Welfare Capo

The Sopranos is about not a crisis of masculinity but a crisis of capitalism

When we talk about The Sopranos, it’s often in the context of an early-aughts renegotiation of the masculine identity. Empowered by the strength of neoliberalism and cognitive behavioral therapy, brave postmillennium men thrive in extraordinary circumstances. But The Sopranos, more so than the rest of the genre that it ushered in—man-child cinema and prestige television like Breaking Bad, Entourage, Mad Men, and everything Seth Rogen has ever made—was never about a crisis of masculinity but about a crisis of capitalism.

For the past two decades, The Sopranos has been centered as a groundbreaking show that addresses the modern coping mechanisms powerful men develop to survive various stages of macho anguish. Tony Soprano is narrativized as a complicated man, negotiating his masculinity against a backdrop of psychiatric disorders, increasing scrutiny from federal law enforcement, and an increasing rejection of traditional patriarchal norms.

But The Sopranos isn’t about a man at all: It is actually about a one-man welfare state. Though we understand Sopranos protagonist Tony’s role as the mob boss, putatively spending most of his time orchestrating various crimes, the bulk of Tony’s screen time is spent depicting a man overwhelmed by the ceaseless struggles of trying to hold his great society—on the brink of decline—together as best he can. Tony is incessantly burdened by the work of managing the needs of his crew and community, because what the show presents as his “masculine burden” is not the ruthless, violent leadership of a massive New Jersey mob; instead, his burden is that of being the sole person with the ability to recognize that society will not provide for his community's needs.

Most of what we actually see on-screen is Tony performing care work and running a small welfare state. Tony himself is often depicted not so much “doing crime” as carefully navigating and administering his own highly efficient, robust social-safety-net program. The best early example of how seriously Tony takes his role as leader of his welfare state is in season two, episode eight (“Full Leather Jacket”), in which we see Tony instruct two of his crew, Paulie and Silvio, to go see Richie Aprile and demand remuneration on behalf of Peter “Beansie” Gaeta. Beansie, a former associate of Richie and the Aprile family, was assaulted by Richie, who’d been newly released from prison, while he was attempting to collect on a decades-old debt. Like most narratives that center themselves on a male identity, there is frequent mention of “the good old days,” when things were stable. Many of the structural inequities that drive the crew to undermine the hierarchy of the organized-crime family are the direct result of Tony’s father’s failure to act or adjust the mafia’s financial support as times changed. By failing to raise wages and rewards, Tony’s father left a fractured and self-centered crew, driven forward by big paydays, only interested in their own survival and financial enrichment, mirroring the radical party-driven centrism that dominated the narrative of the 2000 U.S. election.

A fixture of the “good old days” was a large cash payout, given as reward for serving a prison sentence without snitching. Richie, who was desperate for money because the payout had remained the same since the 1970’s, resorted to violence. Richie broke a hot pot of coffee over Beansie’s head and ran him over with an SUV, rendering Beansie a partial paraplegic from his injuries.

Tony, acutely aware that he is ultimately responsible for the actual material survival of the community, steps in and demands that Richie promptly make Beansie’s house wheelchair accessible and ADA compliant. Tony thus completes the neoliberal circle of prioritizing quick fixes, judgments, and recompensations by and between private parties in the place of much-needed broad structural or social change. By the end of the same episode, we see what is already a familiar sight: Tony on his way to the hospital to make sure that Christopher Moltisanti—who has just been shot because of another act of carelessness by Richie—is getting the best medical treatment and that all the hospital bills are paid. These situations are incredibly common on the show, from Tony’s uncle Junior fretting over bills to cover the cost of his cancer treatment to Tony being summoned to pay his estranged goomah’s hospital bill after she attempts suicide. The recurring theme is that the crime family seems to always step in when the state does not.

For all of these instances of Tony dealing with the welfare and health care of the family, the universal interpretation of The Sopranos as a whole is that it was a frank and realistic, possibly destigmatizing, portrayal of mental health care. During the Bush years, The Sopranos was touted as a brave depiction of the changing ideals of masculinity, groundbreaking in its ability to demonstrate the power of talk therapy and the increasingly popular use of prescription antidepressants. But actually, The Sopranos shows a uniquely American experience of health care, centered on the instability and inefficacy of our systems of care, and the uncertainty around the question of receiving any care at all. Tony’s relationship with his therapist, Dr. Melfi, and his commitment to therapy is a privilege, and unlike the physical health care that Tony is ready to pay for, he is not shelling out for his crew the same way when it comes to their mental health.

