2004-02-01 07:18:23 UTC
Tony Soprano as "Ethical" Manager
by Ronald M. Green
It seems odd to bring the word "ethical" into connection with Tony Soprano.
Tony commits terrible sins and crimes. He orders the death of others and
kills people with his bare hands; he repeatedly betrays his wife and
abandons his lovers; he runs a criminal enterprise involved in everything
from theft and extortion to the corruption of public officials.
Yet in this world of criminality, Tony reveals a degree of moral integrity
that makes his character appealing. Surrounded by associates whose
viciousness and poor judgment threaten not just the public but the peace and
stability of their own crime "family," Tony exercises managerial leadership
to create order within the larger disorder. If we momentarily suspend our
moral evaluation of Tony's line of work, we can view him as a manager
involved in pioneering a new and more ethically sensitive management style
during a period of stressful change in his industry.
The Context of Evil
There are some considerations that soften our judgment of both Tony and his
crew, but much of their behavior is despicable. We need to be clear about
this negative dimension because Tony sometimes offers a morally idealized
vision of his criminal lifestyle. This occurs most notably in a with his
psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. Responding to a question about whether he fears
going to hell, Tony replies, "What? Hell? . . . No. . . . We're soldiers,
you know. Soldiers don't go to hell. It's war. Soldiers, they kill other
soldiers. We're in a situation where everybody involved knows the stakes . .
. It's business. We're soldiers. We follow codes. Orders" (From Where to
Like all rationalizations, there is some truth in this self-portrait. For
one thing, much of the murder and violence that takes place in the series
occurs among mob members who engage in attacks on one another or reprisals
for the same. Some of the more gruesome events in the series fit this
description: Tony's garroting of Fabian Petrullio, the "rat" whom Tony
accidentally encounters during his college tour with his daughter, Meadow
(College); the whacking of Matt Bevilaqua following his attempt (along with
buddy Sean Gismonte) to kill Christopher Moltisanti "on spec"; Tony's crew's
almost "consensual" execution of close friend turned FBI informant,
Salvatore "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero aboard Tony's boat, the Stugots
(Funhouse); the back-of-the head shooting of Jackie Aprile, Jr. by Vito
Spatafore as punishment for young Jackie's role in leading a murderous heist
of a mob-run card game (The Army of One).
Nevertheless, Tony's analogy to military ethics is far from perfect. Apart
from the questionable justice of their cause, which rarely reaches beyond
self-enrichment, Tony and his crew by no means confine their activities to
other consenting participants in the criminal enterprise. They repeatedly
and deliberately implicate innocent "civilians" in their activities. This is
made clear early in the episode Commendatori, when two thugs carjack an SUV,
throw the terrified family out on the street, and almost take off with the
family dog. Later, we learn that thefts like this are the first link in a
new Sopranos' business, shipping stolen luxury cars to Italy. Among the
innocent victims of their other schemes are the impoverished resident's of
Newark's ghetto who, in an operation dreamed up by Tony, State Assemblyman
Zellman and others, are left with the gutted shells of houses after federal
rehab financing (and plumbing) are pilfered by Tony and his crew. We also
peer into Christopher Moltisanti's brokerage operation, the heart of which
is a "pump and dump" scheme that sells the "dog" stock "Webistics" to senior
citizens. When one conscience-stricken broker tries to present a client with
investment alternatives, he is badly beaten by hoodlum "floor managers"
Bevilaqua and Gismonte.
It is true that Tony and his associates are not the only ones involved in
corruption and fraud. In The Sopranos the mob is often held up as a mirror
to the "law-abiding" world. "Webistics" is a metaphor for much of the
greed-driven technology-sector hype of the 90s. In "A Hit Is a Hit," Carmela
is astonished to learn at a barbecue with friends of their "white bread"
Italian neighbors, the Cusamanos, that the wives are actively engaged in
insider trading. But perhaps most telling is the brief exchange between
Meadow and Tony as they drive to Colby for her college interview. Raising
the question of what Tony does for a living, Meadow asks bluntly, "Are you
in the Mafia?" Tony replies that some of his money comes from illegal
gambling, and probes, "How does that make you feel?" Meadow replies,
"Sometimes I wish you were like other dads. Like Mr. Scangarelo, for
example. An advertising executive for big tobacco."
