Who’s the Boss?

In the final minutes of the April 8 cablecast of HBO’s The Sopranos , mob boss Tony Soprano encountered his wife Carmela, face-down and motionless on the family couch, cocooned in a regal-looking duvet. The viewers didn’t need to see the look on his face to know that something was wrong.

Just a few minutes earlier, they had watched as a tough psychotherapist, Dr. Sig Krakower–a kind of wizened Freudian thug–had worked over Mrs. Soprano in a harrowing, unrelenting way: shattering her illusions about her life and marriage and, in getting her to admit that her husband was involved in organized crime, jeopardizing the bond of trust between husband and wife.

“He’s a good man, a good father,” Carmela had told the bald, bearded fireplug of a therapist in her husband’s defense. But Dr. Krakower was not swayed. “You’re telling me he’s a depressed criminal,” he replied. The therapist saw only one solution to Mrs. Soprano’s inner conflict: divorce. Take the children and leave, he counseled, otherwise:

“You’ll never be able to feel good about yourself … never be able to quell the feelings of guilt and shame … as long as you’re his accomplice.”

Then he gave her a warning: “One thing you can never say,” Dr. Krakower told her, is “that you haven’t been told.”

And so, when Tony Soprano encountered his wife on the couch, fans of the show knew we were at a crucial moment, because, frankly, we were accomplices, too. Every week, we tune in to root for a New Jersey crime family, an experience that is alien to our educated, law-abiding, white-collar lives. But we go back again and again because The Sopranos have something we want, something we need in this morally ambiguous moment between the end of the Clinton years and the entrenchment of the Bush era: a nuclear family that, despite its dysfunction, is unshakable.

During the last eight years–during the financial ride of our lives, in a political era with the first President born after World War II–we had convinced ourselves that we were a resilient, on-the-make, pragmatic generation, capable of embracing the future without any anchor to the past. Our boss, then, was Bill Clinton, who shared a number of similarities with Tony Soprano. Both were big, huggable men who liked fatty meat and couldn’t resist the girls at the office. And both reveled in their careers while jousting with their dysfunctional families. But despite his evident love for his daughter, nobody ever really bought Bill Clinton as a family man, for the obvious reasons. As a matter of fact, the entire culture built around the Clinton years was practically an ode to the ad hoc, goal-oriented office family, as kicked off in the romance of the Clinton War Room, continued in the amazing idealization of Internet start-ups, and apotheosized in the reverse Camelot, a TV show based on the dangerous inhalations of the Clinton administration’s fumes, The West Wing .

It wasn’t good enough. The professional family, sadly, was cold consolation. And, in fact, when the economy softened, it was debunked. When The Sopranos showed up, part of its seduction was the fact that it led us back to where the power started in the first place, the family, the good old family itself.

If you can’t feel this idea of family working itself back into the culture, then take a look at this past weekend’s television on April 7 and 8: the news coverage of George W. Bush’s first Presidential crises; the premiere of Bruce Springsteen’s HBO Madison Square Garden concert program; and The Sopranos .

David Chase’s series is a fascinating proposition for a lot of reasons. The Sopranos stands as an easy synthesis of the sentimentality of both the good old American family and the brand-new office family. And if you choose to, somewhere between the social inclusiveness of the Springsteen concert and the somewhat cynical proposition of the new Bush Presidency–a Presidency nearly built on shoving Americans’ noses in Clinton’s failure as a family man and offering the Bushes as a superior replacement–you can find The Sopranos .

It’s easy to see why so many Americans found the sales pitch on Mr. Bush reassuring. He came with the right baggage: a member of a political dynasty, the son of a former President, a Yale man, the governor of a big state. Where Mr. Clinton’s past was troubled, Mr. Bush’s past was golden. When the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd dubbed the Bushes “the WASP Corleones,” that conveyed, at least initially, a sense of power.

But a few months later, with 24 Americans trapped in China and our environmental future hostage to President Bush’s buddies in the carbonate fuels industry–you can’t help but wonder whether somehow the reins got passed to Fredo. Actually, you get the sense that Fredo’s just fronting the family and that Tom Hagen and Tessio–that would be Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld–are really running the show.

Certainly, Mr. Cheney was sounding like a hard-ass on the April 8 edition of Meet the Press . “Could China host the 2008 Olympics if they’re behaving in such a way?” host Tim Russert asked Mr. Cheney.

“I don’t want to get into the business, Tim,” Mr. Cheney replied in his best consigliere voice. ( “Now, Kay,” Robert Duvall told Diane Keaton, “if I accepted this letter from you to Michael, it could be proven in a court of law that I knew his whereabouts.” ) “I understand why you’ve got to ask those questions this morning. You’d like to make some news, and my task this morning is … to not make any news.”

Later on, Mr. Russert brought up what he called the “rather chilling” remark by China’s defense minister that “war is inevitable.”

“I’m not sure who he’s talking about having a war with,” Mr. Cheney said.

“The United States,” replied Mr. Russert.

