Spoilers included.

The great moments and storylines of The Sopranos were only possible through the creation of characters with such credible inner lives. How could a slight nod of the head or a certain look mean so much without the painstaking effort put into making each character feel like one of your closest friends? Every character is revealed as a masterpiece when dissected, because you marvel at the imagination it took to create a fictional person capable of such humanity and violence. Or of such intelligence and, at the same time, obtuseness. Or of such heinous morality but with such a well-timed wit. The contradictions in each persona were what made them ring true and seem real. On this list, there’s no place for “but do you like so-and-so?” Of course not. They’re all terrible people— but that’s what makes them gripping characters.


10. Silvio Dante (played by Steve Van Zandt)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Steven Van Zandt is so good as Silvio Dante that you forget that he was part of Bruce Springteen’s E Street Band. In his real life he wears bandanas, dresses in rainbow colors, and plays guitar and mandolin. But in The Sopranos, Silvio is Tony’s consigliere and owner of the Bada Bing! club. Silvio is the no-nonsense, dependable guy— the Tom Hagan in the crew.

He’s the level-headed, thoughtful foil to Paulie’s hot-headed, impulsive character. Like Paulie, though, Silvio’s blind faith in Tony wavers at times. Tony’s obvious grooming of Christopher threatens to become a serious problem, but Silvio manages to navigate around Tony’s favoritism. When the intervention for Christopher kicks off, Silvio reads his contribution off of a slip of paper: “When I came in to open up one morning, there you were with your head half in the toilet. Your hair was in the toilet water. Disgusting.” Even when Tony supports Christopher’s claim that he had been sick with the flu, Silvio’s expression is fixed. Silvio has already made up his mind about why Chrissy was throwing up and he doesn’t care to hear any other opinions. In this situation, his fixedness renders him incorrect but it usually serves him well under Tony’s tumultuous rule. I think Silvio was a more beloved character until he was charged with murdering Adriana. His ability to keep his emotions out of his work may have previously been viewed through a lens of realpolitik, but it seemed psychopathic once applied to a scenario as devastating as Adriana’s death. When Silvio is shot and his fate is left undeclared at the end of the series, his wrongdoing makes it difficult to decide how to feel. The beauty of the series is its unflinching gaze and daringness to go beyond a safe ‘anti-hero’ and tread into proper villain territory.


9. Ralph Cifaretto (played by Joe Pantoliano)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What a great villain. Sniveling. Stupid enough that you don’t respect him, but not so stupid that you aren’t scared of him. Ralphie is the type of dangerous idiot that collapses societies (Joe Pantoliano also played Cipher in The Matrix). Ralphie will always be remembered for being viciously murdered by Tony (and chopped up by Christopher) in one of the most barbaric and beautifully choreographed scenes in the series. It’s hard to think of another fight scene that challenges the hand-to-hand kitchen combat, weaponized frying pan. Ralphie is a necessary character because he provides an example of someone unrepentantly evil in a cast of characters that all toe the line.


8. Adriana La Cerva (played by Drea de Matteo)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even though I wanted Adriana to be successful in “saving” Christopher, I never had any faith that she could do it. She was too sweet, dumb, and loyal. From her IBS to her failed music talent scouting career to Cosette’s farcical death—Adriana is a comedic figure in a large-scale tragedy. She was the perfect character to get entangled with the FBI because she frustrated them to no end without meaning to. She wants to cooperate, but only if she doesn’t get anyone in trouble. Adriana has no idea how high the stakes are and actually believes there’s a way to get out of the mafia unscathed. The fact that she actually befriends the FBI agent and brings “Danielle” into Tony’s home is emblematic of Adriana’s naiveté. Anyone watching from the outside can anticipate what’s going to happen to Adriana from the first time she agrees to cooperate.

Adriana imagines herself packing her things and driving away, but instead she sits and waits for Silvio to pick her up.


7. Junior Soprano (played by Dominic Chianese)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Bobby Baccalieri and Junior’s repartee is one of the best features of the series. Junior is an insufferable old man who starts off as a genuine threat, becomes a nuisance, and then ends as a shell of a person. Dominic Chianese is masterful in portraying the range of someone who is affecting dementia to someone who is suffering from dementia. He throws in just enough lucid looks and coy smiles to keep you guessing as to his true mental capacity. Message boards pick apart the point at which Junior actually lost it because the performance is so layered and masterful.  


6. Meadow Soprano (played by Jamie-Lynn Sigler)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in. To me, Meadow is the single most tragic figure in The Sopranos. By the final season, she’s 180-ed on her civil liberties phase and transitioned fully into a state of Carmela delusion. She traded her do-gooder boyfriend Finn in for Patrick Parisi, whose law career is still mob connected. Meadow’s rant about how Italian Americans are unfairly portrayed in the media as mafiosos makes it hard to remember that as a teenager, she asked her dad, “Are you in the mafia?” Meadow is a deft case study in unfulfilled promise and how difficult it is to escape your roots. As whiny and annoying as Meadow could be, I always loved the moments when she challenged Tony and made him seem like a typical suburban dad trying to mediate between his wife and daughter.


