Sunday, December 02, 2007

Whada Ya Gonna Do?

We caught up with the conclusion of "The Sopranos" this week. I thought the whole series was a great depiction of the moral universe of consistently vile people. Tony Soprano and the people around him never become better. They sometimes feel some remorse for the terrible things they do. Then they crush it with this dismissal:

"Whada ya gonna do?"
"What can ya do?"

And that closes the matter. Seeing a whole season of the series in one week really brings home how often the characters say this to one another. It is essential to their moral universe that they are creatures of fate. Nothing can be done to make up for their horrible acts, nor to prevent the next one.

The initial hook of the series was that if the mafia boss went to a therapist, the therapist would give the world of decent people an unusual window into the moral view of the underworld. I never thought the shrink plot worked, and it became a minor theme. The mobsters' world was self-explaining. It remained as ugly and selfish at the end as at the beginning. Indeed, in the last season, the psychiatrists have a debate among themselves over whether talk therapy actually helps sociopaths become more effective at conning other people, by helping them fake empathy, feign remorse, and use all the therapeutic excuses for bad action.

The world of the psychiatrists is not nearly as immoral as that of the mafia, but it doesn't come off as a shining moral example, either. Mostly they seem weak and ineffectual.

Television has actually had some real high points in the last decade. The duel between "The Sopranos" and "The West Wing" for the best drama Emmy helped both shows. They also make an excellent contrast of two views of how to use power. Neither is very effective. But Tony Soprano makes clear that Jed Bartlett represents an ethical universe that is infinitely superior -- and worth fighting for.

That said, I thought the famous black-screen/"Don't Stop Believing" ending of the final Sopranos episode was perfect.

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