Does the Mind Not Rebel? Tony Soprano and the Path to a Greener Psychoanalysis

February 23, 2022   •   By Emily Schlesinger

In the fall of 2019, I joined several other therapists for a course on eco-psychoanalysis. The course took place in the living room of the instructor’s Greenwich Village apartment (it was one of those buildings that still felt like the twentieth century; cracked brown tile lined the hallway and you could forget about the $45-million-dollar townhouses blocks away). First, we went around and talked about why we were there.

I found myself going into confessional mode: I said that several years ago, my husband and I had wanted to make a life as homesteaders in Vermont. We came very close to buying a small home on sixteen beautiful acres of farmland, which my husband was eager to manage utilizing principles of regenerative agriculture. But we backed out of the deal, in large part because I’d been worried that as a Vermont psychoanalyst, I would hardly have a chance to become a luminary in my field, and worse, I might start wearing unsexy shoes. “I’m no better than Carmela Soprano. We are all — living in the city, with our consumption and our class aspirations — Carmela Soprano.” I tried to avoid eye contact with my friend who had encouraged me to sign up for the course. Why was I talking about my personal life? I sounded shallow and codependent!

I certainly didn’t feel sexy: by the time of the course, I was wearing orthopedic sneakers that made Vermonters’ shoes look like high-fashion. My life in New York had taken a toll on my body, was far from fabulous. I was convinced everyone was in some way suffering this greatly as a city dweller, they just didn’t realize it. They were all dissociated on the pain-free side of the looking glass, and I was stuck on the pain-full side.

When I said, “We are all Carmela Soprano,” I meant to suggest that even those among us (predominantly white, upper-middle-class psychoanalysts) who consider our values to be good are deeply invested in the benefits we gain from the oil-based economy. Those of us with a conscience say that we want to let it go: we opt out of conventionally grown produce and factory-farmed meat by shopping at the food co-op or farmer’s market, we pull our money out of Citibank and put it in a far less convenient bank to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. We carry metal straws around.

But there is so much we actively cling to. Like Carmela, who saw herself as a good Catholic girl, a devoted mother — we are way too reluctant to own that we don’t want to give up the lifestyle enabled by murder and theft. We settle for feeling like activists as we post and scroll on devices assembled from materials mined from various parts of the Global South; the harm done to the miners and their land by the continued demand for such devices is out of sight and thus outside of our minds. As we post and scroll, we don’t think about the energy-intensive data we are generating, and how it will be stored in a server facility in the Arizona desert. In greenwashing attempts to “decarbonize,” the massively hot computers are now being cooled not with air conditioning but with the last remaining ground water in Arizona — in other words, the water that could be used to help grow plants, sequester carbon, and prevent total desertification is instead being used to cool your Facebook photos, along with all the Sopranos streams and memes, before it evaporates into the heat and is gone forever.

A friend and colleague has told me that the only good therapist on The Sopranos is Dr. Krakower, the elderly psychiatrist who refuses to treat Carmela. He calls her an enabler: “I’m not charging you, because I won’t take blood money, and you can’t either. The one thing you can never say [now] is that you haven’t been told.”

In the first months of the pandemic, I watched The Sopranos in full for the first time since it originally aired, when my overly indulgent parents would mail me VHS tapes of several episodes at a time. I picked them up in the Oberlin College mail-room and watched them with my boyfriend. It was not an easy relationship; I was intensely identified with Adriana LaCerva.

Close to twenty years later, watching as a psychoanalyst, I fixated on Dr. Melfi. Unlike most TV therapists, she is watchable, and sometimes even good. But I came to see The Sopranos as a show primarily about psychoanalytically informed therapy’s failure to treat narcissism, and the despair and bitter resignation that that failure elicited in the show’s creator, David Chase.

