The Sopranos & Mental Health: A Survey of 10 Complex Characters
When it comes to The Sopranos, nearly everything has a price. Whether it’s the awarding of no-show jobs, a sapphire diamond ring, or money you’re taxed from breaking the rules, you can solve almost everything if you’ve got enough cash. That is, except those intangibles like happiness or fulfillment. While it may seem cliché, these lessons are among the tougher parts of The Sopranos. So, while I’m here, I figured I’d dive a bit more into some of my thoughts on The Sopranos and mental health.
Tony Soprano Just Feels Like The Sad Clown
First, I turn to the big man himself: Anthony “Tony” Soprano. Lover of ziti, f**in, and f**in Ziti (credit to Brett Martin for that one). What about those things that Tony Soprano doesn’t love so much? Panic attacks, psychiatry, or being hit with flying London Broils. I guess you could add getting shot by your uncle to that list, too.
In any case, I think the larger Tony question boils down to this: Was Tony a product of his environment, or would he have been drawn to antisocial activity regardless of Johnny Boy’s career? In a more acute sense, did Tony go to therapy just to chat with an attractive woman and learn how to be a more effective boss? Or was Tony genuinely trying to reflect on his behavior and grow as a person? I think it’s hard to say. As with many other things in life, maybe the answer is both. What we do know is that Tony Soprano most often was full of agita more than anything else.
Next, it took no time at all for The Sopranos to put Christopher Moltisanti’s lack of enthusiasm for life on full display. In fact, in the Pilot, when Christopher finally “took action” for the business (Triborough Towers), he expected immediate recognition. As the season developed, Christopher’s discontent became more apparent, culminating in a couple of short heart-to-hearts with Tony & Paulie.
The truth is, I believe Christopher’s disappointment at work wasn’t a cause, but rather a byproduct, of his depression. In his own words, “It’s like the regular-ness of life is too f**king hard for me.” Depression? No way. Cancer, on the other hand, is real. You can see it, scan it, and examine it under a microscope or in a scan. Talk about a perfect example of the internalized stigma of mental illness.
Further, in “Boca,” Tony notices that Meadow’s soccer teammate, Ally, seems to be “sleepwalking” during their game. But sure enough, Ally turns it around with the winning goal before being surrounded by grateful, cheering teammates. Ally must be riding high right now, right? Wrong. In a scene shortly later, Meadow and another teammate find Ally in the park engaging in self-harm.
To be clear, the larger point here is that we often have no idea what’s going on beneath the surface. And the mental burden one carries may not even be connected to some tangible “thing” or event. It makes me wonder how many other Allys there are running around in our lives. Maybe it’s a colleague, a cousin, a Twitter pal, or even us. And as for Ally? I hope she got the help she needed and the justice she deserved.
The Tragedy of Vin Makazian
Additionally, when it comes to mental suffering in season one, we have Detective Vin Makazian. When Tony asks Makazian to “look into” Dr. Melfi’s life, it’s an undoubtedly inappropriate misuse of power by both Tony and Makazian.
However, Makazian takes it to whole other level. What Tony didn’t request was a scene involving taunting Dr. Melfi and traumatizing her date. It’s pretty clear Makazian has some demons.
Speaking of demons, as we progress through the season, we see Tony throw some pretty nasty proverbial punches at Detective Makazian. The last real thing Tony said to him was “I won’t hurt a man that I love because of some cop gossip from a degenerate f**king gambler with a badge.” As his former lover said, there wasn’t one main catalyst that caused Vin’s suicide, but I think it’s safe to say that Tony didn’t help the situation.
Janice "Parvati" Soprano
In contrast to those “degenerate gamblers,” when it comes to Tony’s blood, there’s an extra helping of family dysfunction. That brings me to Janice. It’s no surprise when we first see Janice in the Soprano kitchen venting to Carmela about her stolen ergonomic pillow. Not that someone is toxic just for having an ergonomic pillow, but I think you know what I mean.
Essentially, after Livia’s passing, Janice assumed that unique female role. The one where you’re immune to Tony’s power gestures that typically take the form of sex, physical violence, or both. In essence, Janice had an indefinite “free pass.” Well, almost a free pass. As we learn, Tony likewise knew how to poke at Janice’s weak spots. “Cold Cuts” and Tony’s “Sacre bleu, where is mi mama?” rant at the table is a perfect example.
Carmela Soprano's not depressed, she just needs to vent.
Next, it’s hard for Carmela to imagine that something in her mind could be making her feel so unwell. Well, they are cousins, so maybe it runs in the family. (Yes, you read that right. Christopher is technically Carmela’s family member by blood. Long story, but I digress).
In any case, when Carmela visits a counselor referred by Father Intintola, she seems convinced she has Ovarian Cancer. Remember, in that family, there’s no such thing as mental illness. You either have a tumor, the flu, or a pregnancy sending your hormones bouncing off the walls. To further demonstrate the internalized stigma, Carmela says “I am not the one who needs mental help. I just needed to vent” when Dr. Melfi first recommends seeing a colleague. Clearly, people would only see therapists if they’re SERIOUSLY messed up, right? The answer, to be clear, is no.
