Before stellar TV dramas like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones showed us how no characters in their worlds were wholly good, The Sopranos established this bold style of long-form storytelling. David Chase’s mob land saga was never truly concerned with exploring good and evil as much as it was in showing that the human race is, with very few exceptions, is a complete balance between the two. For as much as we all strive to extol and meet up to pristine virtues that we ultimately wish to live our lives by, the very nature of living comfortably in a consumerist society rooted in inequality and hypocrisy makes us guilty by default. This is one of the major themes in the series that manages to stand the test of time. About 75% of the major characters in The Sopranos regularly commit murder in addition to a slew of other serious crimes, and either by the result of these actions or, in the case of Tony himself, no plans to ever stop committing crimes, there was very little chance of redemption for any of them. But for some characters in the show (that managed to survive), deficiencies in character were the only problems they would ever need to overcome. It is worth taking a look at some of these characters to both establish their faults when compared to violent crimes by other major characters, and in many ways to reaffirm how common perceptions of their so-called “goodness” may not have been what they seem (Carmela, Bobby Bacala).
Dr. Jennifer Melfi
Played with subtle inquisitiveness and understated technique by Lorraine Bracco, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi was one of the most important characters within the 86-episode series. Despite her patient’s use of talk therapy to further his sociopathic tendencies, as well as Tony’s constant dropping of therapy and restarting throughout the series, Dr. Melfi always strived to help him despite his apparent inability to understand his psychosis. Dr. Melfi was a main player in the first three seasons of the series before being seen less frequently from the fourth season to the final season. Melfi’s ability to treat Tony has long been debated in fan circles surrounding the series. In the second season of the show, both her husband and her own therapist repeatedly tell her that trying to cure Tony of his problems is useless since anti-social personality disorder has no known cure. Despite knowing this certainty, she continues to retain Tony as a patient–either from pure compassion or her own self-admitted vicarious thrill-seeking and sexual attraction that she fostered towards him. Whether or not this makes Dr. Melfi a subpar psychiatrist is debatable, but it certainly wasn’t wholly ethical behavior for a mental health clinician. Many also disagree with how Melfi abruptly gave Tony the boot in the series’ penultimate episode, “The Blue Comet”–including Lorraine Bracco herself. But still, Dr. Melfi is by far the outsider’s perspective looking in at a lifestyle that made us the audience vicarious thrill-seekers as well.
AJ and Meadow Soprano
Tony and Carmela’s kids have never been high on many favorite Sopranos characters lists. The main reason cited is that they are spoiled rotten to the core–which is certainly true but coming of age knowing that their father is the mob boss of New Jersey is not gonna guarantee a depiction of wholesome, American teens–if such a thing even exists. AJ is consistently incompetent from the beginning to end, and slowly progresses into his father’s worst traits when he was a teen. But Meadow Soprano is a different case altogether. Although her obnoxious entitlement can be hard to take at times, it seemed like she was on the road to becoming a fully independent young career woman outside of her father’s criminal enterprise. Despite her Ivy League education being funded by blood money, Meadow was always one of the most grounded characters outside of Dr. Melfi. By the final season, she was on her way to becoming a pediatrician…until she abruptly decides to drop that noble aspiration to become a lawyer defending white-collar criminals–like her dad. In season six’s “Mayham,” Carmela has a session with Dr. Melfi where she agrees that her children are becoming complicit within a luxurious life financed by crime–which is exactly what happens as the series fades to black.
Arthur and Charmaine Bucco
Tony’s lifelong friend and restaurant owner Artie Bucco was always a character that straddled the line between remaining a friend to Tony while wanting nothing to do with his organized crime influence. Much of Artie’s reluctance to fall into Tony’s organization was kept at bay by his headstrong wife Charmaine. Charmaine is a polarizing character within the show’s fandom; she regularly points out hard truths that the audience doesn’t want to hear because we like Tony so much–but she is never once wrong. Early in the first season, she decides to crack the illusion of Carmela’s snooty entitlement by telling her that she once slept with Tony when they were in high school. She immediately makes Carmela look ridiculous, and only goes to show that she doesn’t need to back a man and bathe in the luxuries of his crime money to feel accomplished. Which is something Carmela could never quite bring to fruition–even after she separates from Tony at the end of season 4.
The Case Against Carmela Soprano and Bobby Bacala
Speaking of Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), this is a character that experienced the wrath of toxic fandom long before Breaking Bad’s Skyler White–and to be honest, there are many instances where the character deserves the bad rep she gets. She frequently exhibits hypocrisy, snobbery, complicit moral ambiguity by using her husband’s status to blackmail others, and yet she always makes it out like she is the voice of moral reason. Bobby Bacala is another grey area character; he spends the whole series as a sweet, teddy bear type, but has no issue becoming a ruthless killer by the final season.