Do you remember that scene in The Sopranos? You know, the one where Tony and Johnny Sack have made up in the snow and are just about to get back to discussing murder over plates of luncheon meats, when over the horizon comes just about the worst thing a gangster can see when parlaying with one of the heads of the five families: a rampaging, level-30 Frost Dragon?
If you don’t, that’s probably because it never aired. Or, at least, not on HBO. It’s the work of YouTuber Pertinax, who for the past year has been plucking Sopranos characters from their New Jersey milieus and setting them loose in Bethesda's landscapes—mostly Skyrim, but a little New Vegas, too. On his channel, you'll see mobsters hunting the elusive White Stag and critiquing wailing tavern bards. You'll see Tony in his dressing gown, fleeing NPCs through the streets of Whiterun. You'll see comments like "Woke up this mornin’, got yourself a sword. Mama always said you’d be the Dragonborn." For a very particular kind of fan, it’s a glorious time to be online.
Pertinax (and his imitators) have a sketch writer's knack for pulling two worlds into surreal contrast: Their videos are hilarious, like sitcom crossovers. They’re also slyly brilliant, a neat encapsulation of how pop culture gets metabolized in the 21st century. At a time when it's become increasingly impossible to separate cultural artifacts from the memes they generate—just think of the bizarre afterlife of The Simpsons’ steamed hams—meme universes are now canons unto themselves. And they’re merging, forming the kind of multiverses only possible in an era when even a show as vast as The Sopranos can be reduced to the images of it that circulate online.
Pertinax, who asked to remain anonymous, says the formula for his Sopranos–Skyrim mashups came while making Medieval 2 and Rome Total War “experience videos,” clips summarizing the games, or some aspect of them. He’d been sneaking memes and references into each video and was delighted to see people in the comments call them out. This led him directly to The Sopranos and its meme world of unfortunate malapropisms and lethal interior decorators. The actors in The Sopranos are also incredibly emotive, so they’re easy to place into new scenarios; Bethesda's games, filled with iconically glitchy locales, were an obvious pairing.
The videos, Pertinax says, are straightforward to make, but time-consuming: "First, come up with an idea, then mask out the characters from the original scene, and then record footage in Skyrim that matches the camera angles."
In many ways, what Pertinax is doing isn't new. Machinima—the cinematic productions fans were building in computer graphics engines back in the 1990s—is a precursor. So are scores of other online fan creations. Memes, says Anastasia Denisova, a lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, "thrive on remix," and in that sense fusing The Sopranos and Skyrim isn’t that different from "mashups common in Hollywood, on Broadway, and in British panto." Internet culture has always taken clashing references and blended them into a pleasant kind of chaos: it was only a matter of time before two huge '"meme-verses" would collide.
"I think it's just a matter of blending things people love," says Twitter user IGotSilver, who made a viral clip, inspired by Pertinax, of Tony Soprano fleeing a Deathclaw. "A lot of people like Bethesda and a lot of people like The Sopranos. If you can blend those things good enough to be respected and loved by both fanbases, you got yourself a masterpiece."
This is all true, yet the fundamental reason these creators can merge these two worlds so successfully is that, at least for those of us who regularly use the internet, our memories of these cultural moments have been spliced into clips. Pertinax explains that he first encountered The Sopranos through YouTube, in compilations of quotes from hefty Italian ball-breakers. It was only after seeing those clips that he sat down and watched the show in its entirety. Now, more than a decade after the finale aired, many people’s first encounters with it come via memes and YouTube compilations.
"Meme culture now is not a niche thing. It has a hold of pop culture," says Idil Galip, a doctoral researcher in sociology at the University of Edinburgh who runs the Meme Studies Research Network. "Much of pop culture is now interpreted through mimetic formats and mimetic communication. There's been a deepening and widening."
That deepening and widening has definitely happened with Sopranos. The show has seen an uptick in young obsessives in recent months, and as Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti, recently told The New York Times, that new fanbase has birthed “all these fan sites and meme sites.” It also includes legions of fans with Instagram avatars of Christopher in a neck brace, and a socialist Sopranos meme account run by a Twitter user with the handle @gabagoolmarx.
It's a way of seeing the world through the lens of memes, says Galip: This can be cynical—the creators of Bird Box flooding the internet on the film's release, or Mark Zuckerberg sneaking a bottle of Sweet Baby Rays into his announcement of Meta—or spontaneous. "If you look at some sub genres of TikTok videos, most of the people in the videos use the same phrases or use the same subcultural signifiers and lingo," she says. "You've got these templates ready. And the templates that are used to tell these mundane, everyday stories, create memes in real life as well.”
As with TikTok, Pertinax is able to make his mashups because the barriers to entry aren't what they used to be. Video-editing tools and video-sharing platforms are much more accessible. It seems inevitable that these mashups will proliferate as memes act as a bridge between mediums, genres, and realities. Pertinax thinks we’ll see longer videos blending film and TV with video games: He's sent Forrest Gump running across Skyrim, and Larry David to visit a Skooma den. "Everyone enjoys being reminded of media that they love and spotting references to it," he says. "Plus, it's funny to see Tony Soprano in Skyrim." Quick, someone put the Night King in Farming Simulator.