May is Mental Health Awareness Month and here at 25YL, we want to highlight some of the television shows and characters that spoke to us directly about this sensitive subject. This week, Andrew Grevas looks at The Sopranos and what the show had to tell us about men suffering from mental health issues.
The Sopranos is a series designed for multiple viewings. It’s almost a cliché to say that in this “Golden Age of Television” we’ve been living through, but in the case of David Chase’s groundbreaking HBO series, it’s the absolute truth. The Sopranos is known for many things, including its incredibly talented cast, ushering in the rise of the antihero movement, and turning the mob genre on its head by having a crime boss in therapy as the crux on which the show was built. What the show doesn’t get nearly enough credit for, however, is bringing the issue of mental health—specifically in men—to the forefront of our culture at a time when nobody else was having these conversations.
In many cultures, men traditionally never voiced their feelings. Gender roles told us that men were to work and push through any bad or uncomfortable feelings because it was a sign of weakness to acknowledge something like depression or addiction, as in the case of Tony’s nephew Christopher. It wasn’t “manly” to be vulnerable. One of the things that The Sopranos did so well was to take the epitome of an alpha male—a large, powerful man who led a crime family—and humanize him. In Tony’s therapy scenes, we saw him address his “Mommy issues,” something a lot of men (myself included) struggle with but never felt comfortable talking about. While many men fantasized about getting with the kind of women Tony slept with or having his wealth or power, the real moral of this story was that everybody hurts and we all have the choice to do something about it.
“What ever happened to Gary Cooper” was a line Tony Soprano used frequently throughout the show’s run. During my most recent rewatch of the show, I noticed that Tony was a lot more apt to use that line when he was rebelling against Dr. Melfi and the concept of therapy as a whole. Tony’s longing for a time when “men were men” and didn’t talk about their feelings coincided with Tony himself being frustrated with the therapy process and why he still wasn’t over his depression and panic attacks. Tony, just like anyone else who lives with a mental health condition, was angry at times over what he suffered and what he had to do to improve the quality of his life. The character of Tony was very much a traditional man and being in therapy often made him uncomfortable. Longing for years past and wondering where the Gary Coopers of the world were served both as a reaction to Tony’s feelings about his own depression and also as a nod to our society, which especially at that time, didn’t seem all that interested in having the conversations about mental health that we needed to be having.
Tony wasn’t the only character who battled mental health issues. Numerous characters over the show’s six seasons attempted to engage Tony in conversation about his depression, most of the time to no avail. The biggest exception was Christopher, who is the other character I want to focus on. From the show’s beginning, Christopher’s issues with drugs and alcohol were on full display for the audience and characters alike. In the show’s fourth season, Christopher’s heroin abuse led him to a point where his friends and family felt the need to have an intervention for him before sending him to rehab.
Christopher’s journey into recovery is something that takes on greater meaning to me with every rewatch of the series. He’s a polarizing character in that half of the audience felt that he had become too much of a liability to Tony and needed to die. Then there’s the other half of the audience, who saw Christopher as a man who could never recover because of the life he was born into, and viewed his eventual death as a tragedy. Having people that divided over your life, what you’re worth and if you’re hopeless or not, is something I can relate to on a deeply personal level as a recovering addict.
The thing about addiction is that nobody seems to be able to define it. Is it a choice? Is it a disease? Is it a mental health condition? Are you born with it or not? What are you responsible for and how do you treat it? These questions and the dozens more that every addict, recovering or not, hear endlessly are enough to do your fucking head in. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what you suffer from and what you should do about your problem. When this article is published, I will be just a few days shy of eight years clean, and yet on any given day I can still feel absolutely dehumanized by listening to other people’s views on addiction. This, dear readers, was Christopher’s story arc for the final seasons of The Sopranos and it’s about as painful and tragic as anything else I’ve ever seen on television.
Everyone wanted Christopher to get clean but what the show pointed out to us was that nobody wanted to support him in the ways he needed in order to stay clean. From wondering why he couldn’t have a drink or questioning why he didn’t want to be in places filled with booze and bad memories, Christopher’s family and friends never quite understood that if he wanted to truly change, he had to change a lot. Old people, places, and things are enemies to someone in recovery.
Despite a flair for the dramatic at times, The Sopranos seemed to have a much better idea of what life was really like for a recovering addict than other shows and films, as well as a better understanding and respect for the 12-step recovery environment. Christopher’s journey was lonely and hard to watch at times yet extremely realistic. His death, at the hands of Tony following a relapse, carries such symbolism to someone like me. Christopher died because he put pleasing the people he loved (who didn’t understand what he suffered from) over taking care of himself, and he self-destructed as a result.
“You understand the human condition,” Christopher once said to Tony when they were arguing over why Christopher wasn’t around the Bing as much anymore. Christopher was practically begging for Tony of all people to see what he suffered from and what he needed to do for himself. Christopher was drowning by that point, desperate for a lifeline and for anyone in his life to show him empathy and compassion. Tony, the man who had been treating his own depression for years, would surely lend him a hand and pull him to shore, right?
At the same time that the mental aspect of Christopher’s addiction was dragging him down in the final run of Sopranos episodes, Tony’s mental health was also deteriorating. The effort Tony was putting into his therapy was decreasing even prior to Dr. Melfi dismissing him as a patient. In many ways, the final episodes of The Sopranos were about the two male leads no longer treating what they individually suffered from and the tragedy that resulted. In the beginning of the series, David Chase asked us to open our minds to the idea that men should be reaching out for help and that no stigma needed to exist. By the end of the series, Chase showed us what happens when we quit taking care of our mental health. A bleak ending, perhaps, but the point was to get us all thinking and talking about topics that people weren’t speaking about before.
Whether or not The Sopranos was ultimately successful in getting people to have these larger conversations is certainly debatable. The show’s influence is easier to see in other areas, such as making therapy a part of a narrative. Shows like In Treatment and Tell Me You Love Me followed The Sopranos and furthered the social acceptability of therapy. In some ways, the multilayered stories The Sopranos told, complete with attention-grabbing mafia elements, may prevent people from remembering everything the show was trying to say. As someone who has revisited the series many times, it’s clear to me that the human condition is a focal point of Chase’s story. If you haven’t watched The Sopranos in a few years, do yourself a favor and watch it again. You may be surprised at what stands out to you this time.