Monday, May 21, 2007

Sopranos Second Coming

The title of last night's Sopranos episode, "The Second Coming," is a reference to the famous poem by Yeats, which I included in a post not too long ago (Reversals of Fortune), and on The Sopranos there was a scene where Tony Soprano's son AJ (Anthony, Jr.) is sitting in a college class, listening to his English professor reading the poem out loud. And this is a minor point, I know, but the reading, while not done poorly in any overt way, struck me as much too bland for a work of this magnitude. It requires a dramatic reading, but then again many English professors are molded by the silent reading of the printed page, better versed in deconstruction and poststructuralist theories than in, well, verse and oral interpretation. And this is evidenced by the kind of writing they themselves produce, writing for the eye, not the ear, a complaint that has been registered, in turn, by Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, and Camille Paglia, and by any media ecologist who has had anything to do with the study of literature. One point that I made at the end of my book chapter on The Sopranos which I posted on my blog (The Sopranos) is that the characters on the program live in a world of sound rather the abstract visual world of the written word, but a world of electronically-mediated secondary orality.

In the beginning was the spoken word, the world of sound, and electricity brings on the second coming of voice, song, and acoustic space. The second coming is a reference to Christian eschatology, of course, and this episode further fleshes out some of the themes I discussed in my last post about The Sopranos, entitled The Passion of Christopher. Tony Soprano remains the "chosen one" that the opening song by A3 makes reference to, the chosen boss of the North Jersey mob (messiah means "anointed one," and being anointed means you are chosen to be king). But is it Christ or Antichrist that Yeats refers to as the "rough beast" that "slouches toward Bethlehem to be born"? Or is Phil Leotardo, recently anointed as the chosen one for the New York City mob, and whose hostility towards Tony is increasing geometrically, Tony's opposite number 666? Or is it just a reference to the end of the series itself, with only two more episodes to go, "its hour come round at last"?

Is it armageddon or anarchy, a bang or a whimper, or a bit of both? It is perfectly in keeping with the cultural geography of North Jersey that Tony has to deal with the upstart Phil from a position of insecurity. After all, Brooklyn is taking away our basketball team, the NJ Nets (not that we didn't get them from Long Island, but let's not go there).

But the interactions between family and family are part of the shows attraction. AJ's depression and suicide attempt, while finally bringing out Tony's soft side--the scene where Tony is cradling AJ like a baby after rescuing him from almost drowning in the pool, and after his initial angry reaction is comforting him by calling him baby and telling him everything is all right, was another brilliant moment. We know that Tony has a sentimental side, and is capable of nurturing, from the very beginning of the series when he became so enamored of the ducks raising their young in his swimming pool, and the parallel in this scene is quite powerful. And we are also reminded of his brutality when, reacting to the vague insults and threats received by his daughter, Meadow, from New York mobster Coco, he loses his temper and beats Coco within an inch of his life, which pushes the already strained relationship between the two mobs over the edge.

Depression and aggression, suicide and homicide, are twin manifestations of the mental instability that plagues the family members. It is fitting that the pool looms so large as a symbol throughout the series. A body of water is an archetypal symbol of the unconscious mind, hence depth psychology, and it is also symbolic of the mother and the womb. AJ's botched suicide attempt, ridiculously ineffective (being the home of a mob boss, he surely had access to firearms if he really wanted to end his life), was an attempt to return to the womb, as he ties a cinder block to his leg and jumps into the pool, the rope being just a bit too long to actually keep him completely underwater. At the same time, he ties a plastic bag over his head to suffocate himself (why is this necessary if he is going to drown anyway?), almost like a deep sea diver wears a helmet, to penetrate the mysteries hiding below the surface of the water and learn its secrets. He's on a voyage of self-discovery, paralleling in an odd way the epiphany that Tony had in the previous episode, which he was unable to communicate adequately in this episode--Tony takes peyote, sees the sunrise in the desert--the antienvironment to the pool--and shouts, "I got it!"

But whether explorations of the unconscious have any efficacy in Sopranoland is at best unclear. Is AJ sinking lower and lower into the pool, or is he fighting his way back to the surface? Was he baptized and reborn, or is he still drowning? In a family therapy session with his psychiatrist, Dr. Vogel, AJ whines about all the things that his parents have done wrong to him, including making him wear a raincoat in 2nd grade (note the connection, a raincoat, to keep from getting wet) that got him beat up by some kids. It's the standard kind of blame the parents stuff that comes out with psychoanalysis, and there's no indication that this is at all helpful. Not surprisingly, Tony loses his temper and calls AJ a momma's boy. The end of the episode, where Tony visits his son at the institution where he's been staying since the suicide attempt, while not showing what actually occurs, seems somehow hopeful in regard to their relationship, and AJ's future. Unlike Tony, who struggled with a monstrous-feminine mother, AJ's relationship with his mother seems fine. Instead, AJ is in a position similar to Luke Skywalker--having discovered that his father is Darth Vader, will AJ, too, try to redeem him?

