The first two seasons of The Sopranos rank as some of the best television I’ve seen, but season three represented a marked decline in quality. This was understandable, as the real-life death of one of the central actors caused a major story arc to be aborted. Season three therefore felt like there was something missing, and secondary storylines were made the centre of attention. I hoped that season four would see the show regroup and move forward with renewed purpose.
On the contrary, I was sorely disappointed to find that season four is significantly worse than season three. The thirteen episodes see Tony’s world begin to fall apart, as bad decisions and the stresses and strains of the mobster lifestyle take an increasing toll on his family and personal relationships. Tony’s character doesn’t necessarily develop a great deal in this season, but he’s still written as a fairly deep and rounded character so is always compelling. Sadly, the same can’t really be said for anyone else. Tony’s wife, Carmela, falls for one of Tony’s henchmen, and much of the season follows her emotional plight as she’s tortured by an impossible dream of romance and confronted daily by her growing hatred for her husband. The relationship between Tony and Carmela has been an emotional center across the four seasons so far, but the dramatic payoff from their marital problems is really lacking. In part, this stems from something of a ‘Betty Draper’ syndrome: Carmela is by now pretty horrible to almost everyone, not just Tony, and despite her depression and the humiliation she suffers from her husband’s constant philandering she does enjoy the material fruits of his illegal activities, which of course come at no small cost to his victims. In general, Carmela’s character is just not written with enough depth or subtlety to really imbue her with the kind of sympathy which we should feel in the circumstances.
At least Carmela’s behaviour is largely consistent across the season, though. The same can’t really be said for most of the supporting cast, and Tony’s business associates often seem to flip-flop between different personalities. At times it’s as if someone mixed up the actors’ lines, like when one wiseguy who had been taking a hard line on a business deal suddenly changes his mind, while another who had been the voice of compromise starts playing hardball. There are also some poorly-conceived storylines, such as the infamous episode about ‘Columbus Day’. One of the few bright sparks is Ralphie, played by Joe Pantoliano, who despite his brutally misogynistic and violent personality is responsible for most of the season’s humour and lighter moments. These rare occasions are a welcome contrast to the procession of misery and manipulative behaviour which constitutes most of the rest of season four.
One of the curious things about this season is the comparative lack of police interest in Tony and his New Jersey crew. The police are a constant presence, sitting in cars outside Tony’s house, businesses and so on, but their approach is largely passive. There’s one exception, as the cops try to recruit a mole within Tony’s network, but by the end of the season this storyline inexplicably fizzles out. Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Tony’s psychotherapy sessions with Dr Melfi become less and less insightful, covering the same ground ad nauseam, until Tony eventually decides to give them up. It’s a kind of metaphor for the way the whole show loses its sense of sympathy for its own characters, as well as the insight into human compulsions which characterized the first few seasons. While season three was a disappointment, season four is downright poor, and its existence undermines the case of those who would argue The Sopranos is ‘the best TV show ever’. If I didn’t already have the box set, I might well give up now.