The Sopranos and conservatism.

There’s so much I want to and need to say about The Sopranos, and I’ve been putting off doing so for a while now. But I figured it was best to finish the series and then try to write something longer after I’ve gathered my thoughts, rather than providing a commentary of half-cooked ideas as I go along. That was before I watched the episode Whitecaps last night – season four’s finale – and its brilliance just had to be noted here immediately.

James Poniewozik at TIME lists this as the fourth best episode. So far, for me it’s the very best. College had the most originality, Pine Barrens so much humour, Christopher vast socio-political intelligence and Funhouse unparalleled technical and narrative genius. But Whitecaps is unmatched in emotional complexity and authenticity. And at the moment, I’m feeling like that matters most. Here’s Poniewozik:

In The Sopranos‘ most searing fight, no one dies, or even draws blood. And while the series has featured bludgeoning, rape and dismembering, I’m not sure if any scene has been more uncomfortable for viewers to sit through than the showdown that leads to Tony and Carmela’s separation, after one of Tony’s goomars calls and taunts Carm on the phone. It is a pitch-perfect rendering of one of those long-simmering meltdowns in which a couple hurls every grenade in their marital arsenal of grievances, and Edie Falco proves her Emmy-worthiness in a performance that’s brave, fearful and just the right amount unhinged.

Yes. This hit me harder than the family breakdown scenes in Revolutionary Road, which I have deep admiration for. And I guess one of the main reasons for this is that television allows us to invest so much more in characters. Their experiences can inevitably carry far more meaning for us than the traditional film format can allow. In this case, I’ve followed a fifty hour backstory tracking Tony and Carmela’s mess of a marriage, and to see the tensions intrinsic to it finally boil over and then explode on screen was incredible.

But what the episode captured more than anything, for me, was the case for and motive behind all the best forms of conservatism. Yes, this is a radically daring HBO series depicting all the dark sides and sins of modern society that few conservatives will feel comfortable watching. And it’s a series that only those with a liberal artistic spirit could ever make. But in the midst of all that, it’s perfectly consistent to find a conservative message shining through.

And when we witness the psychological impact of family breakdown upon these characters that seem so close to us – when Carmela crumbles under the weight of Tony’s adultery, when Meadow weeps and reflects on family life with a flashback, when Anthony Junior deals with the dilemma of divided loyalties and when Tony’s left sleeping alone on an air mattress, the ties to those closest to him severed overnight – how can anyone not grasp the intuition that any wise social system will seek to sustain and strengthen and encourage natural, familial bonds? The consequences of relationship dysfunction and divorce are too catastrophic for all concerned. The desire to conserve what we have and take for granted before we lose it isn’t too far away. Whitecaps, with the changes for the Soprano household that it heralds, demonstrates that better than any book has ever done for me. The episode hammers the conservative case home.

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