The first season of The Sopranos was excellent, and I was very excited to see what the second had in store. The answer is pretty much ‘more of the same’, as the storylines and character arcs of the first season carry on for much of the second. Considering the quality of the first season, that’s no bad thing, but I’m eager to see how season three will shake things up.

Season one ended with Tony sitting pretty, more or less, as boss of the New Jersey Mafia, despite the machinations of his enemies. Season two sees more plots hatched against Tony, from the FBI as well as rivals within LCN, and his stress levels skyrocket as he tries to manage business and family problems–which, as in the first season, often overlap. Season two introduces Tony’s sister, Janice, who despite her apparent interest in Eastern religions and a hippie lifestyle, has a lot in common with their mother. Tony’s continuing emotional problems lead him back to therapy, but his counsellor Dr Melfi is having problems of her own; seeing your highly strung and emotionally unstable client linked with murders in the news every other day can’t be good for you. Jennifer Melfi’s character gets a fair amount of screen time here and we learn more about her, but this season doesn’t have the same psychological insights as the first. Part of this is probably because, as Tony sinks deeper and deeper into criminality and violence, there’s less and less that can be done to help him.

Some of the show’s secondary characters are starting to come into their own. Silvio, one of Tony’s most trusted guys, is hugely entertaining and lights up the screen whenever he makes an appearance; Pauli is also given a bit more back story and his simple-mindedness can be quite entertaining. Tony’s nephew Christopher continues his story arc from the first season, which felt like it dragged on for a while but fortunately did come to something of a resolution before the end of the season, for which I was grateful. As in the first season, trust and betrayal are major themes and the threat of police infiltration is ever present. The season’s pacing is generally quite good although there are a few times when characters flip-flop a bit too much between opposite points of view. If you were being generous I supposed you could view this as a function of the mental strain most of the characters are under.

This is top-quality drama, and the show has some truly iconic scenes. I particularly appreciated a scene towards the end of the season when one character changes his mind about a conspiracy, changing his allegiance in the process, and clearly explains his reasons for doing so. It was deeply intelligent writing and something about it felt completely truthful and profound. Like all the best dramas, the script is able to depict complex human behaviour with sympathy and understanding.

That said, while we may understand specific decisions in their own context, as we learn more about Tony’s criminal enterprises, it gets harder and harder to sympathize with him. Some of the storylines in this season make for heavy viewing, particularly when we see people not involved with the criminal world being exploited by Tony and his confederates. This is probably one of the main differences between this season and the first, and by the end of season two Tony is pretty much established as the villain of the piece. He’s likable and sympathetic in his own way, and trapped by circumstance, but that knowledge only goes so far. There are also a few dream-like scenes over the course of this season which are quite disturbing, and felt like something out of a David Lynch film. Partly because they’re so unexpected, these moments feel distinctly unsettling, and add to the overall darker quality of this season compared to the first.

The influence of The Sopranos on popular culture can hardly be overstated, and I think watching it now for the first time it suffers a bit for that; so much of what it does well I have seen in other shows, from The Wire to Sons of Anarchy. I enjoyed the second season very much but am ready for the third act to start moving the story forward a bit more.