If we put Tony's crimes on one side of the balance and Mr. Scangarelo's on
the other, the pointer might tilt in Tony's favor. Compared with the
misdeeds perpetrated by greedy corporations and corrupt politicians,
Tony's - and the mob's - crimes hardly count. In terms of business ethics,
it is one of the points of The Sopranos that much of what we condemn in
criminal behavior has its counterpart in the world of legitimate business
But none of this excuses Tony. He knowingly plays a leadership role in an
industry in which theft, fraud, extortion and murder are routine, an
industry whose best - and sometimes only - products or services are ones
that feed human vices and addictions. Indeed, it is clear that much of the
psychic pain tormenting Tony and causing the panic attacks that drive him to
see Dr. Melfi stems from the conflict between his conscience and way he
earns a living. How, then, can Tony be regarded as an "ethical manager"?
There are two answers to this question. The first involves comparing Tony to
some of the other "managers" with whom he works and who characterize the mob
at this moment in its history. The second looks more directly at the quality
of Tony's managerial decision making. In a number of crucial episodes and
scenes, we see that, although Tony often appears beleaguered and frustrated,
he does remarkably well at steering himself and his team through the
challenges they confront.
The Bad Examples
When we compare Tony with other managers above or below him in the Mafia
echelon, it becomes clear why he has come to hold a position of
responsibility. Together, these associates form a study in incompetence.
Nowhere is this truer than one step above Tony in the hierarchy. Corrado
Soprano (Uncle Junior) is the anti-type who highlights Tony's own leadership
skills. Junior's hunger for the power and respect of office are far exceed
his ability to exercise power or merit respect. In decision after decision,
judgment after judgment, he makes mistakes that propel the narrative. Among
other things, he is ignorant of the most basic cultural facts. Following
Junior's arrest, an obviously Jewish judge named Jacob Greenspan interviews
him and his lawyer in quarters and asks whether Junior knows what an
electronic bracelet is (Do Not Resuscitate). Junior thinks for a moment and
replies, "It sounds like Nazi Germany to me." This elicits a sour remark
from the judge about Junior's "needing a history lesson" followed by the
ruling, "He's wearing a bracelet." Earlier in the series, Tony meets with
the capos about who should lead the organization. He floats the idea of
giving the job to Junior, who he believes has the support of the New York
branch of the mob. "Not for anything, God bless your uncle," says Larry
Barese. ". . . he's living in the wrong century and New York knows it"
Ignorance, poor judgment and vanity underlie Junior's decision to accept the
job of boss, even though it places him in the cross hairs of an impending
government prosecution. Almost immediately, Junior imperils the family
through a series of bad decisions (Pax Soprana). To assert control, he sends
Mikey Palmice to beat up card players under the protection of capo Jimmy
Altieri; instigated by Livia he imposes "taxes" on the previously protected
operations of family counselor Hesh Rabkin; in a gesture imitative of Don
Corleone in The Godfather, he has Palmice throw drug dealer Rusty Irish off
a bridge over the Patterson falls as punishment for causing the drug-related
suicide of the fourteen-year-old grandson of Junior's tailor. Unfortunately,
Rusty Irish is one of Larry Barese's best gambling earners, and the
unconsulted Barese is furious.
All these poor decisions lead to a sit-down at Satriale's, where the capos
complain that Tony has created a Frankenstein. In an effort to solve the
problem, Tony visits his mother, Livia, and tells her that Junior needs
reigning in, adding, "It's not a business that forgives bad decisions."
