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The Long Con

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Illustration by Roberto Parada  

Not that Tony himself welcomed the challenge. “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors and go on Sally Jesse Raphael and talk about their problems,” he raves during his first session. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. What they didn’t know is that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fangu’!”

And yet, like Portnoy, he began. His rants were denial, the necessary pushback before committing to such painful work. Early episodes can feel like containers for baseline psychoanalytic insights. In the first, Tony discovers that “talking [helps]. Hope comes in many forms.” In the second, he learns that if he doesn’t admit to his rage at his mother, he will displace it onto others. Next, he struggles with whether he is a golem—an empty self, a monster for hire. And by “Pax Soprana,” he confesses his love to Melfi and she tells him about transference. “This psychiatry shit, apparently what you’re feeling is not what you’re feeling,” he explains to Carmela. “And what you’re not feeling is your real agenda.”

The question of Tony’s sociopathy was also there up front, but the people raising it were weasels and weaklings. “You know you can’t treat sociopaths! He’s scum, and you shouldn’t help him with his bed-wetting,” complains Melfi’s strutting yuppie ex over a family dinner. Later in the episode, he was clearer: “Call him a patient. Man’s a criminal, Jennifer. And after a while, finally, you’re going to get beyond psychotherapy, with its cheesy moral relativism, finally you’re going to get to good and evil. And he’s evil.”

But then, Melfi’s husband was the enemy. He was a smug insider, a condescending voyeur—one of a host of such characters, like Tony’s next-door neighbors (and Melfi’s friends) the Cusamanos, who exploited him for show-and-tell at their golf club. (Tony’s ex Charmaine Bucco was the sole exception: She judged him, but did it from the inside—making her the show’s only moral character. It was nice to see her briefly reappear in the penultimate episode, her eyes still narrowed eight years later.) It was no wonder Melfi had begun to identify with Tony. Among the yuppies and therapists who surrounded her, she felt like a misunderstood outlaw, the only one who dared to see the abused child within the monster.

And it was no wonder we, as an audience, identified with Melfi. She was—hard to remember, but it’s true—a perfectly decent therapist. She handled Tony’s transference gently; she gave him tools to cope with his mother and uncle (tools he used to consolidate power, but still). She even saved a life, that of Meadow’s child-molesting soccer coach. Instead of ordering the murder, Tony stumbles stoned into the family rec room, stunned with the effort of not killing, moaning to his wife, “Carmela, Carmela, I didn’t hurt nobody.”

Back then, this scene struck me as the show’s iconic moment—a bravura sequence in which the decision not to commit violence was as vivid as any bloody hit. In a drama built on gore, it was thrilling. Though Tony continued to collect envelopes, order hits, screw goomars, it seemed like evidence that he could be a different man.

“Grandma, how can it be a joke if you’re crying?”

And then something in Chase's vision went black.

Over the course of the show, Tony’s sessions with Melfi have taken on many metaphors. They are like sessions with a hooker: She takes his money and plays a seductive role. (In one sequence, he dreams her office is a bordello.) They are like sessions with a priest: She hears confessions and guides him toward meaning. They are like sessions with the FBI: By talking to her, he’s betraying his family, putting his livelihood at risk, and violating omertà.

But most unsettlingly, they became a metaphor for our relationship, as viewers, with the show. Like Melfi, we began openhearted, proud of our empathy, and thrilled to have a character so rich to explore. Then came the counter-transference, the audience crushes, the endless articles on James Gandolfini, sex symbol. And slowly, as years passed, one could feel an insistent chill, even as Melfi herself receded into the background and message boards flooded with fans aping mobspeak. The violence was growing more intense: the assassination of Big Pussy, then Adriana, that brutal scene where Ralphie killed a pregnant stripper (a brilliantly sick sequence that caused a wave of viewer protest), the curbing of Coco. Dread, not excitement, began to feel like the show’s signature emotion.


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