Negative Capabilities
Michael Koresky on The Sopranos (episode: “Employee of the Month”) and Irreversible

The Sopranos featured perhaps the most powerful cut to black in television history. No, I’m not referring to the landmark pseudo-sayonara to the entire series, which has left the show’s devotees hanging in midair since June 2007. Instead, I’m calling attention to the unforgettable conclusion to the fourth episode of the third season, titled “Employee of the Month.” Airing on March 18, 2001, it was one of this very great series’ emotional and intellectual high points and, it now seems in retrospect, a turning point for the show—the kind of television episode that, for those paying close enough attention, explicates an entire series.

Beginning in January 1999, David Chase’s approximately 86-hour domestic epic (calling it a mobster epic is rather beside the point) helped kicked off our current so-called golden age of serial television, though it still towers above all the shows that came in its wake, partly for the way it managed to function as both one continuous narrative and a succession of engaging and elegantly conceived single episodes. More than any of the cable shows that are clearly its spiritual imitators—in which twelve or thirteen-episode seasons tell standalone story arcs that also function as chapters within the larger, character-driven framework that constitutes an entire series—The Sopranos managed to deliver weekly satisfactions that didn’t require the previous or subsequent episode to make emotional impact but that were irreducibly enriched by all that came before and, if revisited, would be further intensified by what came after. Chase has said that each episode was designed as a “mini-movie,” with a beginning, middle, and end. Highly conceptual, The Wire and Breaking Bad are more plot-fueled, affecting viewers with the pleasures of narrative machinery, episodes beginning in medias res and ending on cliffhangers; Homeland and House of Cards plow ahead without looking back, seemingly designed only to reach an end point, and allowing for few pleasures along the way. Mad Men is the most Sopranos-like show of the post-Sopranos era (created by Sopranos writing-room alum Matthew Weiner) for the way in which it enters an antihero’s tortured psychology in order to say something larger about the dreams and delusions of the American male, but it is frequently unable to maintain the same week-to-week richness of theme and character that Chase’s show did. One reason The Sopranos was able to do this is not simply its remarkable level of precision, in writing, directing, and performance, but the meditative, slyly self-reflexive nature of the show, which was constantly calling itself and, by extension, its viewers into question. Crucially, The Sopranos, when it really hit its stride, began to distrust itself—as entertainment and spectacle.

By the time the third season came around, The Sopranos had long been a phenomenon. The level of narrative sophistication mixed with its unabashedly provocative elements made for what was once called a weekly “water-cooler” event: viewers were invited to see the inner workings of a surprisingly relatable organized crime syndicate in New Jersey, mostly from the perspective of a likeable, Archie Bunker–type American everyman. Seasons one and two introduced most of the colorful characters who would populate the entire series, and both offered compulsively engaging stories with clear arcs. By the time each was done, it felt like a paperback novel that had gone dog-eared from being gripped so tightly. The first thirteen episodes got an astonishing amount accomplished, moving ahead with the ferocity of a series unsure if it will get picked up for a second season but leaving enough questions for future installments to grapple with just in case; it eased us into the larger-than-life yet small-as-us world of Jersey “waste management” kingpin and family man Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), who reluctantly begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), because of worrying, and to him inexplicable, panic attacks. Melfi’s initially fearful plumbing of this renowned gangster’s life involves her interrogating his relationship with his aged, borderline-personality mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), a character as frighteningly destructive as the actor who plays her is unfathomably amusing. Much happens throughout these first episodes—including Tony’s gradual rise to power as the head of the family following an epic struggle with nominal boss Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese); the growing realization of Tony’s teenage daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Siegler), and prepubescent son, AJ (Robert Iler), that their father is in the mafia; and Tony’s constant bewilderment in the face of his chronically dissatisfied, secretly guilt-plagued wife, Carmela (Edie Falco)—but the shocking central conceit of the season is undoubtedly the mother-son battle royale, leading to Livia, addled by festering resentment toward her son for placing her in a nursing home, arranging a botched hit on Tony.

