putting if you like your entertainment more straightforward.

Part of why this storytelling device worked for me in "The Sopranos" was precisely because I didn't expect it. I assumed the show would cling tightly to the "gritty crime drama" genre come hell or high water. Having said that, the exploration of dreams and the subconscious is actually a pretty obvious fit for the show. At its most basic, "The Sopranos" was about a guy in therapy dealing with emotional problems. That's a pretty ripe premise for looking at what's going on under the surface.

Dreams or hallucinations as a storytelling device are often used as a way to try to get a character to accept a truth he or she already knows but does not want to acknowledge or to express wishes and desires the character cannot vocalize. "The Sopranos" uses both.

In the penultimate episode of the first season, Tony has begun to rely on lithium for helping with his panic attacks and depression, and hallucinates a series of exchanges with a beautiful Italian exchange student called Isabella. Dr. Melfi believes his subconscious fantasy represents 1) a representation of an idealized mother and 2) a signal that his actual mother is behind his problems. The downside of this exchange with Dr. Melfi is that it makes the implicit explicit, which serves to partially undermine the artistry of the delusions. Given that the show dealt heavily with Tony's experience in therapy, it's hard to see how they could have avoided this entirely. It would have been unnatural for Tony to suddenly not discuss this with his therapist.

Sometimes what you're trying to say gets lost in how you're trying to say it.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.46.30 PMMy favorite use of dreams came at the end of season 2 in the episode "Funhouse." Fans of the show will recall that this is the episode that resolved the story arc of Salvatore "Big Pussy"Bonpensiero. Tony gets severe food poisoning and has delirious fever dreams. Though the dreams have strange and surreal elements, their content is pretty explicit. There's no ambiguous subtext, little room for misinterpretation. At one point, Big Pussy's voice speaks to Tony through a dead fish where two other fish are "sleeping" with him. The fish even comes right out and says "You know I'm working for the government, right Ton?" No mistaking that, right?

What I loved about this episode is that, even though it used dreams as the playground for telling the story, it did not solely rely on symbolism and imagery. As a writer it's really tempting to do exactly that, and sometimes what you're trying to say gets lost in how you're trying to say it. Instead, rather than forcing Tony to try to interpret confusing memories and images, it comes right out and tells him what he needs to hear. It's Tony's subconscious forcing a difficult truth to the surface -- that one of his closest friends has been the turncoat rat that's haunted him all along.

It's Really Funny!

This was the element of "The Sopranos" that I think I anticipated the least. At no point did anyone tell me how funny the show was, nor did any of the marketing give that impression. The marketing part I get. HBO clearly wanted to position the show as a serious drama, which it rightly was most of the time. But I'm surprised no one else I know said anything. The show's humor in goes a long way to making the world in which the show exists feel more real. After all, real life is not serious all the time, so why would a show that aims at depicting a certain kind of life in realistic fashion be humorless?

Another line from "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"

The humor serves as a nice balance to the darkness and drama. It makes the most intense scenes hit harder and also occasionally serves as a palate cleanser following some major event. In the first season finale, "I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano," Tony comes clean to Chris, Paulie and Silvio that he's been seeing a psychiatrist. Tony's been hiding this the whole season because he knows it will be seen as a major sign of weakness, the kind of thing a boss simply does not do. In fact, it's how his uncle has justified that Tony ought to be eliminated. After he makes his confession, so to speak, Paulie offers that he sought help once himself  and "learned some copin' skills."

It doesn't even really read as a joke on the page and Paulie delivers it sincerely, but coming from the Paulie Walnuts character makes it funny. Paulie is short-tempered and thinks of himself as an old school wise guy. He's also half a lunatic. The idea that he would have gone to therapy never crossed my mind, though the fact that he needed it was pretty clear. The line is made even funnier because the stakes of the episode are heightened at that point, so even a little bit of humor is relished as a counterweight to the tension.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 7.33.23 PM

Paulie is responsible for a lot of the humor in the show, and the 11th episode of season 3, "Pine Barrens," includes some of the funniest moments in the series. See here for video of the exchange at the left.

The relationship between Paulie and Chris was often played for tense comedic effect, and this episode is basically a buddy comedy trapped in a crime drama. The audience was frequently unsure whether they were about to hug it out or shoot it out. This comes to a head when Chris and Paulie are nearly frozen to death in an abandoned van.