“That kind of statement I don’t think’s helpful on his part,” Mr. Cheney said. “Clearly the United States has the wherewithal to defend our interests. We’re the world’s most powerful nation, with the most powerful military. There’s no reason why the relationship with China has to come to armed conflict.”

Then Mr. Cheney added something. “Hopefully,” he said, “it won’t.”

Of course, in The Godfather , this would represent the moment where the son sought the father’s advice. Father Bush, a former ambassador to China, knows the country. And there were reports that the President sought his father’s advice. But too much of that and Mr. Bush fils looks like he’s in over his head.

Suddenly, we were getting the Corleones without the romance of The Godfather , or even the heat of the late-Bush I-era mob classic GoodFellas .

And it seems that whenever the Republicans get into power, Mr. Springsteen is soon on the scene to provide some comforting yin to that party’s steely yang. Mr. Springsteen released his stark look at American life, Nebraska , in 1982, and his monstrously successful album Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, during the Reagan years–and Mr. Reagan, misinterpreting the pain-ridden message of the latter album’s title track as a patriotic anthem, tried to take a ride on its coattails.

In the past, Mr. Springsteen has been reluctant to plant his flag with any political party, but in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times , he said: “Well, it goes without saying that I’d rather we didn’t have a Republican president.”

And so here he is. The Madison Square Garden concerts that resulted in the HBO concert special and the double CD Live in New York City (Columbia) were recorded before the Presidential election. And it’s hard not to hear the concert and come away with the sense that it’s about family.

Mr. Springsteen had written about the topic before: In songs like “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Factory” and “Independence Day,” he held up his life against his father’s. On Tunnel of Love , which features some of Mr. Springsteen’s best and most personal songwriting, in the song “Walk Like A Man,” he sings:

“I remember how rough your hand felt on mine / On my wedding day / And the tears cried on my shoulder / I couldn’t turn away / Well so much has happened to me / That I don’t understand / All I can think of is being five years old following behind you at the beach / Tracing your footprints in the sand / Trying to walk like a man.”

Tunnel of Love was released just as his short-lived marriage to actress Julianne Phillips was breaking up. But not too long after that, he ended up marrying his back-up singer, Patti Scialfa, and starting a family of his own. And on his 1992 solo album Lucky Town , Mr. Springsteen sang about the birth of his son in the song “Living Proof”: “In his mother’s arms it was all the beauty I could take / Like the mission words to some prayer that I could never make / In a world so hard and dirty, so fouled and confused / Searching for a little bit of God’s mercy I found living proof.”

This milestone overlapped with Mr. Springsteen’s decision to record and tour without the E Street Band as a whole, which had accompanied him, in various incarnations, on his trajectory to success. While Mr. Springsteen was touring the world, singing about family and community, he was building a virtual family of fans who followed him across the country and thought nothing of attending three or four concerts in a row. Perhaps they were a little too obsessive–and there were moments when their enthusiasm seemed to make Mr. Springsteen claustrophobic–but when Mr. Springsteen decided to go it alone, it was the equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll’s Big Daddy telling his kids that he and Mom were getting divorced. Sure, they’d still get to see him, but things would never be the same.

So, when Mr. Springsteen reunited with his E Street Band colleagues, it was cause for a celebration. And Mr. Springsteen tailored the ceremony to the situation. He had done the introspective bit, looked at his own family–past, present and future–with the microscope. The only thing left to do was return to a more compassionate version of the macro view that can be found on his pivotal album, Born to Run . The extended family was getting back together, so Mr. Springsteen enlarged his ideas about family and community to IMAX proportions.

The HBO special was about big themes and anthems: “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Even the songs, such as “Atlantic City” and “Youngstown,” that were done small on Mr. Springsteen’s acoustic albums were tricked up into band showcases that made their messages seem larger. In his performance of “Atlantic City,” for instance, Mr. Springsteen sings the lyrics, “Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold / But with you forever I’ll stay.” Those lines could have functioned as the soundtrack to Tony and Carmela Soprano’s scene on April 8; but taken in the context of the concert, the lyrics could be interpreted as a message to his band and his fans.

But the song that best symbolized the concert is “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which is kind of like “Born to Run” as envisioned by Noah, or maybe Moses. In it, Mr. Springsteen sings about a trainload of people heading to the place in the title. “This train … / Carries saints and sinners / This train … / Carries losers and winners / This train … / Carries whores and gamblers,” Mr. Springsteen sang. “This train … / Dreams will not be thwarted / This train … / Faith will be rewarded.”

Up there on the Garden stage, before the cameras, Mr. Springsteen looked like a dad. No longer the pouting, pompadoured dreamboat who channeled Elvis, Mr. Springsteen is a little thick in the neck, a whole lot sweatier, yet fit and in strong voice. And if his music has touched you at any time in your life, then it’s hard not to get caught up in rafters-rattling songs like this.

Mr. Springsteen’s become like a dad. He’s not a hip guy. His music is mostly earnest and rarely ironic, and like any father worth his salt, he’s not going to get caught up in that game. He’s also not going to have an easy time getting his message to the ironic, pragmatic younger generations who are closer in mindset to Mr. Bush than to a rock ‘n’ rock idol who ruled the 70’s and 80’s.

