Tony Soprano is one of the most well-known and vicious TV characters of the last few decades, but despite this, he also has a notable soft spot for the animals that often symbolize him and what’s going on in his life. HBO’s The Sopranos follows Tony (played by the late James Gandolfini), a New Jersey mobster, as well as his personal and crime families. And the show doesn’t hold back with how it depicts any of its characters.
With palpable awareness of the pseudo-glamor that works like The Godfather and Goodfellas have perpetuated, The Sopranos depicts what is most likely the reality of the nasty underbelly of a crime-orbiting lifestyle. But the gangster series also takes the genre to new places, tackling issues such as anxiety (Tony struggles with panic attacks), depression, nostalgia, and even a search for existential meaning – though Tony doesn’t have the self-awareness or ability to articulate it as such. The fact that so many characters – Tony in particular – are so three-dimensional is nothing short of remarkable.
Though Tony not a good, or even necessarily likable person, viewers often root for him. And his character’s intricate layers are precisely why. Though he’s a brash, selfish, hot-tempered, brutally violent man, he has a softer side to his personality that also occasionally shines through. Even someone as deeply and objectively flawed as him is multi-faceted, and the show capitalizes on that. Many of these more tender or vulnerable moments are depicted via Tony’s dreams, private life, and even therapy sessions. But another crucial way this part of Tony is revealed is through his surprisingly deep well of empathy for the animals he encounters, as well as what certain animals and their actions communicate about him.
Ducks, The Sopranos, Season 1
The family of ducks in Tony’s swimming pool illustrates his issues with different kinds of families in his life and the transient nature of the world, as the ducks leave, and Tony is powerless to do anything about it. Melfi herself notes the animals’ familial symbolism. Of course, there’s Tony’s current family – Carmella and the kids. Tony’s chance of prison and being cut off from them increases by the day, due to the RICO Act and an increase in mobsters turning to witness protection. And, even if this doesn’t happen, his children are slowly getting older; one day, they’ll leave too.
But this symbolism also connects to ever-growing issues within the world of Tony’s crime family. In The Sopranos‘ pilot, he even says to Melfi, “I think about my father. He never reached the heights like me. But, in a lot of ways, he had it better. He had his people. They had their standards, they had pride. Today, what’ve we got?” Before the days of wiretaps and RICO, “family” used to mean something in the mobster world. The ducks also tie into Tony’s first family, his family of origin. His mother is cold, cruel, and manipulative, and they have a tense relationship right up until her death. And since his father is deceased, his only ties to him are his memories steeped in nostalgia for a better time.
Pussy as a Fish, The Sopranos, Season 2
In season 2, Pussy appearing in a dream sequence as a fish foreshadows the fate of Tony’s dear friend – he ends up “sleeping with the fishes.” He’s literally “dead meat” when he appears to Tony in the “Funhouse” episode’s fever dream, revealing to him what he’s known all along: that Pussy is a “rat,” and he’s been working for the government. The choice of the bass is also key, as it’s a nod to his big mouth. Tony and the rest of his crew have been skeptical of Pussy after his legal issues and sudden disappearance and resurfacing. It takes a dream embedded with symbolism, a Godfather reference, and wacky surrealism for Tony to face the truth about his friend that he so deeply cares for.
Rottweiler, The Sopranos, Season 3 (& Other Dogs)
The Rotweiller in Melfi’s dream symbolizes Tony. Just like how her real-life relationship with him plays out, she’s initially frightened by the dog. It comes off as large and aggressive, snapping and barking at her. She herself likens the dog to Tony within her own therapy session, making the connection between him and the animal’s shared characteristics – a “big head” and “massive shoulders.” But despite the dog’s brashness, just like Tony, it also quickly develops a protective instinct for Melfi, mauling the dream version of her rapist when he tries to attack her again. And she knows, if she so chooses (though she ultimately doesn’t), Tony is the one she could, as she says, “sic on that son of a b**** to tear him to shreds.”
And Tony himself has a recurring, profound connection with dogs. One example of this is the rage he has when he finds out that Christopher accidentally killed his and Adriana’s dog. That’s what he gets fired up about most during the whole intervention scene. And when he finds out that his mother gave his dog, Tippy, away, he’s undeniably distraught. There’s a variety of examples where Tony, as ferocious as he is, shows shreds of humanity. He sees dogs as pure, innocent creatures that need protection from forces as evil as him.
Pie-O-My the Horse, The Sopranos Season 4
In a similar vein to dogs, Pie-O-My also symbolizes Tony’s softer side that has a profound connection and concern for innocent animals. Though he has no qualms with taking human life when necessary, he rushes in the night to pay the vet for her life-saving medical attention. His unwavering affection for the horse, and how tenderly he comforts her during her pain, truly helps flesh out what a layered character he is. And his love for Pie-O-My and subsequent rageful grief after her sudden, off-screen death allows him to channel this caring side on behalf of a person: Ralphie’s girlfriend Tracee, whom he had beaten to death earlier in the series (and showed no remorse for). Tony can’t do anything about the young woman’s demise, but combines the anger he can’t express with the pain of Pie-O-My being unjustly killed by Ralphie as well – and the emotion boils over. This provides a dual meaning words Tony growls while killing Ralphie: “She was a beautiful, innocent creature! What’d she ever do to you?!”
Bear, The Sopranos, Season 5
The bear in the backyard also symbolizes Tony. Just like the Rottweiler, this animal parallel is large, powerful, and can be dangerous. Plus, the bear’s sudden presence coupled with Tony’s indefinite absence from the home, illustrates how, without him there, Carmella and A.J. (Meadow is out of the house) are much more susceptible to the dangers of the outside world. Similar to the bear, he’s brash and predatory, known to lurk around the property in the past. And the bear’s symbolism extends to Carmella, too. The first time it shows up, she’s the one who takes action to scare it away and protect her son.
Cat, The Sopranos, Season 6
The cat symbolizes Tony’s guilt over killing Christopher. Though he acts as if he’s relieved by his nephew’s death, of finally not having him on the family’s hands, the murder eats at Tony’s soul. The calloused, macho, gangster side of him has no logical reason to mourn, as Christopher and his recurring drug habit were both major liabilities for everyone close to him. But the cat personifies his true feelings. Just as the small animal stares at Christoper’s picture on the wall all day, Tony carries the weighty grief and self-reproach for Christopher’s abrupt end in his heart and mind as he goes through life in the remainder of The Sopranos‘ series finale.