The Sopranos & Mental Health: A Survey of 10 Complex Characters
Sometimes, a picture’s worth a thousand words. Speaking of worth, 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 in philosophical mode, 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). Things Tony Soprano doesn’t love so much? Panic attacks, psychiatry, and 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 more often than not felt like the sad clown, more full of agita than anything else.
Christopher Moltisanti's Arc: "Maybe I Have Cancer" - The Sopranos and Mental Health Don't Mix
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.
The Story of Ally Vandermeed: What's Below The Surface with The Sopranos and Mental Health
Further, in “Boca” (one of my favorite episodes!) Tony noticed that Meadow’s friend, Ally, looked like she was “sleepwalking” during their soccer game. The next thing you know, Ally’s dribbling down the field and scoring a goal. There you go. She’s fine! Problem solved, right? Wrong. In a scene shortly later, Meadow and another teammate find Ally in the park engaging in self-harm.
Later, we learn disturbing information about Ally and soccer Coach Hauser. To plainly state it in Meadow’s words, “They had sex, more than once!” Regardless, the larger point here is that we often have no idea what’s going on beneath the surface. It makes you think about how many other Allys there are running around in any of our own lives. Perhaps they’re on your child’s soccer team, or maybe it’s even a colleague or professional acquaintance of yours.
To be sure, the mental burden one carries could very well have absolutely nothing to do with sexual assault. It may not even be something tangible that you can touch or see with the naked eye. This reminds me a bit of my comment on Christopher’s internalized mental health stigma. Whether it’s you, me, or anyone else, sometimes we’re just not aware of everything that’s there, and often through no fault of our own. Wherever Ally ended up going, 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. Yeah, that guy who took sick pleasure in traumatizing Dr. Melfi’s date after pulling the pair over under false pretenses. When Tony asked Det. Makazian to look into Dr. Melfi, it was undoubtedly inappropriate and a total misuse of power.
However, Tony didn’t (or should I say did-dent?) request intimidation, and especially not a scene involving taunting Dr. Melfi and traumatizing her date. The phrase “hurt people, hurt people comes to mind” here.
Speaking of hurt, 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” when Makazian told him Big Puss was wired for sound. As his former lover said, there wasn’t one main catalyst that caused his 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.
In other words, Janice is a perfect Livia surrogate. After Livia’s passing, Janice assumed that 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. Of course, this is where we immediately circle back to Tony, who likewise knew how to poke at Janice’s weak spots.
Carmela Soprano's not depressed, she just needs to vent.
Next, and similarly to Christopher, 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 exclaimed, “I am not the one who needs mental help. I just needed to vent” when Dr. Melfi suggested she see a colleague. Carmela’s exclamation of not needing “mental help” was so telling. 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 definitely was 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. The 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. Again, I’m not a psychiatrist, but from a layperson’s view, the latter seems like the more accurate diagnosis for Livia.
In fact, licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula has spoken of four pillars of narcissism: “Lack of empathy, grandiosity, a chronic sense of entitlement and a chronic need to seek out admiration from other people and validation from other people.” On the other hand, Borderline Personality Disorder makes me think of another Sopranos character (or characters, to be frank).
Gloria Trillo - "Serial killer. I murdered seven relationships."
That is to say, it’s Gloria Trillo who appears to meet many of the characteristics of BPD. With Gloria, when she was good, she was great. But as soon as the chips began to fall, they fell hard. When Gloria told Tony that her sister had forbade her from seeing her niece and nephew, my heart sunk. The last time we see Gloria is when Patsy Parisi took a test drive in a Mercedes and warned her not to go near Tony or his family. And there it was, another indulgence of Tony Soprano that had reached its expiration date.
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 were 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 you’ve watched it, there will always be something else to ponder.
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.