"Employee of the Month" (season 3, episode 4)
In which Dr. Melfi faces an awful choice.
"Employee of the Month" is a parable. At all times, you're aware of the writers manipulating the storyline behind the scenes to arrive at a predetermined destination, particularly in the episode's weird midsection, when Dr. Melfi's rapist is allowed to walk free because of a long string of legal technicalities that, while plausible, aren't exactly believable, unless you accept that the show itself is trying to solely set up a moment where Melfi can be tempted by the power she has as Tony Soprano's therapist and then reject that power. If The Sopranos is about a bunch of people who have to choose to do the right thing or do the easy thing, then Melfi is the only person in the run of the series who faces a truly hard choice and chooses to do the right thing. Her rapist will walk free. Maybe someday, the wheels of justice will catch up to him for one reason or another. But she will not be his doom, even though she could. He'll have to bring that down upon himself.
And here's the thing about "Employee of the Month": The only thing Melfi gains by making the right choice at episode's end is her soul. Throughout, it's quite clear that doing the wrong thing in the world of The Sopranos will usually pay off. Tony's still trying to keep Jackie, Jr., out of the mob life, but it's easy to see why he might want to get involved. There are plenty of spoils, and there's the thrill of getting to simply do whatever you want, to repay the people who wrong you in a way that feels more viscerally immediate. One of the episode's many subplots involves the fact that Johnny Sack is moving to New Jersey, to live in a palatial house that is big enough to have both a living room and a "great room." Melfi does pretty well for herself, as a psychiatrist, but her home is nothing like this. The people who take what they want get what they want. The people who do the right thing, who refuse to be complicit, are the ones who suffer.
"Employee of the Month," ultimately, is a slightly clumsier episode than its reputation. While most of the myriad number of mob subplots are interesting, few of them can compete with the emotional immediacy of what Melfi's going through. (Lorraine Bracco's performance makes her suffering so acute that it's hard to think about anything else.) This isn't a TV-safe rape, designed to teach us a lesson about how awful such a crime is and how women can be destroyed by it, as the recent "very special episode" of Private Practice about the same topic offered. The Sopranos trusts the audience to grasp the horror and trusts Bracco to bring it across. As such, it becomes even more horrifying for the episode's insistence on looking away, on going to check in on other things, like Johnny Sack's house or Janice's attempts to get her mother's records back from Svetlana or, hell, even Richard bitching about the bad reputation Italians have in the media (even immediately in the aftermath of Melfi's rape). I've seen this episode four or five times now, and I still have no idea what the Janice storyline is supposed to be other than occasionally too-obvious comic relief.
And, if we're being honest, the Melfi storyline is kind of a mess between the scene where she's raped and the scenes after the rapist is released. The scenes where Richard and Melfi's son confront their own powerlessness in the wake of the crime are well-done, but the scene where the family realizes that Jesus Rossi is going to walk off scot-free is problematic, perhaps because the show tries to half explain just why he's being released and then rather gives up. It's meant to increase the horror of what Melfi's going through, but at all times, it's incredibly obvious that the writers are setting this up to offer Melfi a choice, to create that parable set-up from the beginning. If Melfi's been an audience stand-in all this time, then the show is inviting both her and, by proxy, us to sic Tony Soprano, the utmost expression of our own darkest impulses, on a man who horribly violated her. At all times post-season one, The Sopranos wants to implicate us as complicit in Tony's actions (an argument I'm not sure makes a lot of sense), but it's practically begging us to take responsibility here. "If this happened to you or someone you know and love, you'd ask Tony to get involved, wouldn't you?" the show suggests, with its final scene meant to be instructive on what we SHOULD do if confronted with this choice. But to get to that point and have Melfi know the identity of her rapist and know he won't be convicted for the crime requires the writers to do some plate spinning that's never completely convincing.
And yet despite all of this, the episode just works. It may be the messiest of The Sopranos' great episodes, but that mess doesn't matter because the last 15 minutes or so is just the show at its very, very best, and that final scene may be the most important in the show's history. The Melfi arc up until this point has been all about first being a little afraid of Tony Soprano, then a little allured by him, then afraid again, then allured, etc., etc. Throughout, however, the question has been just how complicit in his actions she would become. The advice she offers will be used by him to handle his crew. She knows about the things he does and the world he lives in, but she doesn't go to the authorities, treating the patient/therapist relationship as sacrosanct (and, arguably, there have been times when she knew just enough about what was about to happen from reading the news to be able to go to the police if she wanted). She has yet to do anything really wrong, but she also hasn't been presented with the choice that would turn Tony from just a patient into something of an associate.
