Created by David Chase, The Sopranos is known for its inherent violence; however, Buddhist concepts link the collective 86 episodes. The iconic HBO series ended its six-season run in 2012 with a cryptic and controversial finale, one that allowed for various interpretations about the show’s actual meaning. As it turns out, references to Buddhism are prevalent from the beginning of the series onward, and quite literally in sixth and final season when James Gandolfini’s antihero, Tony Soprano, is shot and wanders through his subconscious.
The Sopranos launched an era of “prestige TV” upon its 1999 series premiere. Centered on a New Jersey crime boss, the storyline mirrors themes of introspection which are prevalent in mob classics like The Godfather and The Godfather II — arguably two of the finest films ever made. The Sopranos, however, grounded its narrative by humanizing the main character with philosophical subplots about fate and consequences. Tony is a calculated killer, just like like his protege Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), but their continuous displays of empathy suggest that there may be a light at the end of tunnel. They’re wiseguys who worry about the bigger picture. Like Buddhists, they “share the goal of overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth.”
In 2012, The Sopranos’ writers revealed that “a thread of Buddhism” is prevalent throughout the series’ 86 episodes [via Variety]. The second episode directly cites Marin Scorsese’s 1997 epic Kundun, a film that’s fundamentally about Tenzin Gyatso, otherwise known as the Dalai Lama. In fact, it’s none other than The Sopranos’ Christopher who references the Buddhist-themed movie, and Imperioli himself is reportedly a “dedicated Buddhist,” dating all the way back to the mid-90s before his career-changing HBO role. The actor once stated that “the more I learned about Buddhism, the more I felt that’s really what it is — direct methods of working on yourself, meditation being the first method. It made sense to me that the only way to transform your world was to transform yourself.” In The Sopranos, Christopher does indeed attempt to transform his life and become a screenwriter, but falls victim to the vices of his lifestyle.
As for Gandolfini’s Tony, his character arc revolves around self-hate and self-improvement. The mobster continuously meets with psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), hoping to work through psychological issues that affect his home life as a husband and father, not to mention his decisions as a prominent mob boss. The Sopranos season 6 begins with Tony musing about life decisions while visiting Dr. Melfi, who in turn states “If you’re lucky in the end, you can let go of your pride.” The character is shot by his own family member soon after, which sets in motion a trip through his subconscious where he visits with Buddhist monks, one of whom slaps the gangster and states “Lose your arrogance.”
The Sopranos season 6 premiere, “Members Only,” is indeed the beginning of the end for the HBO series. The episode, along with the two that follow, foreshadow what’s to come — including the controversial final sequence — through repetitive Buddhist-themed dialogue. “Members Only” ends with Tony being shot, and a visual fade to black. In the next episode, the mobster discusses his identity with monks who mistake him for another man. The Sopranos’ series finale, “Made in America,” begins with a visual that’s eerily similar to the final shot of “Members Only,” and ultimately concludes with another dip to black, one that’s less of a fade and and more of a direct transition (a metaphorical transition, if you will). There’s been a Buddhist-like transformation, it seems; a new cycle of death and rebirth.