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How Tony Soprano And His Crew Went From Lovable Bad Guys To Frightening Villains

“You know you talk about these guys like it’s an anthropology class, the truth is they bring certain modes of conflict resolution from all the way back in the old country. From the poverty of the Mezzogiorno. Where all higher authority was corrupt.”

That explanation comes from Meadow Soprano (Jamie Lynn-Sigler), daughter of crime boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), rationalizing away the violent behavior that her boyfriend, Finn (Will Janowitz), witnessed at his job on the Soprano family construction site. After Meadow’s revelation, the camera fades into a shot of these same men attending a funeral — one of the show’s most common settings.

Attending this funeral is not only the man who ordered the killing but the man who pulled the trigger. When New York underboss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), becomes furious with them being there, Tony has to take him aside and remind him of one ironclad rule: “That’s the way it works, John.”

Regardless of how uncouth it is for a man like Johnny Sack to show this kind of emotion (something that comes back to haunt him later), Tony is 100 percent right. That’s the way it works.

The Sopranos (available to stream anytime on HBO Now), began by portraying Tony and his crew as likable enough guys who happen to be professional criminals. The challenge of a show like this: how to make the story about these criminals, while still giving the audience someone they’re able to root for. The Sopranos approached this by letting us be charmed by these characters, at least at first, before slowly peeling back the layers and revealing the sinister behavior that is a required part of their life of crime. Here, point by point, is how the show evolved.

The Early, Unsympathetic Victims

The first act of violence seen on The Sopranos is told in flashback during Tony’s first therapy session. He and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) spot a guy strolling through a business park with a tray full of coffees before he suddenly takes off running. Christopher jumps out of the car to chase after him, while Tony slides into the driver’s seat and runs the guy down. From the bickering between Tony and Christopher, to Dion’s “I Wonder Why” blaring in the background, the scene is played entirely for laughs. It’s hard not to cheer when Tony hits the guy with his car, or smirk (even a little bit) as Tony and Christopher beat this guy mercilessly in front of his office.

Soon after, the show lets us feel okay about all this by explaining that this particular guy owed Tony a lot of money, and is, in Tony’s words, a “degenerate f*ckin’ gambler.” Since Tony’s just getting what’s owed him, the audience can rationalize that what happened was the victim’s own fault. Sure Tony’s crew robs and steals, but from what we see (at first, anyway), the victims of these crimes are people who put themselves in harm’s way by choosing to deal with the mob in the first place.

This is how the violence is explained away early in the show’s run. Anyone who takes a beating or a bullet has it coming to them one way or another, be they a rival criminal, greedy associate, or the old standby, a “degenerate f*ckin’ gambler.” Those who don’t fit this exact profile are given uniquely unappealing characteristics, like Ariel (Ned Eisenberg), a hotel owner’s son-in-law who, we are told, abused his wife. Knowing that, we’re able to feel better about cheering on Tony and his henchman as they spend the night beating him until they get what they need out of him.

Guilt Starts To Creep In

It takes a little while before that perspective changes. Even as the body count escalates during the end of the show’s first season, all victims are FBI informants or members of the Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) crew. It’s not until we’re shown a random family getting carjacked at gunpoint, losing their SUV, and almost their dog in the process, that a shift begins. The scene is violent, abrupt, and seemingly disconnected from the rest of the show, until we see that the stolen SUV has made its way into Tony’s hands. This not only illustrates how far-reaching Tony’s criminal empire is, but that no matter how far removed he may be, these crimes have victims who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time — and in this case, in the wrong car.

Still, we don’t see a member of Tony’s crew hold a gun to the family and steal their car, which makes it easier to disassociate the crime from the main characters — even though they’re directly responsible for it.

Not all their crimes would remain so conveniently set apart. But some still get justified under the label of “they deserve it.” Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore) betrays the family by talking to the FBI, and Davey Scatino (Robert Patrick) is another “degenerate f*ckin’ gambler.” Even the capture (and eventual murder) of Matt Bevilaqua (Lillo Brancato Jr.), essentially the show’s villain after a failed attempt to kill Christopher and earn some street cred, reduces him to a whimpering, pants-wetting mess in the end. Sure, what he’s done is his fault, but it’s impossible to not feel at least a little sorry for the kid.

At the same time, a kind of selective sentimentality starts becoming more prominent in Tony. He becomes more open about discussing those affected by his method of doing business in therapy, albeit sometimes in the vaguest of terms, and has difficulty justifying his actions. It’s not enough for us to outright forgive him, but it is enough for us to be reminded that Tony has a conscience buried somewhere deep inside.