"Employee of the Month" gives her that choice, and in the process, it reaffirms Melfi as the series' moral voice. There are other characters in the series who make moral choices. There may even be other characters who are consistently moral. But Melfi is the only character who so consistently chooses to do the right thing, despite how much pain it might cause her, that she becomes the one place the series can go to when it needs to provide a moral compass. She's the strongest way for the show to reaffirm that Tony is a human being, not just an unfeeling monster or sociopath (well, she and James Gandolfini's performance, that is). So long as Melfi is trying to save Tony from the mountains of things in his past that conspired to make him who he is, we can feel as though he can be saved, that he might even be worth saving, ultimately. (More on this in Speaking With the Fishes.)
But for that arc to work at all, then Melfi has to be tempted at some point, and she is here. Seeing her reduced to a husk of who she is, even when we see it ever so briefly (this episode seems to take place over the course of about a month), makes us want her to reclaim whatever power she had, via whatever means she had. If there's ever been a time when Melfi COULD give in and do the wrong thing and have it be understandable, it's now. And, what's more, you could probably make an argument that it would be the right thing for her to do this. Rossi will probably do this again, to other women, and if he's not out there on the streets, isn't that, ultimately, a good thing? (This is an argument all works dealing with vigilante justice ultimately try to sell at one point or another.) In the world of The Sopranos, no, it's not. Rossi will have to damn himself. Melfi can't do it for him, can't let the dog off the leash to sink its teeth into Rossi's arm and drag him to hell. As viscerally exciting as it might be to see Tony stalk Rossi, to have him finally squash the guy, it wouldn't be RIGHT, and it would devalue Melfi. She's just become another associate of Tony's. It's safe for her to entertain Richard or her son's fantasies because neither of those two would ultimately give in to violence. She can't tell Tony because it would make her an accessory to murder.
Yet she's not wholly pure, either. There's a very strong implication that she keeps Tony on as a patient because, to a degree, he makes her feel safe. Treating him, having that relationship with him, gives her the outlet she needs to feel that restoration of power. Her dream sequence in this episode may be one of the most over-obvious sequences in the history of the show, but it's easy to see why it makes her feel so much better. To treat Tony Soprano is, to a degree, to be a part of his circle, and Tony takes care of the people in his circle. So long as he is a part of her world, she needn't fear it, to some degree. She does the right thing when she tells him she has nothing to talk about (and Bracco's lone, fraught with sorrow, "No," is one of my favorite line readings of the series), but it doesn't come without some degree of compromise. Tony will remain her patient for the rest of the series, even though she may have bumped up against the limits of how much she can help him. She needs him as much as he needs her.
It's here that it's worth pointing out that Gandolfini's performance in this episode is wonderfully open and surprisingly warm. Check out that scene where Carmela gets the phone call from Melfi canceling Tony's next appointment, where he doesn't quite know how to be concerned in the presence of his wife without tweaking her radar. (Edie Falco plays this whole scene almost as if Carmela suspects Melfi and Tony are sleeping together.) Tony Soprano is a supporting player in this particular episode, but he becomes a weird lifeline for the show whenever things get too messy. His dealings with Janice are very funny, and when he turns up in Melfi's office after she returns to work, it feels almost refreshingly normal, as if real life has reasserted itself forcefully after a tragedy. Bad things happen, but good things do, too. It's rare to have Tony Soprano be one of those good things, but Gandolfini makes him seem almost like a nice, familiar face to see in this episode.
As far as the other plots go, they don't work quite as well. Jackie, Jr., continues to be a bit of a distraction (though he nicely plays into the episode's central theme of temptation, as he's simply unable to make the right choice). I like the Johnny Sack plot for how it obliquely comments on Melfi's storyline, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what the business with Janice is doing in this episode, except, I guess, to raise the specter of the Russians. Particularly in this episode, a plot where violence against a woman is intended to be funny (and it IS very funny) feels a little strange. But, then, life, even the funny bits, goes on, even when someone else is suffering. Just because Melfi is raped doesn't mean the lives of the other characters come to a halt, as they would on another show. And Janice's problems continue apace.
