As you’ve no doubt already heard, James Gandolfini–the actor most famous for playing mob boss Tony Soprano for six seasons on The Sopranos–tragically died a few days ago of a heart attack while vacationing in Italy, aged 51. Since then, outpourings of grief and condolences have been widespread across the internet, in remembrance of one of television’s most powerful and multifaceted performers. The industry lost a huge and genre-defining talent, and it is indeed a very sad time.
The Sopranos is widely recognised as one of the strongest television series in history; the Writers Guild of America recently named it the best-written show of all time. In the time that it was on the air, it won numerous prestigious awards, as did a handful of its stars, including Gandolfini. Tony Soprano is, and will always be, one of the most iconic television characters to ever grace the small screen. He could be caring towards the family he adored, and he could be a brutal, cruel monster in the interest of financial gain. But whether Tony’s moral compass was pointing due south, Gandolfini consistently provided incredible scenes worthy of recognition years and decades down the line.
In an effort to provide some form of a tribute to one of the world’s strongest and most influential actors, I have compiled a small list of some of my all-time favourite scenes from The Sopranos’ illustrious six-season run. Some involve Gandolfini and his phenomenal talent while others stand out even without his work. This selection of scenes isn’t a complete list, because if I were to do that this post would become tens of thousands of words long, but the scenes you’ll see below are among my favourites from a show that was quite capable of providing them on a weekly basis.
“Mothers are bus drivers […]”
“Mothers are…the bus drivers. No, they are the bus. See they’re the vehicle that gets us here. They drop us off and go on their way. They continue on their journey, and the problem is that we keep trying to get back on the bus instead of just letting it go.”
Tony Soprano was a figure haunted by his past. His life, the way he lived and the person he became, was all a direct consequence of the influence his mother, Livia, had on him as he was growing up. No matter how he tried to escape her presence, the ghost of Livia Soprano hung over him wherever he went. And it’s this that makes this scene a powerful, resonant affair that sums up a lot of Tony’s toxic relationship with his late mother, played to perfection by James Gandolfini himself.
Tony confronts his mother and trips while getting away from her
Technically, if you count the CGI wizardry of season three, this wasn’t the final scene James Gandolfini and Nancy Marchand–Livia–shared together (it should’ve been), but it is one of the most powerful and pivotal moments in their relationship, as well as one of my favourites for a multitude of reasons.
As I said previously, the influence that Livia exercised over Tony moulded him into who he eventually became, and it’s only her that could cause the feared and oppressive Tony Soprano to literally trip over himself–with a gun falling out of his pocket as he does so, as a sort of symbol of his path to crime after enduring his mother’s relentless abuse–trying to get away from her after another of her diatribes directed towards him. And as his mother sniggers at the sight of her son being humiliated, it’s hard not to feel nothing but sympathy for Tony. This is a man who commands fear and respect from those around him, and he fell to the ground trying to escape from the woman who he ultimately could never escape from.
“Are you in the mafia?”
“College” is one of my favourite episodes of The Sopranos, and it’s because of scenes like this that it remains so. Tony always made a deal out of shielding his children from the life he lived, refusing to drag them into the business without a choice like he was. And so when his daughter Meadow asks him the question she’d been wanting to ask him for a long time, he makes every effort to dispense with her suspicions, but ultimately failing to do so.
During this scene, it’s obvious that Meadow doesn’t believe anything that Tony is telling her. Why would she when it’s blatant misdirection? And so Tony’s efforts to continue holding that shield in front of her face could be seen in a somewhat comedic light but actually feel more like a father trying to protect his child from the dangers of the life he lives. Tony and Meadow always shared a close relationship that was full of each side bullshitting the other, and it always made for good television and character work. Because for all the times Tony could be a cold, calculating criminal, his devotion to keeping his two families seperate was always unrelenting.
“I’ll see you up there.”
Tony said it himself that the only way out of the business they were all in was either jail or death, and even if you ratted on the family and entered witness protection, that is, in itself, a form of imprisonment. And so poor Adriana’s untimely end is one of The Sopranos’ most memorable, brutal and harrowing scenes, played masterfully by Drea De Matteo and Steven Van Zandt, the latter eliciting a form of menace that reminded you just how deplorable these people are if you had somehow forgotten.
Ever since Adriana’s involvement with the feds, her death was an eventuality, and if there’s one thing this scene displays well, it’s that Adriana never saw the result coming. She thought there would be light at the end of the painfully dark tunnel, but as the shots of the woods pass her by in what would be her final journey, she never realised just what they meant until she was crawling on her hands and knees for her life. Drea De Matteo was absolutely exceptional in Adriana’s final moments, and it made the entire sequence of events legitimately difficult to watch.
