The Sopranos in “College”: The Seeds of the Show’s Spiritual Successors

The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was a writer and producer for The Sopranos before starting his own series. And while Weiner did not join The Sopranos until years after its debut, it’s hard not to see the parallels in the dynamic between Tony and Meadow Soprano in “College” and the one shared by Don and Sally Draper over the course of Mad Men.

When Meadow asks her father point blank whether or not he’s in the Mafia, Tony denies it. His daughter scoffs at the denial, and Tony fumfers around a bit before finally conceding that Meadow is a grown woman and admitting, still somewhat guardedly, that he is involved with the mob. He briefly attempts to backtrack and cabin the admission, but the scales have fallen, Meadow calls him out for trying to take it back, and with a sly, slightly concerned smile, Tony lets it go.

Suddenly, Tony and Meadow are almost on the same plane. At dinner that night Tony opens up to his daughter. He recounts his own struggles; he speaks of his own hopes for his children and their future. Tony continues to hold back a bit, and he’s clearly still uneasy at having this level of candor with his daughter, but he’s also heartened by it. That moment of honesty brings them closer together and forges a deeper connection between them. The Sopranos would grapple with their complicated relationship for seasons to come.

The relationship between Don and Sally Draper also proved to be a steady through line for the story Mad Men told over the course of seven seasons. Don, like Tony, hid parts of his past and present from his daughter, including his former life as Dick Whitman and his contemporary womanizing. And like The Sopranos in “College”, Mad Men had great success plumbing the depths of the uneasy moments where Don admitted these facets of his life to Sally.

In episodes like “A Day’s Work”, Don and Sally have also gone on long car rides where Sally confronts her father about his secrets. Don offers an equally unconvincing denial only to eventually yield to Sally’s skepticism and come clean himself. Though Don and Sally’s relationship remained somewhat fraught over the course of the show, these kinds of admissions brought the two of them closer together as well, and Sally became one of the few people in Don Draper’s life with whom he seemed open. It’s a happy coincidence that in “College”, Meadow rationalizes her father’s dealings by comparing him to her friend’s dad, who is “an advertising executive for Big Tobacco.”

“College” was also co-written by James Manos Jr., who would go on to create Dexter. There’s some clear connective tissue between Tony’s exploits in that episode and Dexter Morgan’s modus operandi in the series that bears his name. On the surface, the clearest parallel between the two shows evident in “College” is the cat and mouse game between Tony and Fabian Petrulio, a former wiseguy who turned witness protection. That part of the story feels of a piece with the many episodes of Dexter where Dex pursues that week’s murderer in a similar fashion.

But the parallels are more specific as well. Initially Tony is not sure if the man he sees at the gas station is really Petrulio, so he snoops around Petrulio’s home and business, gathering clues until he can connect enough dots to reassure himself that he has the right man. This sleuthing has much in common with how the first step in any of Dexter’s kills was gathering enough evidence for Dexter to satisfy himself that his target was genuinely a murderer. The mutual, cautious pursuit between Tony and Petrulio is in the same vein as Dexter’s stealthy attempts to corner his latest kill. Even Tony’s method of killing Petrulio–catching him from behind with a wire and strangling him–is in line with one of Dexter’s early trademarks. And both Tony and Dexter confront their victims with their past deeds before finishing the job.

There are other small bits of apophenia in “College” that connect The Sopranos to the inheritors of its style. The sharp, almost sensual close-ups of Carmella and Father Phil taking communion, and the same focus on the wire digging into Tony’s hands as he strangles Petrulio, resemble the framing and direction of the intro to Dexter. Tony’s dueling calls to his mistress and his wife are a page out of the Don Draper playbook. And like The Sopranos’s Father Phil, Mad Men and Dexter have each featured a priest with questionable motives (oddly enough, played on both shows by Colin Hanks) intervening in the lives of those close to the protagonist.

But the biggest element of “College” that connects these three series, not to mention other shows cut from the same cloth like Breaking Bad and The Shield, is the episode’s focus on the duality of its protagonist. In the episode, Tony attempts to find a balance between his role as a father and the respectability he seems to crave, with the old ways and the remorseless persona he takes on in his work. At the end of the episode, he looks up in contemplation at the Nathaniel Hawthorne quote emblazoned above the entrance to the university. It reads, “No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which one may be true.”

That same struggle to uncover one’s real identity amid conflicting truths stood at the core of both Dexter and Mad Men. The best seasons of Dexter featured the title character stuck between the supposed facade he put on to blend into society and the “Dark Passenger” who consumed what Dexter believed to be his true self; they explored Dexter’s struggle to resolve the impulses from both sides of his double life. In Mad Men, Don Draper is perpetually fighting the same battle, trying to synthesize a middle ground between timid whore’s son Dick Whitman and suave ad man Don Draper, between the picture-perfect image of a family man that he wants to project and the seedier life he leads away from home.

Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper all do terrible things to people in ways that seem to stain their souls, but they also have loved ones and aspire to something greater in a way that informs who they are and who they mean to be. Over the course of each series, these conflicted men wore many different faces, and each found themselves lost in the confusion of which was simply a mask to fool the world, and which was their true self revealed.

 

Andrew Bloom (@TheAndrewBlog) runs The Andrew Blog, where he overanalyzes The Simpsons and takes pop culture too seriously. He wishes he’d discovered $50,000 in krugerrands while searching for the afikomen at Passover seder, but he mostly just found old matzoh.

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