TV Club

“These Are Not Nice People”

Dear Peggy, Joel, Phil, and Jodi,

In The Psychology of the Sopranos, I describe Tony’s psychological structure as a “vertical split.” A racist, murderous thug resides on one side of the split. A loving father and loyal friend resides on the other side. Maintaining this structure is pivotal to the success of The Sopranos. If the audience loses sympathy for Tony, the show is finished. Tonight’s episode depicted this split beautifully. Jodi asked about Tony’s sudden brutality toward Assemblyman Zellman after clarifying that he was happy for him. Both his earlier gracious acceptance of the relationship and his later rage at Zellman are genuine aspects of his internal world that appear one after the other in sequence and confuse everyone around him. Tony himself is not bothered by the split. When Dr. Melfi confronts him, he gives the classic response we expect out of patients with severe personality disorders. He defends himself, saying that was “weeks ago”—why is it worth bringing up now? The enraged, impulse-ridden self is left behind while the gentle-giant self is present in the office with Dr. Melfi. The very nature of splitting is to avoid conflict between the two different aspects of the self by keeping them entirely separate from one another.

The writers are ingenious in the way they build up the audience’s expectations that Tony might actually change and become a good person—only to dash their hopes. Last week Tony’s pangs of conscience about Gloria’s death were touching and human. His magnanimous attitude toward Zellman this week was also impressive. But the writers won’t let us get away with thinking that the therapy has really changed him that much. As David Chase always reminds us in interviews, “These are not nice people.” So, in contrast to Joel, I am not terribly impressed by how Tony is responding to the therapy. I don’t agree with Peggy, though, about Jennifer’s technique. I think Dr. Melfi is doing about the best that we can expect a therapist in that situation to do.