Later, appealing to the older man's Italian sensibility, Tony attempts to
teach Junior that a respected leader must share the wealth with those
beneath him. As the two watch a little league game, Tony mentions Augustus
Caesar. "Everybody loved him," says Tony, "because he never ate alone . . .
It was the longest time of peace in Rome's history. He was a fair leader and
all his people loved him for that."
Toward the end of the first season, Junior's character flaws propel him into
his most unfortunate decision of all: to kill Tony. What is striking here is
the role played by Livia. Furious that Tony has put her in the Green Grove
retirement community and perceiving that Junior is smarting under Tony's de
facto control of the family's business, Livia informs Junior of Tony's
therapy (The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti; Boca), and magnifies Tony's
transgressions (Nobody Knows Anything). Of course, Livia is a monster. As
Tony tells Dr. Melfi (The Sopranos), by the end of Tony's father's life, she
was able to wear her tough-guy husband down "to a little nub . . . a
squeaking little gerbil." The even weaker Junior is no match for Livia's
Junior's flaws have nothing to do with his willingness to heed feminine
advice. We will see that one of the great strengths of Tony's leadership is
his willingness to listen to and respect women's views. Junior's mistake is
not that he listens to a woman, but that he listens to Livia. The result is
a decision that is bad for Junior's biological and business families.
Several rungs down the organizational ladder, Christopher Moltisanti
displays a contrasting set of flaws. If Junior suffers from poor moral
judgment, vanity, and ignorance, Christopher's major vice is impulsiveness.
Tony recognizes this. When Christopher accepts girlfriend Adriana's
invitation to take off from the brokerage for the afternoon to go to the
beach, things go badly wrong. His two office punks, Matthew Bevilaqua and
Sean Gismonte, brutalize a broker and steal a Porsche Carrera from the
parking lot of their own building. Later, Tony admonishes Christopher: "I
been telling you to spend more time down at the brokerage. You're the
fucking SEC compliance officer for Christ's sake. You gotta exercise impulse
In some respects, Christopher's problem is generational. Raised in a world
of TV, video games, and widely available recreational drugs, he is
accustomed to constant stimulation and expects instant gratification. It
entirely fits Christopher's character that he tends to see the world through
a film/video lens. (D-Girl).
We see these flaws very clearly in Meadowlands, a defining episode of the
first season. When Christopher tries to collect his weekly payment from drug
dealer Yo Yo Mendez, he learns that "it ain't my corner anymore; it's
Junior's." Furious, Christopher rushes back to the Bada Bing!, interrupting
Tony and the crew who have just seen a report on television about the death
of mob boss Jackie Aprile. Unaware (or unconcerned?) that he is crashing a
solemn moment, Christopher angrily announces that something has to be done
right away. Paulie "Walnuts" Galtieri tries to put him off, urging,
"Christopher, this ain't the time," but Christopher insists: "They're moving
in. I say we go to Defcon four." Tony tries to slow him down. "I gotta
assess this. All right?" but Christopher won't listen. "What are we
politicians? Does this look like the Senate to you, T? This is about respect
of our thing." Tony's anger flares. "Why don't you shut the fuck up? It
doesn't concern you." Christopher then makes his grandstand play:
Yes it is. I represent you out there and I'm tired of putting my tail
between my legs. This ain't negotiation time. This is Scarface, final scene,
fucking bazookas under each arm. Say hello to my little friend.
Christopher's acting out of a scene from (a remake of) one of the most
famous gangster movies entirely suits his personality. Raised on television
and videos (at one point he tells Adriana "I love movies. That smell at
Blockbuster, that candy and carpet smell, I get high off (The Legend of
Tennessee Moltisanti) he often models his behavior on Hollywood formulas,
leaving little time for more patient and careful deliberation. At the end of
this scene Christopher says to Tony, "You don't do something; I gotta
question your leadership." This provokes Tony, who pushes Christopher down
on the bar and chokes him, to rage, "You ungrateful little fuck. Where'd you
get the balls to question my leadership, huh?"