But even if the episode has its problems, it remains one of the series' very best. And to explain why, it's necessary to return to the idea of the episode as a parable. Parables are intended to provide some form of moral instruction. They create moments of moral clarity, where people are invited to make the choice between right and wrong and then choose the right way. Think of the Good Samaritan, say, or the tale of the rich man who goes to Hell and the poor man who goes to Heaven. On The Sopranos, good people only escape with their souls intact, but a soul is a valuable thing to have in the show's universe. The choice is boiled down to telling Tony what happened or saying, "No," and as much as she might want to tell, as much as we might want her to give in to a desire for vengeance, she cannot. Melfi's a better person than that, and, the show hopes, we should be too.
- Apologies for the lateness. I'm traveling for the holiday, and just found wi-fi at a McDonalds in Winnemucca, Nevada. So this is the "road movie" edition of The Sopranos write-ups.
- "Employee of the Month" was an upset winner at the Emmys for best writing in a drama series, beating out "Pine Barrens" (which, ultimately, is probably a better script). On the other hand, Bracco was considered a heavy favorite to win actress in a drama series for her work in this episode, and she lost to Falco (for another very good performance, admittedly), which just goes to show that no one should ever predict the Emmys.
- I'm reminded of how subtly the show worked in Ralph Cifaretto when he first began appearing as a character. It's a rare case of a character suddenly showing up and acting as if he's always been there and that somehow working.
- That said, all of the concern over how he's been passed over for captain feels a little bizarre, due to, well, him having just shown up. I do like how we gradually get little details about him, however, like his interest in Jackie, Jr., as he tries to be a sort of surrogate father for the kid.
- If we didn't doubt how the show wanted us to feel here (making it even more of a parable), David Chase said to Entertainment Weekly in an interview as the show ended that Melfi had made her moral, ethical choice and, "We should applaud her for it." So there!
- Hey, it's 2001 alert: "Oops! … I Did It Again" is playing at the restaurant where Melfi sees the employee of the month placard that gives the episode its title.
- Speaking of which, that moment is one of my favorite, "Here's where the episode title comes from" moments in TV history.
- The actress who plays Ginny Sacramone, Denise Borino, recently passed away. It's too bad. She had no acting experience when auditioning for the show at an open casting call, and she was always a fun presence on the series. The scene where the guys are making cruel jokes about her and Johnny Sack walks in is such a TV cliché, but the show plays it just right.
- Wikipedia informs me that Bracco was also troubled by a J. Rossi in Goodfellas, where her nemesis was named Janet Rossi. If that's seriously what the show is doing here, that's kind of a disgusting in-joke. (I'm going to assume it's not to continue to hold all involved with the show in the highest of regards.)
- The scene where Janice goes to get the prosthetic leg out of the locker remains a highlight. Oh, Janice. You'll be self-involved until you die.
- Interesting editing choice: Cutting right from Melfi's pain to women's naked asses grinding at the Bing. I'd like to say this is the show saying something about cycles of violence against women perpetuating themselves (about which more in Speaking With the Fishes), but I think it's just an unfortunate cut.
Speaking With the Fishes:
- So this is the point where Melfi's arc basically concludes. At this point in the series, Chase thought he'd be on the air for another season, so it makes sense that he ends her story here, as her story from here on out is gaining the strength to stop treating Tony, something she won't do until the next-to-last episode of the series. However, the show ended up running over 40 more episodes, which means we're barely at the halfway point for the series. This means that Melfi's increased irrelevance to the show going forward is probably the result of this, her defining episode. Still, I wouldn't trade this one for anything.
- I mention that editing choice above, and Ralphie will, of course, enact a very grave incident of violence against a woman just two episodes from now, which may indicate the edit was intentional foreshadowing.
- Tony and Carmela will begin therapy together in the very next episode, but it was always an idea I thought the show could have done more with, implausible as it is that Melfi would suddenly decide to bring Carmela into Tony's therapy for multiple sessions.
Next week: "Another Toothpick" brings Tony and Carmela into Melfi's office together.