- The End of New Beginnings: Nature and the American Dream in The Sopranos, Weeds, and Lost
“Thus in the beginning all the World was America.”
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government(1690, 49)
“Everyone gets a new life on this island.”
John Locke, character on Lost(“…In Translation” 2/23/2005)
“That morning of the day I got sick? I’d been thinking: it’s good to be in a thing from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over.”
Tony Soprano, character on The Sopranos(“Pilot” 8/25/97)
In Common Sense, the most celebrated document of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine writes, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” (1995, p.53). For Paine and his readers, that power draws upon the ideological authority of John Locke’s social contract theory. It also draws upon the imaginative possibilities of a people, positioned on the edge of a vast and fertile landscape, to achieve astounding economic prosperity. This deeply engrained pairing of the physical landscape of America with economic opportunity constitutes the American Dream; a dream that promises a fresh start, a new beginning, a brighter future. But, it is a dream over which contemporary popular culture would seem to harbor some doubt.
This essay examines episodes from each of three television dramas: The Sopranos, Weeds, and Lost; all of which provide snapshots of a common reflection upon the accessibility and perpetuation of the American Dream. Each of the episodes problematizes this original tale by reworking familiar narratives: the frontier myth in The Sopranos and Weeds, and the social contract tradition and castaway narrative in Lost. These original narratives offer a means for deploying the physical environment materially and symbolically to mediate deep contemporary tensions between economic security and domestic felicity. In doing so, these episodes probe the racial, ethnic, class and gendered dimensions of this tension within the context of globalization and advanced capitalism. The resonance of these series with American viewers and the repeated enactment of the theme of “new beginnings” over roughly a decade suggest a wider cultural anxiety over the economic prospects and the environmental stability of Americans’ future.1
Unlike many popular culture representations of the natural world and treatments of environmental themes, these episodes offer rich, complicated, and meaningful opportunities for reflecting upon questions at the socio-ecological interface. As a matter of comparison, these episodes do not simply employ utilitarian or consumptive conceptions of the natural world, nor do they offer unalloyed conceptions of nature as either paradisiacal or inimical.2 Too often, contemporary green public discourse re-inscribes a dualism between nature and culture-- wilderness and civilization-- that is largely inconsistent with many people’s lived experience. In reworking traditional narratives that incorporate social constructions of nature, these episodes reveal both the power of imagination in shaping our understandings of human relations with the nonhuman natural world and the power of popular culture as a site of meaning making regarding those relations.
“New Beginnings” in Narrative and Genre
In each of the traditional narratives reworked in these episodes, the idea of “new beginnings” is embedded within a narrative that pairs the physical landscape with the promise of economic opportunity. In each, the concept of a new beginning is tied to a resource rich, but uncultivated, landscape that offers the materials by which the individual might attain both economic security and domestic felicity. Constructed in correspondence with the complex geo-political structures of imperial and colonial policy, the tantalizing promises that originated in these narratives motivated, legitimized, and, to a certain extent, served to meliorate the anxieties that attended both European colonial policy and domestic American expansionism. While taken up in the very different genres of gangster film, black comedy, and the castaway tale, each of the series considered here re-positions these traditional narratives within the contemporary geo-political context of globalization and advanced capitalism in such a way that results in a common skepticism regarding the possibility, and perhaps even the attractiveness, of the concept of new beginnings.