This article contains some spoilers for The Sopranos entire six-season run.
A lot of the appeal of The Sopranos comes from viewing the personal lives of people who are a part of an illicit sector of society. The members of the DiMeo organized crime family made their way in the world in a manner that starkly contrasts to what the general population is accustomed to in their own lives. It’s nearly impossible to imagine having the authority of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) or the material wealth of Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco). But that doesn’t mean the iconic show didn’t juxtapose these criminals with more relatable characters. It’s much more conceivable for us to mirror our stories with that of Tony’s childhood friend, the downtrodden restaurateur Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia).
The owner of a fancy Italian eatery who not-so-secretly envies the escapades of his morally compromised acquaintances, Artie self-loathes in a way that makes it impossible for him to appreciate the positives in his journey. In many ways, he represents the desires of a lot of Sopranos viewers who wish that they had the type of control that Tony’s crew has over other people.
By the end of the show, though, Artie has found some solace and comfortability in the things that he’s good at and accepts that he’s not cut out for the mobster lifestyle. There are a lot of lumps on the way to that epiphany, and that’s why it’s so satisfying to see him turn out okay in the end (he’s one of the few regular cast members who doesn’t end up dead by the series finale).
As has been discussed in perpetuity since the show began, Tony Soprano and many of the other men in the show are supposed to serve as an indictment and a dissection of toxic masculinity in a typical American life. Violence is encouraged as a means to get what you want and taking the high road is considered feminine or weak. Artie is consistently insecure around Tony and the other crew members because he feels he doesn’t garner any respect. His friends take advantage of him, using his establishment as a hub for criminal activity and expect him to be okay with the consequences of those dealings.
When Uncle Junior wants to plan a hit on an opponent at Artie’s restaurant Vesuvio, Tony decides to burn the place down for the insurance money, and simultaneously is able to help Artie avoid the business-killing stigma of a murder taking place there. Later on, Artie doesn’t take this decision lightly and confronts Tony with a rifle.
Tony won’t admit the truth and uses his trademark manipulation skills to weasel out of taking blame for what happened. Artie represents how so many of us would feel in this exact scenario: desperate to hold an authority figure accountable and level the playing field between two individuals. They’re supposed to be friends, but Artie knows that Tony views him the same way someone would a pet. He knows that Artie doesn’t have it in him to kill, especially not someone like Tony, and will continue to be a whipping boy for the sociopathic people he surrounds himself with.
On the other hand, Artie has a hard time comprehending that he gets away with a lot of things that guys in the mafia would not, like the aforementioned threatening of Tony and heated verbal sparring with Christopher. Others in the gang would be held responsible for these conflicts in a savage manner, but Artie is simply reprimanded.
In this way, he has the same allowances of a child or a wife because he’s a civilian. He is not held to mob code, but should he be when he doesn’t receive the supposed benefits of that social circle? There’s no better example of this conundrum than when Benny Fazio (Max Casella) uses Nuovo Vesuvio as a place to commit credit card fraud. Artie finally gets to be the one doling out the punches, quite literally beating Benny up without permission from Tony or any of the other made guys.
After this altercation, Tony tells Benny that he cannot retaliate under any circumstance. It’s a fulfilling moment for the audience because we resonate with the nice guy who has finally had enough. It’s not so much that we want to become members of the mob, bullying others and resorting to animalistic barbarity to find solutions to problems. No, it’s about taking preportency. It’s about showing that normal folks can defend themselves without losing a piece of their internal makeup.
A major hangup in this philosophy is that criminals often don’t abide by their own rules. Benny burns Artie’s arm in hot tomato sauce, leaving him emotionally and physically wounded. He learns that Tony won’t always be there to protect him, and that the only way for him to find happiness and worth is to disassociate from this mess altogether. Tony knows this too and encourages him to seek therapy and comfort in his original culinary passions. Respect should be gained from carving out your own lane, not reveling in jealousy because others have a certain character trait that you desire.
Artie is a unique character because no one else on the show has so many storylines dedicated to them while weaving in and out of the main plot. He hardly factors into the overarching thread of any given season, but he keenly represents the themes creator David Chase is trying to convey to those enjoying the program from home. In a way, he gets rewarded for maintaining his morality, living to see himself as a complete man while others in his life falter and feel the wrath of retribution. He’s as flawed and human as any of his mobster friends without having to resort to actual violence.