The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire, and Betrayal in America’s Favorite Gangster Fam

[16 September 2002]

By Tara Taghizadeh

Mob Scene

The successful revolutionary is a statesman, the unsuccessful one a criminal.
—Erich Fromm

A few months ago, John Gotti, the granddaddy of all gangsters, who ran the Gambino crime family, passed away quietly in a hospital in Missouri. Cancer isn’t probably how he would have wished to die. Given his reputation as a ruthless mobster, Gotti would probably have desired to depart in a blaze of criminal glory: getting whacked by his enemies. It would have been the expected and understandable end to a tumultuous life peppered with murder and racketeering.

The death of the “dapper don,” as he was referred to by the media, brought about a slew of news stories devoted to the demise of the “urban legend” (as described by CNN), which in addition to listing his daunting criminal brutalities, also noted his shaper-than-sharp wardrobe and his reputedly charming good looks. Gotti’s obituaries were marked with almost a sense of wistfulness; an homage to a bad man who in his own way had managed to fascinate a nation. “Americans, after all, appear to love a rogue,” seems to be a popular explanation.

Which brings us to The Sopranos, the HBO show which enslaves 11 million viewers on Sunday nights. Talk about loving a rogue. There is an awful lot of hoopla being generated as the show kicks off its fourth season: websites and message boards are being populated by Sopranos devotees, conversations are livened by anticipation of what lies in store for mobster Tony Soprano and the rest of his “family” in the coming season, and a slew of books have just been published to accompany the premiere.

So, what’s all the fuss about? Glen Gabbard, M.D., author of The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire, and Betrayal in America’s Favorite Gangster Family, describes Tony as “a racist thug who kills people,” yet America has become entranced by this no-good hood and his gang of conmen. In this riveting account, Gabbard (a professor of psychology at Baylor College of Medicine) delves into the psyches of the Sopranos, and explains why the nation has become seduced by a show about the “misadventures of a middle-aged thug.” Doesn’t sound so odd, really. How many people, after all, refer to The Godfather as an all-time favorite movie? Hollywood has had a long and happy marriage with mobsters, evident in other classics such as Goodfellas, Prizzi’s Honor, and a slew of other films, so it’s obvious that a television series devoted to mob shenanigans inevitably inspired visions of infinite dollar signs.

In a nutshell (for those of you who for unbeknownst reasons-or lack of cable-are unfamiliar with The Sopranos), this is gist of the story: Tony Soprano is a middle-aged New Jersey mobster married to Carmela—his doting, devoted wife who turns a blind eye to his philandering and questionable business practices—who rules his “family” of fellow mobsters. He also sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, and as Gabbard explains: “[Sopranos] creator David Chase noted that the therapy session was the germ of his idea for the series.”

Dr. Melfi, who according to many reviewers has a crush on Tony, continues to see him despite the problems posed by his therapy because “she is fascinated by her celebrity ‘bad boy’,” as Gabbard explains. In addition, Tony falls for his therapist, which further complicates the sessions, but the doctor continues to see him professionally. Interestingly enough, CNN recently reported that the new season also promises therapy sessions for Tony’s daughter, Meadow, and his sister, Janice.

During the therapy sessions, the audience is offered another side of Tony: a boyish, charming, sexy man who in his own fashion is trying to do the right thing. Yes, he may cheat on his wife, yet on the flip side, he is a devoted father who reveres and respects his wife greatly. He may steal and kill, but he also has a peculiar sense of honor and loyalty, and frowns on betrayal (which is often his justification for violence). As Gabbard writes, Tony’s moral code seems to be: “If someone owes you money and doesn’t pay, you’re justified in removing parts of his anatomy.”

According to the author, viewers’ tremendous interest in Tony is due to the fact that “we experience a tantalizing potential for change. Maybe a bad man can become a good man.” Which brings us to the important question: Can Tony be treated? If Tony were to abandon his mob lifestyle, shun his philandering, ask forgiveness for his sins, and become the ideal family man, then, well, that would mark the final episodes of the show, and we might as well tune into reruns of Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best.

However, it is the Tony who is constantly at odds with himself; the torn man who realizes full well what he is, and isn’t quite sure whether he can-or really wants to-change, that draws us into his world. Gabbard offers the well-known theory that “Americans have always been fascinated by the con artist who can get away with things that the rest of us can’t.” In the chapter on “Tony’s Ailment,” the author states that “Tony Soprano may not be New Jersey’s version of Mother Teresa, but he clearly is not a true psychopath” given his loving relationships with his family members, and loyalty to his gang.

In addition, the daily conflicts and struggles of the Sopranos and their cohorts, serve as a sort of mirror for society. All right, so we’re not affiliated with the mob, but their daily lives and routines strangely project images similar to those of the ordinary Joe’s: Tony hopes for a better life for his children, and fears that his son may follow in his footsteps. He is constantly trying to stave off the looming shadow of his dominant, cruel mother, yet he has surrounded himself with women who in as many ways that they differ from his mother, also resemble her in various ways. (As Gabbard explains, it seems that Tony is always fated to repeat that relationship.) He loves his wife yet cheats on her, and she in turn, would never leave him because the Church would never approve. He faces a continuous battle in attempting to hold onto his position in “the family” (aka the mob) and worries about the betrayal of fellow “family” members. He tries to cope with his issues by seeing a psychiatrist. Hence, Tony’s vicious circle mirrors those of many others’, evident in the 11 million-plus viewership.

The Psychology of the Sopranos offers us an eloquent analysis (pardon the pun) of Tony, Dr. Melfi, Carmela and the rest of the Sopranos gang. Various chapters describe insightful and often hilarious descriptions of Tony’s therapy, the gang’s violent and crime-ridden lives, the martyrs vs. the villains complexes, in addition to brilliant takes of the audience’s attraction to the show. For any tried-and-true Sopranosfan, this book is sure to serve as a perfect accompaniment into the mystery of Tony and Co.‘s psyches. According to Gabbard, “Nothing else on television depicts psychiatry realistically,” and it’s important to note that as journalist George Will commented, “More men are now seeking psychiatric help. Tony Soprano’s legitimized therapy?” Apparently so.

The show’s popularity may be undisputable, yet critics abound. The most vocal are, interestingly enough, Italian Americans who are tired of the mafia references which they fear only serves to strengthen the negative Italian American stereotype. According to an article in SicilianCulture.com, “The Sopranos is vulgar, violent and defames Italians.” True, but actress Edie Falco who plays Tony’s wife on the show, was invited to appear on Sesame Street, so there. They must be doing something right.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/psychology-of-the-sopranos/