Since I’m going to spend a great deal of this post ripping into David Chase, I’ll say this up front: whatever I think of it, The Sopranos is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who watches television, or for that matter has functioning eyes, ears, and brain, and I recommend it without reservation. In terms of its psychology and layered symbolism it’s far beyond anything The Shield ever attempted, and has one of the greatest performances ever captured. Shawn Ryan has said several times that without James Gandolfini and The Sopranos, The Shield would not exist.
SPOILERS FOR BOTH SHOWS TO FOLLOW
“Rap Payback” and The Sopranos’ “Second Opinion” have a scene nearly in common, one in which a male authority figure confronts the wife of the criminal protagonist over the fortune she’s received from her husband, and tells her that she must forsake him. It’s an incredibly powerful scene for both shows (many have cited the scene in “Second Opinion” as the best in the entire series; I used to), and for both shows, it’s not so much the scene itself as the context of the scene that demonstrates the differences between the series.
Kavanaugh’s confrontation with Corrine is one of The Shield’s most intense scenes in its most intense season to date. Kavanaugh hits her right away with Vic’s affair with Danny, and then moves on the attack. “I don’t want to see you shed one tear, because tears imply you didn’t know!” he says, telling Corrine that’s she’s always known Vic was corrupt, she let it go by, and now she can be charged as an accomplice. The scene gets broken in two pieces by all the other activity that The Shield encompasses; when we come back, the change in exterior light and Cathy Cahlin Ryan’s ragged performance reveal how much time has passed. (I’ll say it right here: fuck the haters. Ryan went up against Forest Whitaker’s best performance in this scene and she held her own. The way she’s trying not to say things in the second half of the scene is incredible.) Kavanaugh splits between judging, threatening, and sympathy, noting that Vic has left her alone–he has a lawyer and she doesn’t. Kavanaugh pushes and pushes, and finally gets her to reveal that Vic gave her “some cash” a while ago, and his eyes light up (another comic-book moment–there should be some $s in his eyes) and he gives her absolution–“now! Now you can cry!”–Whitaker’s voice is such a parody of sympathy here.
“Second Opinion”’s equivalent scene comes about for a different reason; Carmela seeks Dr. Melfi’s advice about Tony’s unhappiness and she refers him to Dr. Krakower, who tells her, simply and forcefully, to leave him. “Take the children, what’s left of them, and go.” Tony, he says, should turn himself in and “meditate on his crimes every day for seven years.” He refuses to take any payment from her (“blood money”) and dismisses her with one of the best lines in the entire series: “one thing you can never say is that you weren’t told.”
The great difference between these scenes isn’t really in the scenes themselves, it’s what happens before and after them. On The Shield, we’ve been on the road to that scene since the pilot. Vic killing Terry (season one) is what’s driving Kavanaugh, and it’s the money train cash (season two) that Vic gave to Corrine (season four); the Team coming apart (season three) is what led to Shane pairing with Antwon, which led to the search for Angie’s body that led to the evidence of the heroin in Lem’s car (season four). Corrine’s revelation of the money, combined with Dutch tipping off Kavanaugh about the money train robbery and Vic’s possible involvement (which Dutch put together in season three) leads to Kavanaugh freezing the Strike Team’s assets, which is one more factor that raises the pressure on the Team and closes off their options, which leads to the death of Lem. The scene between Kavanaugh and Corrine could not have happened earlier or later, and so much of the entire rest of the series comes from that scene.
Kavanaugh is not a neutral figure in this scene. He’s bullying, threatening, sympathizing, and most importantly, he has a clear goal of his own here. He’s telling Corrine a truth that she’s denied for so long, but he’s doing it for a purpose. Shawn Ryan called Kavanaugh an “anti-villain”; Amirite Shyamalan called Kavanaugh the “Big Good.” Both terms mean the same thing: someone who’s doing what most people would consider the right thing but who has his own demons and complexities that drive him to do it. He’s a complex, powerful, and dangerous a figure as any of The Shield’s other major characters, and in the next episodes, we’ll really see just how fucked up he is.
The context of “Second Opinion” and Dr. Krakower is easy to describe: there isn’t any. No consequences–no actions–come out of that scene. It could occur at any point in the series, and no events would be different. We never saw Dr. Krakower before and we never hear from him again; he has no desires and no goals. (I can’t be the only viewer who wished for, dammit, just one scene of Krakower and Melfi fighting it out.) Because of this, I and many other viewers read Krakower as the voice of David Chase. This scene and Dr. Krakower have no function in the plot and exist for one reason only: to judge Carmela. I’d call it “manipulative,” but that word isn’t strong enough, because one can only manipulate things that already exist. This scene was created to judge Carmela and find her wanting. The word “manipulative” gets applied to people like Michael Bay and Nicholas Sparks, but Chase qualifies just as much here. Chase is the worst kind of creator here; he is God in the Book of Job, the one who felt he could do whatever he wanted with his creation he wanted in order to make a point to someone else.
The reason The Shield is television’s greatest drama is that it holds to the most basic rule of drama: characters act, and those actions have consequences. Events happen, not to make a point to us, but from what the characters do. (The best kind of creator was described well in the 14th-century text The Cloud of Unknowing, and even better in Futurama: “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”) The most basic rule of The Sopranos is that its characters don’t act; as Todd van der Werff noted on the AV Club, it shows, over and over again, how people make the choice to not choose, to not change, to remain complacent. And because there are rarely any consequences to this, the show can go on forever. Even if you believe that Tony was finally killed for all he’d done (I do), Chase deliberately chose not to show the consequences of that, literally stopping the show before we could see what happened. That’s why The Sopranos’ ancestors are literary, not dramatic; it’s not a unified story moving from a first action to a last consequence but rather a series of sketches and short stories. Its nearest relatives aren’t the dramas of Shakespeare and Sophocles but the short stories of Dostoyevsky (who gets a shout-out from Dr. Krakower), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), and Bret Easton Ellis (The Informers).
Storytelling is a fundamentally ethical activity, because we see characters making a judgment and then making the crucial next step: acting on that judgment, and then experiencing the consquences of that judgement. Did Corrine do the right thing in revealing Vic giving her the money? To answer that, we have to at least consider all the consequences of that act; we have to at least take a moment to ask if it was worth the death of Lem and of Shane’s family and of Shane. I don’t believe she’s responsible for all that, but we have to at least think about it. Because its characters act, The Shield creates an ethically complex world; because The Sopranos’ characters don’t act, its characters can be simply judged. Judgments can be pure, whereas ethics are always messy, because acting in the world always leads to consequences. (Only for God can judgment and ethics be the same thing.) In storytelling, the creator has to face the consequences too, but Chase created very few acts, and very few consequences, so he could create scenes like this one that judge without any risk or complexity.
The Sopranos has a different purpose than The Shield; many have called it the best critique of contemporary American life. I won’t dispute that for a moment. The first power of drama, though, isn’t to tell us about one country at one moment in its history. The first power, literally the Godly power, of drama, is to create people who feel alive, so that we in the audience feel no distinction between those on stage and those in our lives. Whenever an author chooses something else as the first power, to make a point, to teach us something, to provide social or political criticism, their drama becomes less alive. Any time we find ourselves thinking “this is a story that someone made up; what are they trying to tell me?” we are not feeling that first, living power of drama. The purpose of The Shield was always to show us what the characters would do next, what they would have to do next, and that is why, over and over again, it collapsed the distance between itself and us; that is why, over and over again, we empathize rather than judge. The Sopranos is judgmental, The Shield ethical; The Sopranos is lifelike, The Shield is alive.