Warning: The following contains intense spoilers about The Sopranos.
The word ‘sociopath’ is not an indictment we should be throwing around. You hear it a lot now as an insult directed at those who lack empathy (which are actually by definition ‘psychopaths’) or hurled at people of power who fail to make decisions that align with the beliefs of their critics. It’s a word that frequents much of the online literature surrounding the greatest, most famed, most decorated, perhaps most overrated and least in-need-of-a-revival pay-for-cable renaissance show.. Treme.. “I’m kidding you, you-fuck”.. The Sopranos. People have pointed to a number of reasons why HBO’s original flagship powerhouse has received such a bump in loyalty and why current generations have gained an attachment to its mix of depth, unpredictability, humour, politics, and 2000s time capsule commentary. The pandemic-caused surge in binge watching which swiftly followed the arrival of the series on streaming platforms like HBO MAX and Crave has come up often as the leading potential factor. Others point to the show’s resonance as both a tragic and an epic about a country in a state of confusion and decline, one that only became more animatedly so after the show ended in 2007. Generations are now crossing over with shared responses to iconic moments: Good Morning rat? “Tony Soprano is evil;” Tony orders the hit on Adriana? “Tony Soprano is dead to me;” and of course after his suffocation of Christopher Moltisanti, “Tony Soprano is an absolute sociopath.”
While the designation should be for those who truly lack a conscience, the Tony Soprano character is conflicted, definitely complex, but the show does not paint out its character to be a full-blown sociopath. While Breaking Bad, a show that owes all three of its meth-mutated testicles to the house of David Chase, presents a very A to B spiraling of its hero’s ethics, it is Tony’s business interest in the security and ultimately well-being of both families that motivates a lot of the evil he spawns, raising deeper arguments regarding his moral agenda.
From its now “piece-of-history” pilot that not only signified a new era of HBO, but the golden age of television, The Sopranos made its fixation with human behaviour, its primary point of differentiation. David Chase and his creative team were simply asking questions and presenting scenarios that had only been present in the best cinema and an even smaller handful of existing television shows. Within the first five minutes, the freshly introduced Tony Soprano, immersed in his backyard pool and offering feed to a family of migrating ducks in an animatedly desperate ploy to keep them close, is not only the happiest we’ll see Tony for a long time, it’s symbolic of the conflict that drives him for the entirety of the show’s six seasons.
To say Tony’s fascination and obsession with animals is a substantial part of his character initiates eye rolls from those who have seen the show more than twenty times, myself included (the watches, less so the eye rolls). Re-binges can clarify its deliberateness with the first episode centering around this principle and forward on. Tony does everything from showing little to no interest in the well-being of human characters in favour of dead or injured animals to dropping scientific zoological anecdotes (“no that’s jungle cats”), driving this characterization home. Just look to “Irregular Around the Margins” for any definitive evidence that he will not think twice to swerve and miss a deer crossing.
Much of the internet fan literature theorizing what Tony’s love of animals says about his character’s agenda points to the commonality that sociopaths have an affinity for small babies and animals. Pets are dependent on their owners, are ignorant, and cannot speak, so they cannot judge; dependency and ignorance are two things many believe Tony Soprano desires in his companions. Further, this is aligned with direct text in the show’s sixth season where Melfi’s psychologist Eliot informs her that sociopaths “tend to show sentimentality through compassion for children and pets.” Yet throughout the show, Tony’s love for his children, his wife, his uncle, his sister, and the men who were loyal to his father and now him, is prevalent; his apathy for cohorts, clients, and yes... civilians is examined as a point of dissonance constantly.
Tony’s love for animals is indicative of his insecurities, his incoherent emotional intelligence, and his moral decisions that take a steep decline, but Tony Soprano’s love of animals and his fascination & reactiveness to the wild has been apparent since the show's early seasons when Tony was full of guilt and still held a desire to be helped. Animals give Tony companionship without the price of betrayal, something in which Tony fears incessantly. They also represent innocence, one that was robbed from Tony as his father and uncle’s lifestyle collided with his. Tony’s fondness for animals could also be used to exemplify his uncontrollable urge to be free from the bounds of both authority and institution. Pigs are seen, praised, and eaten consistently throughout the show and are used as a symbol of gluttony and sloth; a large colour-faded pig is used to mark the territory of the Soprano crew’s daytime recreation and cold cuts are a fixture of The Sopranos fridge and dictionary. Pigs and animals in general could also represent Tony’s self-serving mission to be free from the constraints of human society: animals run naked, fight to determine mating partners, sleep throughout the day, and eat what they desire, which are habits that align with Tony and his crew’s hedonistic agendas.
With a reinvigorated fascination of The Sopranos in full swing and The Many Saints of Newark hitting theatres which we hope focuses on Tony’s lost youth over action set-pieces that serve to re-enact instead of provoke, we’ve collected Tony Soprano’s four main animal symbols and discussed what each means in regards to the character’s psyche.
The Sopranos makes its characterization of Tony as an animal lover clear from its first episode, and to a near caricature-level presentation at that. The first thing we see after Tony and Dr. Melfi’s relationship is established is Tony and his ducks. He offers to build them a ramp to ease their access to his pool, rushes to his bird encyclopedia to learn about his new friend group’s behaviours, and is mocked by his wife & children for his new fascination.