Leadership is the issue. Tony correctly perceives that Christopher, perhaps
alone among the members of his crew, has the makings of a boss, and,
possibly even, a successor (For all Debts Public and Private). Christopher
is smart, tough, and culturally aware. There are even moments when he shows
the ability to learn, as when he takes a pass on a second hijacking of a
truck protected by Junior (46 Long). A contrast is drawn in this episode
between Christopher and his buddy Brendan Filone, who goes after the truck
and ends up, punished by Junior's man Mikey, with a bullet in his eye, "Moe
Green style." Nevertheless, poor impulse-control remains Christopher's
Achilles heel. In the fourth season this take the form of a descent into
Tony's Management Skills
If Junior and Christopher represent flawed management styles, Tony's
exercise of managerial leadership is one of the main points of interest in
the series. By means of Tony's conduct and choices, The Sopranos explores
what it means to manage a complex human enterprise in a changing "business"
Tony is by no means perfect. He has some of the flaws of the series' other,
less adept managers. He shares with Christopher a problem of impulse
control. It usually takes the less disruptive form of an attraction to sex
or food, but it also sometimes flares in irrational anger and violence, as
in his jealous beating of business collaborator, Assemblyman Zellman, for
taking up with Tony's ex-goomar, Irina (Watching too much Television). To
his credit, Tony is aware of this dimension of his personality. In the
episode Employee of the Month, Ralphie Cifaretto overreacts to an Arab
businessman's failure to keep up in his debt payments by pistol-whipping the
deadbeat. Later, Tony explains to Ralphie why he has chosen to pass him over
for promotion to captain: "You got some bad tendencies, Ralphie, and I
sympathize, 'cause I got 'em too."
Not only is Tony aware of his flaws, he struggles to control them. Nowhere
is this better displayed than near the end of Commendatori. This episode
takes Tony, Christopher and Paulie to Naples to work out the details of the
car theft operation with their Neapolitan associates. In some respects the
episode is a study in how not to do business. Paulie spends much of the time
whoring. Christopher is so spaced out on drugs that, on their return, he has
to buy an Italian gift for his girlfriend at the Newark Airport duty free
shop. Of the three, only Tony keeps his eye on the ball.
It is not easy to do. Annalisa Zucca has become the effective head of the
Naples family as a result of her husband's imprisonment and her elderly
father's dementia. She is a shrewd, beautiful woman. As she bends over to
swing her golf club, the camera - and Tony - focuses on her shapely bottom.
But despite her attractions, Tony must secure a high price for each of the
stolen vehicles shipped over by the New Jersey crew. This sexually charged
negotiation culminates as the two stroll alone through the cave of the
sibylline oracles. Annalisa explains how the sibyllines could predict future
events. "Oh yeah," Tony asks, "Got a premonition for me?" Annalisa tells
Tony that he is "no problem to read," that he is his "own worst enemy." This
provokes Tony to say that Annalisa reminds him of someone back home
(presumably Jennifer Melfi ), but Annalisa guesses: "Not your wife. Your
girlfriend?" Tony replies, "Oh, I got one. To answer your question. But no.
The conversation abruptly takes a sexual turn. "But she's someone you want
to fuck. I can tell," Annalisa says. Tony tries to shrug this off, but she
persists: "You don't want to fuck her? You don't want to fuck me?"
Tony replies, "Yeah I do, but I don't shit where I eat." Annalisa does not
understand. Laughing nervously, she asks, "Que cosa?" Tony translates: "No
fare la merda dove mangia. It's bad business. We're in business." Annalisa's
anger suddenly flares. "No, va ten. Va ten," Get away, get away, she says,
and adds, "Not at those prices." She then offers a lower purchase price for
each of the stolen cars.
