Going to the Mattresses: Five Fearsome Fictional Crime Families
By David Infante
It started with a book that’s withstood centuries of praise and criticism to remain one of the founding tomes of modern political philosophy. Then came beloved staples of the screen that have satiated generations’ limitless desire for insight into society’s dark side. And yet, Niccolo Machiavelli could never have guessed that his 16th century treatise The Prince would inform the calculating characters that populate our favorite crime movies and television shows.
As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. From the nefarious real-life travails of the Gottis, to the iconic moral mobbing of the Corleones, we seem fixated as a culture on crime syndicates held together by the bond of family. In KoldCast TV’s crime drama Machiavelli’s The Prince, Vincent is thrown back into the criminal world when someone carries through a cowardly hit on his father, one of the city’s most powerful mob bosses. Assisted by an amoral assassin named Mandrake and armed with a letter of posthumous instructions from Dad, Vincent must balance his desire for vengeance with the need to keep his family – and the family business – alive.
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My favorite thing about Machiavelli’s The Prince is its unusually faithful adherence to the eponymous treatise. Putting a twist on The Wire’s trend-setting placard openings, each episode of The Prince opens with actual text pulled straight from the book. The passages portend events that will unfold in the “chapter” to come. This technique gives the show a really interesting texture. You feel the cunning of each step Vincent takes, the control he has to wait while each piece falls into place. He is the portrait of Machiavelli’s ideal prince; smart, ruthless, and not afraid of getting his hands dirty.
I hadn’t picked up the book the The Prince since a freshman year philosophy seminar, but seeing it integrated so cleverly in KoldCast’s show got me thinking about how much natural overlap there is between Machiavelli’s musings on state-steering and the larger-than-life chess games played by my favorite fictional crime families. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me too much: Machiavelli dedicated his most famous work to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, a scion of the all-powerful banking family that ruled Florence for most of the 15th and 16th centuries. Their reach placed four Popes in the Vatican – not bad for the original Cosa Nostra.
To celebrate Machiavelli’s timeless advice, I pulled the epigraphs that precede each episode of The Prince and connected them to a different one of my favorite fictional family-run crime syndicates. Here are the broods of the big and small screens who’ve shown they understand a thing or two about Old Niccolo.
Episode 1: “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution.”
Family: The Pettengills, Animal Kingdom
2010’s seminal Aussie flick is based on the true-life events surrounding Melbourne’s most infamous crime family, led by grandmother Kath “Smurf” Pettengill. Her ruthless eldest son, Pope, lures two policemen into a trap, then kills them in cold blood. That’s not even the shrewdest, most calculated subterfuge, though. While Pope and his brother Darren are awaiting trial, Smurf decides that she’s got to tie up loose ends to make sure her boys get off scot-free. She schemes to have her own grandson, J, murdered by crooked cops. The kid eventually gets away, only to show he’s got a few schemes of his own. Yes, these people are terrifying.
Episode 2: “Before all else, be armed”
Family: The Sopranos, The Sopranos
For a man with so many Mommy issues, Tony Soprano sure knows how to play the delicate chess game of running a successful Mafia operation. This line reminds me of the scramble for power between Tony and Uncle Junior, when Corrado warns him that if he comes back to talk again, it better be with a gun. Instead, like a true criminal genius, while Tony is packing on their next visit, he shrewdly cedes his claim to the vacant throne. Even though he was armed, Tony tactfully decided to install Junior as a puppet don instead. Machiavelli would have loved that move.
Episode 3: “If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”
Family: The Corleones, The Godfather Trilogy
You can’t talk about ruthless crime families without mentioning the one that started it all. For my money, there’s no series of scenes in any movie that embodies this quotation more than Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful tracking of Michael Corleone’s descent into crime. After thwarting the second assassination attempt on his father’s life, Michael realizes that to injure Vergil Sollozzo would only prompt a harsher retribution. Instead of backing down, he coordinates a bold double murder on the Turk and the dirty Captain McCluskey. Killing your main enemy and a police chief in one fell swoop is pretty damn ballsy.
Episode 4: “Mercenary armies will never be secure, since they are ambitious, without discipline and fickle.”
Family: The Bennetts, Justified
Between her poison moonshine and her silver-tongued ability to sway folks in the holler, it’s no surprise matriarch Mags Bennett (played by the incomparable Margo Martindale) knows the key to running a successful Dixie Militia is, well, not relying on the Dixie Militia for muscle. Mags maneuvers her sons around her like a don does capos. There’s Harlan County’s Sheriff Doyle and Dickie, the incorrigible scamp who wants to put a baseball bat into Raylan’s ribs. Oh, and who could forget Coover, the least intelligent, but most thickheaded henchman of the crew? Together, the Bennetts make for a formidable Harlan clan until things come crashing down at the end of Season two.
Episode 5: “It is better to be feared than loved, but it is never good to be hated.”
Family: The Teller-Morrow clan, Sons of Anarchy
In the spirit of full disclosure, I just started watching the tales of SAMCRO, but the show is so freakin’ good I couldn’t resist including it. Jax and Clay might not see eye to eye about running guns, dealing with rivals, or punishing rapist clowns, but they do understand the essential value of community outreach. At the very least, by ensuring that most of Charming’s townspeople don’t hate them, the Teller-Morrows protect their outlaw way of life while keeping the town free of meth tweakers and gang violence.
David Infante is the Merchandising Editor at Thrillist. He’s a lover of reality TV, Rangers hockey, and Elmore Leonard stories. A graduate of UVA, his affinity for cheap beer is matched only by his staggering collection of button downs.