Monday, February 1, 2010

Character Profile: Tommy Angelo and Sam

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven (2002) is one of those titles that all gamers can appreciate, at least those who bought the PC version. Its story and its characters are brilliantly designed around delivering an intense and deep experience. Before I go off on a tangent about how much I love Mafia, I’m going to get a start on this. This article is going to be a close examination of Tommy Angelo, Sam and their conflict. When I first played the game, I automatically took Tommy’s side. He’s the protagonist and as players we’re supposed to relate to his struggle. I’ve been thinking about Tommy’s motivations and though he may be the only angel in the city of Lost Heaven, he’s also an angel of death.

Tommy Angelo isn’t your normal protagonist. Sure, he’s got the strong look, he has the attitude and he’s under the player’s control, but what’s he really like? Tommy joins the Mafia because he needs their protection. He slides into his position as the capable wheelman of Salieri’s mob, but he does more than just drive. There’s strength in numbers and it turns out that he’s a real team player. In “Ordinary routine,” Tommy gets his first gun and he ends up killing about 15 people. Any normal person one might go, “Whoa, I just killed a lot of people.” Not Tommy. He says, “You know, I ain’t one of those people with a thirst for blood. I don’t need violence in my life, and I don’t look for trouble, but I also don’t have any remorse.”

For a protagonist, Tommy makes some seriously immoral choices. He doesn’t condone hurting women and children, he spares a priest who witnesses a mass murder and he makes some morally good choices, but in “Whore” he plants a bomb in a hotel and blows it up. This sets fire to the building and probably sends shrapnel careening through the halls and adjoining rooms. Who knows how many innocent people were killed in that incident. Tommy eventually has an epiphany and it makes him realize the error of his ways. He escapes, talks to the police and decides to take the Mafia down before they can get him and his family. Tommy is seen as the “good guy” and his actions are always justified by the simple reasoning of protecting his wife and child or himself. There’s nothing wrong with that, but though he wants to protect his family, he ends up alienating his first one, the one that initially protected him.

I always felt bad for Sam. In “The Death of Art,” Sam dies bitter, angry and betrayed. My initial reaction, like most players was, good now Tommy is safe. Now that I’ve gone back and played the game again, I find myself questioning why Sam was killed. Players always need a justification to commit murder or to use violence. In Mafia, everyone you kill helps to circumvent Don Morello’s power. When Frank Colletti goes against the Mafia, he becomes a target. Now, deep down Tommy is a good guy, his Mom probably helped with that, and he knows not to kill Frank. He has a wife and a kid, and if anything he’s a reflection of what Tommy’s future self. Tommy like Frank wants an escape. For a character like Sam who doesn’t have a girlfriend, who doesn’t have a wife or kid and doesn’t even have a last name, all he has in the Mafia. Killing Sam, who honestly believes what he’s doing is ethically correct, seems a little unfair. To have just let him go might have been a better alternative than killing him in cold blood. Tommy had a right to avenge Paulie’s death, but Sam was just doing his job.

Sam is driven by a strict work ethic. He’s always there to do a job, not to have fun. He’s a Worker as well as a Mafioso. Unlike Tommy and Paulie, who are always in the spotlight, Sam constantly finds himself out of the action. On two occasions, Sam is taken away, beaten and interrogated. He finds his purpose obscured and placed into the background against the dominant central characters of the story. He only finds usefulness as an occasional tough guy and as a temporary auto mechanic. In the missions leading up to their conflict, Sam is given a specific task by Don Salieri. He’s told to keep quiet about the diamonds that are hidden inside the cigar cartons. Tommy and Paulie feel betrayed because they weren’t told what was at risk during the mission. They decide to rob a bank and blatantly disregard the organizational structure of the Mafia. This, of course, presents its problems.

Tommy is one of the lucky ones, he managed to get Sarah, Luigi’s daughter, and secure himself a nice little spot in the organization. Sam even says that Don Salieri thought of Tommy like a son, and this is what makes his betrayal of the Mafia so heartbreaking. Whether or not the Don was being honest or just vindictive, the friendship between Tommy, Sam and Paulie was a tangible relationship. There’s a moment in the game where you learn that Salieri and Morello used to be best friends. And even the best of friends can find themselves at each other’s throats. There’s no evidence to suggest that Sam was even told about Frank, Sarah’s friend and the other screw ups Tommy has been apart of. It’s entirely possible that Don Salieri told Sam about all these incidents to fire him up to kill Tommy. It’s a complicated affair.

For me, their conflict is more than just a case of relativistic morals and ethics. The Mafia in Lost Heaven can in no way be considered the “good guys” and their activities can definitely be seen as morally questionable. Prostitution, drugs, gambling and bootlegging are all bad things, and even though we don’t see Tommy or Sam involved in them that doesn’t mean that they were indirectly tied to them. Tommy and Sam are just pawns in overall structure and when one of them gets a chance to ascend through the ranks, they vie for it. This is what makes Sam’s participation in the diamond scheme okay.

Sam’s always in the background. This is finally his chance to make a name for himself as a “good guy” within the Mafia. Tommy and Paulie have threatened both Sam’s chance of making something of his purpose in life, but they are also threatening the structure of the Mafia and thus Sam’s purpose within the narrative. What does Sam really have? He has his clothes, sometimes he has a gun and maybe a little respect, but overall he doesn’t have anything other than the Mafia. This is what makes Tommy’s betrayal so tragic. The Mafia didn’t betray Tommy, Tommy betrayed the Mafia. He acted selfishly and ended up getting Sam killed. Tommy said he didn’t have any remorse about using violence as a means to an end. This time the consequences go deeper than just a question of morals and ethics, it affects someone outside of the scope of relativism.

This master piece of dialogue was read by Tommy at the end of the game, check it out:

"You know, the world isn’t run by the laws written on paper. It’s run by people. Some according to laws others not, it depends on each individual how each his world will be, how he makes it. You also need a whole lot of luck, so somebody else doesn’t make your life hell, and it ain’t as simple as they tell you in grade school. But it is good to have strong values and maintain them; in marriage, in crime, in war, always and everywhere. I messed up, so did Paulie and Sam. We wanted a better life but in the end we were a lot worse off than most other people. You know, I think it’s important to keep a balance in things, yeah, balance, that’s the right word. Because the guy who wants too much risks losing absolutely everything; of course, the guy who wants to little from life might not get anything at all."

Tommy always seems to get the last word. He’s a big character with an indomitable personality, but he’s also not the protagonist his appearance makes him out to be. He may have all the characteristics of a “good guy,” but he’s also a Mafioso. He may have Sarah and his daughter as the moral backbone of his epiphany, but characters like Paulie and especially Sam suffered because of his selfishness. Sam was always in the background and when it came for his time to be in the limelight, one of his best friends stabbed him in the back. Of course, this is just one reading of their conflict. Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven is a deep game and is always a pleasure to sift through all the little intricacies that make it a masterpiece. Emotion runs deep within each character and the relationships they have. Tommy and Sam both screwed up and paid for their crimes, not a fitting end for two of the best characters in all of videogames.

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