The Gears Of The Mafia Machine

Conscience or not, Tony’s feelings (or lack thereof) are irrelevant in the face of the mob’s (seemingly) inflexible rules, a mix of oaths taken and codes followed that dictates the terms of their organization. While Tony may have had a soft-spot for Jackie Aprile, Jr. (Jason Cerbone), the son of his late best friend Jackie (Michael Rispoli), his ambitions get the best of him. Like Matt Bevilaqua, Jackie Jr. makes a fatal mistake in an attempt to prove himself. Sure, the kid may be family, and his father the boss before Tony, but when he breaks these rules, he seals his fate.

Granted, what happens to Jackie Jr has a kind of inevitability to it, given how many second chances he kept screwing up. Tracee (Ariel Kiley), on the other hand, is the show’s first violent death that gives the audience an inescapable challenge with the humanity of the show’s characters. A sweet, well-meaning young woman, she works as a dancer at Bada Bing to support her young son. She’s also pregnant with Ralph’s (Joe Pantoliano) kid.

Jackie Jr. might not have known better, but Tracee has no choice. Tied to her job because of a $2,000 loan, she’s unable to quit and sever ties with the Soprano family. After her death, which is still one of the hardest moments to watch from the show, we’re again reminded of Tony’s selective sentimentality. Her death may have weighed heavily on him, but there’s no one with whom he can share (though he tries half-heartedly in therapy). According to the rules, Tracee’s death is inconsequential, something to be pushed aside and forgotten about, for no other reason than that’s the way it works.

Loss Becomes Matter-Of-Fact With No Real Emotional Impact

With the ugly reality of mafia rule starting to be revealed, we see more of the crew’s day-to-day routine, from collections to intimidation as well as murder. We start to understand how the mob is able to exert influence on everything from union elections, construction projects, to the legal system. As this happens, the look of the show starts to change. Cameras begin to hang on characters longer, lingering from behind or framing them from afar, giving a sense of the near-constant paranoia.

Never is this paranoia more palpable than when Tony and Christopher dispose of Ralph’s body. From dismembering his corpse in his own bathtub to raiding his cabinets and watching TV, all the way up to burying his head and hands in a bowling ball bag, we stay with Tony and Christopher every step of the way, and both seem completely unaffected by the whole routine.

Sure, we know that Christopher and Furio (Federico Castelluccio) had disposed of Richie Aprile’s body in a meat slicer years earlier, but that was played for some sort of satisfying punchline — Richie was a terrible guy, after all, and we rooted for his death. Ralph was also a terrible person, but when he’s killed by Tony in a fit of blind rage, he breaks the rules by killing a fellow mobster without cause. Sure, Richie was killed by Janice Soprano (Aida Turturro) in a crime of passion, but Richie already had a target on his back. Ralph, on the other hand, was making a lot of money for the New York family as well as for Tony’s crew, and his death showed us that there was no real honor among these thieves.

A Rise In Bloodshed And A Startling Realization

Piggybacking on the show’s increased sense of paranoia, eventually it seems like anyone who crosses paths with a member of the Soprano family is in danger. Waiters who complain about their tips, screenwriters who tried to get some work done — even the old lady who is mean to Paulie’s (Tony Sirico) mother ends up smothered to death in her bedroom after a robbery goes south.

By this point, there’s no rationalization about who deserves it, or even really who these victims are. It reveals a much uglier side of these characters, but one that had been there all along. These guys are cheap and petty, they use violence to get what they want, or just act out when things don’t go their way. That disarming, sociopathic pizzazz that had made the audience excuse these characters in the show’s early years had finally started to fade.

“That’s the way it works.”

Of course, to balance out the unlikable behavior, we’re still given the occasional moment of sentiment — Tony may shed a single tear over the death of Adriana (a death that he ordered), but he still tells Christopher that “she’s a c*nt.” Their stylized eccentricity, while still there on the page, is played down, reminding us that these characters, whom we’d rooted for in the past, are most definitely not people who deserve our cheers.

By the end, acts of violence tended not to have Dion for a soundtrack, and while music continued to be a vital aspect, the show continued its unflinching examination of who Tony and his crew really are. The crimes they committed, robbery, intimidation, violence, and murder were as much acts of unfettered impulse as they were their way of doing businessn — or what Meadow called their “modes of conflict resolution.”

The evolution of how these characters are portrayed may have turned off some of the show’s more casual viewers, but it now looks like part of the design of the series. In 2001, between the show’s fourth and fifth season — the same year Tony Soprano was arguably at his peak popularity — Gandolfini had publicly stated that playing the violent character was starting to bother him.

While the show would go on for three more seasons after this, it shifts into a much more grim and direct window into this world while the audience is constantly reminded that these once-quirky mobsters are now to be looked at honestly: as the violent criminals that they’d been the whole time. After all, that’s just the way it works.

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