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In a first-season episode of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano is once again in conflict with his uncle Carrado "Junior" Soprano. Tony is in no mood for conciliation, but neither is Junior, who warns his nephew not to return unless he is armed: "Come heavy," he insists, "or not at all."
As a work of popular culture, a ground-breaking television series, and a cultural phenomenon, The Sopranos always "comes heavy," not just with weaponry but with significance. The cultures of the United States, Great Britain and Canada, Australia, and even Italy (where it premiered in the spring of 2001) have come under its influence and contributed to the cultural conversation about it. Talk, discourse, about The Sopranos has migrated far beyond the water cooler, and not all of it has been praise.
David Chase's The Sopranos has also received starkly contradictory critical assessments. In the eyes of Ellen Willis (whose seminal essay in The Nation is reprinted in this volume), for example, the HBO series is "the richest and most compelling piece of television — no, of popular culture — that I've encountered in the past twenty years... a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption, and the legacy of Freud." Others have condemned it for racial and sexist stereotypes, excessive violence, and profanity. These eighteen essays consider many facets of The Sopranos: its creation and reception, the conflicting roles of men and women, the inner lives of the characters, obesity, North Jersey, the role of music, and even how food contributes to the story.
Columbia University Press
Midway through the first season of The Sopranos, the protagonist's psychotherapist, Jennifer Melfi, has a not-exactly-traditional family dinner with her middle-class Italian parents, son, and ex-husband Richard La Penna ["The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti"/1008]. She lets slip (hmm!) that one of her patients is a mobster, much to Richard's consternation. An activist in Italian anti-defamation politics, he is incensed at the opprobrium the Mafia has brought on all Italians. What is the point, he protests, of trying to help such a person? In a subsequent scene he contemptuously dismisses Jennifer and her profession for purveying "cheesy moral relativism" in the face of evil. His challenge boldly proclaims what until then has been implicit: the richest and most compelling piece of television-no, of popular culture-that I've encountered in the past twenty years is a meditation on the nature of morality, the possibility of redemption, and the legacy of Freud.
To be sure, The Sopranos is much else as well. For two years (the third season began 4 March 2001) David Chase's HBO series has served up a hybrid genre of post-Godfather decline-of-the-mob movie and soap opera, with plenty of sex, violence, domestic melodrama, and comic irony; a portrait of a suburban landscape that does for northern New Jersey what film noir did for Los Angeles, with soundtrack to match; a deft depiction of class and cultural relations among various subgroups and generations of Italian-Americans; a gloss on the manners and mores of the fin-de-siècle American middle-class family; and perfect-pitch acting, especially by James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano; Edie Falco as his complicated wife, Carmela; Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi; and the late Nancy Marchand as the Sopranos' terrifying matriarch, Livia.
Cumulatively, these episodes have the feel of an as yet unfinished nineteenth-century novel. While the sheer entertainment and suspense of the plot twists are reminiscent of Dickens and his early serials, the underlying themes evoke George Eliot: the world of Tony Soprano is a kind of postmodern Middlemarch, whose inhabitants' moral and spiritual development (or devolution) unfolds within and against the norms of a parochial social milieu. This era being what it is, however, the Sopranos' milieu has porous boundaries, and the norms that govern it are a moving target. In one scene, the family is in mid-breakfast when Tony and Carmela's teenage daughter, Meadow, apropos a recent scandal brought on by a high school classmate's affair with her soccer coach, declaims about the importance of talking openly about sex. Yes, Tony agrees, but not during breakfast. "Dad, this is the 1990s," Meadow protests. "Outside it may be the 1990s," Tony retorts, "but in this house it's 1954" ["Nobody Knows Anything"/1011]. It's wishful thinking, and Tony knows it. What 1950s gangster would take Prozac and make weekly visits to a shrink-or, for that matter, have a daughter named Meadow?
