Our Mobsters, Ourselves
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. 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 March 4) 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." 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. Meadow hosts a clandestine party in her grandmother's empty house that gets busted for drugs and alcohol. 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. 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."
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 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; 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). 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. 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. Meanwhile Jennifer's family debates whether wiseguy movies defame Italians or rather should be embraced as American mythology, like westerns. 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 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." In his wiseguy world, that is: Carmela thinks it's a great idea.
Richard Melfi'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.