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The Sopranos is universally recognised as one of the most important television shows of the past twenty years. But its tale of family, Mafiosi, hypocrisy and rejected redemption has one undervalued aspect that underpins all the others. I’m talking, of course, about the show’s strong stance against the consumption of animal products.
The Violence of Meat
The basic message of the show comes through loud and clear. The Sopranos are living a life of violence, profiting off the suffering of others, and their denial of this reality is causing them to forfeit their souls. There are two interwoven strands of this violence: the existence of Tony and the others as members of the Mafia; and all the characters’ non-vegan lifestyle, which is emphasised over and over again.
Let’s start with the first episode. The job of the pilot is to encapsulate the themes of the show, and that’s certainly the case with The Sopranos. Take a look at the scene in which Artie Bucco struggles to cope with the arson attack on his restaurant, and Tony’s Mafia crew feel awkward because they’re secretly responsible. The scene – the first one in the show that emphasises the consequences of the Mafia’s destructiveness – is set around a barbecue, as smoke from the cooking flesh pours uncomfortably into the characters’ faces. Tony’s crew are enacting one kind of crime even as they are confronted with the suffering they caused through another kind of crime.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere in the pilot, Christopher Moltisanti commits his first murder – in the back room of a pork store. The dead pigs represent the cycle of violence that Christopher is joining, and this point is underlined by the fact that they seem to be watching him all four times he pulls the trigger. Even Christopher notices the unsettling way the murdered pigs are staring at him. The connection is further underlined by the fact that the murdered man’s blood is sprayed over the meat cleaver, drawing a clear parallel between violence towards humans and violence towards the pigs.
In fact, for the rest of The Sopranos, this pork store – Satriale’s – serves as one of the principle hangouts for Tony’s crew. Satriale’s is never far from the viewer’s awareness, and it even features in the opening credits of every episode. Tony’s other favourite base, Bada Bing, is a strip club: between Satriale’s and Bada Bing, the moral depravity of Tony’s professional existence is laid bare. The symbolic significance of these two joints is almost too obvious.
The Lady Loves Her Meat
There’s one more crucial moment in Episode One: Tony’s collapse. This is the event that sets in motion the entire show. This occurs at a family gathering, which gets off to a bad start when Tony’s mother fails to turn up. “So what, no fuckin’ ziti now?” snaps Tony’s son AJ. Ziti is a decidedly non-vegan pasta dish, which AJ is clearly prioritising over his relationship with his grandmother – and his abrasive phrasing is the first sign of how Tony’s lifestyle has a corrupting influence over his family, which will be one of the show’s key themes. This is the first, but not the last, evidence in this scene that greed for animal products will get in the way of human interactions, an observation that holds true throughout The Sopranos.
A few minutes later, Tony is attending to another barbecue when his beloved ducks fly away, and he collapses. The focus of the event appears to be on the ducks, which is important enough in itself: it implies that Tony’s chance for redemption may come from the affection he feels for animals that he would normally regard as food. But the barbecue’s explosion brings our attention back to the meat that Tony was about to cook. We’ve already seen that this episode associates a barbecue with Tony’s grappling with his moral responsibility for his actions. Could the barbecue be linked to his collapse?
This seems tenuous… Until we reach Season Three, Episode Three. Here, in a flashback, we see Tony’s first ever collapse – and this time the show is explicit about the link between mob violence, cooking meat and Tony’s panic attacks. Satriale’s meat cleaver is back – and it’s used by Johnny Soprano to chop off one of Satriale’s fingers, again blurring the lines between the cleaver’s animal victims and the mob violence it’s associated with.
The young Tony stares at the cooked meat, the product of Johnny Soprano’s violence, and sees that his mother is turned on by Johnny’s criminality, which is represented by the pork he’s brought home. “The lady loves her meat,” says Johnny, just before Tony collapses.
Tony tells Dr Melfi that Satriale’s meat delivery was the only time of the week that his twisted mother was ever sure to be in a good mood. Melfi explains to Tony that after this traumatic childhood incident, Tony associates the smell of cooking meat with Mafia violence, and this is one reason why he collapsed back in Episode One.