5. Paulie Gaultieri (played by Tony Sirico)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images 

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the actor who played Paulie was a real wiseguy. Tony Sirico was arrested 28 times and served 20 months—but he’s also acted with Dennis Hopper and Harvey Keitel. You can never say Sirico didn’t bring authenticity to the role (even though he grew up in Brooklyn rather than Jersey). Paulie’s rescue of the oil painting of Tony and Pie-O-My is the perfect microcosm of their relationship. Paulie’s simultaneous hero worship and resentment of Tony was believable in a world that required blind loyalty and extreme deference to the chain of command. Nothing gives me life like a Paulie malapropism, but the lasting image of Paulie is indisputably eating half-frozen ketchup packets with Christopher (“Not bad. Mix it with the relish.”) in “Pine Barrens.” The scene captures Sirico’s unique gift to infuse humor and absurdity into a situation where both qualities seem inappropriate, but play so well.   


4. Livia Soprano (played by Nancy Marchand)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you find out Livia Soprano is based on David Chase’s own mother, it all makes sense. She is a character with such depth and richness because she’s stepped out of real life and onto the screen. Livia’s ability to both annoy and enrage Tony stems from her all-encompassing knowledge of his insecurities. She needles him, baits him, and stabs him in the back. She knows that with their blood bond he will never truly turn on her— even if he is capable of holding the thought of suffocation in his mind. The moment that most encapsulates their relationship is when Livia has just had a stroke, she’s hooked up to oxygen and is being wheeled through the hospital on a stretcher. Tony confronts his mother, screaming that he knows she betrayed him—that she tried to have him murdered. An orderly tells Tony that his mom doesn’t know what’s going on or what he’s saying. As Tony is being restrained he screams after her, “She smiled! Look at the look on her face […] She’s got a fucking smile on her face!” Even when she is physically incapacitated she thrives on Tony’s suffering. She craves his attention and revels in the fact that she can cause a reaction and break his heart even when he’s been crowned alpha of the crew.    


3. Carmela Soprano (played by Edie Falco)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I would rank Carmela at the top of the Most Conflicted Characters list. Her life is funded by blood money, but she fancies herself a sophisticated woman. The majority of her life, Carmela refuses to acknowledge the reality of her mob ties, but every once in a while the ugly truth stares her in the face. In "Second Opinion," Carmela has an appointment with Dr. Krakower and he refuses payment because he knows what Tony’s line of work is. Shamed and humiliated by the doctor, Carmela demands something that will make her feel legitimate in the eyes of the world: a $50k donation to Columbia. Carmela has the intelligence to know that her lifestyle comes at an iniquitous cost, but she doesn’t have the gumption to do anything about it beyond a feeble first step. Her pangs of conscience ring false by the third or fourth time we see her ‘grappling’ with the morality of being a mob wife—and that’s what makes Carmela so compelling. Her life is a series of false starts. One of the funniest incidents of Carmela’s hypocrisy is her jealousy of Father Intintola and Rosalie’s friendship. Her relationship with a man of the Church is entirely self-serving and she bastardizes the meaning of faith when she almost sleeps with the priest. Edie Falco's portrait of a wife and mother who uses the excuse of duty to her family to sustain a life that benefits her equally is incredibly acted.


2. Christopher Moltisanti (played by Michael Imperioli)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Did you ever feel like nothing good was ever gonna happen to you?” That line destroys me. Christopher’s artist aspirations, his desire for a father figure, the “Acting for Playwrights” class— I find even his flaws endearing because he’s such a disarming character. Chrissy is hilarious then brutal then idiotic then pathetic all in the same episode. He suffers so many humiliations and the sense that he is fated to be miserable feels spot on. From the mock execution to being strip searched to the feeble way he dies, Christopher’s lack of agency is oppressive. Even though Meadow, Adriana and Carmela are all caught up in a lifestyle they feel conflicted about, Christopher has no breathing room to even feel conflicted. His tragedy is not that he made the wrong choice but that he never had any choice to begin with. Christopher’s death is anticlimactic but devastatingly appropriate: a combination of bad luck and (someone else’s) opportunity.


1. Tony Soprano (played by James Gandolfini)

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s easy to forget how stigmatized therapy once was given that it’s ubiquitous now. The concept of a mob boss who sees a shrink was hysterical and groundbreaking at the same time. While The Godfather obliquely addressed Michael’s inner life (think the final shot of the second film), The Sopranos forced Tony to talk frankly about his feelings. The result was that Tony’s humanity often humiliated him and thereby made him relatable. Tony probed his emotional life and his past trauma to give us wildly obtuse insights like: “What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction vaffancul!” Tony is a great anti-hero because he transcends the one-dimensionality of Gary Cooper types. Even as he’s orchestrating brutality and murdering his nephew, you can still see the weaknesses that his family and therapy have laid bare.