TV Club

Evolution’s Missing Leg

Dear all,

After years of betrayal, deceit, self-deception, and compromise, what was the proximate cause that finally set the collapse of Carmela’s and Tony’s marriage into motion? The fact that Tony fucked a Russian amputee on his old uncle’s sofa. This is not a minor point. For Svetlana has played a crucial role in the last couple of episodes and thereby become central to the series as a whole. There is no doubt that Tony was turned on by the fact that Svetlana was an amputee. But this isn’t only a case, as Glenn mentioned, of a particular sexual perversion that has been discussed in the analytic literature. There was also something more going on. Tony was fascinated by the fact that, in spite of her disfigurement, Svetlana appeared to be devoid of self-pity. He wanted to know what her secret was. And when he broached the question, it took Svetlana a minute to understand what Tony was getting at. She told him that in fact she hardly thought about her prosthesis.

And then Svetlana—with her firsthand knowledge of socialism’s disastrous attempt to transform human nature—addresses the larger issue behind Tony’s curiosity concerning her lack of self-pity and the apparent equanimity that results from it. The trouble with you Americans, she tells Tony—who, despite his self-image as an Old World type, has become quite Americanized—is that you still expect good things to happen. That’s why Americans are so dissatisfied and end up turning to psychiatrists. The rest of the world, she continues, doesn’t share that expectation. They have no illusions that “the harshness of life,” as Freud called it, can be avoided—even, or perhaps especially, through a life of manic consumerism in the suburbs.

Svetlana—who deals with the alopecia and bowel movements of other peoples dying relatives for a living—has a sober perception of things, indeed. But it doesn’t result in depression, rancor, or immobilization. Instead, it frees her to actively engage the world and extract what gratification she can from it. Tony doesn’t see Livia’s darkness in her, which one might think would be the result of Svetlana’s dreary situation. On the contrary, he discovers an aura of equanimity that captivates him. Svetlana is totally distinct from Tony’s other women. She is frank about the fact that she took great pleasure in their sexual encounter, and that she even gets a kick out of Tony’s mischievousness. But there’s no way she’s about to become one of his submissive, masochistic goomahs. And unlike Jennifer or Carmela (in certain moods) Svetlana has no illusions about redeeming Tony—or redeeming anything for that matter. She is wizened enough to stay away from this infantile gangster and resists his lavish gifts and entreaties for further meetings. Carmela may know Tony better than anyone, but Svetlana has his number.

The fact that he encounters a woman who refuses to play out his prescripted unconscious scenarios—and, moreover, who has the gall to reject him—throws Tony for a loop. It is significant that he begins his final hour with Jennifer by reporting that he has just dumped a new girlfriend. I would see this as an attempt on his part to transform the painful situation that he had suffered at Svetlana’s hands into something he actively inflicts on her. But Tony quickly fesses up and admits that Svetlana had rejected him because he was too “high maintenance.” Owing to her refusal to enact one of his familiar transference scripts, Tony gets a relatively accurate look at himself through the Russian’s eyes. This contributes in no small way to his conclusion that he’s just a “fucking gangster from New Jersey” who can’t be reformed. Then, Tony becomes more active in the hour and turns his anger at Melfi for not having helped him to change in a fundamental way—and at Svetlana for having rejected him—onto Jennifer. He dramatically announces the end of the treatment. Any therapist who’s been on the receiving end of such a termination—and most of us have—has experienced the intense aggression that lies behind it.

In the midst of her rage, Carmela brings up Tony’s newest and most unexpected choice of girlfriends. After a pre-school assistant and weight-lifter, now he’s got “a one-legged one.” Carmela wants to know what Svetlana possess that she doesn’t. Tony’s answer is that the Russian has “something to say.” Unlike Carmela, who’s “sat around for 20 years and bitched about the air conditioner”—that is, who’s lived the life of a well-off suburban housewife—Svetlana is a worldly woman who’s “been around.” And Carmela is entirely right in attacking Tony for his extreme hypocrisy. He’s been every bit as complicitous as she in pursuing the suburban good life. Like Vito Corleoni, he wanted his children to partake in the American dream. At the same time, however, there’s another point. Through the refraction of Svetlana’s perceptions, Tony has gained a deeper insight into the problematic nature of that dream and into one of the sources of his suffering.

Joel Librobianco