After finishing the third season of The Sopranos, I realized what makes the show special. There are a lot of things The Sopranos does magnificently: it humanized a morally complex cast of characters that are brought to life by an excellent cast and presented through excellent visual storytelling. However, what makes the show special for me is that it legitimizes the idea of psychological abuse.
The brilliance of the show is that it presents this concept in the tough-guy world of mobsters. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) ostensibly leads the Mafia in all but name in the New Jersey area. While he’s a physically intimidating force, he suffers from depression and anxiety attacks. Here’s a man that turns other men into frightening, blubbering boys, and he’s mentally and emotionally damaged to the point of breaking.
Tony starts seeing therapist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) concerning his depression and anxiety attacks. Throughout the seasons, Jennifer pulls back the layers of what is truly going on behind this. In the process, the show gives serious credence and weight to the importance of mental health and how psychological abuse can degrade and destroy the mental well-being of even a powerful, intimidating man such as Tony Soprano.
This allows the show to subvert the typical tough-guy image by exposing the vulnerability and weakness of a man who would be portrayed as powerful and dominating in the typical mobster film. Tony spends more time getting berated by his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), or dealing with his kids acting out than being the tough mobster in the fictional fantasies.
Livia is a controlling negative force in Tony’s live, a demanding mother that Tony can never do right by. Her relentless guilt-tripping and condemnation has built a life-long cycle of psychological abuse that has built up inside of Tony. By spending time reflecting upon and exploring the dynamics of this relationship, The Sopranos explores psychological abuse as a legitimate form of violence.
And the show goes somewhere truly bold by suggesting that this is a form of violence particularly deadly and masterfully wielded by the female sex. Before flinging accusations that this is a sexist charged, the show also explores how men can often commit psychological violence on others (in the same way that some women commit physical violence during the course of the show). Tony can often verbally abuse members of his crew, but the show often divides primary figures of physical and psychological violence between men and women respectively. To men, psychological violence is a secondary form of violence. Tony is more likely to use physical violence while women often retaliate with forms of emotional or verbal abuse that can be just as damaging and harmful.
For instance, Tony’s sister, Janice, is another figure of psychological abuse throughout the film. In one arc of the story, she tries to extort her mother’s caretaker by stealing her prosthetic leg. She’s also quick to turn every event where she’s done wrong into a guilt-trip for Tony who failed to protect her from whatever terrible thing she’s done. It’s always someone else’s fault, she’s never in the wrong, and in order to do this, she commits physiological violence on others by placing them in the role of the villain.
It’s worth explicitly stating that the show is not condoning either form of violence. There are some horrific scenes of misogynistic violence against women as well as some grueling emotional scenes of these same women verbally and emotionally abusing men. In a show that treats mental and psychological health as something as valuable and precious as physical health. These acts can be just as damaging as the horrible acts of violence.
Some people won’t like such an even playing field, some will accuse it of being an imbalanced and sexist portrayal, I’d argue instead it’s a well-rounded portrait that demonstrates that women are just as capable of violence as men. It may not take the same form, but it’s effects can be just as traumatic. The show certainly does not neglect sexism. It’s a thread that runs through the show as we see expectations of who women are and how they function in the world being usurped and overturned, such as when Tony goes to Italy to discover that the Mafia there is run by a woman and how men respond in sexist manners and attempt to challenge such behaviors.
In our society, mental health and psychological abuse are not taking nearly as seriously as they should be. Especially in male subcultures, psychological and verbal abuse are something that is simply supposed to roll off of people, but The Sopranos shows that words have real power and can leave deep scars. It’s a reminder that even the toughest man can be a victim of psychological abuse.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing