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...