Jump with me, if you will, back to the first season. Seeing the pilot again in May instantly sparked millions of thoughts; so many, I could hardly keep up with my pen. Thoughts on family (not la famiglia), depression, machismo, sympathy for Tony. These have all been tackled by various bloggers and columnists since 1999. Discussions abound about sociopaths, manipulation, and the evergreen puzzler of why so many women are attracted to this self-admitted miserable prick.
One of the easiest ways we’re made to feel sorry for Tony is through childhood flashbacks in the first season. As soon as you can identify with the scared, confused child, you’re going to lower your guard and think differently about the man in front of you. This is, of course, part of what Melfi is trying to do: get him to connect with his inner child.
It helps that he grew up during the easily-idealized 60s. The first flashback is to the Summer of Love, 1967. He’s a kid playing in the neighbourhood. A little boy who wonders why his dad favours his sister, Janice, and why his mom yells at him all the time and threatens to jam a fork into his eye. Where’s Mr. Rogers when you need him?
We hear little about Tony’s father, proving that everything that is taken to therapy really is about their mothers (I’m only half serious). What’s certain is that Johnny Soprano was not the most demonstrative man. The only time in Tony’s memory that his father was nice to him was after his arrest the day the amusement park was raided. Otherwise, he was as cold and calculating as his wife, using Janice and the park as a front for his mob meetings. It is probably here that Tony swears that he will never repeat history, and makes an effort to keep affari di famiiglia separate from affari di cuore. Seeing him make sundaes with AJ at the end of “Down Neck” helps to contrast the nearly non-existent relationship Tony had with his own father, and remind us that he’s doing his best.
You also see adult Tony as a secretly goofy guy. He fucks with Cusamano, asking him ominously to hold on to a box of sand. He knows Cuz will think he’s being made an accessory to some nefarious plot. Carmela tells him, “you’re cute when you’re being a bad boy.” It’s a rare moment of easy flirtation in a notoriously troubled marriage, where you catch a glimpse of what attracted her to him to begin with. It’s also the only time that Carmela will be able to speak lightly of Tony’s misdeeds.
One of the things I noticed immediately was how everything unfolds perfectly. There is no shaky first season. How rare is that? Maybe almost as rare as a mobster who falls in love with baby ducks.
The ducks, Melfi theorizes, symbolize his family. Meadow will be going away to college, Carmela is unhappy, and AJ… is AJ. Tony’s mother, unharmed by the pseudo-stroke, is still manipulative. As the first season progresses, Tony’s life and status are precarious. With the police promising indictments in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti“, he is faced with two options: Hide the stash and deny everything, or join the witness relocation program. Hope above all that Christopher’s impulses don’t get the best of him. Pray that the day he and Carmela are empty-nesters does not come before he can handle it.
Matters are further complicated when they smell a rat. Fearing that Tony’s therapy sessions will lead to the exposure of carefully guarded information, Tony becomes the target of a hit, orchestrated by his Uncle Junior. Junior is also motivated by Tony’s public ribbing during a golf game in Boca, where he mocks him for eating pussy. (A surprisingly un-macho thing. Never until this show would I have equated going down on a woman with sucking dick, but they do. Lots of thoughts on that one.) “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”
A later scene shows Carmela’s and Tony’s playful sides. As she gigglingly tells him what she heard from Gabby Dante, they look like any other couple getting ready for bed. He tickles her, prodding for the truth, before she spills Roberta’s secret. A woman got Junior Soprano, the capo, to go down on her! Hilarious. Power play.
Someone who does not bend to Tony’s power until absolutely necessary, and then with unapologetic anger, is Dr. Jennifer Melfi. She is the coolest psychiatrist you’ve ever seen. She has mastered textbook detachment and objectivity, at least on the surface. Her dress is conservative bordering on frumpy (even for 1999), though this doesn’t stop him from fantasizing about her.
You could easily imagine her spending her nights alone with a bottle of wine and her work, like Dana Scully. But she too is more complex. This is one of the many wonderful things about The Sopranos: it seemed to spring up fully developed, a media Athena, leaping from the head of Zeus (David Chase), already armed. Melfi is shown with friends and family. She has a son with her ex-husband. They argue about her work, their marriage, Italian stereotypes. These glimpses into Melfi’s life are brief, but not boring. They are not inconsequential: through them, we learn that she and Tony have a mutual friend in the Cusamanos.
Melfi having dinner next door to Tony and eventually spying on his house from the bathroom window was a cute moment. For all of her professionalism, she can’t resist taking a peek. It’s a humanizing move. Without it, it might be too easy to see her only as The Psychiatrist. Such nuance so early is commendable.
She is still professional when she tells Tony that she was “in the neighbourhood,” lest he hear it from a second source, and draw his own conclusions. He laughs about it with her. “So, uh, you saw my house?” You’re not really sure what he’s thinking. He says it with a smile that could be sly or shy. It’s like that sentence that can be read seven different ways, depending on the emphasis. He could be hopeful that his obvious wealth makes him more appealing, increasing his chances with her. He could be uncharacteristically shy, or contemplative. He softens considerably when he explains why he loves her so much. Interestingly, he’ll love Gloria for what seem to be the same reasons: she’s different from any other woman that he knows. But Gloria has an edge that Melfi lacks.
It is Melfi’s resistance that makes her powerful. She won’t accept bribery in the form of gifts. She does not bend to his angry outbursts. She questions him and demands more from him than probably any woman in his life. The reason why he always gives in and returns weekly is that he knows he needs help and actually wants it.
Most women’s knees buckle when he shows interest in them (lucky for him….), but not Melfi. She’s not afraid of him, as I suspect all women are or come to be; not enough to let him take over. Even when gets into her face, this time with a death threat instead of a kiss, she remains calm. Agrees.
She’s far from passive, though. When Tony returns to tell her she should leave town for her own safety, she initially refuses. When he phones her at her makeshift home-cum-office motel room, she bluntly asks if he’s watching her. In a closing scene, he tracks her down at a diner, dominating her physically (but non-violently) by placing his hands on hers, then moving the cutlery aside, telling her not to scream. Though her body language betrays understandable fear, she continues to dismiss him. “Fuck off. Get out of my life.”
The tension is eased momentarily when she tells Tony that a patient of hers can no longer eat bagels because she committed suicide in her absence. It’s a darkly funny way of showing how Tony’s actions affect everyone, not just his immediate circle, of which Melfi is arguably now a part.
Tony leaves quietly, heeding her request. He looms into the frame outside of the diner, the blue sky and old-fashioned sign visible over his shoulder. Shot in muted tones, it’s as if his world has been drained of colour. He just stands there. Now what?