In fact, contemporary reality pervades the Sopranos' suburban manse. A school counselor tries to persuade them that their son, Anthony Jr., has attention deficit disorder ["Down Neck"/1007]. Meadow hosts a clandestine party in her grandmother's empty house that gets busted for drugs and alcohol ["Toodle-Fucking-oo"/2003]. Tony's sister Janice, who years ago decamped to Seattle, became a Buddhist, and changed her name to Parvati, shows up at his door flaunting her postcounterculture reinvented self ["Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist's Office"/2001]. And while Tony displays some of the trappings of the stereotypical Italian patriarch-he is proud of supporting his family in style, comes and goes as he pleases, leaves the running of the household to Carmela, and cheats on her with the obligatory goomah-his persona as fear-inspiring gangster does not translate to his home life. Carmela is his emotional equal; she does what she likes, tells him off without hesitation and, unlike old-style mob wives, knows plenty about the business. Nor, despite periodic outbursts of temper, is Tony an intimidating father. Caught between empathy for their children and the urge to whip them into line, the Sopranos share the dirty little secret of nineties middle-class parenthood: you can't control teenagers' behavior without becoming full-time prison guards. "Let's not overplay our hand," Tony cautions after Meadow's party caper, "'cause if she knows we're powerless, we're fucked" ["Toodle-Fucking-oo"/2003].
In Tony's other "house"-represented by his office in the Bada Bing! strip club-1954 is also under siege. Under pressure of the RICO laws, longtime associates turn government witness. Neophytes chafe at their lowly status in the hierarchy, disobey their bosses, take drugs, commit gratuitous freelance crimes, and in general fail to understand that organized crime is a business, not a vehicle for self-expression or self-promotion. The line between reality and media image has become as tenuous here as elsewhere: Tony and his men love GoodFellas and the first two Godfathers (by general agreement Part III sucks) and at the same time are objects of fantasy for civilians steeped in the same movies. Tony accepts an invitation to play golf with his neighbor Dr. Cusamano, who referred him to Melfi, and finds that his function is to titillate the doctor's friends ["A Hit is a Hit"/1010]; during a falling out with Jennifer he tries to connect with another therapist, who demurs, explaining that he has seen Analyze This! ("It's a fucking comedy," Tony protests) ["Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist's Office"/2001]. Tony's fractious nephew Christopher, pissed because press coverage of impending mob indictments doesn't mention him, reprises GoodFellas by shooting an insufficiently servile clerk in the foot ["Toodle-Fucking-oo"/2003]. He aspires to write screenplays about mob life, and in pursuit of this dream is used for material and kicks by a Hollywood film director and his classy female assistant ["D-Girl"/2007]. Meanwhile Jennifer's family debates whether wiseguy movies defame Italians or rather should be embraced as American mythology, like westerns ["The Legend of Tennessee Moitisanti"/1008]. The Sopranos, of course, has provoked the same argument, and its continual reflection of its characters in their media mirrors is also a running commentary on the show itself.
Self-consciousness, then, is a conspicuous feature of Tony Soprano's world even aside from therapy; in fact, it's clear that self-consciousness has provoked the anxiety attack that sends him to Jennifer Melfi. It's not just a matter of stressful circumstances. Tony's identity is fractured, part outlaw rooted in a dying tribal culture, part suburbanite enmeshed in another kind of culture altogether-a split graphically exemplified by the famous episode ["College" /1005] in which Tony, while taking Meadow on a tour of colleges in Maine, spots a mobster-turned-informer hiding in the witness protection program and manages to juggle his fatherly duties with murder. Despite his efforts at concealment, his criminal life is all too evident to his children (after all, they too have seen The Godfather), a source of pain and confusion on both sides. Tony's decision to seek therapy also involves an identity crisis. In his first session, which frames the first episode, he riffs on the sad fate of the strong and silent Gary Cooper: once they got him in touch with his feelings, he wouldn't shut up. "I have a semester and a half of college," he tells Dr. Melfi, "so I understand Freud. I understand therapy as a concept, but in my world it does not go down" ["The Sopranos"/1001]. In his wiseguy world, that is: Carmela thinks it's a great idea.