Despite all the inner-familial turmoil and occasional violent whacking, the show was supremely pleasing—one wouldn’t be wrong to call it fun. The second season impressively re-created the strange tonal blitheness and twisting-turning satisfactions of the first, this time providing two major arcs—one concerning the homecoming of Tony’s wayward, pathologically self-involved sister, Janice (Aida Turturro), and her misguided romance with Tony’s psychotic associate Richie Aprile (David Proval); the other the hidden life and, finally, sad death of Tony’s best friend turned informant, Salvatore “Big Pussy” (Vincent Pastore). This latter thread ends the season on a gloomier note than its predecessor had, hinting at darker themes to come, intimating that perhaps we could no longer trust The Sopranos for a just a weekly supply of fun and games.

Among the questions that have to be asked at this point in the run of a major series are: Why does this story still need to be told? How can this story and these characters develop without the show simply repeating itself? In David Chase’s case, the questions seemed to become more profound: How are viewers responding to the show, and what is it truly that I have created? Season three radically announces its intentions in its premiere, “Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood,” which is told entirely from the perspective of FBI agents who are watching the daily interactions of the Soprano family while trying to set up a wire-tap in their home. The episode establishes a crucial narrative thread, but more importantly functions as an extended commentary on its viewers’ watching habits and voyeurism. The feds end up seeing and hearing nothing of much criminal interest, instead sitting idly by while Tony, Carmela, and the kids go about their daily activities—Tony dealing with plumbing mishaps, Carmela going to tennis practice, conversations about college and shoelaces. The episode denies satisfaction—the pleasure of shock—for us and for the feds. In case it isn’t clear that the FBI agents, poring over the mundane details of the Sopranos’ lives, are us, there’s even a moment when we see them sitting around a boardroom table reading over transcripts culled from the now-missing Big Pussy’s wiretapped conversations: they’re literally reading and discussing last season’s episodes.

*****

From this point on, The Sopranos is always thinking of us viewers and our relationships to its characters. Constantly implicit is the question: why do we care about Tony Soprano? And more provocatively, why do we want to see this man better himself? The first scene of the series, in which Tony meets Dr. Melfi, establishes the show as an ironically pitched journey toward fulfillment—can therapy help Tony Soprano overcome the unseen demons that haunt him so that he can become a more effective father, husband, and boss? Chase’s show is a highly sophisticated morality tale that uses its extended length to tease and toy with viewers’ expectations as well as their notions of right and wrong. This is, after all, a protagonist who, in just the fifth episode of the series, “College,” is shown strangling a man to death—much to the chagrin of HBO execs, who initially feared this would turn viewers forever against Tony. “Television is at the base of a lot of our problems. It trivializes everything,” Chase said to the New York Times in 2004. His dubiousness about the medium that granted him astronomical success can be felt throughout The Sopranos, and perhaps never more pointedly or powerfully in “Employee of the Month.”

At the time it aired, we were a long way from the rupture of “College.” By the third season, Tony is implicit in many murders, and in multiple cases has done the bloody deed himself. Traditionally, one of the show’s bulwarks against the revulsion we might feel for Tony was its tendency to seduce us with his genial, family-man affability, especially pronounced in the lighter-toned first two seasons. Written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, and directed by John Patterson, “Employee of the Month” is designed to indirectly interrogate our relationship to Tony, and it cannily it does so by making him a supporting player. The real protagonist of this mini-movie is, for the first time in the series, Bracco’s Dr. Melfi.

Prior to this, the psychiatrist was always an integral character, but solely for forcing Tony to confront himself and therefore become a self-aware, more likeably transparent protagonist; she is mostly seen only in her office during her sessions with Tony. Throughout the first and second seasons, the show made obligatory, often weak, gestures at giving her an autonomous life outside of Tony’s arc. This would often include having the character reckon with her role as counsel for a murderer and probable sociopath, both with her family and her own psychiatrist-mentor (played with warm humor by Peter Bogdanovich). “I had no long-term goals for her at all,” said David Chase of Melfi in an extended interview at the Archive of American Television. Because Melfi is constructed as a device for Tony’s self-realization and a vessel through which he can voice his fears and desires (which are often lies, to both himself and his doctor), her position on the show has always been as flimsy as it is important. Yet her status as one of many strong women who satellite Tony—and, crucially, one who makes him question his relationship with other women—also makes her particularly essential. It cannot be a coincidence that Melfi is the only woman other than his mother to regularly call Tony “Anthony.” Melfi isn’t a voice of reason—she’s an instigator. We come to realize this puts her at risk, as in the first season finale, in which Tony bounds out of his chair and nearly attacks her in retaliation for her diagnosing his mother as toxic, before storming out of the room. Here, the doctor-patient boundary has been frighteningly crossed, and it takes much of season two for Tony and Melfi to reconnect. When she does, she has officially invited her abuser back into her life—not unlike a battered wife might do, although here under the rationale of seeing a patient’s treatment to its conclusion.

