Our Mobsters, Ourselves | The Nation


Our Mobsters, Ourselves

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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.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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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.

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