Thanatos and the Lady of Death

Is that a pompous, poetic enough title for a message board thread? <img src= ALT=":D"> Saddle up and let's do this.

In this thread, per Tony's hanging question to Melfi on what to make of his fascination with dark, intelligent women fixated with the "smell of money," and per Melfi's statement to Eliot that "something else" drives Tony to suppress his feelings over the Junior shooting, let's discuss Tony and Chris, the life and death instincts, the dark women in Tony's life (Irina, Gloria, Valentina, Julianna, especially Livia and her dream Doppelganger – all lined up like ravens in a row across from Tony's ducks) and what they represent. I'll post this in the Eastern Religion thread as well, since in Carmela’s journey in Cold Stones and Chris and Julianna's affair in Kaisha we seem to have a perfect birth/life and death contrast in the context of Samsara.

Like David Lynch, Chase is clearly fascinated with doubles; as has been discussed, this season saw multiple explicit contrasts between Tony and the people around him as he wrestled with the meaning of his life. The most important "doubling" in the series is obviously that of crime family and blood family, in my opinion best exemplified by the contrasting of the "good" women (Carmela and Adrianna – light-haired, angelic, craving freedom and life, genuinely in love with Tony and Chris; let's throw Svetlana in there too, Tony's one "pure" affair) with the "bad" (Livia and her subsequent stand-ins – Tony’s dark-haired, depressed, greedy, suicidal goomars, drawn to Tony because of his power and perhaps his potential to abuse or destroy them).

It's this dichotomy that drives the "two Tonys," one craving life with family and the other death in the mob due to profound self-loathing – though of course, these two selves are ultimately one and the same. One thing that I did love about Kaisha is the explicit parallel we saw between Tony and Chris, who now shares Tony's passion for destructive women, and thus his death wish by proxy. In Chris' selfish indulgences, passionate affair and new double life, he is becoming the new Tony – or the old Tony, as it were, but without a Carmela or an Adrianna to steady him.

As to the parade of goomars, these women are all surrogates for Livia and embodiments of Tony’s empty mob life. Tony called Gloria a "bottomless back hole" reminiscent of his mother; Julianna clearly has a penchant for self-destruction shared by Christopher. All of the women have committed, attempted or threatened suicide; Livia herself attempted to kill Tony. They all represent the sexual and material gluttony of Tony's (and Chris') mob life; they're all spiritually barren and rotten with self-hatred, and Tony and Chris' involvement with them is all lies and redirected emotions, self-delusion and self-loathing rather than love.

And that brings us to Eros (the life instinct) and Thanatos (the death instinct) – life and death – for I think this show is ultimately about nothing less than the conflict between the two in the form of the two families. Thanatos is exemplified not just in these troubled women, but in Janice, in Vito, in AJ's "bone-chilling" nihilism (inherited from Livia, no doubt – "it's all a big nothing") and in the mobsters' careless violence. It also acts as the antithesis to Buddhist teaching (actions have consequences, so live right) and Hal Holbrook's metaphysical optimism ("everything is connected"), quasi-successfully incorporated into post-NDE Tony's consciousness despite his apparent ongoing regression. From Wikipedia:

<blockquote>Quote:<hr>The concept of the "death instinct" … signals a desire to give up the struggle of life and return to quiescence and the grave … Freud begins the work considering the experience of trauma and traumatic events (particularly the trauma experienced by soldiers returning from World War I). The most curious feature of highly unpleasant experiences for Freud was that subjects often tended to repeat or re-enact them. This appeared to violate the "pleasure principle," the drive of an individual to maximize his or her pleasure. Freud found this repetition of unpleasant events in the most ordinary of cirumstances … After hypothesizing a number of causes (particularly the idea that we repeat traumatic events in order to master them after the fact), Freud considered the existence of a fundamental death wish or death instinct, referring to an individual's own need to die. Organisms, according to this idea, were driven to return to a pre-organic, inanimate state—but they wished to do so in their own way…

In Freudian psychology, Eros, also referred to in terms of libido, libidinal energy or love, is the life instinct innate in all humans. It is the desire to create life and favours productivity and construction. Eros battles against the destructive death instinct of Thanatos (death instinct or death drive). Eros love might best be defined as promoting well-being by affirming that which is valuable or beautiful.<hr></blockquote>

On one level, I think Tony craves (or did crave) self-destruction; it's why he keeps getting involved with these women, not because he literally wants to bang his mother, but because his mother and surrogate father tried to kill him and he hates himself for it. This is the counterpoint to his desire to procreate and preserve his family. The same logic applies to Chris' lapse back into drugs and involvement with Julianna, an expression of self-loathing due to his guilt and emptiness over losing Adrianna. Think Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, playing Russian roulette over and over until he finally puts a bullet through his own brain, or Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, endlessly flirting with danger due to the darkness in his soul.

If Thanatos exists, it's in the deepest recesses of the mind, that place we went in the Test Dream. To me, that episode was primarily about seeking death/non-existence – Tony trying to look it in the face and falling short – a "failed test," as it were. We saw a similar idea in the Finnerty sequence, where Tony was ultimately not ready to face his mother and die due to the pleas of his blood family – Carmela and Meadow, the two people that matter most.

