The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 4

The Sopranos' Military Code
Talking television.
Oct. 7 2002 12:03 PM

The Sopranos: Season 4 Analyzed; Week 4

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Dear Gang,

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Well. I think that we are playing left, right, and center with last night's episode. Though, the writing was alive with the tragedy, farce, and wit that you mention, Glen, I see Peggy's point that it was also taxed by too many coincidents. But there is another theme that came through more clearly than ever tonight and that is that with the mob, we are dealing with the psychology of the military and its ambiguous relationship with morality. 

Johnnie's Sack's wife Jenny was dishonored, a morally reprehensible offense for sure. Under different times and circumstances this might have called for nothing short of Ralphie's execution. But when Godfather Carmine refuses to give his permission for Captain Johnnie to whack Ralphie, Johnnie risks his own extinction through insubordination. Finding himself in an equally unsavory position to Carmine's, Tony has to actually protect his Captain Ralphie, a cretin for whom he has no trust! This is the military for you. It's all rank and file with nothing short of blind obedience lest you risk "court-martial" on the one hand, with loyalty to scumbag subordinates, so long as they follow orders, on the other. Morality always plays a disquieting role in relation to the military, which more often defines its mission by the pragmatics of the politics that surround it. It is simply too costly for Carmine to allow Johnnie to eliminate Ralphie. "End of story!"

This captured for me what has always been the Sopranos' raison d'être, which is the ambiguous relationship between institutions and the moral orders that presumably define them. Allow me to note once again that the only institution the show has spared this indictment is Italian cuisine. Of equal note in last night's episode is Dr. Elliot being revealed as the consummate ethical rule bender blabbing with abandon about his patient's son to his utterly gender-ambiguous offspring. Whatever Elliot's benevolent justification for his severe breach of confidentiality, it remained nothing short of outrageous. Yet in another sense it parallels the pragmatics of the military code just mentioned, where ethics take a back seat to what seems to suit the campaign. I think the Sopranos writers are ingenious in constantly "rediscovering" this burr in the saddle of our moralistic high-mindedness. When push comes to shove, human beings seldom practice what they preach. If there is a morality lesson to be learned from all of this, I prefer the Sopranos' method of dishing it out.

Phil

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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