In Treatment: The Casting and Bracketing of Repulsion in The Sopranos

By Simonetta Menossi
2013, Vol. 5 No. 08 | pg. 2/4 |

If Tony is the “Father,” according to the “Trinity” he must also be “Jesus”--“God’s Son,” as Carmela addresses him so often, by saying “Oh, Jesus, you scared me!” or “Jesus Christ, Almighty, I am going fucking crazy!,” curses that remind the viewer of the fifth commandment, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” Considering Carmela’s deep Catholic beliefs, she is the sinner, surely not a “Madonna.” During the same altercation with Tony in the kitchen she informs her husband that she wants to divorce him and break the “holy matrimony.” Like Carmela, Tony too is a sinner. He is the irresponsible “Father” and “Son,” who lives to excess. He is quick-tempered; he ends up using drugs; he drinks and eats too much. He has sex with--almost--every woman he is attracted to. He disrespects all “Ten Commandments.”

Tony is omnipresent. There is no episode in which Gandolfini does not act. Tony is everywhere, like the “Holy Spirit” is everywhere present. The characters perceive his presence even when he is not physically visible. When Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana (Drea de Matteo), confesses to her boyfriend that she has become an FBI informer, Christopher does not think twice. He storms out; frightened, leaving their apartment knowing that in no time, Tony would hear the news--Adriana collaborates with the FBI. Tony is all-knowing and all-seeing, whose influence and on Christopher is unquestionable, that is the reason why Christopher, no matter how much he loves Adriana, must sacrifice her and resort to Tony’s help.

As the textual analysis conducted so far suggests, Chase explores Tony’s singularity and multiplicity without invading his psyche, which unsurprisingly remains verbally and visually unclear until the “end.” The viewer does not discover much through Tony’s therapeutic journey. The viewer is not supposed to, since therapy is a confidential relationship between patient and doctor. The scary part of the process to Tony, as he says to Carmela, is that “Therapy is too much exposure” within boundaries, while “God” should never expose “Himself.” Dr. Melfi is the only character whose boundaries are established, even though she is not a stranger to drama. Unlike Tony, “She is so controlled,” Lorraine Bracco comments (Quinn, 172). By extension, the place where Tony’s boundlessness is continuously challenged must be Dr. Melfi’s office. The oval-shaped room looks like a womb, a “safe” place where Tony can develop, grow and finally “be born,” when the right time comes. Due to the problematic relationship that Tony has with his mother Livia, exploring his unconscious frightens Tony, and he leaves therapy every time he associates that “womb” to his mother’s. He does not want to and cannot be contained in that “painful space.” Nevertheless, he always comes back to therapy because in the end Dr. Melfi’s office is that safe and contained place where he can figure out who he really is. In other words, even though Tony challenges the therapeutic boundaries, he is able to tolerate them and the difficulties that that learning process entails. If the success of therapy for Tony means keeping coming back and accepting a certain type of boundaries, how is Chase able to convince the audience to come back every week and dive into a new episode of a TV series where almost every story line remains unresolved? What are the strategies that Chase came up with to “seduce” the viewer in unconventional ways? What happens to the meaning of therapeutic exposure--or lack of thereof--that defines The Sopranos as a unique TV genre, whose distinctiveness and unpredictability are hard to explain since they fall outside of the usual TV genre boundaries?

Decoding Singularity and Multiplicity in The Sopranos and its TV Genre

David Chase does not submit to the dominant ideology of textual determinism. His semiology means “half an ology;” he does not resort to Saussurean taxonomy; rather, he “interrogates the sign from the point of view of the signifier and ignores the realities of the signified.” (Lewis, 34). Chase embraces the post-modern multiplicity of the text, a text that the viewer first encodes according to “naturalized perceptions,” common codes, but that, the viewer, then, decodes, “focus[ing] on the gaps and fissures, the structuring absences and incoherencies” that the TV series presents (Creeber, 84; Hall, 511). In this way, he encourages creative authority in the viewer. Thus, understanding Chase’s textual indeterminism and The Sopranos TV genre mean “bracketing [the hegemonic code and its quality] and operating with displaced professional codings.” (515). Chase is not afraid of the asymmetry between encoding and decoding his text (Jaramillo, 67).2 He promotes distortions, misunderstandings, and unpredictability without trying to fool the viewer. According to these premises, the viewer’s recognition of the paradox of the series is established. Such recognition reminds the viewer of Tony’s trinity, his being singular and multiple, triune.