Richard La Penna's charge of moral relativism is highly ironic, for Jennifer finds that her task is precisely to confront the tribal relativism and cognitive dissonance that keep Tony Soprano from making sense of his life. He sees his business as the Sicilians' opportunity to get in on the American Dream, the violence that attends it as enforcement of rules known to all who choose to play the game: gangsters are soldiers, whose killing, far from being immoral, is impelled by positive virtues-loyalty, respect, friendship, willingness to put one's own life on the line. It does not strike Tony as inconsistent to expect his kids to behave or to send them to Catholic school, any more than he considers that nights with his Russian girlfriend belie his reverence for the institution of the family. Nor does he see a contradiction in his moral outrage at a sadistic, pathologically insecure associate who crushes a man with his car in fury over an inconsequential slight.
In its original literal sense, "moral relativism" is simply moral complexity. That is, anyone who agrees that stealing a loaf of bread to feed one's children is not the moral equivalent of, say, shoplifting a dress for the fun of it, is a relativist of sorts. But in recent years, conservatives bent on reinstating an essentially religious vocabulary of absolute good and evil as the only legitimate framework for discussing social values have redefined "relative" as "arbitrary." That conflation has been reinforced by social theorists and advocates of identity politics who argue that there is no universal morality, only the value systems of particular cultures and power structures. From this perspective, the psychoanalytic-and by extension the psychotherapeutic-worldview is not relativist at all. Its values are honesty, self-knowledge, assumption of responsibility for the whole of what one does, freedom from inherited codes of family, church, tribe in favor of a universal humanism: in other words, the values of the Enlightenment, as revised and expanded by Freud's critique of scientific rationalism for ignoring the power of unconscious desire. What eludes the Richard La Pennas is that the neutral, unjudging stance of the therapist is not an end in itself but a strategy for pursuing this moral agenda by eliciting hidden knowledge.
Predictably, the cultural relativists have no more use for Freud than the religious conservatives. Nor are the devotees of "rational choice" economics and of a scientism that reduces all human behavior to genes or brain chemistry eager to look below the surface of things, or even admit there's such a thing as "below the surface." Which is why, in recent years, psychoanalysis has been all but banished from the public conversation as a serious means of discussing our moral and cultural and political lives. And as the zeitgeist goes, so goes popular culture: though a continuing appetite for the subject might be inferred from the popularity of memoirs, in which psychotherapy is a recurring theme, it has lately been notably absent from movies and television. So it's more than a little interesting that The Sopranos and Analyze This! plucked the gangstersees-therapist plot from the cultural unconscious at more or less the same time and apparently by coincidence. In The Sopranos, however, therapy is no fucking comedy, nor does it recycle old Hollywood clichés about shamanlike shrinks and sudden cathartic cures. It's a serious battle for a man's soul, carried on in sessions that look and sound a lot like the real thing (at least as I've experienced it)-full of silence, evasive chatter, lies, boredom and hostility, punctuated by outbursts of painful emotion, moments of clarity and insights that almost never sink in right away. Nor is it only the patient's drama; the therapist is right down there in the muck, sorting out her own confusions, missteps, fantasies and fears, attraction and repulsion, as she struggles to understand.
The parallels between psychotherapy and religion are reinforced by the adventures of the other Sopranos characters, who are all defined by their spiritual state. Some are damned, like Livia, whose nihilism is summed up in her penchant for smiling at other people's misfortunes and in her bitter remark to her grandson, "It's all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?" ["D-Girl"/2007]. Some are complacent, like the respectable bourgeois Italian-Americans, or the self-regarding but fatally unself-aware Father Phil, Carmela's young spiritual adviser, who feeds (literally as well as metaphorically) on the neediness of the mob wives. The older, middle-level mobsters see themselves as working stiffs who expect little from life and for whom self-questioning is a luxury that's out of their class. (One of them [Paulie] is temporarily jolted when Tony's nephew Christopher is shot and has a vision of himself in hell; but the crisis passes quickly ["From Where to Eternity"/2009].) Charmaine Bucco, a neighborhood girl and old friend of Carmela's who with her husband, Artie, owns an Italian restaurant, is the embodiment of passionate faith in the virtues of honesty, integrity, and hard work; she despises the mobsters, wishes they would stop patronizing the restaurant, and does her best to pull the ambivalent Artie away from his longtime friendship with Tony. And then there are the strugglers, like Christopher, who inchoately wants something more out of life but also wants to rise in the mob, and Big Pussy, Tony's close friend as well as crew member, who rats to the Feds to ward off a thirty-year prison term, agonizes over his betrayal, and ultimately takes refuge in identifying with his FBI handlers.