But whether AJ goes down with the ship or swims for shore, it is not at all clear whether therapy has done him any good, or just fed his depression. A similar question was raised regarding Tony's relationship with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. This has been one of the most intriguing aspects of the series, and one of the main elements of the scenario as it was set out in the pilot and over the first season: the mafioso undergoing psychoanalysis. As I noted in my last post on The Sopranos, the series never quite recovered from the death of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony's mother Livia, and what's therapy without a mother to inveigh against? Sure, she's still there symbolically and psychologically, but she stopped being a source of new issues long ago. Without Livia, Melfi lost some of her relevance.

But the relationship between Tony and Melfi played itself out. At the end of the first season, Tony demonstrates the danger he poses and his protective side by telling Melfi that she has to leave town and hide because Uncle Junior and his mother found out he was seeing a shrink, and may want her whacked for knowing too much. At the start of Season 2, Melfi is able to return home, but refuses to treat Tony any longer. But there's this sense of flirtation coming from her when she sees him in a restaurant and says, "toodle-loo," much to her chagrin and embarrassment. Still, she decides to resume his therapy, but starts drinking before their sessions to get over her distaste for Tony's criminal behavior. In the Season 2 finale, while suffering from food poisoning, Tony has dreams heavily laden with symbolism, including one about having sex with Melfi.

Season 3 is a major turning point in the role of Dr. Melfi, and for the role of psychoanalysis in the series. It begins with the 4th episode of that season, "Employee of the Month," where Tony, having returned to therapy sessions, is feeling liberated by the death of his mother. But then Melfi has a therapy session with her own therapist, Dr. Kupferberg, a recurring role filled admirably by Peter Bogdonavich, where she realizes, "I've let myself be charmed by a sociopath." She also mistakenly reveals Tony's identity to Kupferberg, who urges her to stop treating the mobster. She seems to agree. But then, she becomes the victim of crime herself. The Wikipedia entry on this episode describes the sequence of events very well:

Meanwhile, as Dr. Melfi leaves her office late in the evening, she is approached in the deserted parking garage by a young man named Jesus Rossi. He grabs Dr. Melfi from behind and pushes her into the stairwell where he brutally rapes her and leaves her crying for help. She is taken to the emergency room where she learns her leg is badly bruised. She also has bruises on her face. Her son, Jason, wants revenge on the rapist, but Richard (Melfi's ex-husband) tells Jason to let the police handle it. The following day, Richard phones the detectives, who inform him that Rossi was released on a technicality, due to a breakdown in the chain of custody. Upon learning of Rossi's release, Melfi becomes very emotional and afraid. While buying a sandwich at a sub shop, she notices a plaque indicating that Rossi is the establishment's "Employee of the Month." In fear, she drops her soda and runs out of the building.

Dr. Melfi later dreams about buying a soda at a vending machine and getting her hand trapped in the machine (effectively symbolizing the helplessness Melfi experienced when she was raped). While trapped, she dreams of a large Rottweiler that scares her, but then she sees her rapist coming to assault her again. The dog attacks Rossi, mauling and killing him. When Melfi awakens, she feels a sense of relief. Later, she describes the dream to her therapist, Dr. Elliott Kupferberg, and realises its meaning: the large dog protecting her was actually Tony Soprano — someone who could take revenge on her behalf. However, Melfi assures Kupferberg that even though the justice system has failed her, she will not turn to him for help. However, she mentions that the dream of watching that man suffering brought her great pleasure and it could be argued that if it weren't for Melfi's staunch record of stringently following professional ethics, she may consider or even follow through with bringing Tony into the matter.

