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The Best Characters in The Sopranos, Ranked

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The Sopranos redefined television forever, paving the way for more complex and multi-dimensional characters. It didn’t treat them as cartoons or exaggerated versions of themselves. They felt like real people going through real struggles of identity and self-worth. The nuanced and mature way it handled strong themes of generational significance set the standards every other show has adhered to ever since. Here are some of their very best.

Creator David Chase said he wrote the part specifically for Steven Van Zandt after watching his induction speech for The Rascals in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For a first-time actor, Van Zandt nailed the part, perfectly encapsulating the bravado of a reputable mobster who made his way into Tony’s circle as second-in-command over the course of the series. His mannerism, line delivery, and overall persona is a fan favorite precisely for his over-the-top demeanor. Yet hidden within this exterior is a cold and calculated figure willing to scheme and manipulate situations to his advantage using messenger privileges.

AJ gets the nod over Meadow for his more complex characteristics. While seen as a spoiled brat (well, he is) and an overall narcissist too caught up in his own self-worth to think of anyone but himself, the way the show presents this, is one of the most accurate portrayals of anyone under his circumstances. Growing up a spoiled rich brat without any actual proper parenting (Carmela too tough and Tony too lenient until the last moment), AJ is a stark reminder to how far and pointless one’s existence can become if they’re constantly exposed to this kind of behavior.

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One of the longest and loyal members of Tony’s crew, Paulie at first appeared to be nothing more than a common mercenary, running “errands” and collecting payments. However, as the show progressed, Paulie was given an instrumental and crucial role in later seasons. His character was used to explore the dark veneer that attracts people to this kind of life, showing us it’s the type of man who solves their problems compulsively and with violence. Paulie operates in a conniving form, using people for his best interest, all while complaining he’s not really respected. Nevertheless, the show explores his introspective side, showing us that perhaps out of all the characters he is the one who is most likely to end up safe due to his childhood-like perception of the world.

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No other character better encompasses what it’s like to have a moral compass than Dr. Melfi. She tried her best time and time again to steer Tony in the right direction with sound advice, only to see him use it for more nefarious means. No episode better shows her moral backbone than “Employee of the Month”, where she is sexually assaulted and at her most lonesome. Despite the temptations to seek out vengeance, she maintains her ethical standards and refuses to be pulled into her darkest impulses. It is a stark reminder of how awful the world is, and how the only way to survive is through constant reinforcement of what is necessarily the right things to do. In the end, after all her attempts to help Tony, she concludes there is nothing there in need of helping, concluding her sessions were nothing more than a tool for him. It is her strong convictions that completely set her apart from the rest of the show’s characters, the only beacon of light in what is a morbid and deprave world.

While Dr. Melfi serves as a moral compass, Carmela represents what it’s like to struggle with the idea of having one. Throughout the series we see her constantly latching on to the glamour and respect Tony’s lifestyle brings to her family. She is obsessed with their status and is constantly flaunting it, even if she doesn’t want to admit it to herself. The dilemma is compounded by having to minutely deal with Tony’s vicarious vices, leading her to a state of total despair over the situation she had gotten herself into. We are reminded from time to time how she wishes to escape it through numerous love interests, but they rarely result in anything. She ultimately always goes back to Tony for better or worse, with the show taking a more “she made her bed, now she must lie in it” approach to her portrayal, which serves as a heavy contrast to the treatment of Skyler White, another important figure in the television Golden Age.

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