I also fixated on the ways in which the “natural world” (which I prefer to call the more-than-human environment — why should “natural world” refer to something separate from human beings?) figures in the show and in Tony’s consciousness. I began to think about links between narcissistic suffering and one’s impaired relationship to nature. Why do mental health professionals assess for impaired “object relations” — impaired interpersonal relationships — and neglect to assess for whether a patient may have a pathological relationship to plants, animals and land? I thought about how the treatment of narcissism in particular might also need to include, on the part of the clinician, more attention to the ways in which the more-than-human environment presents itself in the treatment.

Eco-psychoanalysts Sally Weintrobe and Donna Orange have both written about narcissism in relation to environmental destruction. Their contributions have focused primarily on entitlement and shame. Weintrobe writes in the tradition of Melanie Klein, an early psychoanalyst who elaborated on Freud’s theory of “death drive”: it certainly makes sense, when witnessing what we have done to the earth, that humanity has an innate drive toward destruction. And yet I am drawn more to the theory of early British psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, who did not find the concept of death drive to be useful and instead offered the concept of infantile ruthlessness: the sad fact that we don’t always destroy because of any discreet “unconscious phantasies” (Klein) or wish to destroy, but that our destruction is collateral damage in our flailing attempts to hold ourselves together and achieve some semblance of internal coherence (the infant bites the nipple not because she is a sadist but because her attempts to feed herself happen to cause harm). While Weintrobe and Orange write about narcissism, my conception of narcissism differs from theirs because of the influence on my thinking of Sheldon Bach, a New York psychoanalyst and writer who died in June of 2021 at the age of ninety-six (Bach practiced psychoanalysis until he was ninety-five).

Let me say what I mean when I refer to “narcissism” — a ubiquitous word that we are all tired of hearing thrown around in popular culture. Bach writes about narcissism and sadomasochism, and the inevitable links between the two: you rarely see disturbance in experience of the self without disturbance in relation to the other. Bach, like Winnicott and the twentieth-century American psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, connects narcissism to profound vulnerability, and conceives of character pathology as primarily resulting from impingements on the developmental process — failures in the caretaking environment and various forms of cumulative trauma, including neglect and intermittently available (at turns intrusive and negligent) caretakers.

I cringe when I hear narcissists stereotypically described as individuals with inflated egos who, due to excessive praise from their parents, think too highly of themselves. Countering this, Bach describes what lies beneath the grandiose veneer of narcissism as the “narcissistic state of consciousness”: a state of deep confusion and isolation with at times psychotic features. A painful subjective experience that is terribly difficult for anyone, including the analyst, to reach or penetrate. A state that “attempts…to establish or recapture an ego state of physical or mental wholeness, wellbeing and self-esteem, either alone or with the help of some object used primarily for this purpose.” Freud described that ego state as “an all-embracing feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world around it.” (Italics mine). This is where the ducks in Tony Soprano’s swimming pool enter the picture.

In the first scene of the series pilot, Tony begins his first session with typical ambivalence: “Look, it’s impossible for me to talk to a psychiatrist.” He goes on to open up: “The morning of the day I got sick, I’d been thinking: it’s good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

Dr. Melfi normalizes: “Many Americans I think feel that way.” With this intervention, she assists one of the show’s (and mine) fundamental arguments, that the Sopranos are every family. She’s hearing the complaint as a problem of neoliberalism. But we could also hear this presenting problem as an underlying concern about ecological crisis: Tony’s melancholia is a symptom of being trapped in the shadow of a dying world.

We cut to a flashback of Tony picking up the morning paper and heading out to his swimming pool. He narrates, “A couple months before, these two wild ducks landed in my pool. It was amazing. They’re from Canada or some place, and it was mating season. They had some ducklings.”

We see Tony get into the pool in his bathrobe and say to the ducks, “If you don’t like that ramp, I’ll get you another one, maybe it’s that wood. Kids, come here, they’re trying to fly! The babies, they’re trying to fly!” We see Tony’s childlike awe, his excited reverence.

Cut to the day of the panic attack. Tony describes his nephew Christopher picking him up in the $60,000 Lexus so they can go after a guy with an “outstanding loan.”

