The first series of The Sopranos starts with a topless Tony Soprano, watching intently as a bush in his garden starts to shake. Hesitant, he’s about to go back inside, possibly to fetch his gun, when a family of Canadian ducks waltz onto his lawn and make their home in his swimming pool. Little did the viewer realise at the time just how significant this moment was. Tony’s reaction at this point was peculiar. We hadn’t seen his character develop, so we knew little of the man, his ins and outs, his personality traits. As the ducks swam around each other, content in the water, Tony smiles a smile of the utmost satisfaction. Then comes the infamous title music. That is the beginning of the series, thematic in its portrayal of the essential inclinations of its main character as defined not by heinous acts, but by seemingly inconspicuous, relatively uneventful happenings.
So it was that as the series progressed, and we became familiar with Tony Soprano, that we recognised a certain emptiness in him, a sorrowfulness. There he is, this gargantuan figure with fingertips ablaze with power, yet his exterior belies his interior; a man of two halves, he can be a modern day Jekyll and Hyde to some, but to others he’s much more complicated than that. As the episode College dictates, he is someone whose two distinct facets, his family and his work are melding together in such abominable ways that even he has no understanding of how to counter and separate it once more.
Such is the importance of the retrospective moment right back at the very beginning. As this monumental television programme gradually builds and builds into a critical phenomenon, it’s often difficult to comprehend the humble beginnings, but it’s a comprehension that needs to be maintained and managed because like many of the great programmes of all time, this is the point that oftentimes can define a large portion of what’s to come. It happens in The Wire, as McNulty bemoans the gun culture to one of his suspects. It happens in Mad Men, as Don Draper sits silently on his own, only to use the introduction of a cigarette to begin our association between this man and his work. We can get lost in the grand scheme of a show, because we’re determined by our relationship with the present, but moments like Tony and his ducks mean so much because they give it the opportunity to grow and stem from this seemingly minute, yet inescapably pertinent scenario.
These ducks naturally represented many of the conflictions that Tony felt. How could one man manage his family amidst the confusion and concern of the business? This visual metaphor defines this man’s existence. He is at the mercy of his own internal struggle to decide once and for all what is more important to him. There can be no doubt that he loves his wife and children, but when he’s defying the very basis of a family by cheating, lying and killing against their behest it does border on being inexcusable. But, much like many of the other great series, this is far too black and white to be considered verbatim.
When talking with his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, Tony mentions the ducks constantly during the initial episode. It’s interesting to note that she has many theories on what they represent. It’s more interesting to note that Tony seems to blindly accept whatever diagnosis is put in front of him, as if he’s utterly desperate for an answer to his problems. However, despite Dr. Melfi being practical and pragmatic, Tony refuses to actually implement any of these theories into practise. He willingly takes all the suggestions that are offered, but rarely is he able to apply them over a stretch of time.
Furthermore, this is shown through both Tony’s reaction to the cognitive behavioural therapy and his frustration that culminates from a lack of conviction. Realistically, it might be correct to assume that he actually knows what the issues are. He certainly postulates specific ideas when in counselling. Nevertheless, he gets incredibly angry when he feels attacked, forced into acknowledging unpleasant truths. His reactions, sporadically getting incredibly angry, occasionally crying, demonstrate a man who perhaps once knew what the underlying issue was, but has perhaps pushed himself too far to realise any potential and relative peace. He is trapped in a world that he created, one that he maybe recognises, but ultimately one that he battles to control.
As the ducks fly over his head and he stares horrified at their departure, we learn a quick truth about this man and this series. It is situated in that hypothetical grey area in-between the large linearities that claim to be most real. For Tony Soprano, those ducks might well be his last chance for a peaceful existence. He constantly feels like he’s lost his family, he knows openly that controlling the power of the Italian dynasties is nigh on impossible, but those ducks represent something that only the end will physically display to some degree, which is the understated normality of a simple bloodless family life, that no-one, regardless of actions, should be denied.
That simple breed of duck embodies a humble beginning that would perhaps define television drama for years to come. Yet, the breed might instinctively be simplistic in their nature, but for Tony Soprano they represent both the heaven and hell of his tumultuous and fragile world.