I’m a Sopranos evangelist.
My sacred mission in life is to get everyone I come across to binge all six(ish) seasons as soon as possible so I can one day live in a world in which everyone knows the mystic ways of David Chase and Northern New Jersey.
One of my marks recently gave in and streamed the whole series, texting me his impressions in real time. Among his thoughts was that he couldn’t seem to get over the sense of sadness he often felt while watching that someone as so titanically and impossibly talented as James Gandolfini would never act in another role.
I understood his sadness on a certain level. If you don’t experience at least some sense of melancholy whilst watching The Sopranos, you’re doing it wrong. But then I realized that I had gone through at least two full series re-watches and some episode watching here and there without ever having that same realization about Gandolfini.
As any good TV-fanatic who views the medium with the same reverence as an 18th Century Austrian music fan would view Beethoven, I remember where I was when news broke that Gandolfini had died in Rome at age 51. I was sitting in the bleachers at an Indians game.*
*I didn’t remember which one specifically but Google claims in must have been an Indians win, 6-3 over the Kansas City Royals.
I only watched The Sopranos all the way through once while James Gandolfini was alive. All subsequent times have been after that fateful night in the Progressive Field bleachers. Still, I rarely experience that sense of loss my friend attested to. It’s not that I doubt Gandolfini was a lovely man with a gentle heart or that I don’t wish he had been able to work more.
It’s that his performance as Tony Soprano is so sublime, so perfect, so…everything, that it’s impossible to process that he was capable of doing a silly mortal thing like dying. Regardless of your feelings or interpretations of the final scene of The Sopranos, James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano is the antithesis of death. It’s life, larger than, even. When I’m watching The Sopranos, you can try to remind me that Gandolfini has passed away all you want and I’ll only be able to think, then who am I looking at right now on this screen, dummy? He’s always been alive. And thanks to an abrupt cut to black he always will be.
Now HBO has debuted what would have been Gandolfini’s final role and that sense of melancholy is finally somehow sneaking in, three years late. The Night Of, which aired the first episode of eight last Sunday night, was a passion project for Gandolfini.
James Gandolfini originally was both the executive producer and star of The Night Of, an adaptation of the British series Criminal Justice being brought to the States by revered crime author Richard Price. HBO would ultimately pass on the pilot in 2013 but then decided to bring it back in honor of Gandolfini after his death. One John Turturro replacing Robert De Niro later, and the finished product is finally airing this year.
John Turturro is remarkable as defense attorney, Jack Stone, the role that Gandolfini would have played. Turturro is a tremendous actor who has seemingly never lucked into the right leading role that vaults him into both mainstream and critical success. It looks like The Night Of might be his ticket much in the same way that True Detective season 1 found a way to harness all of Matthew McConaughey’s talent into a perfect meme-able package.
I’m happy for the guy, but I’m also sad for what could have been. Gandolfini was notoriously picky in choosing roles in his post-Sopranos career and the fact that he chose this project as his return to HBO scripted television (He teamed up with them for the Iraq War documentary Alive Day) tells me that he wanted this one.
At first, it’s kind of hard to imagine the same physically imposing man who played Tony Soprano in the same eczema-hiding shoes of Jack Stone. Tony at the end of the day was a gangster, fueled ultimately by selfishness. This Jack Stone guy, at least one episode in, seems to almost enjoy ignoring his own health and sanity in service of his terminally guilty clients.
There is, however, a precedent for Gandolfini’s range is being able to play characters against his own physical type. He starred in dozens of roles across film and television but the best example of how much he could’ve nailed The Night Of comes from The Sopranos… and it’s not Tony Soprano.
**The following contains spoilers for The Sopranos**
In the beginning of season six, Tony is shot in the gut by his dementia-suffering Uncle Junior and is rushed to the hospital. The following two episodes, “Join the Club” and “Mayham” deal with both the reality of Tony in a coma in a hospital and the illusory world of what’s going on in Tony’s head.
In “Join the Club,” Tony wakes up in a large hotel bed. Right away the viewer gets the sense that something is off. Even ignoring the reality that we just saw him get almost fatally shot, things seem off otherwise. Maybe it’s the fact that the bed he’s in makes the normally mammoth Gandolfini seem smaller or maybe it’s the strange beacon he observes off in the distance. All the same, by the time he heads down to the hotel bar and listens to a cutesy voicemail from his children with a dorky little smile, it’s clear that we’re dealing with a different Tony Soprano.
Then we find out just how different. This Tony Soprano, who goes by “Anthony” is still from New Jersey, still has two kids and a wife (though the wife suspiciously sounds a lot more like his friend Artie’s wife, Charmaine than his real-life wife Carmella). But everything else is a bit off.
