TV Club

Mama’s Boys

Phil has difficulty finding a center in last night’s show. I would like to suggest one, and it connects with his other point, that the show is winding down for the season. The theme of the magna mater (usually holding a casserole of pasta) has run throughout The Sopranos, and it was with us last night. We began with the murderous Livia, and now we’ve witnessed Paulie’s murder of a mother.

Glen pointed out in his book that all these Italian tough guys are in fact mama’s boys. Coming from the land of the Madonna, they all tend to idealize their mothers. In one of the funniest scenes from last week’s show, all the other wise guys sprang from their chairs and began to pummel Christopher when he called his mother a whore. He had spoken the unspeakable.

But a century of psychoanalysis has taught us that in the psyche, the image of the mother is more generally complex and often contains a darker, more ominous side. The same mother who has the power of life—to nourish, gratify, and sustain—also has the power of death. She can withhold, frustrate, and ultimately starve the infant. The oral generosity manifested in the endless flow of ziti, cannelloni, and lasagna from the Italian cucina has its counterpart in the greed of the old Italian grandmothers who scramble for the leftover bread at restaurants as though they were living in a situation of extreme scarcity. And, as Peggy points out, idealization of the mother often masks enormous hostility toward her—especially having to do with fear and envy toward her power.

Judith asks what we make of Paulie. He is presented as perhaps Tony’s greediest and most conniving lieutenant. He is a confirmed bachelor with no ties to women who warns Christopher against taking on the encumbrances of marriage. We see him worming his way back into Tony’s good graces after he realizes Johnny has been playing him for a fool. But he is also presented as idealizing his hapless mother. Paulie is the most dutiful and solicitous mama’s boy of the bunch and even threatens a high-school principal to advance his mother’s social life at the old folks home. At the same time, however, he has no compunction about stealing an old lady’s stash and smothering her. We can speculate that he is capable of this because in his psyche the hated mother is so thoroughly split off from the idealized mother.

Tony is a more complicated story. Despite Livia’s constant lack of gratitude and relentless scorn, Tony was—up to a point—the “nice Italian boy” who expended enormous effort trying to please this undeserving creature. But in his therapy with Melfi, and especially through his encounter with Gloria, Tony came to understand what a dark, destructive figure Livia actually was. Indeed, the more or less explicit hope in the therapy was that he could have confronted the full pain of the “bad”—and in this case literally murderous—mother. But the task apparently—and understandably—was too much. The amount of sadness, rage, and loss he would have had to endure was monumental. Finally, he threw in the therapeutic towel and resigned himself to being “a fucking gangster” from New Jersey. Last week’s show ended on an ominous note. The dark woman at the top of the stairs suggests that, though he may have ended therapy, the ghost of the dead and deadly mother will continue to haunt him.

Now let’s turn to Carmela, the other magna mater in the show. The claim that she is becoming liberated is a piece of wishful thinking. The whole tenor of the show is too complicated and dark to conclude with this sort of redemptive gesture. Carmela is a Madame Bovary, transplanted to the New Jersey suburbs. Like a romantic teenager, first she pined away for the priest and then for Furio. Although his technique stunk, Carmela’s therapist was right. For Carmela to grow—to really become liberated—she would have to examine her life and her devil’s pact with Tony. And that she’s unwilling to do. Though it may have been a savvy move, stealing Tony’s dirty money isn’t an act of emancipation. And as Peggy points out, Furio is not a great improvement over Tony. He may have a sleeker body, a ponytail, and a yen for playing interior decorator, but he’s still a brutal killer. It’s interesting that at Meadow’s dinner party, it isn’t Tony, the political neanderthal, but Carmela who is outraged at the impact of gay culture in the academy.    

As I’ve often argued, the only one who stands a chance of escaping the Soprano legacy is Meadow. And if she does, it will partly be due to the “goodness” she has internalized from her mother. It is unclear whether Tony’s speech to Carmela at the end of the show is sarcastic or sincere. But it contains a lot of truth. Despite Carmela’s disappointment, frustration, and loss—and despite the fact she can’t transcend her own situation—she has helped to create the sort of intelligent, independent, and appealing daughter that she was hoping for.