In the series premiere of The Sopranos, audiences learn that Tony Soprano, the main character of The Sopranos, played by James Gandolfini, has become obsessed with a family of ducks that have made their home in Tony’s pool. Some of the first shots of the series are of Tony entering his pool, in which he had constructed a ramp for the ducks, and feeding bread to the duck family. The ducks are adorable and shown only in the light of the day, but they also act as the dark impetus for the entire series until The Sopranos ended its 6-season run with its controversial series finale.
The Sopranos, created by David Chase, debuted in 1999 to nearly universal critical acclaim and often topped lists of the best television shows of all time. Many have cited the series about a mobster in therapy as one of the foundational works of the new Golden Age of Television and instrumental in HBO’s rapid rise to its current position. The series follows Tony, a high-ranking mafioso in New Jersey, as he navigates the problems of modern life, the dangers of being in organized crimes, and conflicts within his family. Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, who almost played Tony’s wife Carmela, takes on Tony Soprano as a client at her psychiatry office, where the two explore Tony’s motivations, fears, and mental illness. These psychotherapy sessions are the driving force of The Sopranos, punctuating comedy, violence, and sex with a deeper analysis of evil and questions about redemption.
Throughout Tony and Dr. Melfi’s sessions in The Sopranos pilot episode, the ducks come up a lot. In fact, the ducks are a large part of the reason Tony meets Dr. Melfi in the first place. Tony is lighting up a grill for the birthday party of his son, Anthony “A.J.” Soprano, when he catches a view of the ducks as they fly away and appear to leave him forever. Fans of the series know that animals often serve as symbols in The Sopranos, and the ducks are no different. At the end of the first episode of The Sopranos, viewers realize that waterfowl represent family to Tony and Tony tells Dr. Melfi, “I’m afraid I’m gonna lose my family like I lost the ducks.”
Hearing Tony say this makes a lot of sense from what viewers could see in The Sopranos season 1. Tony’s wife, Carmela, seems perpetually on the edge of leaving Tony. Meadow Soprano, Tony’s daughter, appears to want nothing more than to leave the East Coast and is about to graduate high school. A.J. Soprano is a troubled child beginning to realize what his father does for money in season 1. If that wasn’t enough for Tony, his father has long since died, and his mother and uncle have become increasingly hostile towards Tony until finally plotting to have him killed. However, by The Sopranos series finale, which ended so abruptly in 2007 that some fans thought it might have been a technical error, Tony had mostly avoided losing his family.
It’s possible that Tony’s fear was not that he would lose his family but that he should lose his family. Tony knows “those goddamned ducks” have to leave and are better off migrating and growing outside the confines of his yard, but this is no consolation to the deeply possessive Tony. Much is said about that last scene of The Sopranos, but it’s likely that The Sopranos‘ ending is deeply connected to its beginning. Dr. Melfi becomes convinced that her treatment is useless to correct Tony’s psychopathy, but her refusal to continue to see Tony also means that he is stuck with his fear. It’s unimportant to ask whether Tony dies in those 10 seconds of a silent black screen because he could never overcome the Soprano family curse.