Tony Soprano reminds us that even gangsters need therapy
This is a disclaimer: As a listicle, this article will be full of The Sopranos spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the show that set the standard, the template, the absurdly high bar for all modern dramas, well, bugger off. Do yourself a favor and watch the show, then pull back up.
“You know my feelings. Every day is a gift. It’s just, does it have to be a pair of socks?” Tony Soprano asks Dr. Melfi in episode 9 of season 6 of The Sopranos.
This isn’t my favorite quote of the series, nor is it one of the most hard-hitting in its moment. What it is is an embodiment of Tony’s constant internal conflict throughout the show run.
Short-term happiness and desire to feel grateful, pride, joy. But always lingering is a dark cloud of sadness that washes him back ashore to reality.
James Gandolfini died seven years ago today, at the age of 51. In this article, we remember him for his beautiful work on The Sopranos, playing the rough-yet-resilient Tony Soprano.
Specifically, we will dive into Gandolfini’s work via Tony Soprano in therapy with Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), which produced some of the most emotional scenes in a show brimming over the top with them.
Mental health is on its way to fully being de-stigmatized. But still, there is work to do. The Sopranos, a late-90s titan and the pinnacle of TV cinema advanced the understanding of mental health and therapy, and for it, it deserves its praise.
Season 1: Anger and Deflection
Now let’s be clear. Tony does not stop screaming at Dr. Melfi after season 1, nor does he stop deflecting. But opening up, clearly for the first time in this magnitude, to someone angers Tony. And when the anger settles, it pains him. That pain leads him to dance around his true feelings and the bases of his sadness.
“I don’t appreciate feeling like I pour my fucking heart out to a fucking call girl,” Tony says after tossing money at the feet of Dr. Melfi.
She is angry with him for skipping one of their meetings, and he is angry because he believes (or is forcing himself to believe) she only cares about his money.
Melfi pleads for Tony to speak to her truthfully. Getting mob boss Tony Soprano to open up must have felt like breaking the walls of Sing Sing Prison.
But Tony’s deflection is not at all abnormal for a patient, especially one under the constant pressure of keeping his underlings in line, his rivals at bay, and his life in control.
This scene speaks to the early stages of The Sopranos, and largely, the early stages of seeing therapy beyond just a muse for upper-middle-class white people to pour their hearts out.
In 1999, when this episode aired, it was not a time where everyone would respect you for seeing a shrink. The Sopranos explains this reality beautifully.
Season 2: Opening up about his past
Season 1 was a bit of an experiment. An experiment like the final dish in Ratatouille. It could not have gone much fucking better.
But season 2 is really when the show found its stride and came into its own. Melfi and Tony’s dive down his past is emblematic of this.
While going deeper into the depths of Tony’s pain, the show goes deeper into why Tony’s family is the way it is, and why Tony’s other family (over at Satriales) operates the way it does.
“I got the world by the balls and I can’t help feeling like I’m a fucking loser,” says Tony.
Tony complains that all Americans “are crying and confessing and complaining, a bunch of fucking pussies.”
For some, and most in previous decades and generations, this is how opening up felt. You weren’t supposed to talk about your feelings. It made you weak.
A product of life being so tough it felt unhelpful? Possibly. A thought that opening up could only make it worse? Also possible.
Melfi responds to Tony that his parents made it impossible for him to feel joy. His mother, still alive, still doesn’t give Tony any love or appreciation.
It is by exploring the roots of his sadness that Tony starts to make some breakthroughs, albeit with cursing and violence and evil deeds along the way.
Tony is happy enough of the show, but only when he’s honest and willing to accept the truth is he at a prime level of peace. The Sopranos explored the honesty inside of therapy sessions beyond measure.
Season 3: Pain subsiding, pain rising
Season 3 is a fascinating season of The Sopranos. Often it is not anyone’s favorite, nor is it their least favorite. In the middle of production, Nancy Marchand, who played Tony’s mother, passed away. In one episode, they used a pixelated image of Marchand with old voice recordings of her speaking, to tie the character’s arc up. It didn’t work too well.