This establishes a familiar hierarchy, along class, race, and gender lines, of who deserves and receives this primary relationship of care, whose mental health is most important, and whose can be cut for budget reasons. Tony is not a brave mental-health warrior, spreading the gospel of destigmatization and encouraging others to seek help. He is simply part of the managerial class getting personalized care while his lessers—replaceable employees, poor people, and women—must go through an intermediary and receive substandard care not from Dr. Melfi but from Tony, who is applying her lessons on behavioral manipulation in real time.

Early on in the show, Tony’s character becomes a mental-health midwife, micromanaging the emotional wellbeing of his nuclear and criminal families to varying degrees of success and failure. According to some theories of midwifery practice, midwives are community-oriented intermediaries who perform social work to mitigate issues of power and control. This practice is ultimately an attempt to have a broader positive impact on the family and society in general by making sure that the needs of the patient are met and that the patient feels safe, fairly treated and capable of adapting to their changing lives. Midwives as a role exist because of a fundamental lack in the fabric of the social safety net, and Tony’s trickle-down therapy technique only furthers the perception that mental and physical health care are somehow separate. The mental health care is just too expensive for Tony to pay for, and ultimately he decides that many don’t need the direct benefit of receiving it themselves. These silent judgments and the deficit-hawk-like rationing of quality mental health care become the central measure of each character’s value within Tony’s system. Receiving secondhand care is fine for the replaceable, less wealthy guys. Replaceable guys are simply disposable cogs in the machine, who must be managed in order to run Tony’s welfare state with peak efficiency, using the tools that Tony learns in therapy. Ironically, The Sopranos ended in the shadow of the 2008 election and the rise of Obama’s presidency, which would eventually enshrine this division between mental and physical health care into the law via the Affordable Care Act. While passage of the ACA did expand mental and behavioral health care to roughly 21 million Americans, it also formalized the distinct legal separation between physical care and everything else, ignoring the multitudes of studies that showed significant need and demand for an integrated health care model that prioritized mental health care and substance-abuse treatment.

Tony’s administration of welfare and midwifery for the psychological health of the family could easily be explained away by the show’s premise: Tony’s entire enterprise operates outside of the law and puts everyone in its social orbit in a position of precarity. But to read The Sopranos as simply a mob story is to miss the material reality of the fundamental struggle to survive in America, and the shrinkingly few class positions that offer any kind of social protection. Tony may be presented as a wealthy, independent achiever of the “American Dream,” but his and his employees’ health and welfare are as contingent and as unconsidered by the neoliberal state as an independent contract worker is today.

One of the only characters on the show on any meaningful form of state welfare is Tony’s sister, Janice. Janice is first introduced as being “on total disability,” a stand-in—it’s never quite made clear—either for social-security disability or for some form of worker’s compensation. The show plays it up constantly, as though Janice is a “faker.” The characters presume there is some form of fraud against the state happening here, because this woman doesn’t appear physically disabled, and the references to her receiving welfare are constantly made tongue-in-cheek. And even with Janice on “full disability,” Tony still has to pick up the slack, as she comes to him in the first season still in need of financial and social support.

Janice becomes the de facto lens through which the family views a welfare state it can’t trust, a society so corrupt that of course it would take a Tony Soprano figure to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, the narrative of The Sopranos is driven not by the nature of organized crime but by the inherent inequity of capitalism and the failings of austerity-minded public policy. The Soprano family ultimately serves as a microcosm of neoliberal attempts to replace the welfare state with privately funded initiatives and personal responsibility. Its perspective is depressive and nihilistic. Neither the internal logic of the characters nor the worldview of the show and its showrunners suggests that we are living in anything but a failed state, an irredeemable morass at the end of history. Dressed in prestige television’s guise of social realism, The Sopranos pretends that solidarity and social movements cannot exist beyond the family unit or contractual social connections enforced by capital. Tony Soprano’s world is one where things like a robust welfare state, Medicare for All, decarceration, and the decriminalization of drugs and sex work are fully absent from the imagination of its creators as well as its presumed audience. Perhaps 20 years on, we can begin to understand it not as the story of one man’s fractured masculinity but as a herald of neoliberalism’s crisis to come.