Maybe my favorite funny scene came in season 6, episode 3,"Mayham,"when Christopher Moltisanti gathered a bunch of his colleagues together to meet with screenwriter J.T. Dolan (played by Tim Daly) to discuss the horror movie they've been working on billed as "Saw meets Godfather." It's hilarious watching a roomful of wise guys criticize the believability of a movie premise about a whacked mobster who was chopped into pieces coming back to life to take revenge because his body parts wouldn't end up in the same dump. That's the part they're focused on -- that a real wise guy wouldn't be so foolish as to take a guy's parts to just one dump. The whole scene cuts some of the tension surrounding the fact that the movie is itself a thinly veiled representation for Christopher's fraught relationship with Tony, and it also allows the audience to laugh at the very construct of "The Sopranos" itself.


It took me long enough, but I'm glad I finally got around to watching "The Sopranos" in its entirety. It's been named the best written show ever, and I understand why. I think those sorts of claims are mostly silly, but it's certainly one of the best I've watched. The three storytelling elements I've discussed here taught me useful lessons for my own writing. I've gone back into my novel draft and though about how I could better flesh out the stories of my supporting characters. There's a lot left for me to do on that front, but the effort to create an interesting supporting cast is one I know will pay off.

I have a couple of dream and flashback-type scenes, and after having watched "The Sopranos" I'm paying more attention to detail in them. Mine don't necessarily have the same types of subconscious implications as those in the show, but I'm making sure that I don't sacrifice understanding for the sake of making the scenes surreal all the same. Perhaps another way of putting it is that when I am making something unclear, I'm doing it with very great intention. I'm making sure  it serves a purpose.

In terms of comedy, I always intended for my novel to have some funny moments in it, and "The Sopranos" helped me think about where they might fit. I think about scenes that have a lot of built-in tension and look for an opportunity to use humor to release that pressure valve a bit. The biggest and/or most satisfying laughs sometimes come not from the funniest lines, but from the most well-placed ones.

I realize that this first edition of "Studying Storytelling" has been almost uniformly positive. That's partly coincidental and party because I thought the show was far more successful than not. The lessons I learned from it reflected what it did right more than any failures it had, though certainly there were episodes that were relative duds.*** In the next edition, I'll be looking at "Californication," and there will be some lessons to learn from where I think that show went off the rails.

Bonus! That Final Scene!

It's almost impossible not to talk about how "The Sopranos" ended, so I've given into that temptation. Here's the (not very) hot take about the series finale that you've been dying to read for the last almost eight years, and here's a refresher on how it goes down for those that need it.

Love it or hate it, the final scene and the final shot in the show have become iconic. Rather than continue wrapping up plot threads or ending with a clear indication that Tony was killed or that life just continued on its path, the final scene ends abruptly. I don't have much in the way of new insight or analysis to add. The scene has been written about ad nauseum in the years since it first aired with staunch support on both sides of the "he's alive" and "he's dead" camp as well as those who say it doesn't matter. I tend to land in the "it doesn't matter" group, but I recognize the discomfort caused by the way the scene and series resolves.

From a storytelling perspective, the most interesting decision in that final shot wasn't that it ended without clearly resolving the dead or alive quandary, but rather that it ended mid-chorus of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." In fact, it ended very close to the final lines of the song, so close I imagine almost everyone watching the show had their brains continue the lyrics for a moment or two before they realized exactly what happened. This was deliberately uncomfortable. It felt unresolved because it was. Is this because Tony was now dead, after not "hear[ing] it coming" as Bobby Bacala had speculated? Is it because life does not always resolve neatly at the end of the song? It could be that David Chase and his team meant us to  perceive these specific things, but it could be countless others as well. I don't really care what their interpretation is, I simply appreciate that it is something worth interpreting. The strange queasiness caused by the scene halting mid-lyric forces us to reckon with whatever emotions we were having about how the show would end or what would become of the characters. It takes stugots the size of Tony's boat to end a story like this, and as an audience member I appreciate the show ending in courageous fashion.

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*For a nice look at Tony Soprano as a character, check this out.

**You can certainly pick out a number of stereotypes in the show, but any character that stuck around for any length of time got more to do than just check off a box for "thug" or "mistress" or whatever. It was like the show wanted to acknowledge that, perhaps, the stereotypes were not entirely off-base, but they weren't the whole truth either.

***My personal choice for the weakest episode would be "Christopher," mainly for Silvio, generally the most level-headed of the Soprano leadership team, becoming suddenly and passionately political. Felt out of character.