The Strong, Silent Type: Psychoanalysis in the Sopranos

By Mattessi, Peter | Metro Magazine, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Strong, Silent Type: Psychoanalysis in the Sopranos

Mattessi, Peter, Metro Magazine


The Sopranos. The relationship between Tony and his psychiatrist, Dr Jennifer Melfi, has always been a key focus of the show, but now, in the fourth series, it seems everyone has a therapist, including Tony's sister Janice, his children, Meadow and Anthony Jr. Even Dr Melfi herself is seeing someone. Two people, actually. Creator David Chase, we are told, was a 'devotee of Freud in high school', (1) but does his show subscribe to Freudian ideas of analysis? What does The Sopranos think of psychoanalysis as a process? And is all this therapy actually doing anyone any good?

Sooner or later you're going to get beyond psychotherapy, with its cheesy moral relativism. You're going to get to good and evil. And he's evil.

'The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti'/#1008

For Dr Jennifer Melfi's ex-husband Richard LaPenna--an active member of the Italian-American anti-defamation league--Tony Soprano belongs in the realm of moral judgment beyond that of psychoanalysis. Richard's comment is a contemporary manifestation of the idea, popular in Freud's time, that psychoanalysis is a luxury for wealthy Viennese housewives with little else to occupy their lives; it is not for 'sociopaths' like Tony. From the very beginning of The Sopranos we were presented with a character seemingly beyond redemption and the reaches of psychoanalysis. So is psychoanalysis up to Tony Soprano?

Tony's progress is certainly not helped by the fact that he is violently resistant to the analytic process: 'it's impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist' ('The Sopranos'/#1001). He walks out on numerous sessions, and abuses and threatens Dr Melfi--on one occasion physically, (2) and on another by overturning her coffee table. Tony has little or no knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, and has no idea what to expect, regardless of what he might think: 'I had a semester and a half of college. So, I understand Freud. I understand therapy as a concept' ('The Sopranos'/#1001). He knows of Freud's Oedipus theory, yet refuses to engage with it: 'that crap about Freud and every boy wanting to have sex with his mother, that's not gonna fly here' ('Pax Soprana'/#1006). And when Dr Melfi mentions castration anxiety: 'hey, my mother never went after my basket' ('I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano'/#1013). His flippant responses conceal a resistance towards Freudian analytic theory that is matched only by his antagonism towards psychoanalytic practice:

Nowadays, everybody's gotta go to shrinks, and counsellors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type. That was an American.

'The Sopranos'/##1001. The theme of Gary Cooper as the 'strong, silent type' reappears in the fourth series in 'Episode Name'/#4004.

Tony's line of work--and I'm not talking about waste management here--also makes it difficult for him to undergo analysis. The Mob of The Sopranos frowns upon its members, particularly underbosses like Tony, discussing 'the business' with anyone outside it, and it is made clear early on that Tony's life will be in danger if it gets out that he is seeing a psychiatrist. When his situation worsens towards the end of the first series, he is forced to relocate Dr Melfi so that she does not become a target, and Tony himself narrowly survives an assassination attempt. So far, things are not looking good for Freudian analytic theory.

But despite Tony's negative attitude to psychoanalysis, he actually makes some progress, testament to Freud's assertion that the patient's external attitude to treatment makes little difference. (3) His anxiety attacks occur less frequently and his exposure to treatment means that he can use the psychoanalytic theory he has learned to see issues with friends and family from a new and different perspective. At one point his nephew Christopher is at a particularly low ebb, feeling that his life lacks meaning and direction: 'I got no identity! …

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