Melfi cuts Tony off to inform him that if he’s going to tell her a story where someone’s about to get hurt, she’s “supposed to go to the authorities — technically.” The modifier, “technically,” is confusing — is she suggesting that she is corruptible, like him, and willing to ignore her mandate? If so, why does she have this need to interrupt him? It’s an enactment, impinging on the process the way the caretaker’s early intrusion can interfere with development, and a signal that there is no room for his murderousness in the treatment room.

Melfi’s disclaimer is maddening to me in part because it is false: clinicians are required to go to authorities if they know that someone is going to be hurt in the future; if, however, we are told that someone was hurt in the past, we have no duty to do anything but listen.

Tony tells Dr. Melfi that he is a waste management consultant, specializing in “the environment.” Of course, we all know this is code: that the business of picking up garbage and processing recycling is notoriously corrupt — that the notion of it being linked to environmental cleanup is a joke. It takes a thug like Tony to enable us all in the toxic fantasy that Sally Weintrobe describes as the earth as “breast-toilet”: ever-replenishing with food, and vast enough to accommodate all the shit we can’t use; like infants, we have no obligation to provide anything in return.

Climate psychologist Paul Hoggett highlights this perverse, enabling relationship: Hoggett paraphrases John Steiner’s formulation of perversion as defense against loss: “whereas Freud suggests (through his idea of superego) that there is a policeman inside our head, Steiner adds that there may also be a ‘pimp’ inside our head (a fixer who seduces us with his promises and propaganda and tells us that we should be able to have what we want).” This pimping comes in many forms, from outright climate denial to the greenwashing now ubiquitous in advertising, enlisting liberals — the johns — to engage in “ethical consumption” under the auspices of “sustainability,” “renewability,” “carbon-neutral” goods, etc. But the business of managing waste, of disappearing our garbage and recycling out of our sight and our minds, is an essential component of that pimping.

But back to the Lexus. We see Tony gleefully speeding through an office park in pursuit of a health insurance broker. (Dion swoons with his Belmonts: “I wonder why I love you like I do?” It’s a great question for an initial session. Tony has no idea why he takes such joy in this violent pursuit, and answering that question should be part of the goal of treatment). Tony gets out of the car, looming over the man who begs him not to beat him further: “My leg is broken; the bone’s going through.”

Tony punches anyway. “You know what you should get? A cork in your fucking mouth, because you tell people I’m NOTHING compared to the people who used to run things. I’m nothing!”

The viewer sees all this, but Tony, heeding Dr. Melfi’s silencing warning, says simply, “I can’t go into details here.” Melfi looks like a relieved little girl, throwing up her hand nervously, “That’s fine!” she assures him.

But it’s not fine, because she hasn’t learned something vital: that Tony needs to destroy this man for reasons that have nothing to do with financial debt. This the essence of narcissistic rage: Tony must destroy the man who says he is nothing, whose words resonate too deeply with Tony’s psychic reality, his emptiness and nonexistence.

This is immediately followed by a scene in which Tony knocks on his mother’s door. “Who’s there?” she calls, accusingly. “It’s me, Ma.” “Who are you?” is the reply. Evidently the man is no one to his mother.

Finally, we get to the scene in which the panic attack first took place. Tony sucks on a cigar, manning a flaming grill. Again, that smile, as he watches the baby ducks. One minute they are engaged in a sublime water dance in the pool — then one after another, they spread their wings and fly away. Tony’s eyes cross and his cigar droops dramatically (evocatively) between his lips. He collapses, dropping an entire can of charcoal lighter fluid onto the grill.

Back in the session, he looks at the diploma on the wall. “Melfi. What part of the ‘boot’ are you from, hon?...My mother would’ve loved if you and I got together.” He’s flirting — trying to evade the painful issues at hand — but also showing his need for a mirror transference: he needs Melfi to be like him, Italian-American, so he can see himself reflected back, get the mirroring that his own mother — (who are you?) — was unable to provide.

And if Melfi is Italian-American, she may be able to sympathize with how much his ruthless pursuit of the “American dream” is not just driven by greed but by desperation: the need to become white, to prove whiteness, the seduction and false promise of whiteness.

