Lets jump now to one of my personal favorite episodes, the Season 3 finale, “Army of One”;
Dialog Eleven (Season Three, Episode Thirty-Nine: Army of One).
“That Putrid, Rotten Fucking Soprano Gene”
After AJ is expelled, Tony wants to send him to a military academy. While trying on the uniform for his new school, AJ has a panic attack and falls to the floor. Tony is talking to Dr. Melfi right after this.
Tony: “My son, has panic attacks. Now obviously we can’t send him to military school. Pediatrician said. He’s got that putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene!”
Dr. Melfi: “It’s a slight tick- in his fight-flight response. It doesn’t brand him as anything.”
Tony: “You know- it comes down through the ages. I remember hearing about my great, great, great grandfather- he drove a mule cart over a mountain road. He was transporting these valuable jugs of olive oil. Probably was a panic attack.”
Dr. Melfi: “When you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself. And that’s what we should be talking about.”
This is probably the quintessential reference to genetics in the series. Tony explicitly cites “that putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene”. There is no doubt that, at least literally, he’s referring to a genetic basis for the anxiety syndrome that runs in the family. It’s likely Tony’s anger is directed at the fact that this trait interferes with his own work and effectiveness as a mob boss, and has put a stop to his plan to “save” AJ by sending him to military school.
Doctor Melfi’s response is classic and practical: “When you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself”. She has been trying to get Tony to accept responsibility for his behavior and his choices, and she’s not about to let him blame it all on a gene. She understands that genes don’t literally determine our behavior. Doctor Melfi also understands that at the individual level there is no way to separate genetic from non-genetic causes of our behavior. Her immediate response to Tony’s outburst is to play down the significance of AJ’s problem by saying “It’s a slight tick- in his fight-flight response. It doesn’t brand him as anything.” This one trait doesn’t irreversibly determine his fate. Just because AJ may have inherited Tony’s anxiety disorder it doesn’t mean he’s doomed to follow in Tony’s footsteps in every other respect.
At the same time, by labeling AJ’s anxiety attack as “a slight tick- in his fight-flight response” she is also commenting indirectly on Tony’s similar make-up. Fight-flight response, in academic jargon, refers to basic instincts that go deep into our evolutionary past and reside in the more primitive areas of our mammalian brain (often described as “the four F’s: fighting, feeding, fleeing and mating”). One of Doctor Melfi’s jobs as a psychiatrist is to help Tony become more consciously aware of his behavior and to use his rational powers to control his baser instincts and behave in a more socially acceptable way. Tony, on the other hand, usually sees his overactive four F’s as a good thing.
The fact that Doctor Melfi prescribes Prozac, Lithium and other pharmacological treatments for Tony is a further indication that, as a psychiatrist, she recognizes unconscious biological influences on behavior and accepts that psychiatric problems may be caused by individual differences in how these mechanisms function. She doesn’t just prescribe Prozac and hope for the best- she combines drug treatment with intensive psychotherapy. Her approach to therapy reflects a complex interaction among nature, nurture and insightful analysis. Tony’s problem may be rooted in his “nature”, but it’s not beyond the power of therapy to save him. Doctor Melfi’s strategy seems to lie mainly in patiently working to change the way Tony sees himself. She never does, however, successfully refer Tony to a purely behavioral therapist, despite several half-hearted attempts. The fact that Tony is already a master at dispensing “behavioral therapy” in his own line of work as a mafia boss, and his penchant for parasitizing therapeutic insights (e.g. he used her advice to let his mother think she is in charge of the decision to move into a nursing home to solve the problem of what to do with Uncle Junior by making him the nominal head of the family while Tony ran things behind his back) might have made her skeptical that behavioral therapy would be any more successful than her approach. More likely, she wasn’t willing to give up Tony as a patient because of her fascination with him and the personal challenge of treating him.
Doctor Melfi’s faith in therapy for Tony, despite her ambivalence about treating him, implies that she believes Tony is not a hopeless psychopath. She may be able to understand, better than her own ex-husband and her own therapist do, how Tony could be more a victim of circumstance, born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong mother, than a born sociopath. The origins and logic of Tony’s criminal behavior, as repulsive as it may be, may lie in his enculturation and family influences rather than an innate criminal disposition. Doctor melfi’s tenuous thread of empathy toward Tony may derive, in part, from the fact that she and Tony have recognized a common ancestral terroir in that Doctor Melfi’s family comes from Caserta, near Naples, not far from Avellino where Tony’s family roots lie. Had Tony’s family not been in the mafia, had he stayed in college, listened more carefully to his high school football coach and taken a job selling lawn furniture- he may have become a real “Captain of Industry”, politician, high-school gym teacher, cop, professional actor or even a psychotherapist or college professor. Jennifer Melfi, by the same token, might be thinking that had fate given her life a different twist, she might be on the other side of the couch as well.
