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Jonathan McKinney, How To Write Moral Ambiguity, The Sopranos, The Table Read

Written by Jonathan McKinney

Siren Stories – Jonathan McKinney

Most writers are familiar with the concept of the ambiguous ending. One of the most famous ambiguous endings is in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Was Leo’s character dreaming or wasn’t he, etc and so on. There are lots of opinions about ambiguity in storytelling, such as: “It’s a pain in the arse, stop it”; and: ”Ooh, interesting, let’s look for clues to try and figure out what the answer is!”

For me, the problem with the ending of Inception is that I don’t care whether the guy was dreaming or not. Maybe that’s the fault of my hollow, heartless tin chest, but the reason I don’t care is that it’s a plot point that’s unclear. It’s Schrödinger’s dream, what do I care? But there is a type of ambiguity which I cannot get enough of in storytelling, and that is “character ambiguity”, or as you might put it: “why did the character do that?”

Jonathan McKinney, How To Write Moral Ambiguity, The Sopranos, The Table Read
The Sopranos

The Sopranos

Tony Kills Ralph

So, spoilers for the Sopranos. Not the ambiguous ending, which is a plot thing, but one of Tony’s murders, from the season four episode: “Whoever Did This”.

Tony, the mob boss, kills Ralph Cifaretto, a “captain” who works for him.

For context, Tony had always resented Ralph. Ralph beat a stripper to death. Tony retaliated by giving Ralph a beating, which was considered to be crossing the line because the stripper, Tracee, wasn’t related to Tony or in a relationship with him. So there was bad blood between them for over a year, although they had repaired their relationship to the extent that they were able to get along at least well enough to keep up professional appearances.

They even paired up over the ownership of a racehorse called “Pie-o-My”.

Tony And Pie-O-My

Tony is shown to love animals throughout the run of the show. Now, it can be argued that some of his redeeming character traits are contrivances. For example, in the episode “Everybody Hurts”, after Tony finds out that a former girlfriend of his has killed herself, he worries that it was because of the impact he had on her, and goes on what I would describe as a “nice guy spree”. He just does little favours for people, probably because he’s desperate to replace his guilt with the inner glow of being praised for what a good guy he is.

But his love for animals is consistent, and, crucially, present even when no one is watching him. In another episode, Pie-o-My is sick, lying on the floor, and he goes to her side, reassuring her that she’s going to be okay and making sure she’s not suffering on her own.

So when Pie-o-My is killed in a fire, naturally he is very distressed.

Does Ralph Kill Pie-O-My?

He goes to see Ralph, the co-owner of the horse, suspicious that Ralph started the fire and cooked the horse alive for the insurance money. It’s not a ridiculous assumption. His mob friends are callous, murdering psychos, after all. Ralph killed Tracee in a rage, why wouldn’t he kill a horse for cash? But of course Ralph denies doing it.

Jonathan McKinney, How To Write Moral Ambiguity, The Sopranos, The Table Read
The Sopranos

But he argues that it’s a blessing in disguise. Ralph was becoming frustrated with the veterinary bills Pie-o-My was incurring. Tony starts to lose it, Ralph starts arguing back that despite it being tragic, the horse’s death isn’t all bad. Tony continues to lose it but when Ralph attacks Tony’s love of animals, yelling at him: “It was a fucking horse! What are you, a vegetarian? You eat beef and sausage by the cartload!” Tony attacks him and from that point on, one of them is going to die, and it’s Ralph.

As Tony is bludgeoning Ralph to death he spits, “She was a beautiful innocent creature, what’d she ever do to you? You fuckin’ killed her!”

So, open and shut case, right? Tony flew into a rage because he loved the horse so much and murdered Ralph.

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Ralph’s Moral Growth

But perhaps not. Throughout Ralph’s last episode, he is beginning to actually grow as a person. His son is shot with an arrow by accident, and is in critical condition. This wrecks Ralph. He’s filled with guilt about having been a bad father, and a bad person. He sees a priest, and blames himself, believing that God is punishing him via his son. It’s a bit of a narcissistic take but at least he’s examining his own choices and regretting his failures. He pledges $20,000 a year to pay for a scholarship at Rutgers college in the name of his ex’s son, who died in the previous season.

There’s another episode, “Cold Cuts”, in which Tony’s sister Janice begins anger management classes after getting into a soccer mom fight. When Tony sees that she is benefitting from the classes, managing her anger better, he deliberately antagonises her at a family dinner until she loses her temper, at which point he grins and walks out, satisfied that he’d proven she was incapable of growth, probably because he fears that he is incapable of growth.

Jonathan McKinney, How To Write Moral Ambiguity, The Sopranos, The Table Read
The Sopranos

So maybe somewhere deep down, Tony was challenged by seeing Ralph begin to grow.

Another thing. Consider Ralph’s last words: “You eat beef and sausage by the cartload!”

Is Tony A Hypocrite?

He was calling Tony out on his hypocrisy, challenging him, implying that his love of animals was as fake as every other virtue he demonstrates with his behaviour, like all his “nice guy spree“ good deeds. Tony, who suffers panic attacks throughout the run of the show, had his first after seeing his father, a gangster, mutilate a butcher who had been late with a payment. Tony’s father received free meat to make up for it. When, as a child, he saw his parents’ lack of regard for his dad’s violence, as they danced and flirted, when he saw how happy it made his mother, getting free meat because of who her husband was, he crashed.

Maybe Tony feels he wasn’t given the chance to be a vegetarian, because the responsibility of a man is to bring home the meat which so emphatically pleases the wife (as it did his mother). Maybe when Tony is challenged by Ralph with the words, “What are you, a vegetarian?!” he just couldn’t bear the raw honesty of his hypocrisy being thrown at him like a brick, by this guy of all people. Maybe when he hit Ralph, he was really hitting his father, his entire mafia family, for making him what he is.

Whatever his reasons were deep down, he chooses to focus on the narrative that Ralph killed Pie-o-My, because that narrative serves his ego most powerfully. He’s just a good guy who loves animals, and Ralph’s a monster who kills strippers and horses.

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Why Did Tony Kill Ralph?

Now, this is elite character-writing if you ask me. “Why did he do this?” In this instance, there is enough evidence to show that Tony’s slaying of Ralph is more complicated than it seems on the surface. As writers, we should aspire to this. This is the sort of ambiguity that reflects how contradictory human beings are. We want one thing, but we act like we want something else. We have subconscious wants and needs which we serve, all while we profess to be in pursuit of antithetical goals.

Our characters can be this complicated too. We should leave our readers wondering why our characters do the things they do, and we should give them enough clues to figure it out if they want to, while also making it make sense for the casual reader who just wants to enjoy a nice tale, as the Sopranos did when Tony yelled, “She was a beautiful innocent creature, what’d she ever do to you? You fuckin’ killed her!”

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