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Mob mentality 

National Post television critic Robert Cushman deconstructs the inimitable Tony Soprano, HBO’s controversial tragic hero.

"Just before the last episode aired," says Robert Cushman, "I went back and watched the first one, and it's amazing. Just how many relationships were there, in embryo."

The National Post's television and theatre critic is talking about The Sopranos, the lumbering, Emmy-scarfing beast that took almost a decade to deliver 86 episodes of intricate, profane, violent, mesmerizing mafia drama. (Think about that pace---a regular network drama would burn through that order in four years. But then, The Sopranos wasn't network TV. It was HBO.)

Last year, Cushman approached his Post editor about writing a weekly deconstruction of the show in its final season, and as he progressed he realized he was consistently hitting upon the idea of Tony Soprano, Tragic Hero.

"More and more I wrote about this contest within Tony, this conflict within him, this struggle you hope will be resolved within him," says Cushman from his home in Toronto. "In the end he's still alive, which doesn't make him unique among tragic heroes---Oedipus is blinded, but he's alive---but Tony is really a diminished version of himself."

This week, Cushman will give a lecture at King's in the university's Popular Aesthetics series (Neil Roberston spoke on the end of Harry Potter at the school last week). Even the speech's title echoes Tony's internal struggles: "Tony Soprano: The Tragic Hero (?) of HBO."

"I think it's because there is a question of whether Tony Soprano can count as a tragic hero in any traditional sense," he says, of that telltale punctuation mark. "He's not a good man, but he does have moral qualms of the kind that tragic heroes have had. He doesn't think all that deeply, but he thinks more deeply than anyone else about him. He is trapped in a kind of fate---he's in the business because it's the family business."

As far as the network part of the equation, HBO has taken a hit with the loss of three of its most popular and critically acclaimed series---Six Feet Under met its maker in 2005, Deadwood wrapped in 2006. They're now nothing more than prizes in box-set collections. The Wire---the Baltimore-set drug drama that's been roundly embraced by critics, soundly ignored by awards juries, and is only picking up mainstream steam now, in its fifth and final season---provides many complex characters, but no single focus, leaving Tony as HBO's lone literary figure.

"A show like The Wire is really a group portrait. There's no one person whose struggles you're invested in," says Cushman. "Deadwood has a hero figure and a villain figure. HBO is where you look for it because the networks wouldn't take that kind of chance. They try to sell Jack Bauer as the hero of 24, but of course he isn't because he barely exists as a person."

Cushman, who is British and has decades of experience working in and writing about theatre (including his 2002 tome, Fifty Seasons at Stratford, about Canada's venerable, career-launching Stratford theatre festival), defines a tragic hero as "essentially trapped in a situation he or she can't get out of. And you watch them struggle and you see what moral compromises they make, or what ones they can rise above." As for Tony, "you don't ever really believe he's going to get out of the mob life. But you do keep clinging to any spark of humanity. I think that's one thing that keeps you watching."

And as for the series' end, it was one of the most polarizing finales of a television show ever---more than Seinfeld, which just sort of sucked; it didn't cause moral outrage and calls from the mainstream press to boycott HBO---but Cushman, for one, does not subscribe to any of the theories about Dude in the Bathroom or what The Cut to Black meant.

"I'm not one of those people who believe that when the screen goes black it means Tony is killed," he says. "It's David Chase saying, 'That's all I have to say.'"

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