Tony Soprano: Sociopath?

One of the greatest series in the history of television ends this coming Sunday. The penultimate episode of The Sopranos, "The Blue Comet", which aired last Sunday, showed what was probably the last interaction psychiatrist Dr. Melfi has with her long term patient, mafia boss Tony Soprano. After seven years, she ends their doctor-patient relationship after her peers convince her that psychiatrists can't help sociopaths, and if anything, may enable them.

Is Tony Soprano a sociopath? That, I believe, is the over-arching question of the series. Are we to relate to Tony's suburban struggles with family and friends despite what he does for a living? Or should we recoil in horror at the monstrous acts he periodically performs without a hint of guilt?

While growing up, his role models were his father, a popular mob captain, and his uncle, another higher-up in the organization. At a certain point in his life course, he had to internalize his surroundings and decide either to get out and start a life outside this culture or stay in the family business and build up psychological defense mechanisms to justify what ordinary people regard as abhorrent acts.

The very first scene of the series showed him complaining to Melfi about the loss of the old ways of doing business. Tony was all about playing within the mob rules and respecting mob culture. He's a family man spreading his time between his nuclear family and his mob family. Anytime we see his dream sequences, he is struggling with what he has done or is about to do or how his life would have been different had he done things right in the past. He shows a conscience.

But over the years, he started making more and more exceptions, seeing himself above the law. Both the murders of Ralph Cifaretto and his own nephew Christopher Moltisanti were outside the accepted rules, though I think he genuinely felt remorse afterwards. The same can't be said about when he ruined Davey Scatino's life, or dumped asbestos into a marsh, or taunted Meadow about her boyfriend, all done without a second thought. Phil Leotardo, Tony's rival, himself no longer lives by the oaths. What he is doing is against all mafia conventions and punishable by death, all the while mocking Tony's New Jersey organization for its failure to follow the unwritten rules. After he gains all the power, without the checks provided by evolved customs in the den of theives, he himself will become corrupt beyond salvation. That's another central theme of the series: the civilizing forces of cultural norms and the consequences of their breakdown.

So is Tony Soprano a sociopath? I don't know. But I watched "The Blue Comet" with a deep sadness as the inevitable downfall began in a surreal chain of events. All along, Melfi has been a proxy for our fascination for the criminal mind, and in the end she decided that what she'd been doing these last seven years was helping Tony be a better gangster. She couldn't bear to live with herself for it. Maybe I'm not as brave as Melfi. Maybe I'm still gullible about seeing the good side of an evil man, someone who only us viewers saw kill another man with his bare hands, even as his own wife could only guess about all the awful things he did but never wanted to know. Or maybe it's simply David Chase working his magic, but within the mob world, I want Tony to win.

Now Paulie... if the word "sociopath" applied to anyone...

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Not a psychopath

Maybe a sociopath[1].

He has friends, not just people he's using, as well as a family he cares about, and displays a conscience, and remorse. He has a complex interior life. Psychopaths don't have one, they just do modelling. He doesn't appear to have the complete self-centredness one expects either.

I suspect that if Tony is a diagnosable sociopath, so are a great many of the world's field agents for intelligence agencies, which I find deeply implausible, as an almost total lack of loyalty to anyone or anything but number one is among the traits expected.

[1] I'm pretty sure this is a completely non standard way of using these two words, seeing as they're usually synonyms, only one of my friends has exposed me to this usage, and wikipedia doesn't believe it (for what that's worth).

A psychopath is born this way, a sociopath can have the same behaviours triggered by environment, somewhat like the Monoamine antioxidase gene which does nothing in a pleasant environment, but makes you a mean bastard if abused in childhood.

Rather obviously, it's a spectrum disorder, so you have varying loads, which'd be why female psychopaths are much more likely to have like children than males, we're closer to it already, lower empathy etc.

Not a psychopath, but a sociopath

I agree with you in saying that Tony is not a psychopath, but he is a sociopath. I think what you were trying to get at was right, but I also think you misunderstand the two terms. I am not an expert on the subject, but I do know that not every sociopath is a psychopath, but every psychopath is a sociopath. This means that even though the two terms are connected they are not interchangeable. A psychopath is a sociopath who is born without the concept of good or evil, and right or wrong. The average sociopath is not born without the concepts of good and evil, right or wrong, ethics, etc.

Sociopaths usually become sociopaths through life experience, such as Tony. Unlike psychopaths the average sociopath has a conscience and knows what is right or wrong, and even has the ability to love, but will only truly love very few people in there lives. I think the last season of the Sopranos showed more and more that Tony was a sociopath and the therapy was enabling him.

Like you said it is a spectrum disorder and sometimes these terms can become confused. What is for sure is that the average sociopath is not pure evil, while the psychopathic sociopath is pure evil, because they have no concept of good & evil and right and wrong. A non-violent psychopath does have the potential to live among us without any clear signs of their nature. Ever hear of Scott Peterson?

Maybe he is...maybe he isnt

Psychopath was the initial label for people with no conscience, morality, etc etc. That title was then changed to sociopath as the word "psycho" was being misunderstood. Then it became Anti Social Personality Disorder. So being a psychopath/sociopath or having Anti Social Personality Disorder are all the same thing.

I loved Tony as much as the next person, and am trying hard to think back on times where he felt things for OTHERS and not himself. Yes Tony had many feelings, but many sociopaths have deep emotions for themselves but cannot relay those emotions into empathy for others. Was there ever a time he actually felt guilty for someone else, where his honour or pride was not on the line?! It was always about Tony. And this is why David Chase is a genius. Sociopaths are so charming that you become addicted to them. They are always surrounded by people. So as viewers, as much as we loved Tony, we know he does bad things. Is he a bad man that is evil? or a good man who does bad things? We all wished and were brainwashed that he was a fundamentally good family man that did bad things.