In order to decode and/or produce “negotiated” readings of this paradox, which contain “a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements,” the viewer’s intervention started, when he or she tuned into commercial-free HBO and actively participated in the Sunday-night ritual, or simply inserted the disc in the DVD player and created his or her own ritual in accordance with personal temporal convenience (Hall, 516). American psychiatrist and fan of The Sopranos, Glen Gabbard, admitted in the dedication to his book, The Psychology of the Sopranos, that every Sunday night at 8:00PM he used to get together with “his fellow Bada Bingers” to attend the weekly mass, just as faithful followers do each week (Gabbard, v) But, when the mass starts, how does the viewer decode or negotiate the TV series paradox?

Decoding the TV series paradox is based on the viewer’s experience--viewer that from here on I will call “fan.” Such experience has at least a double nature. When the fan watches The Sopranos re-issued episodes on DVD, special features may hinder his or her autonomous decoding. For instance, the DVD box of the first season contains a long interview of David Chase by actor, director, producer, writer, and critic Peter Bogdanovitch, in which Chase recounts the genesis of the series and the complicated (pre)-production process. Along with the interview, trailers for each episode, behind-the-scenes, text-plot summaries, closed captioning, and the Spanish dubbed version complete the DVD extras. These DVD extras guide the viewer and suggest an encoding of the text, rather than a decoding of it. When the fan purchases episodes or complete seasons online (for instance, on iTunes), the fan’s HBO experience is almost replicated because the downloaded material does not include bonus features.3 In this way, the fan’s decoding is not jeopardized.

An objection, though, may be raised. Watching the series between 1999 and 2007 on HBO or in syndication on A&E every Sunday at 10:00AM (interestingly, the same time slot of the Sunday Catholic Mass) and watching the series on computers, Internet, portable phones, or iPods produce a different “(tele)visuality,” a different look of (tele)vision.4 Yet, transmediality does not necessarily interfere with the fan’s intellectual pleasure in “writing” and “rewriting” the text, “producing” and receiving it (Barthes, 1974, p. 4). On A&E commercials do not interrupt the flow; they are part of it. They do not interfere with the fan’s agency either. So, the fan can freely and autonomously produce and consume “the mystique of the text.” (Barthes, 1975, p. 58). Under these conditions, the fan challenges encoded limits and parameters by asking the central question (58): “How did Chase and his fellow writers and directors create the singularity and uniqueness of The Sopranos TV genre and the multiplicity of its text?

The Sopranos’ (pre)-production team created, along with the fan -- who keeps “rewriting” the text in multiple ways -- a “pensive text,”

“replete with meaning […]” and that “still seems to be keeping in reserve some ultimate meaning, one it does not express but whose place it keeps free and signifying: this zero degree of meaning (which is not its annulment, but on the contrary its recognition), this supplementary, unexpected meaning which is the theatrical sign of the implicit, is the pensiveness: the pensive […] is the signifier of the inexpressible, not of the unexpressed. For if the […] text has nothing more to say than what it says, at least it attempts to ‘let it be understood’ that it does not say everything. […] At its discreet urging, we want to ask the […] text: What are thinking about? But the text, wilier than all those who try to escape by answering: about nothing, does not reply, giving meaning its last closure: suspension" (Barthes, 1974, p. 216-217).

On one level, the fan realizes how decoding the series means enabling the text respecting the common code and have a conventional meaning, but simultaneously be multiple and “replete with meaning[s].” In other words, the fan’s power lies in the understanding of the nature of the text, in reflecting upon it, and allowing it to be self-reflexive. “The pensive text” decides what to express and what, being inexpressible, cannot be expressed. By consequence, on one hand, the text does not meet the fan’s expectations, and on the other, the fan learns not to expect any implicit or predictable meaning. Instead, the fan expects the unexpected, which can be both singular and multiple. Never does the “pensive text” of The Sopranos TV series reveal all its meanings, even when it is questioned. It chooses to solicit the fan’s pensiveness, as it suspends its thoughts and the screen goes black. In those moments of suspension, which may occur in the middle and at the end of an episode, the frustrated fan realizes that the multiplicity of the TV series resides in the premeditated lack of closure.

Considering the isomorphic relationship between the TV series and Tony Soprano, the fan infers that Gandolfini’s character is a “pensive text” too. The simplest observation is that Tony’s pensiveness originates from the therapeutic relationship with Dr. Melfi. Yet, if decoding Tony means, “focus[ing] on the gaps and fissures, the structuring absences and incoherencies,” Tony’s pensiveness happens during the imagined offscreen fragments of personal history, in those moments of suspension in which the fan recognizes the inexpressible of the text. In other words, Chase asks the viewer to decode--not to encode--the text, and realize how in the series nothing is what it seems. It is a paradox, just like Tony, it is the irresolvable enigma in suspension.5 Even when Tony is questioned, he never answers, but escapes, sometimes literally, from Dr. Melfi’s office. But where does the singularity of The Sopranos TV genre fit in the multiplicity of the text?

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