A Trump-era allegory
By Todd R. Nelson
You just never know where the next lesson on American politics will come from these days. I’ve been thinking recently about a scene from The Sopranos, the HBO series about an American crime family. It’s Greek tragedy by way of North Jersey. Or is it Miltonic? “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Virtue is for wimps.
If you recall, Carmela Soprano is distraught. She is “considering” divorce, but she wants to help her husband Tony, the Mafia don. Struggling to listen to her “better angels,” she seeks advice from a Jewish therapist, but all he can dispense is the wisdom of the ages. He won’t take her “blood” money, nor should she take the ill-gotten gains of her husband, he says. A short scene cuts right to the chase of the central problem of standing up to evil.
“He’s a criminal,” says the doctor. “You should just trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. You’ll never feel good about yourself as long as you’re his accomplice. You’re an enabler.”
From his throne atop the Soprano crime family, Tony must cope with the constant threat of an FBI-RECO prosecution. Underlings must be kept in line, or made to vanish. Even the Russian mafia make an appearance. It’s a cash business, paying people off, loan sharking, hiding ill-gotten gains in the ductwork of the family home…along with an arsenal of guns. He is a sociopath with anger management issues. Transactional — with extreme prejudice. Poor Tony, he’s just enacting new norms. He, too, needs a shrink. But getting help is a problem: it telegraphs weakness. Can’t have that. The golf course just might be his only respite. He is beyond redemption.
But what’s the Don’s wife to do? Carmela pleads the family, her Catholic religion (“We Catholics place a great deal of stock in the sanctity of the family”), and all manner of rationalizations for staying put. “I look the other way,” she says. It’s a modicum of self-knowledge. But will she argue for the sanctity of the crime family?
“He’s a good man, a good father,” she can say in one instant. The good doctor replies, “You tell me he’s a depressed criminal. Prone to anger; serially unfaithful. Is that your definition of a good man?” The floodgates open: “he betrays me every week with these whores,” Carmela weeps.
“My priest says I should work with him, help him to be a better man,” she pleads. “How’s that going,” replies the therapist. A mensch.
The therapist isn’t buying any of it. The shopping malls are full of equivocation and relativism. “Many patients want to be excused of their current predicament because of things that occurred in their childhood,” he says. He’s old school. Greek oracle. Moral compass pointing straight to the heavy-hitters of our literature. He’s a chorus of rectitude. “You must trust your initial impulse and consider leaving him. Take only the children — what’s left of them — and go.”
She tries a little psychobabble. Should I “define my boundaries more clearly? Keep a certain distance? Not internalize?” There’s the big house, the private schools, jewelry, and the Mercedes cars. Carmela is living large in the affluent Jersey suburbs, even if the source of funding rankles. But guilt and shame infect her conscience. Carmela can’t shake her dread.
And so it’s time for a little Dostoyevsky. “Have you ever read Crime and Punishment?” he asks. “It’s not an easy read.” The doctor is all about redemption, prescribes jail time for Tony, a little heavy reading while paying the existential bill for his misdeeds, reflecting on his crimes against humanity, from his cell. This isn’t about Tony’s depression and his mother complex; coping with daddy issues, or perhaps the attorney general’s office for the second district of New York. This is a battle for his soul. If he has one. The logistics of it all bewilder. But that’s not the point.
The doctor leaves Carmela no wiggle room, concluding their session, “One thing you can never say: you have not been told.” He, at least, is done.
Who would have thought The Sopranos could be an objective correlative for the political crosscurrents ripped from the day’s headlines! You know you’re in deep, troubled waters when the great tragedies of Western literature are a snug explanation for the political conflicts and destruction of civil society and law — via HBO. Dostoyevsky! Goethe! Any number of Shakespearian histories and tragedies define our predicament. So why are we doomed to repeat the costly perils of hubris, narcissism, greed and mendacity infecting our newly elected officials?
The thing about all this is, as Maya Angelou says, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” Then you need to make decisions about your own response — how to avoid enabling dangerous people. How to take back the control; how to restore your virtue, while there’s time. For what’s the “vig,” the tariff on the liberal world order, if you will, to be paid for indifference? You cannot say you have not been told.
Todd R. Nelson lives in Penobscot.