Wikipedia does not do justice to the conflict inherent in the situation. Given her previous flirtation with Tony Soprano, and the tacit approval of both Jason and Richard for seeking revenge, it is no easy decision to follow through with her "staunch record of stringently following professional ethics," which have been called into question already due to her decision to continue to treat Tony--in her defense, as a psychiatrist, she is a physician who has taken the Hippocratic Oath, and is as obligated to help him, just like the doctors who saved his life after he was shot (in following their oath, they didn't stop to consider whether saving him would allow him to murder others). But keeping quiet about this would have been the most difficult task of her life. How could she not want to run to daddy, or any available father-figure, including Tony, following such a devastating trauma. This truly was The Last Temptation of Melfi. Hence, when she next has a session with Tony, as Wikipedia describes it:

When Dr. Melfi becomes tearful during Tony's next therapy session, he tries to comfort her. Tony asks her what is wrong, but she persuades him to sit back down and continue the session. Then Tony asks Melfi if she wants to tell him something. After a tense pause, Melfi declines and the scene changes abruptly to a black screen and the end credits. The issue of Melfi's feelings of helplessness and dread are never again brought up in a way in which any actions of retribution or justice are taken.

There should be no doubt that this was the greatest struggle of her life, and her greatest victory. Fans who took pleasure in the empowerment they experienced vicariously via Tony's violence were frustrated by this turn of events, and even the best of us called out for revenge on behalf of this sympathetic character. And it is to David Chase's credit that he resisted the pull towards narrative closure and popular formula and left the story as unresolved as so many real-life crimes are. Artistically, a courageous move that set a moral standard against which all other actions in the series could be measured against. But this also in effect ended the story of Dr. Melfi as a character. While therapy sessions continued in some of the episodes, no further growth or development seems possible with her character, and the narrative function of therapy also receded into the background after this point.

With one exception, I should add, which made for one of the most poignant scenes in the entire series, paralleling the temptation of Melfi in setting up a moral bellwether. In the 7th episode of the season, "Second Opinion," Melfi has a session with Tony's wife Carmella, and gives her a referral to a colleague, an elderly Holocaust survivor who tells Carmella to leave her husband and give up the blood money that she has been taking from him--he himself refuses to accept her payment for the session. This one psychiatrist stand out as a moral exemplar who forces Carmella to confront the fact that she is an accomplice to unspeakable crimes, even though the result is that she simply continues on, now with no delusions about her own culpability. But it is not simply his psychiatric training that has given him moral clarity, it seems, its his familiarity with the genuine evil of the Holocaust.

Towards the end of the 3rd season, Tony starts an affair with a sexy Mercedes saleswoman he meets at Melfi's office, another indirect association between therapy and sex for him. Therapy sessions continue here and there through the end of Season 3 and the very beginning of Season 4, and then fade away until the 6th episode, when it turns out that this sales rep that he had an affair with, and later dumped when she proved to be as crazy as his mother, had killed herself. Drunk and angry, he yells at Melfi for not being able to save this woman, but this leads to the realization that he himself felt guilt over the situation. By the 11th episode, Tony wants to quit therapy, admitting that he was no longer interested in trying to change his life. But in the first episode of Season 5, he is back to see her, but proposing that they start an affair rather than continue the therapeutic relationship. Melfi says no, no doubt feeling little of the temptation she felt in refusing to ask for his help following her rape, and in fact having her resolve strengthened by the experience. In her own therapy session, she admits that she found Tony a bit sexy in the past, but is ultimately repulsed by him. Eventually, Tony resumes therapy, but the sessions are few and far between last season or in this one.

Now, in this more recent episode, Melfi is back in session with Dr. Kupferberg, and she refers to Tony as Kupferberg's favorite patient. Is this projection on her part? Perhaps, but it also reflects an unprofessional fascination on Kupferberg's part with Tony's notoriety, and he in turn tells her about a recent study that shows that therapy actually validates sociopaths and makes them more likely to commit crimes. This is the fundamental question that remains unresolved throughout the series. Is therapy bullshit, as Tony sometimes would maintain? Is it an exercise in self-absorption and narcissism for the patient? Mental masturbation, Tony would say in an angrier mood. Worse yet, might it help make a mobster be a better mobster, a more effective criminal--there was some hint of that in the first season, when Melfi inadvertently gives Tony the idea to let Junior be the titular head of the family, let him feel like he's in charge, while Tony to operated behind the scenes.

Chase gives ample indication that therapy is not always effective, that therapists can be enablers, that they have hang-ups of their own that interfere with their professionalism, and that they form their own in-group, a psychoanalytic mafia (just as academics do, and filmmakers, and priests, and just about any profession or group). But they also have provided the only moral standards to be found in the series. For better or worse, they are the prophets predicting the second coming, which can only be the children re-enacting the conflicts of their parents, in a cycle of violence through the generations, a cycle that will continue coming and coming, unless their warnings are heeded.

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