The Sopranos is often regarded as the greatest television series ever made, and that’s largely due to its unforgettable storytelling. Yes, the show obviously contains other brilliant aspects (including James Gandolfini’s iconic performance as Tony Soprano), but The Sopranos will always be commended for its unpredictable story.
The Sopranos never did what its audience wanted it to do, and that was both to its credit and detriment. People wanted it to be a straightforward gangster drama, and Chase and his team provided an existential glimpse into 21st century America. People wanted X to happen, and Chase would do Y. The result was gloriously unpredictable and exciting storytelling.
Exactly What Thought: Mikey’s Hit
The first season of The Sopranos is easily its most straightforward and formulaic. While it certainly contained elements of what would make late Sopranos such an endearing and classic show, it also told a relatively straightforward story about Tony and his rivalry with Uncle Junior.
This rivalry comes to a head in the season finale, which sees Christopher and Paulie whacking Mikey Palmice as he goes for a jog. It’s as predictable as the story got, as viewers long assumed that Mikey would be biting a bullet before long.
Surprised: Livia’s Off Screen Death
The Sopranos would grow increasingly unpredictable, and that arguably began with Livia’s off-screen death in season 3. Livia was the primary antagonist of season 1, but she took a major backseat in season 2 owing to Nancy Marchand’s failing health.
Unfortunately, Marchand passed away nine months before the premiere of season 3, and Chase was forced to write her death into the show. Fans were expecting a climactic confrontation between Tony and his mother, and what they got instead was Livia dying off-screen from a stroke.
Exactly What Thought: Meadow’s Storyline
The show loved to subvert expectations when it came to individual character storylines, but it did pretty much exactly what fans were expecting with Meadow Soprano. Throughout much of the early show, Meadow was portrayed as a highly intelligent girl who was both ambitious and knowledgeable of the family business (despite Tony’s efforts to keep her ignorant).
She eventually becomes a law student and becomes engaged to Patrick Parisi, the implication being that she will become a lawyer for the mob.
Surprised: Ralphie Made Captain
The entire third season was building to a violent confrontation between Tony and Ralphie. Ralphie had been continuously annoying Tony through his aggressive behavior, and their relationship was permanently tarnished after Ralphie brutally murdered Tracee.
It was obvious that Tony was going to have Ralphie whacked. But then Gigi Cestone dies of a heart attack, and Tony surprisingly promotes Ralphie to captain. Viewers were expecting blood, and they got a promotion of the villain.
Exactly What Thought: Big Pussy’s Hit
Much like season 1 was building to Mikey’s hit, as was season 2 to Big Pussy’s. Viewers had long been aware that Big Pussy was working with the government, but the characters remained unaware throughout much of the first two seasons.
It wasn’t until the second season finale that Tony, Paulie, and Silvio killed Big Pussy in a move that viewers had long been expecting. The kill itself wasn’t surprising, but the lead-up certainly was – Tony finally acknowledges what his subconscious is trying to tell him about Pussy, resulting in a violent bout of diarrhea and vomiting.
Surprised: Janice Kills Richie
Richie’s murder at the hands of Janice is arguably the first major time that The Sopranos zigged when viewers wanted it to zag. The entire second season was building up to a violent confrontation between Tony and Richie, and viewers were eagerly awaiting the bloodbath.
Instead, Janice kills Richie after Richie insults his effeminate son and punches her in the mouth. The image of Janice shooting Richie in the heart remains one of the most iconic Sopranos images – and also one of its most unpredictable.
Exactly What Thought: War Between Tony & Phil
Viewers didn’t get their anticipated war between Tony and Richie, but they got one between Tony and Phil. Phil Leotardo makes his first appearance in season five and quickly becomes the series’ primary antagonist and final boss.
Following Carmine and Johnny’s deaths, Phil became acting boss of the New York-based Lupertazzi crime family, effectively becoming Tony’s primary rival in the process. Their rivalry eventually escalates into an all-out war, and Phil is whacked at a gas station by Walden Belfiore.
Surprised: Tony Kills Christopher
The show had been building to a rivalry between Tony and Christopher, but viewers never anticipated the manner of his death. After getting into a major car accident, Tony sees his opportunity and strangles a gravely injured Christopher, the car accident providing the perfect out.
But the filmmaking also proved surprising, with a major character death coming in the first ten minutes of a nondescript episode (that being a non-season premiere or finale). It’s arguably the most unpredictable death of the entire series.
Exactly What Thought: Tony Kills Tony
The Sopranos loved building to climactic confrontations. Season 2 built to Tony v. Richie, and season 3 to Tony v. Ralphie. In both cases, the show subverted expectations and did something viewers weren’t expecting it to do. However, that wasn’t the case with season 5, which built to a violent confrontation between Tony and Tony B.
As was the case with Big Pussy, it was Tony’s dreaming subconscious that brought about his decision. Following the dream, Tony took matters into his own hands and executed his cousin to prevent war with the Lupertazzis.
Surprised: The Ending
There’s one thing that all viewers can agree on, and that’s the surprising nature of The Sopranos‘s ending. The ending is now a legendary piece of television history, being an ambiguous masterpiece that resulted in endless discussion, theorizing, and even some frustration.
One half of the fandom believes that Tony died, and the other believes that the ending sequence served as a visual metaphor for Tony’s unending paranoia. Whatever the case may be, the ending was wonderfully surprising and unpredictable.