Loosening the Grip

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 13

Loosening the Grip

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 13

Loosening the Grip
Talking television.
Dec. 9 2002 5:48 AM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 13

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Isn't it demoralizing to watch character play itself out? In this case, with nary a second thought? And at super-sized length? Yes, the writers have opted to simply let Tony keep being Tony, even when the chickens come home to roost and Carmela kicks him out. As would be predicted, Tony is by turns upset, angry, faintly penitent, and forlorn—but he doesn't hurt Carmela. A degree of self-control is involved, but on the other hand, Tony has consistently dissociated his most violent aspects from his family life, so this restraint isn't necessarily the result of any kind of therapeutic progress. Carmela's decision to denounce and reject Tony is the outgrowth of her being fed up with and ultimately under-gratified by Tony and the life he's given her—but again, I'd be hard pressed to call that psychic growth per se.

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In fact, given the choices the writers made in this season, there really isn't much to talk about vis-à-vis their characters' emotional development. If our patient Tony did not fundamentally grow—much less renounce his amorality—as a function of his aborted treatment, is this an indictment of psychotherapeutic efforts overall? Or a statement on the writers' part that they don't think psychotherapy can cure sociopathy?  Or a blight on this particular (fictional) therapist's prowess? Or an argument that guys like Tony shouldn't seek treatment for anxiety and anomie, since they'll probably end up reverting and wasting their therapists' breath?

It's none of these and all of these. The bottom line: What this season depicts so compellingly is how we humans can come face to face with and even grasp the nature of our own self-defeating mechanisms and follies—whether in psychotherapy or out—and yet all too often, we cannot loosen their grip. When it happens in the context of the person's being in treatment, we're left asking, is this psychotherapy's failure, or is it the nature of the beast? Perhaps it's better to leave this an open question … doing so keeps alive a certain kind of therapeutic zeal for tackling intractable problems on the off chance that someone someday can help them change.

It's been real,
Peggy

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. Ron Rosenbaum is the author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and the recent nonfiction collection The Secret Parts of Fortune.