Later Tony directly links his resistance to therapy — to change — to his fetishization of American whiteness, asking the now-famous question: “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? That was an American. The strong silent type. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings; he just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know is once they got Gary in touch with his feelings, they wouldn’t be able to shut him up. Dysfunction this, dysfunction that, dysfunction va fongool…I have a semester and a half of college, so I understand Freud. I understand therapy as a concept. But in my world, it doesn’t go down.”

Melfi, with her concerns about the authorities, has decided she can’t say, “Tell me about your world,” which is unfortunate, because entering the patient’s world is the only way to help him. Instead, she just asks Tony if he feels depressed. He slams the door on his way out.

In the next session, Tony continues to express his resistance. Like many patients, he is afraid that once he begins to talk, he will be punished for the awful things that he will discover. “Used to be, a guy got pinched, he upheld the code of silence. Nowadays, guys have no room for the penal experience.”

It’s hard not to hear “penal” as another va fongool reference, which is easy to chalk up to homophobia. I would argue that these are earlier anxieties than fears about sexuality, that Tony is expressing his fear of getting fucked: anally invaded and taken over. That as he begins to open himself up to Melfi, he’s no longer going to be the one doing the fucking. And that fear takes us right back to the ducks: he panicked when they flew away, when he realized he had let himself love something that he couldn’t control.

In “Sadomasochistic Object Relations,” Sheldon Bach quotes a Duke from the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, who “reflects, with sadness and resignation, that people are generally so difficult to comprehend. ‘Yes,’ replies [the Duke’s] friend, “most people are indeed an enigma. And perhaps that is why it is easier every time to fuck a man than to try to understand him.’” Clearly, Tony has a much easier time fucking and/or fucking over everyone he comes into contact with than he does trying to understand them.

But what if we also add the earth into the equation — that Tony, that many of “us”, have an easier time fucking the earth than understanding it, getting to know it, which would entail recognizing and grieving our own role in its destruction and our own responsibility to do everything we can to nurture it, to attempt its repair?

Tony has no plans to return to therapy but after suffering another panic attack, he’s back in Dr. Melfi’s consulting room. He reports a dream:

“My belly button was a Phillips-head screw. I’m working on unscrewing it, and when I get it unscrewed — my penis falls off. I pick it up — I’m holding it and I’m running around, looking for the guy who used to work on my Lincoln… so he can put it back on. I’m holding it up — this bird swoops down, grabs it in its beak, and flies off with it.”

“What kind of bird?” Melfi wants to know.

A seagull, a waterbird—like a duck.

“Those goddamn ducks.” He becomes tearful.

“What is it about those ducks that meant so much to you?”

“It was just a trip having these—wild creatures—come into my pool and have their little babies. I was sad to see them go.” He curses and starts to really cry.

“When the ducks gave birth to those babies, they became a family,” Melfi observes.

“That’s right. That’s the link!” (The choice of a “Lincoln” repair-guy was sophisticated; Tony suffers from attacks on linking — a concept put forth by psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who wrote about the ways that thoughts can be experienced as dangerous and the mind can work to “attack” connections between thoughts—and is desperately in need of an analyst link-repairer). “I think I’m gonna lose my family, like I lost the ducks. That’s why I’m full of dread. It’s always with me.”

“What are you so afraid is going to happen?”

“I don’t know.”

Bach says of the narcissist: “The whole life becomes an escape from feeling real…they keep running all the time and looking for things. If they stop moving, they’re afraid they’re going to die, but really that’s not in awareness. They talk about being bored if they stop moving, but really it goes much deeper than that.” This is Tony’s fear: his dread of having to feel the pain that underlies his violent thrill-seeking. The ducks represented an alternate type of connection: connection to the more than human environment, which offers him a chance to connect to the part of himself that wants to nurture and repair the damage he does to the earth.

