Book Excerpt: Sopranos Psychology

The series' writers rarely miss an opportunity to have fun with the premise of a hard-boiled thug in a psychotherapist's office. When Tony decides to tell his henchmen that he has been seeing a psychiatrist, his colleagues react with stunned silence. Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt) finally breaks the silence with words of moral support: "I'm sure you did it with complete discretion." Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) is similarly supportive, offering that "it's not the worst thing I ever heard." Then, swept up by the Oprah-like atmosphere in the room, Paulie goes further: "I was seeing a therapist myself about a year ago. I had some issues."

The use of a play space is not, of course, limited to the therapy scenes in The Sopranos. In one surreal episode, a huge Russian thug, a veteran from the war in Chechnya, is beaten, choked, thrown in a trunk and even shot in the head. Yet he won't die. Who is this guy? Tony calls Paulie on a cell phone that keeps breaking up during their conversation. He explains that the Russian killed sixteen Chechnyan rebels single-handed and was with the interior ministry. Paulie is duly impressed. Turning to Christopher, he says in awe, "He killed sixteen Czechoslovakians. The guy was an interior decorator." Christopher is unimpressed: "His house looked like s---," he retorts. Chase fully recognizes this departure from realism: "The Russian guy was like something out of a fairy tale. Well, not a fairy tale exactly. He's more like a spirit."

Audiences don't want to stare at the screen only to find themselves looking back. They seek out something larger than life, something of mythic proportions. Hence television and film have a mythopoetic function. The Mob has already been firmly entrenched in cultural mythology, so The Sopranos can build on The Godfather, GoodFellas, Casino, Prizzi's Honor, The Untouchables and numerous other Mafia films stored in viewers' memory banks. Chase is a great admirer of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas (1990) and refers to it as "The Koran."

A recurrent theme in The Sopranos is the fluidity between life and art. When Christopher Moltisanti's (Michael Imperioli) friend Brendan is dispatched by a hit man with a bullet through the eye, Big P---- Bompensiero (Vincent Pastore) comments that the hit was a "Moe Green special," referring to a similar killing in The Godfather. And throughout the series Silvio entertains his cronies with imitations of Al Pacino doing Michael Corleone. Paulie drives a car that plays The Godfather theme on its horn. Tony gets teary-eyed watching a video of Cagney in The Public Enemy.

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