During his rock-‘n’-roll-gospel schtick in the middle of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” when Mr. Springsteen tells the crowd: “Tonight I want to throw a rock ‘n’ roll exorcism … a rock ‘n’ roll baptism … and a rock ‘n’ roll bar mitzvah,” you just know any young sleeksters left in the TV audience are looking for their DVD copies of Scary Movie .

So if Mr. Springsteen was the Boss in the 80’s and 90’s, Tony Soprano is the New Boss. Why? Because he is the sum of Mr. Bush’s M.B.A. chill and Mr. Springsteen’s Woody Guthrie warmth. And if you need a visual, just get a load of Steven Van Zandt.

In Mr. Springsteen’s band, Mr. Van Zandt plays the role of cherished friend and right-hand man. When Mr. Springsteen introduces him at the end of the HBO special and the expanded CD version of the concert that was just released on Columbia Records, he calls him “the minister of faith and friendship … keeper of all that is righteous on E Street.” Interestingly, that is also Mr. Van Zandt’s role in The Sopranos , as one of Tony Soprano’s top soldiers, Silvio Dante.

But Mr. Van Zandt dresses differently for each party. As an E Street band member, Mr. Van Zandt flies the freak flag of a rock ‘n’ roll gypsy in multicolored bandannas, extremely tight pants and pointy-toed high-heeled boots. But if you melded that out-there style with the Oxxford Clothes look of the Bush administration, you would get something along the Men’s Wearhouse lines of Silvio Dante. The bandanna morphs into a hood-ornament hairpiece, and the Spandex hardens into pointy-collared shirts and cataract-causing ties.

The Sopranos has been a hit since its first season, but if you listen to the water-cooler talk on Monday mornings, this current season has a psychological resonance that the previous ones did not. We’ve gotten to know the core family members by now, and we know what kind of obstacles they’re dealing with: Carmela Soprano and her two children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., have for a husband and father a man with two families–one connected by blood, the other by a blood oath. With his latter family, La Cosa Nostra, Tony Soprano enjoys a godlike power: he determines who succeeds, who fails and, more importantly, who lives and dies in his dark world.

And yet, when Tony Soprano leaves the Bada Bing strip club and arrives home to his blood family, his powers as a mob boss don’t mean squat. In fact, they are liabilities: the stress, the secrecy, the affairs with the employees at the strip club, the 24-7 work week, the threats of violence and jail time, the flimsy “waste-management” career alibi–all of it works like lye on his marriage and family life. When a “family” member gets out of line at work, Tony has that person brought into line, by any means necessary. But at home, he is merely a man: one who, like his wife and children, suffers the same feelings of exasperation and powerlessness–but also love and pride–that we all do about our parents, our spouses, our children and our siblings.

It’s the ideal metaphor for our Little Masters of the Universe era. And that tension between Tony Soprano’s two families is what glues us to the screen on Sundays at 9 p.m. If the Sopranos can wisecrack their way through a river of blood, anger and dysfunction week after week and somehow keep the home fires flickering, then, hell–we can do it, too.

In the April 8 episode, Tony Soprano’s Uncle Junior, a member of both Mr. Soprano’s families, went under the knife to have a cancerous tumor removed from his stomach. When post-operative test results indicated that Uncle Junior’s doctor –whose name is John Kennedy–had not gotten all of the malignancy, Tony urged his uncle to get a second opinion. But this only succeeded in alienating Dr. Kennedy, who stopped taking Uncle Junior’s calls. When Tony saw his uncle–who, by the way, put a hit out on his nephew in the first season–suffering from the toxic effects of the chemotherapy, he was moved to pay the arrogant Dr. Kennedy an inspirational visit on the golf course. For anyone who has experienced the feelings of powerlessness that come from watching a loved one suffer from a terminal disease, the scene was memorable. Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, was first charming, then chilling as he convinced the doctor to remember his uncle. He may not have been able to prevent Uncle Junior’s death, but he could ensure that he didn’t feel abandoned.

And what about Carmela? By the time Tony Soprano found his wife, she had made her decision. There was a moment after Dr. Krakower told her to flee her marriage when Carmela seemed to be calculating just what the price of catching the train would be. She decided to stay, but for a price: a $50,000 donation to Columbia University, where their daughter Meadow is currently a freshman.

Tony had initially refused to pony up such a gift for “the Morningside Heights gangsters,” as he referred to the institution–but there, in the living room, he knew there was a line that could not be crossed. He offered to take his wife to dinner.

Carmela rose from the couch with the duvet draped around her shoulders like the robes of royalty, the queen of all she surveyed. She had sacrificed her happiness for the greater good of the family. And Tony had done his part, too. Their actions defied logic and psychology–but families aren’t a science, they’re an art.

And after the last eight years of pretending that life’s contracts are written in stone, that families are immutable, that we are not part of the guilt and danger and complexity of life–only to find, with Carmela and Tony, that some things can’t and shouldn’t be broken–the one thing we can never say, as Dr. Krakower said to Carmela, is that we haven’t been told. Who’s the Boss?