For the past month and a half, as I've watched Tony Soprano and Family/family complete their journey (ha - Journey - get it? Don't Stop?), I've also been preparing for the end of another saga: I've been rereading the Harry Potter books. I started my reread about the time that this final season of the Sopranos debuted and, as a result, I've been uber-conscious of the similarities between the two entities ever since.
[As an aside, I'm a little sad. Tony and Harry have helped define the first part of my adult life - they both came on the scene just after I graduated from college and have been with me as I started my career, met Cooper and got married, started my own company, had a baby. Their departure is bittersweet for me, and not just because I'll miss the stories. At some point, I'm going to have to accept that I'm a grownup.]
When I started really thinking about this post three weeks ago, there was only one article out there comparing the two. In the past few days, however, a bunch have sprung up - clearly I'm not the only one obsessing about this stuff. This Newsweek article sums up a lot of the similarities that I see between the books and the show, though I'd add a few things:
- Interestingly, since both the books and the show are set in a world that is blatantly outside the mainstream, they are both ultimately about how the struggle of good vs. evil plays out in real life. The eternal struggle is set within less grandly dramatic, though equally interesting, story arcs. Tony Soprano's famous draw is that, though he is a mildly conflicted gangster, viewers can connect with him through his role as father, husband and son. His is the great story of the American family. From the first Harry Potter book, we have known that Harry is not all good and pure on the inside - he fears his own internal Slytherin tendencies. Despite how removed HP readers are from Harry's magical world, we identify with the stops and starts of his adolescence, with his self-doubt and his growth. His is a coming of age tale.
- Both stories make me conscious of just how important place can be. Can you imagine Harry without Hogwarts? Or Tony without New Jersey? There's something so perfect and integral about the settings of each story that makes the location almost an additional character.
- Since Sunday night, the Internet has been blazing with messages to David Chase. Some great, many not so great - but a lot of them. Similarly, HP devotees hang on every public word uttered by JK Rowling. Through these series, the creators have revealed things about themselves - about what's important to them and the decisions they choose to make - and their readers have responded. I can't even count how many times I've read "that ending was so David Chase" or "JK Rowling won't kill Harry - it wouldn't be like her."
Now that I've gotten all that rambling off my chest, let me bring this back home to food. Some time ago, I wrote about the role of food in Harry Potter. Upon rereading, I think my analysis holds up. JK Rowling's food is functional as a magical element, a forger of relationships and scene-setter, and as a joke.
The role of food in The Sopranos is so enormous that it's overwhelming. It would take someone with way more patience and time than I have to do a comprehensive analysis of food in the whole series. It's amazing - food is such a core part of being an Italian-American that it couldn't be any other way. But its not all trays of ziti after the funerals - Chase uses food as more than just a scene-setter or a way to flesh out a character. Food is so inherently a part of the characters' lives that it is regularly connected to their unhappiness or frustration. The symbolic nature of food in the series is hotly debated - onion rings as communion wafers, Lincoln Log sandwiches as, well, the obvious. After the episode when AJ almost drowned, a commenter named Erik on Matt Zoller Seitz's amazing blog said:
Note that Tony was eating right as he saw AJ drowning. Also, AJ actually addresses food (and specifically meat) when they are at the dinner table - asking Tony et al. how they can eat food of such disturbing origins. Yet - also note that AJ told Meadow that one of the main reasons he couldn't move out was his mother's cooking. He, like Carmella (and to some extent Tony), is profoundly disturbed by how the proverbial food gets put on the table, yet they are unwilling to go hungry...Remember that Tony and Melfi finally begin to think that the root cause of Tony's panic attacks was the association with food, and the violence he witnessed as a child (his dad maiming the butcher.)
But even more important than the role of food as a root cause or symbol, I think, is the role played by the ritual of the family dinner. Many seasons, including this last, have ended with a family dinner of some sort. The loss of sit-down family dinners in our busy American lives is often lamented. But the Sopranos manage to get to the table. And yet they are, I'd hope, more inherently screwed up than most American families. So will sitting down for onion rings and ice cream help us? If not, what can?
Entertainment like The Sopranos or Harry Potter has amazing power. It infiltrates our culture (how many other books are well-known enough to get a shout-out on The Office?) and it infects our lives. Both the shows and the books will be on my mind for years to come - while I'm on the sofa, at the stove, or - and most likely - at the table.
UPDATE: This kills me - I love it.