At the heart of The Sopranos is Tony’s (James Gandolfini) struggle to manage relationships, and his troubled relationship with his mother Livia (Nancy Marchand) is at the heart of that struggle. The HBO TV series explored the complicated nature of Tony’s familial bond with his own mother, which was both marked with acts of love and hate. Given how much of an impact she had on his development as a person, there’s sure to be significant attention paid to their early days together in the upcoming prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark. The question remains, however: did Tony love his mother?
According to creator David Chase, The Sopranos was originally conceived as a film about “a mobster in therapy having problems with his mother.” This became the show’s first season arc, in which Livia conspires with Tony’s Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) to have Tony killed in retaliation to him sending her to live in a nursing home. Tony’s therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) reveal that his relationship with his mother was always difficult, centered on fear and never loving or supportive. Tony has difficulty accepting this, and gets stuck worrying why he isn’t living up to an arbitrary standard that’s unreasonable in the context of their relationship.
Tony’s refusal to acknowledge his true feelings towards his mother causes him to harbor an enormous amount of anger, which he often displaces onto Dr. Melfi for forcing him to confront these repressed feelings. Tony did love his mother, but he also hated her — a feeling he was deeply ashamed of. For example, when Tony moves Livia into a nursing home against her wishes in the season 1 episode “46 Long,” she retaliates by refusing to speak to him. Upset by this, Tony blames himself. Dr. Melfi reassures him that he did the right thing, and encourages him to admit that while he’s certainly sad at the state of affairs — and while of course he loves her — he can also hate her. Tony reacts with anger that he directs at Dr. Melfi: “I don’t wanna talk to you anymore. Hate your mother,” he scoffs on his way out.
Tony Loved His Mom — But He Hated Her Too
Evidence of Tony’s conflicting feelings toward his mother continue throughout The Sopranos — even after the character dies. Following Livia’s death in season 3, Tony tells Dr. Melfi that he’s glad his mother is dead — that he’d wished for it, since she might have testified against him in an upcoming trial; however, their ensuing conversation about what it means to be a good or bad son reveal Tonys lingering feelings of shame.
At the end of the session, Tony half-jokes, “We’re probably done here, right? She’s dead.” Livia’s death doesn’t mean she’s no longer part of Tony’s life, however, as he continues to recreate elements of their relationship in others throughout The Sopranos‘ run. His lingering feelings of resentment and abandonment from her decades of emotional neglect and abuse drive him throughout the series to seek fulfillment in all the wrong places: by becoming a great gangster like his father, by having extramarital affairs with similarly unstable women, and by variously seeking approval from and rejecting strong-willed Italian women like his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and therapist Dr. Melfi.
How Livia and Tony’s Relationship Will Factor Into The Prequel
Tony’s unresolved love-hate relationship with his mother and its lasting impact on his behavioral patterns arguably make Livia the most important character in the series. While the upcoming prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, takes place in the late 1960s and focuses on Tony’s father’s crew, both Tony and Livia are confirmed to appear. It will likely also explore Livia’s relationship with Tony’s father Johnny Boy as well as Tony’s own relationship with him. Given how important the influence of childhood on one’s adult behavior is for The Sopranos, the prequel will undoubtedly shed significant light on television’s most famous mobster.