Tony’s threatening behavior toward Melfi at the end of season one was a wake-up call, reminding viewers that Tony is emotionally volatile and that no one in his orbit is safe, even those, such as Melfi, outside of his criminal inner circles. An attack on Melfi feels like a violation of the show’s strictly divided universe, as though it’s breaking its own unwritten rules. We want to believe that this is her (our) world, not his. “Employee of the Month” ups the ante on this perceived violation. The episode revolves around a shocking attack on Melfi, yet it is not at Tony’s hands. While walking to her car in an empty garage after work, she is grabbed by a young man, threatened with a knife, dragged into a stairwell, and raped. It is a horrifying scene, the most disturbing yet on the show. In fact, “Employee of the Month” was the first of a pair of especially violent episodes that created a momentary backlash to the show and prompted an onslaught of think pieces. Two episodes later, the controversial “University” featured the appalling image of a pregnant stripper getting beaten to death by one of Tony’s cronies. This and “Employee of the Month” incited the Los Angeles Times’ Martha Lauzan to write, “The well-worn stereotypes of women as victims and sexual playthings represent a cop-out on the part of the show’s considerably talented behind-the-scenes staff . . . When HBO chooses to present The Sopranos, it chooses to showcase and glorify violence against women.”

Melfi’s rape is hardly a glorification of anything. At their worst moments, these installments are extremely hard to watch, but it’s no coincidence that they occurred when the show became more self-interrogating and philosophical. The fun purposely began to slowly drain out of the series as though from an ever widening wound. What “Employee of the Month” is concerned with is the denial of the audience’s satisfaction. As the episode wears on, the possibility of Melfi employing Tony to take revenge on her behalf creeps into our—and finally Melfi’s—consciousness. We crave retribution as viewers. The night of the attack, her rapist, named Jesus Rossi, is summarily caught, but he is later released on a technicality, due to some infuriating business about a misplaced evidence kit. Bruised and battered, a purple and twisted leg jutting from her knee-length skirt, Melfi tells Tony and her other patients that she was in a car accident. Tony seems initially merely upset that she had to go through such trauma (and specifically that her shapely legs were damaged), yet Gandolfini’s expression betrays a certain suspicion. He knows Melfi is keeping something from her, just as she always knows when he is lying to her during therapy. Meanwhile, we get the rare privilege of seeing Melfi at home, alongside her ex-husband, Richard (Richard Romanus), with whom she’s recently reconnected and who is tending to her post-attack. Through their few interactions we get a sense of their faulty dynamic; though ostensibly caring, Richard seems more preoccupied with Melfi’s attack by how it affects him, focusing less on her trauma than on his own part to play as the wronged husband. He even at one point partially blames her for the attack because she was in the garage alone at night. When he calls the police to check up on the status of the attacker, Melfi has to demand to Richard to be allowed to speak for herself (“Could I please have the phone?!”). Later, as a pointed close-up of his clenching fists shows, he is essentially neutered despite his anger, hemmed in by the law, which would imprison him if he took matters into his own hands.

Tony, on the other hand, lives outside of the law. By chance, Melfi spies a framed, Employee-of-the-Month photo of Jesus Rossi hanging on the wall of a local fast-food joint. She knows where he is. As in so many Sopranos episodes, her anxieties are expressed via a dream, in this case Rossi being set upon by a Rottweiler. In her next session with Bogdanovich’s Dr. Kupferberg, she admits she found the dream cathartic, and that there was “satisfaction in knowing I could have that asshole squashed like a bug if I wanted.” She also assures him that she won’t enlist Tony’s aid and therefore “break the social contract.”

