I’m playing tag team with Jean, who just wrote about reality tv. Reality and tv have been on my mind lately.
As I’ve been painting, I’ve carted my laptop around to stream The Sopranos. It started innocently enough. With my new HBO subscription, I could watch the last season on tv. I firmly believe that Tony was not shot in the final scene of the series. The screen went black and we were shut out. The characters went to a restaurant we’d never heard of and they went on to live their lives. Without us. (Just as Sherlock Holmes fans know that Holmes is retired and tending to his bees in Sussex.)
Seriously, a colleague of mine–who didn’t even watch the whole series–argued in the mailroom a few years ago that Tony died, and I got a little hot under the collar. I can’t reasonably disagree with someone on this. I was ticked at his mansplaining, but I had a nugget of doubt that maybe I just wished that Tony was alive. In rewatching the last few episodes, I feel vindicated. The therapist, who had been a stand-in for us, disabuses herself of her fondness for Tony and acknowledges him as a sociopath. If that didn’t persuade us, then Anthony, Jr., becomes the show’s oracle, quoting Yeats and urging us to recognize that the real world is all around us. The show’s makers were letting us go, urging us to let go on our terms, and if that didn’t work, they shut us out.
As I painted, I just started the whole series over, from episode 1. That theme ran throughout the whole series. They kept reminding us that this was not real. Italian-Americans who felt out of place in Italy, mobsters who built their identity on The Godfather. There’s one plot turn involving a stolen haul of flat screen tv’s. As the series continues, you see that every mobster and his mother has that tv. Nice consistency to the show, but also a message–this is tv. Resume your critical faculties. This is not real.
Funny, though, how warm and fuzzy it felt to rewatch the series. The opening credits, with the NJ Turnpike, put me right back onto the scratchy rug in the back of the station wagon, where the littlest kids in the family sat, peering at the smokestacks and the HESS building. When I started my job, we were so broke and couldn’t afford cable, but one of the other stay-at-home dads would loyally slip my husband a videotape of the episode on Monday or Tuesday, so we were always caught up. We were even in NJ for the last episode. We watched it with my brother and left right afterward. I was so stunned by the ending that I sat in silence through all of Pennsylvania. The Sopranos is so embedded in my past, and it evokes so much Jersey and so much of my happy early years of parenting, that it’s like a warm embrace.
There is a lot of real experience that I’ve blocked and that I’m still recovering, bit by bit. This unreal experience feels more familiar, and much safer (even with the violence and sexism and rotten characters). Maybe I’m crazy, avoiding what’s real and embracing what’s constructed. But the academic in me knows that when an Italian-American can pronounce every deli meat with an Italian accent but can’t follow a conversation, well that right there is a culture. If a tv show is woven into the experience of my lie, both reflecting it and constructing it, then that’s experience. And part of recovering from trauma is having to reread your life as a text, and realizing that you were an unreliable narrator, and the beloved main character wasn’t who you thought he was, and not being able to fix that, and getting the story right doesn’t make the story any better. Vindication is no solace, or even a factor. You just to accept those facts, and this life.
The academic in me also knows that there are multiple interpretations of texts, so you can believe that Tony was shot. To which I will reply, “Get outa town!”