What is remarkable about this scene is that Tony maintains his focus on
business, despite what, for a macho guy, are major provocations not to do
so. Not only is Annalisa's offer to have sex, fast and dirty, right there on
the floor of the cave tempting, but there is the deliberate provocation to
his masculinity. Antagonized by Annalisa's assertion of her allegedly
superior psychological knowledge of him, Tony would see having sex with her
as a natural way to regain control. Annalisa knows this. She may have set up
the whole situation to distract Tony's attention from business and
(literally) soften him up for the final stage of the negotiation. But for
all his sexual impulsiveness, Tony does not succumb. The negotiation ends
with a selling price for each vehicle that Tony later happily reports as
being twice what he expected.
Tony's ability to subordinate personal desire to business necessity is one
expression of his larger ability to perceive and act on what is best for his
organization. Above all, Tony has good judgment where his relevant
stakeholders are concerned. He is able to identify the claims of these
stakeholders, and respond to them fairly and imaginatively. Unlike his more
impetuous and injudicious colleagues, he does not allow his judgment to
become impaired by vanity or pride. Indeed, as in the scene with Annalisa,
Tony is often willing to emerge from an encounter with diminished glory, if
by doing so he can preserve important relationships and achieve his larger
The series is populated with episodes where Tony's good judgment averts
conflict. At the end of the fourth season, the boss of the New York family,
Carmine Lupertazzi, threatens to muscle into the Riverfront Esplanade
project, and war impends. Tony makes peace by offering the New Yorkers a
modest share in the proceeds (Whitecaps). In the second season, when the
vicious hood Richie Aprile uses his garbage routes to peddle drugs, Tony
reacts. Pulling Richie aside at the Garden State Carting Association's
annual social event, he offers a brief tutorial on the legal realities:
"After five years, the cops are finally leaving garbage alone. A drug bust
on one of those routes, it's a different story. You've got the FBI, the DEA,
all those fucking pricks are gonna be breathing down our necks again." When
Richie protests, "It's a little coke. What is the big deal?" Tony tells him
bluntly "You wanna deal drugs, that's your business. You do it on
Association garbage routes, it's my fucking business. It stops today. You
got it?" (House Arrest).
A first season episode, Meadowlands, particularly illustrates Tony's
shrewdness, breadth of vision, and attention to the complex stakeholder
issues that define good management. The heart of the episode is Tony's
decision to allow Uncle Junior to assume leadership of the family. We
witnessed the run up to this in the tense relationships between Junior's men
and Tony's during the long illness of mob boss Jackie Aprile. In a sit-down
with the captains, Tony learns that the position is his for the asking.
During this same period, Tony expresses to Dr. Melfi his exasperation with
the old people in his life, especially his mother and Uncle. She responds by
urging him to read a "good book out there" that offers "strategies for
coping with elder family." Tony demurs, saying, "No, I read, I go right
out," so Jennifer offers advice based on the book's argument: "Would it hurt
you to let your mother think that she's still in charge? You have children.
You know what they're like. You know that sometimes it's important to let
them have the illusion of being in control."
The scene shifts back to the Bada Bing!. We see Tony, despite his earlier
protestation, sitting at the bar, hunched over a copy of a book entitled
Eldercare: Coping with Late-Life Crisis. The television announces Jackie
Aprile's death, Christopher barges in and performs his Scarface routine;
Tony forcefully puts him in his place. The scene ends as Tony storms out of
the bar. Soldier "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero announces ominously, "Here we go.
'War of 99'," and consigliere Silvio Dante adds, "Adios, Junior."
Every narrative expectation of the gangster movie genre leads us to think
that Big Pussy and Silvio are right. This expectation is heightened when the
scene shifts to outside the luncheonette where Uncle Junior hangs out with
his pals. Tony storms up in his Suburban, gets out of the car and checks his
pistol. We are reminded that Junior had last dismissed him following an
angry conversation at the same luncheonette by saying, "Next time you come
in, you come in heavy" (i.e. armed).