The concluding sequence of the episode is worth describing in some detail, as it’s written and directed with such elegance, precision, and power that it’s a marvel of not just television but filmmaking. Chase has said that he purposely made the therapy sessions of The Sopranos “not cinematically interesting.” The circular, brown-toned space was confining; the two actors were necessarily arranged in seats across from each other; and the camera always had to be static. The last scene of “Employee of the Month” gets a lot of mileage out of these limitations, cutting back and forth between Melfi and Tony in an intensifying series of shot-reverse shots. Not long into their session, Tony remarks upon the recommendation, raised by Melfi earlier in the episode, that it might be time for him to move on from her and start seeing a behaviorist. After he brings this up, however, she responds with a jarring, impulsive “No!” as though the thought of Tony leaving her would be somehow unbearable. Is she seeing him now as a sort of protector? Her emotions get the better of her and she begins to cry. He rises and walks over to console her, the first time he has crossed the invisible boundary line since the attack of the first season. After a beat she tells him to go back and sit. Picking up on more than just sorrow, a perplexed Tony pointedly asks, “You want to say something?” Cut to an extreme close-up of Melfi’s face, staring straight ahead. Tension hangs in the air. She seems on the verge—of both giving in to her bloodlust and of dissolving the line between the film’s two worlds and thus forever changing the course of the show. We want this as viewers. We want to see her attacker killed or tortured, which would perhaps reaffirm Tony as a “good” guy worthy of our attention: the average-joe knight in shining armor. Cut back to Tony, waiting for an answer to his question. Then a cut back to Melfi, now in a more manageable medium close-up. Coolly, she says “No,” and the screen instantly cuts to black and the credits.

The scene is extraordinarily empowering for Melfi. Her one word functions two-fold. First, it’s a righteous moral choice, a denial of the path to violence, which nearly all of the show’s other characters have chosen, either directly or not. And as such it immediately forces the viewer to realize that we have been craving violence, and were all too willing to choose the wrong path as well. Second, Melfi’s definitive “no” effectively operates as the rejection of violence that all victims of sexual assault are denied—the word unheard by her attacker. By not acting on her desire for violent, and surely fatal, retribution, Melfi has in a sense refused to be victimized.

It’s an understandable shame that such a sophisticated and ultimately ennobling commentary on rape and violence in film and television should have met with some confusion. In the New York Times, Caryn James seemed to miss the moral gravity and overall point of the episode, stating in 2001, “If the series was trying to put Tony’s life in the wider context of violence in the world, the episode failed. The theme was so confined to the rape, and the assault’s graphic depiction so overwhelming, that viewers could feel the series’ creator making his point rather than the character living his life.” It’s undeniable that Melfi’s rape exists to service the larger narrative of a male character, and can therefore be dismissed as a device, yet this doesn’t make the episode’s moral center any less stable. One hopes that James didn’t end up seeing the following year’s French art-house shocker Irreversible, first remembered by anyone who has seen it for its overwhelmingly graphic depiction of a horrific rape. Gaspar Noé’s film is not one that any sane human would care to revisit, but with its strikingly similar narrative intentions to “Employee of the Month,” I found it a fascinating and helpful comparison point. Both want to sicken us and force us to confront our morality as watchers, but Noé’s film is far too enamored of its own aesthetics to allow a cinema of true empathy.

A main character in Irreversible chooses vengeance in retaliation for a horrific rape. What the film and “Employee of the Month” share is an attempted refusal to grant satisfaction to the viewer in the face of that revenge. Whereas The Sopranos accomplishes this by empowering the character who was attacked, Irreversible does it structurally. Told in backwards chronology, Noé’s Paris-set film starts at the narrative endpoint, showing us an unbelievably brutal crime of passionate revenge, stripped of all context, in which a man is subject to an outlandishly violent death, his face bashed to bits by a fire extinguisher, in a hellish S&M-themed gay bar, charmingly called Rectum. (If pushed to defend this choice of setting and its depiction, I could argue that the point is to show an exclusively male world of terrifying aggression, though it would be a fool’s errand to deny the sequence’s essential homophobia.) With each successive scene—shot ostensibly in a single take—we move further back in time until we see the act that instigated the gruesome killing: the anal rape and bloody beating of Alex (Monica Bellucci) in an underground passageway, which Noé infamously captures in an unbroken shot of excruciating length. Rather than relieve the viewer with the revenge we now all crave, the film then continues to move in reverse through increasingly more mundane scenes that took place earlier that fateful evening, all the way back to an idyllic late afternoon in which Alex and her boyfriend, Marcus (Vincent Cassel), lounge in bed carefree, and Alex takes a pregnancy test, secretly from Marcus. Her smile indicates that she might indeed be with child.