He’s not in the mob. He is involved in the aerospace/defense industry, being in Costa Mesa for a trade show. He carries himself differently. The Tony Soprano we know has to command every room he’s in by necessity. He’s the boss and he and his crew’s entire livelihood is dependent on everyone recognizing that. This Anthony Soprano shrinks into a corner in every room he enters; he doesn’t fill it. This Anthony’s inflection is different too. The sharp North Jersey dialect has been replaced with a more neutral, newscaster-y drawl.
Then Tony’s dream sequence/other-worldy adventure begins to strip away even more of Tony Soprano than before. The “other” world starts with his name. Anthony heads to another hotel to get into his defense trade show but soon discovers that he’s accidentally switched suitcases with a man named “Kevin Finnerty.” Finnerty appears to have been in town for a solar energy panel and happens to look just like Tony. Anthony is unable to get into his defense panel. “Sorry, it’s a whole new world,” the woman at the check-in table tells him…presumably referring to post 9/11 security but probably also much more.
Biologically, who knows what the fuck death and dying is. A way to clear out older generations so that new ones can access more resources? Sure, why not. Religiously and spiritually it’s anyone’s guess as well. But artistically? That’s where it becomes easier to begin taking wild stabs at death and what it may mean. One of the big aspects that The Sopranos puts forward in the unconscious Anthony Sopranos hotel dreams is a loss of identity. Part of moving on is removing one’s ego and entering the infinite.
It’s no coincidence that the name in Anthony’s suitcase is “Kevin Finnerty” which sounds quite a bit like “Infinity.”*
*It’s kind of funny rewatching these episodes from 2006 where internet culture wasn’t as mainstream. Nowadays, showrunners would likely trust fans to come to that conclusion that “Kevin Finnerty = Infinity” on their own by obsessively crowdsourcing theories online. In 2006, David Chase instead inserted a character at the hotel bar to make a joke about “Kevin Finnerty” driving a Lexus instead of an Infiniti.
Tony’s experiences in the pseudo-afterlife then become all about laying down the burdens of his life as Tony Soprano and becoming this new, blank slate of Kevin Finnerty. Tony checks into another hotel as Finnerty because he can’t get into one in Costa Mesa without his Soprano ID or credit card. He then has a confrontation with some monks who Finnerty has ripped off. Finally, he falls down a flight of stairs which sends him to the hospital as Kevin Finnerty where the ER doctor (played by another fantastic actor who tragically died just months after Gandolfini, Christopher Evan Welch) reveals that Tony/Kevin has early onset Alzheimer’s.
The level of acting that Gandolini puts on display during his Kevin Finnerty is astonishing. It begins with the subtle differences between dream Tony and awake Tony and then just continues as more and more of Anthony Soprano slips away and Kevin Finnerty emerges. But Finnerty isn’t a whole new persona, Finnerty is just a name that Tony is given to represent the slipping away of his own persona. The real Finnerty in the briefcase (inasmuch as there is a real Finnerty) may very well be his own person but when Tony begins to accept the name it’s more about him learning to embrace the mystery of life and death rather than just becoming some other gentler guy who sells air conditioners and rips off monks. Gandolfini’s performance of a Tony Soprano somehow paradoxically becoming less of a Tony Soprano is just part of what makes The Sopranos an all-time great show.
After his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Tony/Kevin sits at the hotel bar and tells the bartender of his diagnosis. “Is it possible that I am Kevin Finnerty?” To which the bartender gives him a look and Tony laughs and says “Ok. I’ll stop.” At the same time, you can’t help but notice that Finnerty’s briefcase on the chair next to Tony has a lock on it. How could he have opened someone else’s briefcase?
Tony discovers a flier for a Finnerty family reunion in his briefcase which takes him to an idyllic mansion out in the woods, decked out in lights and the shadows of nameless people enjoying themselves in each window. His real life cousin Tony Blundetto greets him and invites him in to join the party.
“They’re waiting for you,” Tony B says.
“Has Kevin Finnerty arrived yet?”
“We don’t talk like that.”
They don’t talk like that and they don’t allow work inside. Tony/Kevin Finnerty is told to give up his briefcase so that he may enter. “Let me take that for you, it looks like it weighs a ton,” Tony B says.
But that briefcase is all Tony has. This alternate reality has given him a new identity to help prepare for having no identity. Still Tony isn’t ready to give that up. He declines entry into the reunion, clutches onto to Kevin Finery’s briefcase and is brought back to life in his hospital bed. Later on, when he’s able to speak, he whispers to Carmella “I’m dead, right?”
James Gandolfini wasn’t just a great actor because he could play two roles on the same TV show. He was great because he could play one role and then over the course of two episodes break that role down into nothingness and then at the last minute have that character’s persona win out and want to live.
It’s a shame we’ll never get to see Gandolfini on The Night Of. We know he would have been amazing because he loved the source material. We also know he would have been amazing because on The Sopranos he once played no one and could have therefore played anyone.