For this reason, Tony's talk with Phil was EXTREMELY important. It was a plea on behalf of life and family, the other side of the coin from death, depression, addiction, and adultery. Tony said he did not want to die. But I think that's a wish that will ultimately go unfulfilled.


Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

Footnote 1 -- though Thanatos is an actual if highly controversial psychiatric concept, the clinically accepted surrogate for all this death wish stuff is depression, plain and simple. And we obviously know that exists and can drive people to end their own lives.

Now that I think about it, Tony was in the throes of depression before the first murder attempt in season 1; after that he never looked back. So self-hatred and sadness manifested in an unconscious desire to die -- call it whatever, but that's the issue.


Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

Footnote 2 -- if all this commentary seems a little over-dramatic and over-ambitious, it's only to make up for the lack of pop in the last episode!

Seriously though, the Phil conversation provided something of a connection to the coma and a resolution to the season's theme of changing/not changing, but I would have liked to see a reference to the Burroughs monologue or something else tying in the beginning, like Tony as the bear in Season 5. I suppose it was too much to ask for something as artful as the dinner in I Dream of Jeannie Cusamono or the "Thru and Thru" montage in Funhouse.

Finally, I know some might dispute the characterization of Carmela as a "good" woman, given her hypocrisy. But she is clearly good for Tony; as Melfi pointed out, Carmela represents the "one good choice [Tony's] made vis-a-vis women." They love each other, despite the fact that in many ways, Carmela and Ade wanted out while all the dark ladies wanted in.

Though she put aside the PI card at the end of Kaisha, I wouldn't be surprised if Carmela continued to search for Ade, which is her own way of probing her husband's darkness. It could still spell real trouble down the road.


Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

A superb thread, and great example of why I love this board.

So -- with the risk of maybe taking the 'dark woman' theme too far and/or in the wrong direction -- I'm curious where you and others think Charmaine fits in this lineup within Tony's psyche? Especially since she was featured prominently in 'Test Dream.'

Charmaine = Carmela minus the hypocrisy & complicity? Maybe an idealized dark woman (mother figure) for Tony in that she's not actually 'dark.'



Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

Charmaine = Carmela minus the hypocrisy & complicity? Maybe an idealized dark woman (mother figure) for Tony in that she's not actually 'dark.'<hr></blockquote>

I like this idea a lot. In Test Dream, Tony found Charmaine appealing because she was a licensed notary public and a good cook -- so he still wanted to use her, for both sex and domesticity. It seems to me she was either a dream stand-in for Carmela or a "purer" version of the goomahs/dark women Tony has been involved with, or maybe both.

It will be interesting to see how Bianca fits in as well as a potential latter-day dark woman; she certainly seems to be after A.J. for money/power, while he's in it because of pure lust. His sudden manifestation of family values appears paradoxical at first, but maybe he's just trying to be both versions of his dad at once.

Finally, I forgot in the initial post to talk about the "afterlife Livia" in Calling All Cars and Mayham, who it seems to me is not just the ghost of Tony's mother but a manifestation of death itself. That's what set me thinking about Thanatos in the first place, and the potential link between these extramarital affairs, Livia, life in the mob and death by proxy. In CAC, Tony sees the dark woman on the stairs, enters the house, awakens and enters a somewhat hellish bathroom; in Mayham, he sees the woman but opts not to enter the house, and returns to life.

It certainly seems to me that "good" Tony has found an answer to Melfi's question of what he's after "in his very brief time on this earth" -- the perpetuation of his blood family. In contrast, the only purpose of a life in organized crime -- and all the gluttony, lies and unfaithfulness that accompanies it -- is to end. That's the part of Tony that keeps seeking out these destructive women; that's the part that wants to destroy itself.


Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

<blockquote>Quote:<hr>On one level I think that Tony craves/craved self-destruction; it's why he keeps getting involved with these women...<hr></blockquote>

Freud's drive theory still is sexy after all these years, isn't it? The concept of an instinctual construction toward sex/love/destruction/food that sought to provide "the" answers to what makes us tick has/had enormous allure. T's failure to resolve his psychologically developmental tasks along these lines bears fruit as to his self-defeating patterns of behavior with these darkly mysterious yet compelling female objects.

Freud's (Object Relation) protegees have rethought the notion of drive, and reconfigured it into the yearning for attachment. Early attachments are healthy or unhealthy, and in either regard repeat themselves or seek to repair themselves. T's object relational experience with his mother was so destructive that (through my lens) he remains compelled to "fix" this original damage. He therefore remains seduced and repelled by these equally destructive women. All in all, this is exactly what you would describe as Freud's thanatological drive, and what the neo-Freudians would call the self-destructive reenactment of familar yet unhealthy attachments.

It was interesting for me to note (during the session) that T lumped Melfi in with Gloria Trillo and Julianna Skiff. All three of these female objects are dark and provocative. Yet, Melfi falls on the "good" side of the vertical split, while Julianna and especially Gloria fall on the "bad." Im feeling that Melfi is the good/idealized breast; the other two are familiar versions of Livia.


Re: Thanatos and the Lady of Death

Nice work OE!

I've been flipping through Civilization and its Discontents lately and it's incredible how much it applies to the Sopranos. There are a few key passages that I'll post whole-cloth at some point if I ever get the time, mostly pertaining to the death instinct and outward aggression.

Still waiting for FOMW and a few of the other intellectual heavyweights to weigh in.

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