Sopranos Final Season
Dear Tim and Brian,
You've got to love a television show that murders off a television writer. And for speaking the unadorned truth, no less. "You're in the Mafia, Chris," is a winning blow-off line but ultimately a fatal one. J.T. Dolan, as a practiced writer of mob schlock, should have known better than to remind a made man of this discomfiting truth.
I had a not-dissimilar experience once, except that it didn't end with my murder. This was a while back: A Gambino family captain named Pasquale Conte once called me to complain about something I wrote. This happens more than you might imagine, by the way. I listened patiently, but the real secret about mobsters is not that they are heroically self-pitying (thanks to David Chase, and the Gotti jailhouse tapes, we know that already), but that they can be terrifically boring, and Patsy, as he is known, was boring me (and I had an editor breathing down my neck, in any case—talk about gangsters!). I finally said something to the effect of, "Look, Patsy, you're in the Mafia. People don't feel sorry for you."
A couple of days later, I started getting calls from Patsy's friends, or perhaps it was Patsy himself, doing some sort of Bensonhurst Rich Little routine. One of the callers left a message that actually went, "Goldberg, it's Friday the 13th. Not your lucky day." This was greatly amusing because it was, in fact, Friday the 15th, which shows you how pathetic the Gambino crime family had become. Carlo Gambino, the patriarch, I'm sure could at least read a calendar.
The nonsociopathic mobster, for all the obvious reasons, builds a complicated apparatus in his mind to justify the havoc he causes, and The Sopranos, unlike most mob dramas, doesn't duck the issue of collateral damage. With the murder of J.T., Christopher has become a truly odious figure, though I suppose you could argue that he went beyond the pale when he and Paulie shot the epileptic waiter in Atlantic City, and animal lovers would argue that the accidental smothering of Cosette was the last straw. And yes, Christopher also had Cosette's owner murdered.
All of the drama associated with Christopher in last night's spectacular episode (I was getting worried after that stutter-step episode last week, but last night was thrilling) is actually a bit diversionary, because it is A.J.'s story that is so compelling, and, it is possible to imagine, so consequential. Tony's only grace has been his earnest desire to keep his children shielded from a life of crime. And, in the real world of organized crime, the best, and perhaps only, way to judge the relative morality of capos and bosses has been to watch what they do with their children. John Gotti, a despicable man, ruined his son, John A. Gotti, by dragging him into the mob. On the other hand, the white-collar don most associated with the modern-day Gambinos, Paul Castellano, protected his own sons from the family business, and they went on to live in freedom and anonymity, albeit in Florida. This is not to say that Paul Castellano was a pillar of the community, but he knew enough about the evil in his life to wish for something better for his children.
Tony Soprano's situation is more complicated, of course: He fears A.J. is suicidal, and better his son should associate with a bunch of Rutgers loan sharks than hang himself. Still, Tony's encouragement to A.J. speaks to his impoverished imagination ("Get a blow job" is not the best child-rearing advice ever issued, but this was from a man who last night equated an affection for eggplant with alcohol addiction).
A mobster named Anthony "Tumac" Accetturo—he ran the Lucchese family operation in New Jersey—once gave me a superior piece of parenting advice. He said, "Only an asshole lets his children hang out with assholes."
There's a lot of wisdom to be had in New Jersey. Which is why we've invited a proud son of the Garden State to join us in the dialogue today. Brian Williams, in addition to being the troubled visionary who founded the Beach Boys, is the anchor and managing editor of the NBC Nightly News and, more to the point, is a devotee of The Sopranos. What's more, if rumor has it correctly, Brian actually came dangerously close to shaking hands with Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, the Atlantic City psychopath who in all probability had Philip "Chicken Man" Testa murdered, which was a bad thing, except that a great Springsteen song came out of it.
So, here's a question for you, Brian: Are you now, or have you ever been, an associate of the DeCavalcante crime family? And tell us, do college loan sharks in New Jersey actually pour sulfuric acid on the feet of undergraduate debtors? That's one hell of a tough state you're from.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.