Let me tell you, after being involved with a sociopath that the human condition of a person with a conscience; like us, fundamentally cannot understand that people without morality exist, and it is our own brainwashing that makes us want to believe that Tony was a good man. This is the biggest trick in the guidebook to sociopathy, they feign feeling, they know what they should be saying and say it.

I believe David Chase's genius is this: after 7 years of therapy, a group of psychiatrists anecdotally telling melfi (and us) the truth, the evidence is in front of us...and we, normal, feeling people, still want to see the good in Tony S. We are so brainwashed by this series that Tony was a good man when he was not. HE was not a good man and although all evidence points that way, we, the viewer choose not to see it because he is so charismatic we think he can be healed. We want so badly for him to be healed, this is normal for people with morality to think and feel. This is exactly why it takes victims of sociopaths years to get out, they think sociopaths can change, this is also the reason why we are still addicted to Tony. Shutting the door on a sociopath is hard, because, for one, we are addicted to their personality, their charm, their drama, although we hate it, its exactly as melfi says it is "its a train wreck that i cant look away from" and secondly the normal human condition believes all people are fundamentally good. This is not true, some people are not fundamentally good and this is a psychologoical fact.

This is what it feels to be addicted to a sociopath...from experience.

Not a psychopath/sociopath

I'm pretty sure he is not a psychopath. He can be seen many times throughout the series showing sympathy and empathy, the most prominent ones in my opinion are his reaction to Tracie's (the "hoowah" that Ralph killed) and Christopher killing Adriana's dog-- "i know what it's like to lose a pet". A possible explanation for his lack of guilt could be the world in which he grew up, where it is acceptable to kill--"they're soldiers, and soldiers kill other soldiers". Yes Tony's 7 years of therapy were a virtual waste, but i think it was because he was just stubborn.

good & evil

Like you said it is a spectrum disorder and sometimes these terms can become confused. What is for sure is that the average sociopath is not pure evil, while the psychopathic sociopath is pure evil, because they have no concept of good & evil and right and wrong.

Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano has some very obvious sociopathic tendencies which are picked up on in the show as well as by the audience. He has the "sociopath charm", he believes everything is his right (as picked up on by Christopher in Cleaver) and a lack of empathy and disregard for the rights of others (very notably demonstrated by his utter dismantling of David Scatino's life). However I think David Chase very deliberately shows us that Tony is not a complete anti-social personality disorder. He is capable of love and selfless actions. These are qualities that a true sociopath cannot have. We see examples of selflessness in his interactions with animals. When Ralph Ciferetto's horse is sick Tony rushes down there in the middle of the night and lies down with it comforting the animal. More importantly his love for his children is very evident. In the first series Tony is accused of being a “golem” and a “Frankenstein” by a Hasidic Jew after Tony asks him for money out of his motel business in return for securing his daughters divorce. Tony repeats the insults to Melfi who asks him if he does feel like a “thing, lacking human emotion.” We do not see his response but the next shot shows him watching Meadow sing in a school choir with a tear in his eye grinning. This seems very deliberately done to show us that Tony does feel emotions and is capable of love. While Tony is an incredibly flawed person with such devastating sociopathic symptoms, he is not a psychopath.

yes he is

psychopathy is a spectrum disorder, though clinicians use the term sociopath or psychopath to describe people in the 1 in 25 bracket of severe psychopathy. he is a psychopath as he will be fitting somewhere on the psychopathy curve, in what percentile he is is a more specific question. the alarming thing is we are all psychopaths to varying degrees. eg, ever thought psychopaths are people willing to kill or be accomplices to murder? well how many dead bodies have you eaten recently ? ie animals. anyone who eats meat lacks a conscience just as the media-style psychopath cliches lack conscience. and if i am right and you, a meat eater, are a psychopath - what would be the tell tale symptom confirming my opinion - you would aggressively deny what i just said. WHich is precisely what the meat eaters i know do. Psychopathy is defined by a lack of conscience leading to a genetic fitness benefit for the actor and a fitness cost to the receiver, which is normally steered by gratification or suffering. If you want to know if a person is a psychopath this is how you need to look at people, but if you do, be prepared to find that most or possibly all of the people you know are psychopaths to varying degrees. It may water down the word, but I personally differentiate the soprano style psychopath by calling them "severe psychopaths".

Soprano isn't a sociopath,

Soprano isn't a sociopath, just a self-justified asshole. There is a huge difference. True ASPD is maladaptive and can lead to functional disabilities in life. Tony's behavior is fully adapted behavior, it's just adapted to the demands of a culture where mens' role is to be violent hierarchists (something Tony obviously had problems assimilating early on). Some of the mobsters depicted in the show come across as mildly sociopathic; but most are just soldiers who get by on a tragic worldview and lots of denial.

Marlo Stanfield from "The Wire" is a sociopath. His affect is flattened; he requires a lot of stimulus to feel any emotion, consequently he's comparatively underdeveloped in dealing with emotions; he's bad at reading others (and tends to lose at poker). He doesn't even appear to take it personally when someone crosses him, but he also has no qualm whatsoever with killing a person, regardless of their relationship to him. When he talks about what he wants ("the crown"), his dialogue betrays shallow and unreflective thought processes.

Tony is full of qualms, full of subconscious self-betrayal and psychological complexities. He just represses them to fit the role he's been groomed for. I think therapy did help him a few steps toward enlightenment (e.g. the coma-trip); just not enough to escape responsibility for the world he'd been a part of, and too late to save his kids.