The Sopranos is no stranger to its use of animal references throughout the show, but the season 5 episode “Two Tonys” and the role of the bear is crucial in representing Tony’s predatory nature. Season 5 is a great high point for The Sopranos as it really explores characters from the previous four seasons much deeper and thoroughly advances plot points. The use of the bear as symbolism for Tony provides The Sopranos its first opportunity to show Tony’s prowess, but also his vulnerability and moral alignment as a character which hides behind his intimidating stature.
The season 5 episode “Two Tonys” is marked by the absence of Tony Soprano, leaving both his wife and Dr. Melfi with questions on how to handle the troubled mobster. Carmela is torn between staying in the house that her crime lord husband built, while also living under the possessive influence of Tony. As season 5 opens with the fallout between the two as their separation looms, a large black bear appears in the backyard, feeding off the moldy duck food Tony locked away in cans where he was hiding money in the previous season. This forces Carmela to act and draw the bear away, something she wishes she could do to Tony. Despite her apprehension, forcing the bear off is her way of taking charge and is the start to her transformation as the role of protector.
The bear is a perfect symbol for Tony in The Sopranos. Bears are intelligent, care deeply about family, and serve as prey to only a few other species of animals. But they can be violent, unpredictable, and powerful, all traits that make Tony the feared mobster he is. In the new prequel set to be released, it will be interesting to see how his childhood shaped this predacious and rather manipulative personality.
His predatory nature, most evident in scenes with Dr. Melfi, are proof that he is a hunter out for blood. The bear continues to return, just like Tony, giving the perception that two choices exist; either feed it, or it kills you. Yet hidden behind the destruction and fear, Tony is a warm, family man, and although the bear continues to return, in the end it is Tony who sits in the backyard with a gun providing the much-needed protection his family needs.
Although the bear represents Tony, it also symbolizes the threats that loom around Tony’s life and the lives of his family. Tony is supposed to be the protector that his family needs and Carmela knows that. The bear represents the danger that lurks outside the Soprano household, something Carmela tries desperately to shield her family from. Generally, she seems ineffectual, but her actions to force the bear away are indicative of someone new emerging, someone who realizes she now must protect the family. The season 5 finale saw Tony approach the house from the brush behind the backyard, his physical resemblance to that of a bear. When Carmela lets him back in, her desire to protect her kids from the outside world is stunted and she feels she failed to protect them from the threats that loom outside her doors.
The role that masculinity plays in The Sopranos is important regarding the bear as well. With Tony absent, AJ fails to step up and protect Carmela. The animal control worker, who thought Carmela was attractive, was useless in controlling the return of the bear, prompting Tony to insult his masculinity and question his sexuality. While the absence of Tony forces Carmela to act, the danger that threatens her family is exhausting and it is ultimately the return of Tony that provides the safety she and the family need. The final scene with Tony in the backyard is indicative of protecting one’s territory, heroically defending his family in a time of need. While the bear symbolizes those threats from outside forces, it also shows that sometimes the danger lies within.