Tony’s therapy sessions reveal his fixation with the ducks are indicative of a concern that he will lose either of his blood families, genetic and criminal and that their absence has inflicted a new wave of depression for the soon-to-be boss of the family. Tony’s attachment to family is crucial of his dying need to maintain his identity as the world changes around him, consuming his business dealings and creating serious political ramifications.
During the pilot, we see something we will constantly as the show progresses: the very real problems of the people in Tony’s life, often times caused by Tony himself, being ignored in favour of Tony’s personal frustrations. Tony’s obsession with the visiting family of ducks is paired with his life-long friend Artie’s very tangible loss of his family business that was cindered as a casualty of Tony’s strategies, yet Tony is too distracted by the ducks to give attention. Tony’s very emotional reaction to the ducks ultimately portray his family issues with great concern and even dependency. This not only creates conflict by implementing the threat of prison or demise or dissolution but drives home the idea of family as the show’s unifying idea.
Tony makes a number of references to his love of the canine in the show’s run. He loudly maligns Chris at his intervention for killing Adriana’s dog Cozette, expresses deep disappointment that his family gave his dog away to his father’s past mistress, and insists on showing Angie Bonpensiero’s dog Coco affection despite pulling the rug from underneath her by stopping payments on her medical bills. Tony’s love for dogs exemplifies another reason for his kinship towards pets: their tendency to unconditionally commit affection to their owners is something he cannot benefit from his other relationships regardless of large expenditures and charisma.
Dogs have also been used in turn to symbolize Tony in other characters’ psyches, namely Dr. Melfi in her dream at the conclusion of “Employee of the Month.” Tony is represented by a vicious Rottweiler who Melfi realizes may give her relief, but will not give her closure. Elsewhere, bookending the divorce arc in Season 5, a stray bear that occupies the Soprano yard is used to represent Carmella’s inability to act as lone caregiver and the nuisance her ex-husband has caused by occupying the city’s best divorce attorneys.
The bass that haunts Season 2’s watershed finale “Fun House” and Season 3’s underrated Holiday-themed “To Save Us All From Satan’s Power” would signal a faithful animal symbol for Salvotore “Big Pussy” Bonpinsiero; they’re heavy, loud, temperamental, fun to look at, careless, possibly smelly; the toy version is known for “singing” and their large and wide mouths are not only notable, they are endearing. Most of all when we get to see one in front of us, they are usually dead.
But the bass and its cold, reeking presence may also hold significance as a symbol of betrayal and guilt that Tony cannot escape after he is forced to kill his best friend Pussy after discovering that he has been a federal informant, an idea that gives Tony extreme sickness and a characterization that is notably gone by the end of the show with the murder of his nephew Chris. Season 3’s “…Power” sees Tony emotionally responding to a Christmas without Pussy, whose loud presence as Santa made the Satraiale’s toy drive a redeeming celebration. The idea gives him reason to abuse Georgie, the bartender from the Bing, and to get plastered drunk.
Tony’s inability to block out the guilt the following season while his cohorts carry on with little issue is exemplified by the bass which appears in Tony’s dreams and very smartly as a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” which trended during the show’s run, eliciting rage and destruction from Tony versus amusement from his friends and family. The bass not only recalls the horrendous day at sea that Tony, Silvio, and Paulie spent to wack their lifelong friend, it’s representative of Tony’s inescapable guilt he had yet to properly feel.
"I always wanted a house by the ocean. Maybe in another life."
- Big Pussy
Pie-Oh-My, the horse that Tony and Ralph Cifaretto partner up and purchase from Hesh as a gambling investment constitutes an important piece of Season 4, famously acting as Tony’s motivation to finally, if not impulsively kill Ralph, something most audiences had been hoping for, for over a year of their lives. Many asked why Pie-Oh-My’s vengeance involved death, while Tracy’s, the slain sex worker in Season 3’s iconic “University” that some believe was personified by Pie, involved little more than a punch and a ban from the Bing. Many focused on how their protagonist showed little care for Ralph’s son Justin, who we find out will require severe speech therapy to undergo recovery after his freak accident and yet such a devotion for a racehorse (who to be fair had existed in the show about 10x as long as Justin).
Pie-Oh-My not only represented beauty to Tony, something he could be proud of as his own, but innocence. It’s called to constantly between Ralph’s death and his killing of Tracy, with “University” containing various references to horses: Tony tells a Bing Girl he wants to show her where a “horse bit him,” he decidedly labels Tracy a thoroughbred, and Meadow's roommate Caitlin’s decision to move to a horse farm concludes the episode’s eponymous storyline. Both “University” and “Whoever Did This” (the episode in which Tony kills Ralph over his alleged burning of the horse stables) present Tony with situations in which his paternalism and own loss of youth forces him to be fiercely protective of what he perceives as the innocence of others. It’s why he won’t sleep with Tracy despite sleeping with everything that moves. Tony sees Tracy, Pie-Oh-My, and his children as precious and does what he can in is power to restore straight paths with a.) his son who he pushes to become a varsity athlete despite his disinterest b.) Jackie Jr. who he feels he must protect as an obligation to his father and c.) his daughter who he wants to keep close and with romantic partners of his own conditions. It is Meadow’s emotional migration from Tony and their dissolving relationship that ultimately makes the death of Tracy feel so close to the chest for Tony: he is unable to do much about the outcome of either situation. It is why the mere thought of the horse in a dream or in Paulie’s apartment causes him unbearable pain and repression.