Dr. Melfi is only able to interpret his attachment to the ducks and his dream of one flying away with Tony’s penis in terms of “Oedipal issues”: the family. It’s true that Tony’s afraid of losing his family, but is he really afraid he will lose them due to death or a prison sentence? Or is he afraid he will lose his family (and his Family) if he does the work he needs to do in therapy — and real work would result in him giving up his power, his whole identity. 

What if Dr. Melfi could have thought about his dream in terms of Tony’s grief over his disconnection to the earth? That to make a home for the ducks would fulfill him in ways that stealing and killing to pay for his grotesquely large home and all his family’s accoutrements never will?

What if Dr. Melfi had been able to speak about how the ducks represented Tony’s longing to make a reparative link to the earth, and through this interpretation, had been able to speak to his sadomasochism (which in Bach’s and my thinking is interchangeably linked with his narcissism)?  

But just think of how much Tony would have had to give up if he were to work through his perverse relationship to the earth, if he were to side with the part of himself that wants to nurture ducks as opposed to exploit resources and people. His livelihood, his home. And how that might be the case for many of us who aren’t even mob bosses. (How would most psychoanalysts feel about telling their patients they’ve removed the flush-toilet from their professional bathroom and patients and analyst alike will now have to share a composting toilet? We are shitting in our drinking water to sustain our cultural capital).

In the first three Sopranos seasons, Tony makes real progress in his treatment, gaining insight regarding his Oedipal conflicts, or mommy and daddy issues, such as his relationship with his murderous mother and his repetition compulsion in finding girlfriends who resemble his mother in their tendency to become infantile and sadistically attack at the slightest hint of rejection. The insight helps Tony have hope and begins to alleviate his depression, and yet the treatment stalls, becomes a false treatment, in many ways because of Dr. Melfi’s inadequacy in regard to working with transference and countertransference.

She’s almost there: the anxiety she feels prior to sessions, that drives her to keep a bottle of vodka in her desk, is a sign that she’s immersed in Tony’s world. He’s seduced her, and she’s almost able to talk with Eliot Kupferberg, her own therapist, about her sexual attraction to Tony, how terrifyingly over-stimulating it is to be in contact with Tony’s desperate, infantile anxiety—but Eliot has no ability to help her connect to these states in herself.

Related to the shortcomings in working with transference is Dr. Melfi’s inability to treat disorders of the self that go deeper than how we felt about our parents. Bach describes narcissists as feeling guilty about having “murdered” the many people in their lives who have tried to love them; the narcissist “can experience himself as cohesive and alive only at the expense of devitalizing” those around him. Tony has both “murdered” and murdered. And Melfi fails to help Tony confront his murderousness—the grief over the fact that his murderousness took precedence over his love for his friend Pussy (which he tries to talk about, but Melfi misses).

Tony’s murderousness, his greed, the fact that he is doomed to corrupt any relationship he has, that he cannot get involved in any business without it becoming a poisonous, hostile takeover — all of this is part and parcel of his unbearable emptiness that is profoundly confusing to him, that makes him doubt his own sanity, and his desperation to escape that, and to organize himself in compulsive acts in which he is momentarily comforted by a sense of his own power and control. (While Winnicott did not find envy to be a useful Kleinian contribution, it’s hard to see Tony in action and not see all the ways in which envy motivates him: he has a special need to attack and destroy when he sees anyone begin to get free — his sister Janis improving after an anger management course is one of many examples. Remarkably, with the ducks, Tony didn’t envy them for being wild creatures, having a freedom he can only dream of — he was able to feel his longing for connection with them.)  

It appears that Tony is genuinely tortured by his inability to have any continuous experience of mutual love and gratitude that is not quickly thrown into dysregulation. But his doctor does not know how to speak to this part of him and help him find an alternative.

Dr. Melfi’s inability to reach something deeper in Tony (in my fantasy, the limitations of therapy in the experience of David Chase and in the experience of an unfortunate number of patients) informs the cynicism of the rest of the show, which tells us that there is no way out of the prison of our destructive instincts. Your therapist won’t let you talk about the worst parts of yourself; the priest is after your wife and her ziti. The (car saleswoman) Buddhist is a tortured borderline who ends up committing suicide, and the addict who attempts recovery cannot maintain sobriety: when Tony murders his relapsing nephew with his bare hands (also in a car) his hatred for Chrissy’s addiction is the same as his hate for his powerless self.