Regardless of what might have been, Tony dreams about ducks as symbols of concern about his family, feels conflicted about whacking his close friends when business requires it, feels a tangible sense of loyalty and duty toward his mother, sister and uncle despite their transgressions against him, and genuinely cares about his marriage to Carmela. A full-blown psychopath wouldn’t have these feelings, probably wouldn’t be in therapy voluntarily, wouldn’t feel so protective of animals such as Adriana’s dog and Ralph’s racehorse, and wouldn’t feel anxiety and remorse to the point of developing panic attacks. A genuine psychopath would also be less conflicted and less concerned about the “ethics” of proper mob etiquette, especially when it requires some compromise, or delayed gratification on his part. It’s difficult to imagine Tony beating a young woman to death the way Ralph Cifarelli does, or smothering an old lady to death with a pillow for the money under her mattress like Paulie Walnuts, and with no apparent feelings of remorse afterwards. Tony has higher moral standards than these characters- he beats Ralph Cifarelli to death, for example, for whacking their racehorse “Pie-O’My” for the insurance money.
Despite the mixed results of her efforts to use both therapy and pharmacological treatments (combined with a good dose of vodka, therapy, personal anxiety and rationalization on her own behalf) in treating Tony, Doctor Melfi does an admirable job as a character in representing an intelligent, sincere, competent and appropriately complex mirror image of Tony’s character. She is an exemplary synthesis of the ethical, carefully reasoned and principled behaviors that Tony lacks. While Tony enjoys himself to the fullest most of the time, she struggles, like most of us, to maintain her integrity. Melfi is constantly debating whether or not she is treating Tony or enabling him, trying to help him or satisfying her own morbid attraction to him, or upholding the Hippocratic oath she’s sworn to obey versus doing more harm than good by helping him to function more effectively. Where Doctor Melfi succeeds in conforming to social norms, Tony largely fails. Where Doctor Melfi talks out her problems productively with her therapist, Tony’s awareness of his transgressions and corrective measures he might take remain largely suppressed and he deals with them instead by “somaticizing” them in the form of anxiety attacks and depression. While Doctor Melfi uses her insights into her patient’s personality, nature and behavior for their therapeutic benefit, Tony uses his insights into the personality, nature and behavior of other people to manipulate them to his advantage with little regard for their well-being
Tony and Doctor Melfi, nevertheless, clearly share a common attraction to each other on a personal level, they each live vicariously through each other’s worlds, and their different lifestyles don’t reside so much in any inherent potential difference in their respective human natures so much as how effectively they manage to control their impulses to act on it. This is nowhere more evident than the amazing self-control that Doctor Melfi displays after she is raped, her rapist is identified and arrested, and then released on a technicality. She knows that Tony would whack the guy in a second without being asked, so she keeps the entire incident secret from him, in spite of her residual rage and frustration, and unconscious dream imagery about Tony protecting her.
Tony and Doctor Melfi couldn’t be more different in some ways, but in other ways they almost meet at a common middle ground coming from two opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Tony’s most impressive similarity to Doctor Melfi occurs in his parallel universe of the Cosa Nostra. There, in his own separate world, Tony is a model citizen when it comes to taking on awesome responsibilities, mediating conflicts, upholding mob social conventions, dispensing advice, “medicine” and “therapy” while also receiving it from his consigliere and lawyer, running a business, seeing “clients”, and holding sit-downs. Doctor Melfi and Tony both work hard to keep their lives on track.
Both of them are very successful, work long hours, struggle with various crises and challenges and difficult people, and must handle a lot of stress. Doctor Melfi struggles with cognitive dissonance between the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession and her concern that by treating Tony she may also enable his criminal behavior and, indirectly, share responsibility for the harm he does to other people. Tony struggles with the fact that the oath of loyalty he swore in blood to the Cosa Nostra sometimes requires him to whack his friends and exercise strategic restraint against his enemies. The process of working one’s way up the ladder from petty criminal to mob boss is not unlike the process of working one’s way through high school, college and medical school and finally earning your degree and practicing. The only problem is that Tony’s life revolves around the wrong set of rules.
The Sopranos recognizes a fine and dangerous line between right and wrong in part because much of what comes to be accepted as such is decided by arbitrary social contract, and because much of the process is the same even if the outcome is so dramatically different. There is an obvious overlap in this regard not just between Tony and his therapist, but also between the mob and the FBI in that they share a lot in common even though they are, ultimately on opposite sides of the law. The Sopranos blurs the worlds of the mob and conventional society by showing much of the “human” side of the criminals along with the more hypocritical side of the conventional characters, such as those representing law enforcement, religion, government and business.
One of the many elements of brilliance in The Sopranos series is the way that the complex interaction in Tony’s character between nature and nurture in the causation of human behavior is portrayed. References to genetics, family, religion, society, culture, philosophy and chance and their manifestations in Tony’s character resemble a modern version of a Dostoyevsky novel. Although references to genetics throughout the series are relatively few, they are conspicuous in this context.
We see how the strands of these shows weave together like genetic material. Its amazing how 37 episodes later and this theme is still going. Its obviously central to this show.
(To Be Continued)
You know, Vito called me “skip” the other day. Slip of the tongue, no doubt. But I noticed he didn’t correct himself.