But Tony’s panic attacks, which were so often related to the stress and anxiety his mother would cause him, went away. It was like a ninth-grade backpack finally off his back at the end of the day, air entering the flap at the bottom of the shirt and giving you a feeling of sensation and peace.
But the physical being of his mother being gone did not erase the memory and deep-rooted genealogy of Tony’s mom. And expectedly, his panic attacks came back. In the clip above, with a touch of realness interspersed with comedy (which The Sopranos does better than any show), Carmela joins Tony in therapy, and explores possible root causes of his anxiety.
This is also the season that Dr. Melfi is raped, in a scene and moment of the show so grotesque that most fans aren’t able to rewatch. Melfi thinks about asking Tony to kill her attacker, but eventually decides against it. As their sessions grow and expand, so does their relationship. And the moments inside of that room present us with some of the best acting in television history.
Season 4: Sadness and dark brush strokes
“Still I gotta be the sad clown.”
Tony breaks down over the deaths and abandonment of animals in the series much more than he does over people. A typical sociopathic trait, Melfi mentions this to him and ponders what animals mean to him.
Season 4 is a turning point in the series. The show gets darker. It’s only at the halfway point, and there have been many threats and actions taken against Tony’s life up to this point, but there is an eeriness that begins in season four that feels like show creator David Chase is really trying to tell us: anyone and everything could be gone at any point.
Tony breaks down in much of this season, most of all to the death of his horse, Pie-O-My. He cries, he weeps, and right when things start to be on the upswing in his work and home-life, everything comes crashing down.
For Tony, every moment is a reminder of how short life is. But up until this point, it didn’t feel like Carmela would actually ever leave him, as he could really die at any given moment, like the world we have been immersed in for three years could truly come crashing down.
Tony’s mental health is at a different place too. Melfi has helped him immensely, even if he doesn’t see it. But slowly and surely, he is losing every person close to him, and this grim reality is what paints this season with a darker brushstroke than we have seen yet.
Season 5: War and revenge
Ah, dark and ominous tones in season 4 I mentioned. Well, season 5 blows it out of the water in that regard.
My favorite season, season 5 introduces a bunch of new characters, a lot of new violence, and as always, some delightfully important scenes in the therapy room.
In season 5, Tony opens up more about his father, and his cousin Tony B (played by Steve Buscemi). In exploring his father and his father’s mistress, Tony understands a lot of what made his father so miserable. And what makes him so miserable.
Real progress is made, and Tony goes through the ups and downs that most people who have been in therapy for years go through.
Progress, setbacks, breakthroughs, and lingering reminders that therapy can only do so much. It is up to the person themselves to make real changes and judgment calls in the real world.
The therapy scenes in season 5 give us some much-needed pauses from the violence and power plays the season is filled with. Still, these scenes aren’t light. And it is clear the end times are nigh.
Season 6: End times
Season 6 was split up into two half-seasons, 8 episodes each. Throughout, Tony talks to Melfi and the tensions with New York ebb and flow.
In addition to the above scene, with Tony feeling a sense of bleakness in his progress in therapy, there is the final scene between Tony and Melfi that we must touch on.
Melfi’s academically-inclined friends tell her about a study that showed therapy doesn’t help sociopaths become better people; it just helps them become better criminals.
She sits with this idea. For 6 long seasons (and even more years in the show universe), has she been helping Tony manage his stress so that he can be more morally sound?
Or so that he can justify his actions and be just as wicked and ruthless just without smacking his head on the concrete after a swarm of vertigo.
Eventually, Melfi decides on the latter. She can’t help Tony anymore, or more aptly, she won’t.
With Melfi’s abandonment, Tony’s last person that holds him accountable, that pushes him to be better and speaks to him honestly, is gone. It is a sad scene and masterfully executed by two actors that established chemistry unmatched by much of TV since.
Largely because of the therapy scenes between Melfi and Tony, therapy became more accepted and openly-discussed in homes and workplaces than ever before.
Rest In Peace James, we will never forget you.