Livia Soprano's Got Shame: The Sopranos and Mental Health Extraordinary Case Study
In similar fashion, Livia Soprano was definitely not a fan of psychiatry. In fact, I doubt Livia ever saw the inside of a psychiatrist’s office. Unlike Carmela, though, Livia was far from supportive of Tony making such efforts.
When it comes to The Sopranos and mental health, Dr. Melfi gave us a lot of free insight over the course of her sessions with Tony. But one thing I sometimes question is her unofficial diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) for Livia. I think it’s important to recognize the distinction between BPD and Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). I do recall Tony telling Janice in “The Knight in White Satin Armor” that Melfi said Livia has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, whereas we hear Melfi tell Tony in “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” that Livia has Borderline Personality Disorder. I’m not a licensed mental health practitioner, so it’s not really my place to make my own diagnosis, but it’s certainly interesting to think about.
***One quick note regarding Livia: I think Johnny Soprano got off WAY too easy in terms of not being held accountable or taken to task for how he treated Livia or his children. Hopefully we’ll ger a bit more insight in The Many Saints, but I just wanted to throw that out there for now.
Gloria Trillo - "Serial killer. I murdered seven relationships."
Next, there’s the tragic character known as Gloria Trillo. With Gloria, when she was good, she was great. But as soon as the chips began to fall, they fell hard. Specifically, when Gloria told Tony that her sister had forbade her from seeing her niece and nephew, my heart sunk. It’s like you know she’s close to hitting rock bottom…or do we? The last time we see Gloria is when Patsy Parisi takes a test drive in a Mercedes and warns her not to go near Tony or his family. And there it was, another indulgence of Tony Soprano that had reached its expiration date.
Similarly to Detective Makazian, I don’t think Tony was the sole cause of Gloria’s suicide. Gloria clearly had some skeletons and baggage she was unable to overcome. Nevertheless, Tony seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. While Gloria would seem to fit into the profile of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. I’ll hold off on making a judgment best suited for a doctor.
Dr. Melfi: Complicated.
Tony: I said deep, you said complicated.
Dr. Melfi: You said dark.
Remember how I mentioned people Tony doesn’t care about? Well, that certainly applies to Eugene. Eugene was a fascinating character (albeit one we really never got to know in too much detail). He was made in the beginning of season three, but was never really a big part of the narrative. That is, until season six began.
In “Members Only,” when Eugene receives a two million dollar inheritance from his deceased aunt, he and his wife are ecstatic. They wanted to be able to move down to Florida with their two kids, one of whom was a teenage boy with a drug problem. So much so, that Eugene gave Tony a portion of the proceeds from the inheritance, to no avail. Unfortunately, rather than commencing an “early retirement” in Florida, he took it by other means.
The Second Coming of Anthony Junior "A.J." Soprano
Finally, we get to A.J. Soprano. In season one, A.J. seems more or less like the standard middle school boy, albeit one who gets automatic W’s in afterschool fights because his dad “runs North Jersey.” By the time we arrive at The Second Coming, we see what appears to be a broken person.
To be honest, I’ve felt conflicted at times over A.J. His seeming indifference to everything felt different from what I saw as acute suffering of others on the show. Then I realized I may have been (subconsciously or not) doing some stereotyping of my own. With A.J., the catalyst for his ultimate downward spiral was likely Blanca breaking off their engagement. But just like what Debbie said about Detective Makazian not being happy with how he turned out, I could see a lot of that in A.J., too. It almost reminds me of the “boiling frog.” I usually associate the “boiling frog” phenomenon with the slow, but steady erosion of democratic values. Here, I picture it more as A.J.’s motivation, confidence, and belief in his ability to succeed, slowly eroding year after year until it came to a tragic head. And what exactly constituted success?
Conclusion - The Sopranos and Mental Health
In conclusion, there are so many questions and so much to consider when it comes to The Sopranos and mental health. That’s one of the reasons why I never get tired of the show: No matter how many times i watch, there’s always something else to learn and a new perspective to explore. Speaking of perspectives, I’d love to hear yours. What are your thoughts on The Sopranos and mental health?
Other Notable Sopranos and Mental Health Moments
- Svetlana telling Tony that “Psychiatrist is very scary thing for Russian. Means being sent to Gulag.”
- Paulie telling Sil he couldn’t get past Tony going to see a psychiatrist, even though Paulie had JUST admitted to having seen a psychiatrist himself. I guess the whole “woman doctor thing” was just a bridge too far.
- Meadow seeing Dr. Wendy Kobler, who recommended she apply to the university in Barcelona (a school for which Dr. Kubler was serving as a consultant). No conflict of interest there! Not to mention her suggestion to Meadow that her father molested her. Satanic Panic, anyone?
Mental Health Resources
Finally, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) can connects you to a certified crisis center near located near wherever the call is placed. The Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential. You can also take a look at National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI) National Resource Directory.