As Tony enters the luncheonette, we expect a shoot-out. Instead, Tony puts
his hands up in the air and declares in a firm voice "I came in heavy, like
you said, but I don't want to use it." Junior's men look on nervously. Tony
sits down across the table from his uncle. "Our friend Jackie has died," he
says, "Now we need a leader." Junior replies coldly, "We do," apparently
expecting Tony to assert his claim. But Tony surprises everyone. "Sopranos
have been waiting a long time to take the reins," he says, "That's why I
want it to be you Uncle Jun."
Junior is astonished. He asks Tony whether this is really his decision and
whether he can speak for the captains. Tony responds affirmatively. Junior
rises to hug Tony. While still in this clinch, with Tony's mouth pressed
against Junior's ear so that the cronies cannot hear, Tony says, "Just one
thing. You know I can't be perceived to lose face. So, Bloomfield and the
paving union. It's my asking price." Junior nods assent and the scene ends
as others offer congratulations.
In this and ensuing episodes, the basic wisdom of Tony's decision becomes
apparent. Junior becomes nominal head of the family, avoiding war; Tony, is
free to control the actual direction of the family's business, while Junior
becomes the main target of federal prosecutions. At Jackie Aprile's funeral,
Hesh, the always-wise counselor offers an independent assessment of Tony's
maneuver: "Smart, very smart." But what neither Hesh nor the men realize is
that Tony came up with this strategy as a result of his conversations with
Dr. Melfi and his reading of the book Eldercare. Heeding Dr. Melfi's advice,
he has given Uncle Junior "the illusion of being in control." As if to
punctuate matters, we shortly see Tony in another session with the
psychiatrist. When she asks whether he still has his doubts about therapy,
he replies, with a sly grin on his face, "No. Give it another chance. Get a
lotta good ideas here. You know, how to cope."
Kim Akass and Janet Macabe, in a discussion of female narrative authority in
The Sopranos, note that Tony's relationship with Dr. Melfi introduces an
important feminine perspective into the series and into Tony's thinking.
"The assimilation of Jennifer's psychoanalytical vernacular by Tony," they o
bserve, "allows a feminine voice to penetrate into a generic text that has
traditionally excluded it." They add that by adopting Jennifer's insights
and professional manner, "Tony is being equipped with the new interpersonal
skills needed for dealing with human resource problems at the beginning of
the twenty-first century."
We can better appreciate the magnitude of Tony's progress as a manager if we
keep in mind the pervasive sexism of his world. That Tony can learn from Dr.
Melfi and bring that knowledge to bear on a crucial decision reveals why he
is able, in an environment marked by rapid change and emergent threats and
competition, to maintain effective, and profitable control of his
It might be objected, of course, that none of this has anything to do with
ethics. Tony is not an "ethical manager" in the sense that he is guided by
the principled and universal considerations that we associate with ethical
choice and conduct. Although he is not a psychopath, because he can
sympathize with others' pain and suffers guilt for some of his more
injurious deeds, his principal objective always is to benefit himself, his
family, and his crew.
Yet within this narrowed horizon, Tony exercises moral self-restraint and a
substantial degree of moral oversight. He tries to dampen the disruptive
tendencies of his crew and mob associates, struggles to avoid violence, and
treats his stakeholders - from a youthful Bada Bing! stripper, to a garbage
route client, or an aspiring capo - with respect. He is ethical in the sense
that he seems intuitively aware of St. Augustine's famous dictum that "even
robbers take care to maintain peace with their comrades."
In fact, Tony himself would probably not use the word "ethical" to describe
himself. In an episode in the fourth season (Mergers and Acquisitions), Tony
has a brief affair with Valentina, a girlfriend of Ralphie Cifaretto. The
involvement is hardly underway when Tony breaks it off. Valentina tracks him
down, and corners him in a restaurant to ask why. He explains that he can't
be with her because she's sleeping with Ralphie. "What's the matter," she
sneers, "You got morals all of a sudden." "No," Tony replies, "I dunno about
morals, but I do got rules." This clarity about the conduct appropriate even
to a mob boss makes Tony someone from whom other managers can learn.