Robert Fulford: How weird the Mafia must find The Sopranos

Those of us who follow the criminal world were startled when a recent news story described what the police discovered when they were investigating the emergence of an alleged Mafia branch in Hamilton, Ont.

On a raid they found the usual: computers, bundles of cash, cellphones, marijuana, etc. But they also found, and presumably tucked away in an official evidence bag, “a signed poster of the cast of the The Sopranos,” as a reporter put it. The signatures, presumably verified, were a key point. The Mafia always goes first class.

Actors Steve Buscemi, left, and James Gandolfini appear in The Sopranos episode The Two Tonys. The Sopranos

This means that our own local (and alleged) Mafia are fans — or careful students. They are such devoted fans or scholars that they had to have a signed and totally authentic picture of the most famous TV Mafia members at their most glamorous. Why were they following the exploits of Tony and the other New Jersey Sopranos? Were they checking the Sopranos to judge whether their own crimes were up to date? Were they learning how big-time Mafia guys talk? Were they learning from the Sopranos the technique of monopolizing vulnerable industries, like garbage disposal?

But thoughts like those reveal a simple-mind view. The truth is that the Mafia is no ordinary band of rogues. It’s an institution and a culture, distantly resembling an ethnic group. Mafia bosses and soldiers deserve the attention of sociologists. Their background should be studied in history departments. In decades of existence they have developed their own rules and their own language.

A helpful site, Mobspeak … describes the jargon and explains how to use it

Aspiring Mafia soldiers apparently consult the internet to practice the language before they submit to job interviews with the local boss. A helpful site, Mobspeak: The Language of the Mafia, describes the jargon and explains how to use it. Careful attention must be paid when introducing a newcomer.

If a Mafia “made man” (an accredited member) is introduced to another made man, he’s described as “A Friend of Ours.” If a new man has worked with mobsters, but hasn’t been asked to take the vow of Omertá (Silence), he’s considered almost confirmed, or a nearly made guy. He’s classified as an “Associate.” If someone is called the Boss, that means he runs the show. As the guide puts it, “He decides who gets made and who gets whacked.”

James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Edie Falco (Carmela) and Robert Iler (Anthony Jr.) sit down to dinner in the show’s final episode, in which Tony may or may not have been “whacked.” The Sopranos

Since the 1930s the Mafia has provided a staple of movie material, from Little Caesar (1931) to Goodfellas (1990), from White Heat (1949) to the Godfather (1972). Decade after decade, they provide what Samuel Johnson called “the public stock of harmless pleasure.” That’s how most of us see it, but a made man must find it weird to see and hear a rough replica of his daily life.

Did Tony get whacked? Some guess yes, others guess no

That must be a special kind of experience when a Mafia series hits a sensational moment, as the Sopranos did in 2007 when 11.9 million people watched its 86th and final episode. Tony is having dinner with his wife and children but his mind is on danger. A Mafia faction wants him dead (there’s been a conflict over a garbage-disposal deal) and he looks around the restaurant, wondering whether this could be the moment. The audience worries, too. Then David Chase (the inventor of the series, from the beginning to the end) lets the tension build. Suddenly, the screen goes black and the credits roll.

Did Tony get whacked? Some guess yes, others guess no. No one knows the truth except David Chase and he’s not telling.

Right through the episode, a jukebox played a tune called Don’t Stop Believin’. Probably in Hamilton there are made men who think that’s good advice.

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