Let me repeat that. Tony’s therapist tells him that he associates cooking meat with Mafia violence.
Cleavers and Barbecues
Incidentally, we haven’t heard the last of the meat cleaver. It haunts not just Tony but also Christopher, so much so that his life’s big success is creating a film – called Cleaver. In the film, a resurrected Mafia lieutenant has a cleaver instead of a hand, and uses it to take vengeance on his Mafia family, including his former boss: the line between slaughtering animals and slaughtering humans is blurred yet further.
The barbecue recurs throughout The Sopranos as well: Tony sees his position manning the barbecue as the place that unites his role as the head of his family and his role as the Don of New Jersey. Cooking meat is where his two identities – the Mafia boss hurting his victims, and the father leading his loved ones down a dark road – are combined. In Season Six, Episode Seventeen, Tony shows his dominance over Christopher, his former protégé, by telling him how to barbecue properly. Christopher has tried to be a good Mafia member, and he’s tried to be a good barbecue host, but neither are good enough for Tony.
There is a lot of subtext and malevolence here – and in the very next episode, the two men’s relationship culminates with Tony murdering Christopher. The barbecue scene comes at a pivotal moment for Tony: his callousness is complete, and this scene marks the arrival of the moment when he is as ready to murder Christopher as he is ready to eat the meat on the grill.
Artie, the Tempter
Throughout the show, the characters miss opportunities for redemption, too addicted to their lifestyle to comprehend the cost that comes with it. So, in episode after episode, they miss their chances to improve, they cause harm or look the other way, and they guzzle meat. The show is obsessed with underlining to us the characters’ constant consumption of non-vegan food. It seems to be in every episode.
Let’s go back to another character that we already associate with Tony’s barbecue, with all its connotations of sinful lifestyle choices. Artie Bucco seems harmless: Tony’s only non-Mafia friend. On first appearances, he sticks out from the others, and it isn’t clear what he contributes to the downward spiral of the Sopranos. Then, of course, we remember that he is constantly feeding animal products to the Mafia characters and their wives – dragging them down in their cycle of immoral living.
Let’s not forget that in Season Five, Episode Eleven, we learn that Artie Bucco was considered by his school football coach as “the worst of the bunch” – the ringleader who dragged his schoolmates down a bad path. Now the schoolmates are mobsters, and Artie feeds them from his restaurant. Artie is as bad for Tony as Tony is for Artie.
Immorality and Meat
Immorality, cooking non-vegan food, and the explosive consequences are repeatedly linked in The Sopranos. In Season Three, Episode Eleven, Tony’s mistress has cooked him a steak, as though to underscore the immoral nature of their relationship; when he has to leave, she throws the steak at him, so that it plays an active role in the rage and instability inherent in Tony’s private life.
Girlfriends cooking non-vegan food for Tony is a trope that always seems to have immediate, strongly negative consequences. In Season Five, Episode Eleven, Tony’s mistress catches fire and gets severely burned while cooking eggs for him. This is the same episode that Artie Bucco’s bad influence is made explicit, so the whole episode is clearly encouraging the viewer to see non-vegan cooking as a sinister activity.
Here’s another scene in which non-vegan cooking is associated with the continuation of the destructive Mafia lifestyle. Ralph gives Jackie Jr a cooking lesson – and a gun. He is educating his prospective son-in-law in both of the worlds of exploitation and murder that the young man is preparing to enter – and the link between the two is, yet again, readily apparent.
A Fitting End
So Tony’s existence rumbles on, full of human and animal exploitation and death, and he – and everyone around him – is too deep in the cycle to see it for what it is. It’s fitting that his final scene is in a diner. Here, according to the most prevalent interpretation, Tony is finally “whacked.” The chance for redemption passed a long time ago: we know perfectly well that whatever Tony orders, it’s not going to be vegan. And, right to the last, he continues to drag his loved ones down with him: his final words are, “I went ahead and ordered something for the table.” He and his family share one last non-vegan bite to eat – onion rings – and, moments later, the camera cuts to black.
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