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The Sopranos: Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office…

Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office gets the second season of The Sopranos off to a strong start. We’re immediately informed that time has elapsed and that everything has sorted itself out. We get a montage to assure us that it’s business as usual, and the early part of the episode features Tony tying off the last possible lose end in the feud between himself and Junior. However, there’s also a sense that things are changing, both in the lives of our characters and also in the way the show is structured.

The first season of the show is a damn fine piece of television, but it’s also somewhat misleading. It’s a beautifully structured thirteen-episode mob epic which manages to satisfactorily tie up all its loose ends by the time the credits role on I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano. It’s understandable that so many people were frustrated by the show’s non-resolution after the first season wrapped up so elegantly.

With the success of that first season, there’s a sense of earned confidence to Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office, as if Chase feels like he has a bit more freedom to work with in telling his great American novel.

Something's not quite right here...

Something’s not quite right here…

It’s worth noting how fantastically the opening few minutes of Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office work. Given the runaway success of the first season, it’s highly likely that Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office would be many people’s first episode of the show. After all, word of mouth is the most convincing marketing a show could have, and people would have been talking about the series all summer. The second season, on average, almost doubled the viewing figures of the show’s first year.

So the opening few minutes are very important. Some of the viewers may have caught repeats, or bought the video or DVD, but the viewing paradigm hadn’t quite shifted yet. It’s quite likely that many of the people tuning into The Sopranos would be watching their first show. They might recognise the actors or the characters from newspaper articles, or watercooler chat, but this was the first time they’d see them in action.

Oh, mother, where art thou?

Oh, mother, where art thou?

In that respect, then, the montage is wonderfully impressive. It creates a wonderful sense of time passing, but it also manages to introduce us to many of the characters. In a visual medium, it’s able to tell us quite a lot about who these people are with an absolute minimum of dialogue. The Sopranos isn’t a show that frequently lends itself to just “jumping right in”, but Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office is a surprisingly accessible piece of television.

That montage works well for other reasons. Most obviously, it puts some sense of distance between the first and second seasons. It allows Chase to really move past the bulk of the direct fallout from the conflict between Tony and Junior. Business has reopened. Of course, there will be consequences – there are always consequences – but the immediate threat has been tucked away. We can start building to the next crisis. It’s unclear exactly how much time has unfolded by the time we rejoin the characters.

Money, money, money...

Money, money, money…

The Sopranos seems to unfold in something approaching real-time. It is reasonably safe to assume that the show takes place at least around the time the episode was filmed, if not always as it airs. (This allows for various references and acknowledgements of semi-current affairs.) So while we’re not sure how much time the montage covers precisely, we do know that it is “enough.” Things have returned to something approximating normality.

It also provides a pretty nice introduction to the show’s themes. It’s no coincidence that the montage is set to Frank Sinatra singing “when I was seventeen…” It’s a paean to nostalgia. The song lyrics hark back to an idealised past, and even the choice of recording artist evokes a romanticised past for the mob. Sinatra is a relic of the time when the mob controlled Las Vegas, and where crime and show business intermingled in a way that must seem ideal for Christopher, our gangster and would-be screenwriter.

Well suited to his role...

Well suited to his role…

That nostalgia permeates the episode. We’re treated, once again, to Silvio’s delightfully dodgy Al Pacino impression – which seems to appeal to the guys based solely on the fact that it’s from that film that they like. Even the addition of Janice plays into this, with Janice a woman who is stuck in an eternal childhood – the stubborn and selfish teenage years, unwilling to accept the responsibility that comes with growing up. She drives a beat-up old car, seems to have no fixed abode and still leeches off her family.

“My therapist says I’m regressing,” she explains at one point, which seems a bit incredulous. That would imply that, at some point, Janice actually reached maturity and that it is only know slipping from her grasp. Of course, it also points to the ubiquitousness of therapists in the world of The Sopranos. At another point, Tony channels his inner over-grown teenager when he bums a smoke off Janice in the backyard. “Give me a hit off that,” he whispers, as if afraid to be caught smoking in his own house.

His wires are a bit Chris-crossed...

His wires are a bit Chris-crossed…

Guy Walks Into a Therapist’s Office also reintroduces Pussy, who disappeared at the end of the first season. His encounter with Tony sets the mood for the show. This is a guy who Tony described as one of his best friends in Nobody Knows Anything, and they two stand-off outside his house. Pussy is afraid to come inside without an assurance that he’ll come to no harm. “Do I got your word?” he demands.

Indeed, just in case we were under the impression that these mobsters were actually friends, Pussy is able to point to the exact moment he knew that his life was in danger. “Comin’ to my house, at three o’clock in the afternoon? That’s when I knew I was in trouble, Anthony. When, outta the blue, you come and – for no reason – you start tellin’ me you’re my friend.” As much as Tony might like to believe that he has something approaching friendship with the people he works alongside, Pussy calls him out on it.

I love it when friends come to visit...

I love it when friends come to visit…

After all, these were people who planned to kill him due to his back troubles. When Tony wonders why Pussy ran away and never opened up to him, Pussy replies, not unfairly, “Because with you and Silvio and Paulie and all you pricks, weakness gets read as %$!@in’ treason!” This is a relationship where a hug is little more than an excuse to check the guy opposite you for a wire. Pussy doesn’t come back to make things right. He doesn’t come back because he’s part of the family. Economic necessity pulls him back in. “I gotta start earnin’ Tony.” Well, or so he claims.

Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office isn’t too heavy on plot. Instead, it’s very much centred on character and set-up. Not too much happens, but it’s about positioning characters for the next twelve episodes. One of the most telling things is the way that the show opens with Christopher paying a guy to sit in on his classes and earn his qualification. It’s not important to over-all plot, but it tells us a lot about the show and the characters who inhabit it.

School is back in session...

School is back in session…

We get a sense of Tony as a father-figure to Christopher. Barring the occasional reference to his mother, we never get any real sense of who Christopher’s biological parents are. He’s related to both Carmela and Tony Soprano, albeit in relatively convoluted ways. However, Tony has taken the kid under his wing and clearly wants what’s best for him. The irony, of course, is Christopher’s complete inability to understand or appreciate this.

Tony has Christopher working in white collar crime. He seems to want Christopher getting his qualification and sitting behind the desk, insulated from the mundane day-to-day crime. “Spend more time down at the brokerage,” Tony instructs his nephew. “You’re the f$£!in’ FCC compliance officer. I keep tellin’ ya, you gotta exercise impulse control.” It’s a pretty decent job. It pays well, presumably, and it keeps him out of trouble. He earns, so he has a path to career advancement. His qualifications and education will stand to him. This seems like a pretty good for Christopher.

A crash-course in the Sopranos to bring everybody up to speed...

A crash-course in the Sopranos to bring everybody up to speed…

Of course, this doesn’t appear to register with Christopher, who ended up in organised crime for the glory. He’s a little smarter than the two goons working for him at the brokerage, but only slightly. They plan to bleed the business dry very quickly, pretty much turning the customers upside down and shaking them to see what falls out. Christopher’s plan is only marginally ambitious. You don’t bleed your victim dry immediately. “So you can bleed him next week. And the week after. At the minimum.” His long-term planning reaches as far as a fortnight into the future.

When Christopher discovers that his goons are stealing cars – a much higher-risk game with lower longer-term rewards – he doesn’t worry that they might jeopardise his operation. Instead, his ambition extends to just a little bit more insulation and just a little bit more kick-back. “Any Porsches disappear, make it two towns over and I want a taste.” Of course, we discover that Christopher has developed a drug problem between seasons – or, at the least, the severity of his addiction has increased.

A tough man in a Chris-is...

A tough man in a Chris-is…

Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office suggests that Christopher’s ambitions and insecurities aren’t unique. The two goons he has working for him are similarly fixated on immediate rewards and the promise of notoriety. The muscle-bound Chippendale asks Christopher at one point, “Does Tony ever talk about us?” It’s all about getting your name out there, it seems.

The show also acknowledges Melfi’s shifting circumstances. She’s operating out of a motel, in what looks like a decidedly shady operation. It’s a typically wry gag for the show, the notion that Melfi – the most legitimate and above-board of the show’s regular – is the one who has been forced into exile, living life on the lam. To be fair, you can get a sense of the show still trying to figure out what it wants to do with Melfi.

The pasta is a different country...

The pasta is a different country…

She’s absent for a lot of this opening stretch of the season, but the show seems almost relieved that it at least has something to do with her character, even if that something means that Lorraine Bracco is absent for most of the season. At the very least, it leads to a wonderful scene where another psychiatrist compares treating Tony to Analyse That, complete with Tony’s indignant response.

We get the development of an idea suggested in I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano, the notion that Melfi is really just as numb and hypocritical as the other people caught in Tony’s sphere of influence. There, Melfi was able to dispense advice that would probably lead Tony to murder his mother, rationalising her interference by virtue of the fact that Tony’s life was in danger. We could infer that Livia’s life was less important, because Melfi didn’t know her.

A psyched-out psychiatrist...

A psyched-out psychiatrist…

Here, Melfi is outraged at the way that Tony’s circumstances forced her into exile. “One of my patients committed suicide because I wasn’t available to her,” Melfi explains. “She’s gone. She’s in the ground because of you.” Somehow, Melfi is angrier to Tony for the fact that his actions indirectly lead to death of one person that Melfi knew, than for the wave of systematic gangland purges that she passively allowed him to commit by helping him work through his problems.

The Sopranos plays with Melfi’s passive complicity and her comfortable distance from Tony’s actions, and Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office raises several interesting questions about how we prioritise the importance of a person’s death. It sounds selfish, but death inevitably affects us more when we’re directly aware of it. It makes sense, then, that Melfi seems to have insulated herself as much as possible. This nameless patient is more important to Melfi than Philly Parisi or Mickey Palmice, because she happens to know her personally.

Guess who's back?

Guess who’s back?

Tony seems to realise this. He’s very good at manipulating Melfi. When he tries to reassure her that everything’s okay, he reinforces the sense that she is somehow insulated and removed from his violence and brutality. “I swear to Jesus Christ that nobody got killed because of you,” he promises to her, knowing exactly which buttons to press. Melfi might be the psychiatrist, but Tony has a talent for messing with the heads of those around him, even if he’s not quite as self-aware as he needs to be. Then again, I suppose that’s part of the reason that everybody on this show needs a psychiatrist – it’s easier to look at somebody else than to look at yourself.

Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office doesn’t cover too much plot. It doesn’t come roaring out of the gate. Instead, it starts the second season on a slow simmer, with David Chase and his team apparently a lot more comfortable this time around.

 

 

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