The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 3

A Grim Landscape
Talking television.
Sept. 30 2002 6:07 PM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 3

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Dear Peggy, Phil, and Glen,

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Could David Chase and Co. pull it off for another season? That's what everyone was waiting to see. And although I'm still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt—and rooting for them—I'm starting to get worried. For one thing, the writers seem to be pressing. With so many characters and story lines, there is just too much going on. Perhaps they have simply "frontloaded" the first episodes, as they did in earlier seasons, and things will get untangled as the show develops. Let's hope so.

The Sopranos also seems to have lost some the finesse that made it stand out in the hyped-up world of popular culture. The complex and vividly drawn characters are in danger of slipping into over-the-top caricatures. This may result from the fact that the most compelling figures are no longer center stage. Livia and Big Pussy are gone; Uncle Junior and Paulie have, at least for the moment, become peripheral; and many of the weaker secondary characters have moved into the spotlight.

On top of that, we haven't seen much of the central dramatic conflict of the show, that is, Tony's struggle with himself, largely waged in Dr. Melfi's consulting room. Minus Tony's fight to redeem himself—with Carmela and Meadow as well as Jennifer—all that's left is a grim landscape. What's more, instead of Tony and Melfi, we get two new shrinks who make a self-respecting therapist want to crawl under a rock.

Given the state of our union, good social and political criticism is, God knows, desperately needed. But the sort "culture critique" we were presented with this week was postmodern cynicism at its worst. It parodied a form of identity politics that itself is often already a parody. Sure, with Charles Schwab ads in the background and the accusation that Tony was involved in insider trading, the writers let us know they are hip to the economic mess we are in. But the real message is: Everything is shit. The relentlessly bleak picture of human nature continues into the third episode.

We shouldn't let the boisterous humor of the opening discussion obscure its funniest and most striking comment. Furio tells the others that the Neapolitans hate Columbus because he was from Genoa. And in Italy, all the southerners hate the northerners. I doubt that Furio is schooled in psychoanalytic theory, but he is offering support for what is analysts call "the narcissism of small differences." The idea is that a group maintains its identity by exaggerating its differences with other groups and creating antagonisms between them. Group identity, in other words, tends to be egocentric and antagonistic by it very nature.

Despite their apparent differences, the message of the next scene is continuous with that of the first. In the most audacious scene yet, we find Janice sodomizing Ralphie with an vibrator, while calling him "slut" and a "whore." This obviously turns him on. There is a double reversal at work here. Let's remember Ralphie, the hyper-macho sadist, refused to kiss Tracee because she had recently fellated other men. And he justified Tracee's murder by dismissing her as a lowly "whore." Now, we see him getting off by being penetrated and degraded.

On the other hand Janice, who has played the victim card for all it is worth, becomes the dominatrix. The writers might be deconstructing the overly simplified ideology and politics of victimhood and making the point that there is victim and villain, master and slave, in all of us. But given the general tenor of the show so far, it's more likely that they're just providing more evidence that all human relations are sadomasochistic—only they're usually more complicated than we think.

Finally, the most loving person in the whole crowd is poor Bobby Bacala. He obviously grieves for his dead wife and is incapable of concocting a scheme against anyone. But he is presented as the Italian equivalent of a schlemiel. Nobody gives him any respect, and the other guys make fun of him for not having a mistress. Can the writers be telling us that Bobby, a naive, obese homeboy, and Chief Douglas Smith, a free-market hustler, exhaust the range of human possibility in today's world? One is either an anvil or a hammer—finito.

Joel

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.

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