It is, in a way, a sort of split-level love affair. For the past decade, children have been staying up late to finish the latest installments concerning the fortunes of Harry Potter. Meanwhile, downstairs in the TV room, Mom and Dad have been watching the saga of Tony Soprano. Harry got out of the gate a little earlier, in 1997, but Tony, whom we first observed wading after those ducks in his swimming pool in 1999, wasn't far behind. Now the serial stories that have captivated American children and their parents for much of the last 10 years are ending within two months of each other. That's a coincidence. What's less a matter of chance is that the big question about each series is the same: will Harry/Tony die in the end? And that raises a truly fascinating question: have these two sets of fans been obsessed with two versions of what is, in fact, the same story?
Superficially, the two stories could not be more different: One occupies a magical realm where apprentice wizards learn magic in the same way that their more earthbound contemporaries master the intricacies of algebra and French irregular verbs. The other story plays out in the criminal underworld of New Jersey and New York, even as its denizens clothe their nefariousness in the veneer of middle-class respectability bought and paid for with blood money.
Get past those surfaces, however, and the two worlds can be seen to share a host of similarities. Most obviously, Tony and Harry are both uneasy protagonists in their respective dramas. Each of them itches inside the confines of his role. Tony is so uncomfortable with the ramifications of his job that he's been seeing a shrink since the series began. Harry is equally uneasy being cast as the designated hitter in the ultimate battle of good and evil against Lord Voldemort. They are, in short, very modern heroes, the kind consumed by self-doubt.
The larger worlds of "Harry Potter" and "The Sopranos" are also more aligned than their superficial differences would suggest. In both cases, viewers and readers are drawn into subcultures. In the case of "Harry Potter," it's the world of magic. "The Sopranos" takes us inside organized crime. (Make that disorganized crime—one of these series trades heavily in irony, and the other almost not at all.) Both cultures are drawn in contrast to the straight world: the world of Muggles, the world of law-abiding citizens—in short, the rest of us. In both cases, when the protagonists venture into the straight world, they are rebuffed. Tony is accepted by his neighbors only to the extent that he is a colorful, i.e., shady, guest at the party. Otherwise, he's pond scum. Harry is, of course, despised and humiliated by his benighted Muggle kin. And in both cases, Tony and Harry can't wait to scurry back to the worlds where they rule—and neither can we.
Why? Because they have insider knowledge, and as long as we tag along (through the safe medium of a book or a television), we do, too. Children identify with Harry—who doesn't want to fly and be the hero on a school sports team? Their parents identify, not so willingly, with Tony and Carmela—their problems (kids foremost) are our problems, but on a deeper level we share their conflicts: conflicts with each other, with modern middle-class ennui, with the insubstantiality of achievement and respectability. Harry and Tony have friends and advisers, but as their respective stories approach their conclusions, the use of these friends and the very presence of advisers become tenuous. Harry has begun to realize that he must fight his fight alone. Tony has always suspected as much himself. He has long been by far the smartest member of his crew. They need him much more than he needs them. Their circumstances have made loners of Harry and Tony alike.
There is also an interesting fatalism to both stories. Harry's fate is marked on his forehead with a scar. He is the chosen one, a little messiah who will go up against—and, with any luck, vanquish—the ultimate evil. Tony's fate is subtler, but he spells it out himself about halfway through the series when he, for no very good reason, destroys the business of a friend. When he is asked to explain, Tony tells the fable about the frog and the scorpion that kills it even though it means drowning for the scorpion as well, because "it's my nature." Tony can't help himself. He is destined by his character to be what he is.
These comparisons can go on, but sooner than later, they do pose some pressing questions: What kind of stories do we tell ourselves, and why? What are the moral and ethical underpinnings? The stories of Harry and Tony depend for their appeal on our dissatisfaction with ordinary reality. Harry and Tony both exist in realms outside the ordinary ways of making do. Real-world characters in these stories—and, strangely, this is much truer of the Harry Potter saga—are witless chumps. Our fascination with and our fondness for these two depend on their roles as outsiders, as exotics. Of course, as their creators have wisely recognized, they can't become too weird, or their stories will cease to resonate. Harry and Tony have both inherited their situations. They have, in a way, both gone into the family business. But they are each on a quest. Over the course of seven novels, Harry is being tried and tested in the tradition of heroes such as Hercules and Arthur. (It's worth pointing out here that the best heroes, going all the way back to Moses and David and Lancelot, are willful and often sinful—the fate of Camelot hinges on a case of adultery.) At every turn, the question is put bluntly: is Harry up to it? So far he has passed.
Tony's story is more complex. He is an antihero, a good/bad man on his way to—what, exactly? It's hard to say, but we know he's on a journey. He's clearly haunted by the same feeling that affects many of us: life took a wrong turn back there somewhere, and we're not sure how to fix what we're not even capable of diagnosing. Middle-aged night sweats, though, are nothing new. You can go back as far as "The Inferno" and hear Dante talking about entering a "dark forest" in the middle of his life—the whole of the "Divine Comedy" is, on one level, a tour of the human psyche, from bad to good. Tony has been wandering in that dark forest for the duration of "The Sopranos," and how he gets out, if he gets out, is what we're waiting to discover. It's that ceaselessly forward momentum that drives the show. If it didn't, "The Sopranos" would just be "Gunsmoke" with bad guys.
J. K. Rowling has distinguished her series with a willingness to play for similarly high stakes. There are very few books for children that endow their protagonists with the complexity that characterizes Harry, and almost none that confront mortality as frankly as hers do. The books, she always promised, would grow darker as they went along, and she was as good as her word. Beloved characters have died and will die. (Sound familiar, "Sopranos" fans?) The possibility that Harry will die is now immediate with the last installment. There's nothing to say that he has to die, but the chance that he could has been there from the start.
Tony's case is less straightforward. If he doesn't die, what's he going to do? Join the Witness Protection Program? Go on as he has? The plot requirements of stories about antiheroes—even in this gangsta era—still demand sacrifice. Unless the show is willing to go completely amoral, there has to be a reckoning at the end. He can't just get away with it. "Godfather III" walked up to this problem and blinked, and now nobody watches "Godfather III." So the safe money says Tony's a goner. (And if he died in last week's episode while we were printing the magazine, remember: we told you so.)
Harry's problems are the problems of growing up, told on a grand scale. Tony's problems are the problems we all wrestle with, but they've been run through irony's spin cycle—it's black comedy: the travails of the gangster as middle-class homeowner, father and husband. But their differences are ultimately less important than their similarities. In the most important ways, Harry's and Tony's are the same story: epic tales about how to live, and we've stuck with them not because they supply answers but because they ask the right questions. Now it's their turn to come up with some answers. Parents and children alike, we're all waiting.