The show tells us that we are all corrupt in our own way, frequently motivated by depressive emptiness, despair, dysregulation and envy. The opening credits and that liminal smoke-stack-scape is a vital piece of that argument, illuminating for the urban-elite viewer her complicity in the wasteland. It is a gorgeous and brilliant show, and it portrays psychotherapy with at times stunning depth, but I would like to strive to offer our patients more than Dr. Melfi was able to offer her most difficult patient. We must simultaneously strive to enter our patients’ worlds — help them to come into contact with and bear their earliest anxieties and give language to their most ravenous emptiness — and we must also hold in mind the lessons of Winnicott’s “Hate in the Countertransference”: there may be times when it is necessary to confront our patients’ (and our own) sadism and entitled dominion over the earth.

In a pilot sub-plot, Tony has offered cruise tickets to Artie Buco, the civilian-restauranteur, insisting they were compliments of a dental union (Tony wants Artie out of town so a hit can take place at his restaurant). Artie pleads with his wife, Charmaine, to let them take the trip: “The tickets were comps! Tony is a labor leader!” Charmaine wants no part in the disavowal, the refusal to connect the dots. In one of the most poetic and hilarious lines of the episode, Charmaine responds: “Arthur, please — grow up. Does the mind not rebel at any possible scenario under which dentists are sending the don of New Jersey first class on a Norwegian steam ship? C’mon Arthur: somebody donated their kneecaps for those tickets.” Artie returns the tickets at Tony’s place of business: the two stand in front of a mountain of empty plastic bottles so big it obscures the sky.

According to Michael Imperioli on the Talking Sopranos podcast, Charmaine was a favorite among test audiences for the show due to her unflinching morality. But it seems to me that most people are more like Artie with those tickets (or Carmela with those jewels) when it comes to susceptibility to that perverse pimping: they want to believe that positive change can come in the form of a billionaire like Elon Musk making Teslas or organic produce grown in California, picked by underpaid, often undocumented and uninsured laborers in potentially fatal heat and requiring horrifying amounts of water in an area facing the risk of total desertification. They don’t want to be told about the additional environmental crises on the horizon as transitions are made to electric vehicles, the batteries that will require extensive mining, toxic to earth, water, animals and people.

There’s not enough lithium and cobalt in the world for all those batteries. Billionaires must not exist. We need to make personal sacrifices and take collective action and work as hard as we can to dismantle unjust, earth-destroying systems of oppression. But that involves a lot of work, and life under late capitalism has depleted us. We are tired and need to order takeout and we just saw this new Chevy commercial that recreates the opening credits of The Sopranos. As Jamie-Lynn Sigler — girl-Boss Meadow in a tennis bracelet — navigates the New Jersey Turnpike in an all-electric Silverado, the Freedom Tower in her rearview mirror, she parks at a charging station and embraces Robert Iler (AJ, with a touch of gray).  The luxury pickup truck is the strong, silent type — as American as Gary Cooper — and we could drive it, guilt-free. We plead our minds not to rebel at the scenario.

If only we could all be a little more like Charmaine.

What if psychoanalysts in the Anthropocene could make it our mission to encourage the rebellion of the mind? Is it going beyond the scope of our work to demand that our patients stop disavowing the breaking of kneecaps — the harm done to land, animals, and people — in order to necessitate their (our) lifestyles?

What if we were to acknowledge that if we truly refused to take blood money, we wouldn’t have any patients? (What is money, other than the “value” of extracted resources or exploited labor? Have you ever taken a look at a “green portfolio”? You might find that the money taken “out” of fossil fuel investments has been put into beef, tech, and so-called renewables that are actually quite fossil-dependent). We must recognize our complicity, and find a way to help our patients and ourselves.