The backwards narrative disallows us from engaging emotionally with the retaliative murder—which is enacted not by Marcus but by Alex’s friend, Pierre (Albert Dupontel), who initially accompanies Marcus on his quest for blood only reluctantly. The film’s take on the fruitlessness of revenge is further crystallized if we look close enough at the barely discernible faces of the men in Rectum and see that the actual rapist is standing by and watching the killing from the sidelines. So there’s no question that Irreversible is an explicitly condemnatory film in the rape-revenge genre; whether Noé’s highly self-consciously cinematic work earns its grasping for moral rectitude is an entirely different matter.

First there is the depiction of the rape itself, which is not only extraordinarily lengthy but also mounted in such a way that Alex’s agony is directed right to the camera, her weeping, retching, contorted mouth covered by the monster’s hand. The Sopranos’ rape of Dr. Melfi, filmed viscerally, mostly from side views and a brief overhead shot, is harrowing, making an impression in under a minute without exploiting; nevertheless it feels like it goes on for many terrible minutes. Noé’s scene is an eternity, an assault on the audience as much as on the character. One wouldn’t call it prurient, but the fascination with which Noé uses the cinematic apparatus to dramatize this woman’s suffering is highly suspect. This scene is staged as a theatrical experience. The camera stays in one position during the rape—so we’re staring at Bellucci on the floor head-on, as though we’re just out of her grasp and unable to save her—but after it’s done and she tries to crawl away from her attacker in the opposite direction, the camera suddenly picks up and shuttles toward her so we can get a better, closer look when he slams her head into the pavement over and over until her face is a mess of blood and broken bones. Noé’s brand of extreme confrontational cinema becomes especially unpalatable when one ascertains it’s his only trick, as evidenced by his former film I Stand Alone, which hinges on incestuous rape, and his subsequent death trip Enter the Void, which treats viewers to an aborted fetus in close-up and a penis thrusting into the camera. By situating Irreversible as a reverse-revenge narrative, Noé seems to be attempting a moral reckoning for his audience, but there’s little to be learned from his nihilism.

The gaping chasm between the philosophically acute The Sopranos and the comparatively pea-brained Irreversible could partly be chalked up to their differing formats. Irreversible cannot situate its rape-revenge anti-narrative within its maker’s already firmly established moral universe. But we come to “Employee of the Month” with a complexly and finely tuned emotional relationship to the characters who inhabit the world of the series. Without the luxury of nearly thirty hours of previous narrative to build on, Irreversible instead chooses to grab viewers by the lapels with swirly-twirly camerawork (during the first handful of sequences, the camera floats, spins, and undulates, seemingly to induce motion sickness), showboating compositions, and deafening audio effects. Whereas The Sopranos, mostly intentionally bereft of flamboyant cinematic technique, is able to ease viewers into a gradually building narrative which functions within a compromised but ultimately humane landscape, the desperately sensational Irreversible plunges us into an abyss of amorality.

It might be that Irreversible only pretends to deny satisfaction; a film this insistent on creating nonstop sensation is clearly preoccupied with pleasing its audience in some way. The film is after all a roller coaster ride, a nauseating physical experience that has the effect of wiping clean the brains of its viewers, reflecting its philosophy, stated more than once on-screen, that “Time destroys all things.” The Sopranos is more persuasive in its cinematic simplicity. The brief cutaway of Melfi’s ex-husband’s clenched, useless fists contains more power than the gruesome images of Marcus and Pierre’s botched revenge mission. Irreversible undeniably overwhelms the viewer, but “Employee of the Month” manages to do just that without resorting to tricks.

Noé pummels the audience into submission. David Chase, on the other hand, never wanted complacent viewers. Speaking on his evolving philosophy on The Sopranos, Chase once said, “If you’re raised on a steady diet of Hollywood movies and network television, you start to think, ‘Obviously there's going to be some moral accounting here.’ That’s not the way the world works. It all comes down to why you’re watching.” By constantly encouraging us to question why we’re watching and getting pleasure out of The Sopranos, Chase kicked the golden age of television off on a high note that still resonates—and that arguably no other show has been able to sound with such clarity. For the long, novelistic work that is The Sopranos, time does not destroy all things—instead it creates a rich, broad world that is as unforgiving in its violence as it is inspiring in its moral density.