Carmela Soprano is a struggler, an ardent Catholic who feels the full weight of her sins and Tony's and lets no one off the hook. She keeps hoping Tony will change but knows he probably will not; and despite the many discontents of her marriage, anger at Tony's infidelity, and misgivings about her complicity in his crimes, she will not leave him. Though she rationalizes her choice on religious grounds ("The family is a sacred institution"), she never really deceives herself: she still loves Tony, and furthermore she likes the life his money provides. Nor does she hesitate to trade on his power in order to do what she feels is a mother's duty: she intimidates Cusamano's lawyer sister-in-law into writing Meadow a college recommendation ["Full Leather Jacket"/2008]. Guilt and frustration drive her to Father Phil, who gives her books on Buddhism, foreign movies, and mixed sexual signals, but after a while she catches on to his bullshit, and in a scene beloved of Sopranos fans coolly nails him: "He's a sinner, Father. You come up here and you eat his steaks and use his home entertainment center.... I think you have this M. O. where you manipulate spiritually thirsty women, and I think a lot of it's tied up with food somehow, as well as the sexual tension game" ["I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"/1013]. Compromised as she is, Carmela is a moral touchstone because of her clear eye.
But Tony's encounters with Melfi are the spiritual center of the show.
Excerpted from This Thing of Ours by David Lavery Copyright © 2002 by David Lavery. Excerpted by permission.
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Part I: Introductory Coming Heavy: The Significance of The Sopranos, by David LaveryOur Mobsters, Ourselves,, by Ellen WillisThe Sopranos: The Gangster Redux, by Albert AusterPart II: Men and Women "I dread you": Married to the Mob in The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos, by Cindy Donatelli and Sharon Alward"Why Don't you take a look in the mirror, you insensitive prick": Weight, Body Image and Masculinity in The Sopranos, by Avi SantoOne for the Boys? The Sopranos and Its Male, British Audience, by Joanne Lacey"Cunnilingus and Psychoanalysis Have Brought Us To This": Livia and the Logic of Falsehoods, by Joseph S. WalkerPart III: The Media Context David Chase The Sopranos and Television Creativity, by David Lavery and Robert J. Thompson"TV Ruined the Movies'' Television, Tarantino, and The Intimate World of The Sopranos, by Glen CreeberWay North of New Jersey: A Canadian Experience of The Sopranos, by Dawn Elizabeth B. JohnstonNaked Bodies, Three Showings a Week, and No Commercials: The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV, by Paul LevinsonThe Sopranos as HBO Brand Equity: The Art of Commerce in the Age of Digital Reproduction, by Mark C. Rogers, Michael Epstein, and Jimmie ReevesPart IV: Genre, Narrative Technique, and Intertextuality Mobbed Up: The Sopranos and the Intertextual Gangster, by David PattieBeyond the Bada Bing!: Negotiating Female Narrative Authority in The Sopranos, by Kim Akass and Janet McCabeWiseguy Opera: Music for Sopranos, by Kevin FellezsPart V: Cultural Contexts No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place: The Cultural Geography (and Media Ecology) of The Sopranos, by Lance Strate"Soprano-speak": Language and Silence in The Sopranos, by Douglas L. HowardThe Eighteenth Brumaire of Tony Soprano, by Steven Hayward, and Andrew Biro"The Brutality of Meat" and "the Abruptness of Seafood": Food, Violence, and Family in The Sopranos, by Sara Lewis Dunne
Columbia University Press