Courtesy: HBO

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.

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 Melfis 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 gangster-sees-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?" 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 is temporarily jolted when Tony's nephew Christopher is shot and has a vision of himself in hell; but the crisis passes quickly.) 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. 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 MO 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." 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. The short version of Tony's psychic story is this: His gangster persona provides him with constant excitement and action, a sense of power and control, a definition of masculinity. Through violence rationalized as business or impersonal soldiering he also gets to express his considerable unacknowledged rage without encroaching on his alter ego as benevolent husband and father. But when the center fails to hold, the result is panic, then–as Melfi probes the cracks–depression, self-hatred, sexual collapse and engulfing, ungovernable anger. There are glimmers along the way, as when Tony sees the pointlessness of killing the sexually wayward soccer coach, calls off the hit and lets the cops do their job (after which he feels impelled to get so drunk he passes out). But the abyss always looms.

Tony's heart of darkness is personified by Livia Soprano, who at first seems peggable as a better-done-than-usual caricature of the overbearing ethnic mother but is gradually revealed as a monstrous Medea. Furious at Tony for consigning her to a fancy "retirement community," Livia passes on some well-chosen pieces of information–including the fact that he's seeing a shrink–to Tony's malleable Uncle Junior, who orders him killed. When the hit is botched, she suddenly begins to show symptoms of Alzheimer's. Jennifer Melfi puts it together; worried that Tony's life is in danger, she breaks the therapeutic rule that patients must make their own discoveries and confronts him with her knowledge. He reacts with a frightening, hate-filled paroxysm of denial–for the first time coming close to attacking Jennifer physically–but is forced to admit the truth when he hears a damning conversation between Livia and Junior, caught on tape by the FBI.

This is a turning point in the story, but not, as the standard psychiatric melodrama would have it, because the truth has made Tony free. The truth has knocked him flat. "What kind of person can I be," he blurts to Carmela, "where his own mother wants him dead?" Afraid that Junior will go after Jennifer, he orders her to leave town; when she comes back she is angry and fearful and tells him to get out of her life. He is lost, his face a silent Munchian scream. Later Jennifer has a change of heart, but things are not the same: The trust is gone. And yet, paradoxically, her rejection has freed him to be more honest, throwing the details of his gang's brutality in her face, railing at her for making him feel like a victim, at himself for becoming the failed Gary Cooper he once mocked, at the "happy wanderers" who still seem in control.

Jennifer encourages him to feel the sadness under the rage, but what comes through is hard and bleak. He tells anyone who mentions his mother, "She's dead to me," but it's really he who feels dead. During this time, Anthony Jr. shocks his mother by announcing that God is dead; "Nitch" says so. (At its most serious, the show never stops being funny.) Tony mentions this to Jennifer, who gives him a minilecture on existential angst: When some people realize they're solely responsible for their lives, and all roads lead to death, they feel "intense dread" and conclude that "the only absolute truth is death." "I think the kid's onto something," Tony says.

As if to validate Richard Melfi's contempt, he uses what he's learned in therapy–that you can't compartmentalize your life–to more fully accept his worst impulses. Against his more compassionate instincts, he allows an old friend who is the father of a classmate of Meadow's and a compulsive gambler to join his high-stakes card game. When David inevitably piles up a debt he can't pay, Tony moves in on his business, sucking it dry and draining his son's college fund. Amid a torrent of self-pity, David asks why Tony let him in the game. Tony answers jocularly that it's his nature–you know, as in the tale of the frog and the scorpion. In the last episode of season two Tony whacks Pussy, whose perfidy has been revealed, choosing his mob code over his love and sorrow for the man. He then walks out on Jennifer, as if to say, this is who I am and will be.

Jennifer's trip is also a rocky one. In her person, the values of Freud and the Enlightenment are filtered through the cultural radical legacy of the 1960s: She is a woman challenging a man whose relationship to both legitimate and outlaw patriarchal hierarchies is in crisis. It's a shaky and vulnerable role, the danger of physical violence an undercurrent from the beginning, but there are also bonds that make the relationship possible. Tony chooses her over a Jewish male therapist because "you're a paisan, like me," and she is drawn to the outlaw, no doubt in rebellion against the safe smugness of her own social milieu. Predictably, Tony loses all sexual interest in his wife and girlfriend and falls in love with his doctor (if there is any answering spark, it stays under the professional surface), but after the initial "honeymoon" of therapy, trouble, as always, begins. Tony gives Jennifer "gifts" like stealing her car and getting it fixed; it's his way of assuring her, and himself, that his power is benevolent, but of course she only feels violated. Wanting to find out about her life, he has her followed by a corrupt cop who harasses her boyfriend, thinking he's doing Tony a favor; she can't help but be suspicious. By inviting her family to object to her criminal patient, she gives voice to her own doubts: Perhaps she is not only endangering herself but abetting evil.

Her conflict intensifies when she tells Tony she must charge for a missed session, and he throws the money at her, calling her a whore. It explodes in the aftermath of the attempt on his life. But then the other side of her ambivalence reasserts itself; she feels she has irresponsibly abandoned a patient and takes him back against the advice of her own (Jewish male) therapist. Now it is Jennifer who is in crisis, treating her anxiety with heavy drinking. She is frightened and morally repulsed by Tony's graphic revelations, yet also feels an erotically tinged fascination (it's like watching a train wreck, she tells her shrink). She still cares about Tony but seems to have lost faith in her ability to exorcise the demonic by making contact with the suffering human being. In the last episode, with Tony closed as a clam, she admits that she blew it, that she stopped pushing him because she was afraid. But he can't hear her.

No false optimism here. Yet it's no surprise that by the second hour of the third season premiere Tony is back in Jennifer Melfi's office. The requirements of the show's premise aside, his untenable situation has not changed. Having glimpsed the possibility of an exit from despair, it would be out of character for him simply to close that door and walk away. For the same reason, I suspect our culture's flight from psychoanalysis is not permanent. It's grandiose, perhaps, to see in one television series, however popular, a cultural trend; and after all The Sopranos is on HBO, not CBS or NBC. But ultimately the show is so gripping because, in the words of Elaine Showalter, it's a "cultural Rorschach test." It has been called a parable of corruption and hypocrisy in the postmodern middle class, and it is that; a critique of sexuality, the family and male-female relations in the wake of feminism, and it's that too. But at the primal level, the inkblot is the unconscious. The murderous mobster is the predatory lust and aggression in all of us; his lies and cover-ups are ours; the therapist's fear is our own collective terror of peeling away those lies. The problem is that we can't live with the lies, either. So facing down the terror, a little at a time, becomes the only route to sanity, if not salvation.

In the tumultuous last episode of The Sopranos' first season, another informer is killed. Tony finds out about his mother and sends Jennifer into hiding. Uncle Junior and two of his underlings are arrested, arousing fears that one of them will flip. Artie Bucco nearly kills Tony after being told–by Livia–that Tony is responsible for the fire that destroyed his restaurant (the idea was to help the Buccos by heading off a planned mob hit in the restaurant, which would have ruined the business–this way they could get the insurance and rebuild), but Tony swears "on my mother" it isn't true. Carmela tells off Father Phil. At the end, Tony, Carmela and the kids are caught in a violent storm in their SUV; they can't see a thing but suddenly realize they're in front of the Buccos' (rebuilt) restaurant. There's no power, but Artie graciously ushers them in, lights a candle and cooks them a meal. Tony proposes a toast: "To my family. Someday soon you're gonna have families of your own. And if you're lucky, you'll remember the little moments. Like this. That were good." The moment feels something like sanity. The storm, our storm, goes on.