Before Adriana got her turn to get involved with the authorities, it was Big Pussy Bonpensiero’s turn. He didn’t fare much better, however, as a trip out onto the ocean with Tony, Paulie and Silvio was to be his final voyage. And the killing wasn’t easy for any of them, least of all Tony, who had experienced countless dreams that only confirmed his suspicions about his best friend that had festered within his head for a long time prior to the act. (In fact, the dream sequence that leads Tony to confront Pussy is one of the series’ best.)
Family and loyalty mean everything to these people. It’s a sacred vow that’s unchangeable, everlasting and worth more than your life should you break it. And even though Tony knows what he has to do, he still struggles with it immeasurably. (The look on Tony’s face right before the act is one of anger and disappointment at the same time, and Gandolfini plays it superbly.) We had already been reminded of how sacred the vow of loyalty was when Tony murdered the rat in “College”, but Pussy was his friend–and even for Tony, killing those you love doesn’t come quite so easily.
Dr. Melfi’s brutal rape at the hands of a stranger in “Employee of the Month” is one of the show’s most violent and abhorrent scenes to watch. Mostly because the terrifying situation that Melfi finds herself in is the stuff of nightmares, and also because the acting displayed by Lorraine Bracco was astoundingly good. But it’s perhaps what comes after that’s the strongest material the episode had to offer.
The Sopranos was always so good at using dream sequences to tell the characters things about themselves that they weren’t aware of, and after her rape, Melfi dreams about a rottweiler. On the outside, it appears to be the thing she should be fearing, but when it rips apart her oncoming assailant, she realises that it makes her feel safe as opposed to scared. The rottweiler is Tony Soprano, and the knowledge that she could set her patient onto the man who violated her so terrifyingly gives her an acute sense of safety.
“Employee of the Month” gave Melfi many opportunities to exact a revenge upon her attacker using the rottweiler she had visiting her office on a weekly basis, but when she refuses to at the end of the episode, it keeps her true to character. Because Melfi would never allow herself to become complicit in someone’s murder, even her own rapist’s. The knowledge that she could have him ripped apart is enough to keep her going, and it’s enough to give her back a small sense of empowerment that was lost to her when she was attacked in that stairwell.
Tony and Carmela’s break-up
It had been building for the entire four seasons of the show up until that point, and for Carmela it had been building for decades, but the moment when the marriage between Tony and Carmela dissolved is a phenomenally acted, expertly crafted piece of television that I found exquisite the first time around and even more so afterwards.
The reason the scene just works so brilliantly is because it’s the explosion after years and years of a lit fuse burning down to the source. Carmela had felt trapped in her own marriage, connected with a man who slept with other women and whose criminal enterprises fuelled her lifestyle. But she stayed with him because of her family, her children, and because her faith taught her that divorce was wrong. Eventually, however, when one of Tony’s conquests infiltrates their family, the fuse finally reached the powderkeg, and the subsequent explosion was one of pure, unfiltered resentment and rage.
The acting displayed between James Gandolfini and Edie Falco in this scene is, quite simply, out of this world. Both actors won Emmys for the scene and it’s not difficult to see why, as Carmela’s conniption and Tony’s violent outburst upon hearing of his own wife’s infidelity is a true masterclass in acting. I always adored the scenes Galdolfini and Falco shared together, as the marriage between their characters was always the source of sublime television, but their break-up is just so perfect, so drenched in various emotions, that it stands out in the sea of excellent scenes they shared over the show’s life.
Don’t stop believing
Yes, it’s that scene. The final moments of The Sopranos’’ series finale have been so open for debate and so widely discussed since it originally aired that it’s no wonder that the finale has gone down in the history books. Some criticised it for the way it cut to black so suddenly and without explaining what happened to the Sopranos in that restaurant, while others have applauded its creativity and willingness to let you be the judge of how things ultimately ended. I used to be in the former category, but I’ve been in the latter for quite some time since.
So, what happened to the family? Did the man who went to the bathroom put a bullet in Tony’s head, with the sudden blackness indicating his death? Did the black men who came in shoot the entire family? Was it all just the paranoia that someone like Tony faces on a daily basis? Maybe the sudden cut to black was the viewer themselves getting whacked because they knew too much? It’s all open for debate, and the discussion has raged across the internet in the many years since about what it all means. Nobody knows what ultimately happened to Tony, but everybody can theorize amongst themselves.
There are other scenes I didn’t mention in this post that I could very easily have done, such as AJ’s attempted suicide, Tony’s confrontation with his mother at the end of season one, everything about “Pine Barrens”, Uncle Junior shooting Tony and many, many more. The beauty of a show like The Sopranos is that it has so many of these fantastic moments that everybody’s personal lists could look completely different to the next person’s.
To conclude: James Gandolfini’s passing is a terrible loss to the television–and the acting–world. His work as Tony Soprano will never be forgotten now, next year or decades down the line. In Tony, he helped create a character who could be fearsome and terrifying one moment, and sympathetic the next. His performances were nuanced, exquisite and among the finest I’ve ever seen–and he will be missed.