The Hit Man’s Burden: The Old Country Meets Prozac Nation on “The Sopranos.”

Here is a “classic” New Yorker article written by and published in the March 22, 1999. issue. To check out other articles in that issue and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Credit: Illustration by Lara Tomlin

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One of the odder pop-culture coincidences in the last few months is the appearance in our midst of both a movie and a TV series that center on a Mafioso who seeks psychiatric treatment. Robert De Niro, in the movie comedy “Analyze This,” is a career killer who has lost his nerve and cries all the time; in the HBO series “The Sopranos,” which is now eleven-thirteenths of the way through its season, James Gandolfini plays a New Jersey Mob boss, Tony Soprano, whose trip to the therapeutic chair is occasioned by an overload of stress on the job (he’s a “waste-management consultant”), at home, and in his relationship with his nightmarish mother. But “Analyze This” and “The Sopranos” don’t actually have much in common, beyond perhaps implying that the best candidates for long-term therapy these days are people with access to a suitcase of cash. The De Niro movie sends up and reinforces stereotypes, while “The Sopranos,” which was created by David Chase, gives you something—almost too many things—to think about. There has certainly never been anything like it on TV, and on network TV there never could be anything like it—it goes out on a limb that doesn’t even exist at the networks. “The Sopranos” has become a phenomenon: the word of mouth since it began has caused people to suddenly and urgently sign up for HBO after years of living contentedly without it.

Tony Soprano’s sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) are more than just a device for spicing up a genre that seems pretty well played out. They’re essential to the show’s very existence, like a pacemaker, and they also constitute an extraordinarily authentic-seeming depiction of what goes on between a psychotherapist and a patient, so much so that you’re likely to find yourself caught up in a transference relationship of your own with Dr. Melfi. She dresses plainly, in order to appear professional, and you can tell she uses her face the same way—as an instrument of neutrality. But she is, after all, human, and it’s fun to watch the inevitable leaks in her system: the involuntary little movements of her mouth and eyes, the fidgets, and the changes in posture in response to what Tony says. Tony initially resists the idea that therapy can work for him; when Dr. Melfi first mentions the word “depression,” he’s annoyed, because he thinks he knows what’s next—he says, “Here we go. Here comes the Prozac.” By the fourth episode, Tony is completely engaged in the process—and, yes, he is on Prozac, which seems to be helping him somewhat—and Dr. Melfi has, in classic fashion, entered his dreams. He hires someone to trail her and find out details of her personal life, and we’re afraid for her (it’s all too easy to imagine what a Mafia definition of “invasion of privacy” might involve), but we understand the impulse. We want to follow her around, too. In one scene, she’s at a dinner party at the Sopranos’ next-door neighbors’ and goes to the bathroom to, it turns out, sneak a private peek at her patient’s house. When she puts the toilet seat down and flushes (to give her trip to the loo the sound of legitimacy), we are fascinated to see that she doesn’t touch the seat directly with her hand but uses a piece of toilet paper to hold it with. What does this tell us about her? Not much, or maybe nothing at all. But to us it seems like informational gold. And since we’ve witnessed this eruption of curiosity in Dr. Melfi, we’re not completely surprised that, in a big professional lapse the next day, she tells her patient that she was at his neighbors’ the night before. Of course, moments like these occur in real-life therapy—a therapist who doesn’t make such mistakes is a retired therapist—and they only heighten the sessions’ authentic feeling. So do the moments when Tony calls forth a slightly illicit conspiratorial response from the doctor. In one session, she asks Tony what the one thing is that his mother, his wife, and his daughter have in common, and he says, “They all break my balls.” She can’t suppress a laugh at his naughty-boy answer, and it’s a moment of understanding and closeness for both of them. Her amusement shows Tony that she “gets” him, and it serves to widen the road on which they seem to be making some progress.

But what does it mean to say that we begin to understand Tony and have even come to sympathize with his problems? Is there a point to understanding that someone who’s a lifelong criminal and brutal killer is not just a brutal killer? This conundrum is somehow embedded in every moment of the show. The brilliant writing (which is given its full due by the brilliant cast) illustrates many levels of self-awareness, and that quality is what both makes the show so profoundly entertaining and creates an ambivalence in you about the nature of the entertainment. And you have to wonder whether your understanding is even real, or just based on the fact that everyone now talks the same pop-culture talk. It’s not just us and the show’s writers who have copies of the Big Book of Mafia Movies. The characters have copies, too. One member of Tony’s crew, who’s played by Steve Van Zandt, entertains his fellow-soldiers with his rendition of Al Pacino’s famous line from “Godfather III”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The local priest, when he’s visiting Tony’s wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), mentions that “Bobby D.” was originally supposed to play the role of Jesus in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and then goes where every one of us has gone before—into an imitation of De Niro’s immortal psycho in “Taxi Driver,” but with a contextual twist: “You talking to me, Pilate? Well, you must be talking to me, ’cause I don’t see nobody else here. Except Barabbas here.”

But the cleverness of “The Sopranos” is never merely cute; the show doesn’t spare us the ugliness of Mafia life. Some of the performances in particular bring out the terror that is always near the surface. Michael Imperioli, who plays Christopher, Tony’s nephew, is like a factory-second stick of dynamite: you never know when he’s going to blow up, you just know that he is going to blow up. And, in another instance of the show’s deliberate ambiguousness, some of the most violent characters are also the funniest. When Christopher gets impatient while waiting in line at a fast-food joint in which all the other customers and all the workers are black, he calls out, “Whose fucking welfare check you gotta cash to get a burger around here? . . . Yo, hairnet central, what am I back here, Mark Fuhrman?” And Paulie, a hit man with a great ear, informs Tony that the job of killing a Latino man has been completed by saying, “Juan Valdez has been separated from his donkey.”

At every turn, “The Sopranos” complicates our thinking about these characters, and never more so than when we see Tony at home with his family. Gandolfini and Falco together paint a wonderfully subtle portrait of a long marriage; they are inseparable partners and also, to some extent, enemies. It’s not yet clear how or whether “The Sopranos” will come to terms with its own contradictions, though there’s a hint of its baseline standards of right and wrong in the way that Tony’s mother, Livia, is presented. She is, in short, a horrible person—mean, selfish, and manipulative (and she is played to monstrous perfection by, of all people, the stately Nancy Marchand). Her killer son—who is by definition and through no fault of his own a son of a bitch—seems redeemable by comparison. You can’t help feeling that he deserves the help he’s trying to get from Dr. Melfi; his work with her has, we know, already caused him to back off from one murder—and isn’t that real progress? Doesn’t it count for something? Getting to the answers isn’t easy, but “The Sopranos” makes you feel that these questions are, at the very least, worth asking. ♦

Published in the print edition of the March 29, 1999, issue.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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