The Sopranos is a show about family, nuclear and crime, and in the pilot episode, a family of ducks grows up in Tony’s pool and then flies away. Get the symbol?
Yet to simply say that the ducks flying away represented Tony’s fear of losing his family (as Dr. Melfi ascertained) seems oversimplified and limited. And there is nothing simple about The Sopranos.
In the beginning of that pilot episode when the ducks grow up and move out, Tony, introducing himself to Dr. Melfi and us to the show, provides one of the best lines in all six seasons, “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that and I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”
To which Melfi replies, “Many Americans, I think, feel that way.” Which casts a beautifully wide net around the series.
Almost immediately after this exchange, Tony is climbing into his pool, bread in hand, bathrobe swirling in the water around him like he is preparing for a GQ photo shoot, talking to those goddamn ducks about fixing the ramp if they’d like.
The family of ducks does indeed represent Tony’s fear of losing his family. He struggles for six seasons to hold on to his wife and children (which is what makes the last scene so powerful) and to keep a New Jersey mafia together with a dying code of ethics. And watching those goddamn ducks fly away sparked the feeling he so desperately wanted to avoid, a sense of not being good enough, not providing, no longer being there for the ones he loves, even if they are just ducks.
That can be directly applied to his crime family as well, for Christopher and Paulie and Sylvio and Uncle June and even his mother who often feels more a part of his crime family than his blood.
But layered into, around, and on top of that idea, was the departure of something he loved that he did not get to experience from the ground floor. Tony’s nostalgia is his drug. Everything was better back in the old days, even whacking dudes and selling drugs. And as those birds flew away, so did his American Dream- the opportunity to experience the start of something, an idea that colored the grays and sepias of his father’s generation.
Those ducks flew away and took a piece of Tony with them (as represented by his penis in the water fowl’s beak in the first dream he narrated to Dr. Melfi), a piece that directly plugged into his old soul (or his bellybutton in dream parlance). His view of the past, his nostalgia for an older and better America, his belief that we all have come in at the end, is, as Dr. Melfi pointed out, a feeling many Americans still share.
According to a PRRI study, 51% of Americans say America was better in the 1950s. Three quarters of white evangelical Protestants believe this is the case. Our anecdotal encounters with the older generation opining about how ‘things aren’t like they used to be’ is a real epidemic in American thought, representative of dissatisfaction with the way America is right now as well as where it is headed. Those flippant statements about how ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to’ or ‘back in my dayt’ stories narrate a measurable desire to go back to the way things were (to make America great again) rather than to embrace change towards a better future (according to that same study 74% of Americans say we are headed ‘down the wrong track’).
This all struck me during my first watch of The Sopranos. I also thought about it the second time I watched The Sopranos. But as time has gone on, and I watch it for the third time, those goddamn ducks keep meaning more and more.
Maybe it is me getting older, maybe it is our country’s discourse, maybe it is because great shows get better with every viewing, but The Sopranos, a show that shockingly few people have seen, far from becoming outdated, keeps cutting to the heart of America through the ruminations of a Jersey gangster.
In one of the greatest episodes in all of television, “College,” Tony is confronted by his daughter Meadow, while visiting colleges, about being in the mafia. He finally comes clean to her. But he then spends the rest of the trip lying and evading her in order to strangle a former gangster turned narc with electric wires. As he walks away from that rat’s body, he looks up to see those goddamn ducks flying overhead, carrying his relationship with his daughter, which had almost been righted, and the way things in the mafia used to be, before everyone was taking witness protection, with them.
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