A Charming But Destructive Villain

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 10

A Charming But Destructive Villain

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 10

A Charming But Destructive Villain
Talking television.
Nov. 18 2002 1:55 PM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 10

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In a therapeutic marketplace filled with a cornucopia of competing approaches, Jennifer's remains rather old-fashioned. She still believes that it is better to face the inevitable psychic pain of being human—however arduous that may be—than to evade it. In the long run, a strategy of denial, which can assume many forms, is generally self-defeating. And the confrontation with Tony's use of sentimentality as a form of denial is Dr. Melfi's most penetrating intervention to date.

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Like many of us, Tony can experience tender feelings that are otherwise inaccessible to him through affection for animals. But he carries this familiar phenomenon to a mawkish extreme. The show first grabbed our attention with the incongruous image of an oversized mafioso wadding into his swimming pool to care for a family of ducks. But now the incongruity—with all its complexity—has turned into a full-blown split. Though Tony is, as Jennifer observes, inconsolably preoccupied with Pie-O-My's death, he never grieves for people in the same way. And, with the possible exception of Big Pussy, he certainly doesn't grieve for the people whose blood is on his hands. Becoming "a sad clown" may be different than his usual way of dealing with sadness—which is to become volatile, rageful, compulsive, and so on—but it is an avoidance of psychic pain nevertheless. Tony rejects all this "touchy-feely Freudian bullshit" and launches into a speech about the deteriorating state of the world since Sept. 11. And in a self-serving, clichéd gesture, he even brings up Rodney King's plea that we all learn to live together. But Jennifer will have none of it, and reminds him "that he has caused a lot of suffering." Jennifer's struggle to get Tony to deal with the violent landscape of his inner world is heroic, but she doesn't seem to be having much success.

Tony has had many strong women as foils—Livia, Carmela, and Jennifer. But as Glen says, his encounter with Svetlana illuminates his self-deceptiveness in an especially unmistakable way. If Tony plays the "sad clown," Svetlana accepts her amputation—symbolic of the "castration" that life inflicts on all of us—with no self-pity. Like the rest of the world—and unlike Americans—she accepts the harshness of life and doesn't expect any escape from it. The result of this sober view of things, however, isn't depressive resignation. On the contrary, it frees Svetlana to take the world on its own terms and derive what gratification she can from it. Her industriousness and independence no doubt remind Tony—who has become deeply Americanized—of the immigrant Italian ancestors he is always nostalgically evoking. Tony is fascinated and turned on by her self-possessed aura. And Svetlana has no trouble acting on her attraction toward him. But when he wants to see her again, she knows better. She's got enough problems of her own, and doesn't need to be dragged down trying to rescue this charming but destructive villain. Unlike Jennifer, Svetlana has no illusions about the possibility of saving Tony Soprano.

Glen O. Gabbard, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and author of The Psychology of The Sopranos, inspired by this discussion. Philip A. Ringstrom, Ph.D., Psy.D., is a senior faculty member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. Joel Whitebook, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Columbia Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research. Margaret Crastnopol, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Northwest Center for Psychoanalysis. All are practicing therapists as well.