In this series, twenty one dialogs that reference genetics from the six seasons of the HBO television series The Sopranos are cited and discussed, in chronological order, from the perspective of a fan who is a geneticist. The context of each citation with respect to the plot and characters will be the main focus of discussion.
AJ has been assessed for learning disabilities at school, earning a borderline diagnosis for Attention Deficit Disorder (A.D.D.). At home, Meadow has shown AJ a web site listing members of the New Jersey and New York mob and AJ is beginning to realize what his father does for a living. These developments have heightened Tony and Carmela’s concerns about AJ’s future academic and career choices as he moves beyond the “waste management” euphemism that has given him plausible deniability with respect to his family’s business up to this point. Tony is talking with Dr. Melfi about whether AJ knows he is in the mafia, and about his concern that AJ may follow in his footsteps.
Tony: “He’s gonna find out eventually, what difference does it make? Me, my father- it’s probably in the genes right? This A.D.D. thing- it’s probably all genetical.”
Tony’s comment applies to himself as well as to AJ and brings up the nature/nurture issue with respect to Soprano family values. Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, doesn’t pursue the topic much further, probably because the immediate issue with AJ is the possibility that he has A.D.D., and with Tony it’s his panic attacks, and they have other things to talk about as well. This brief discussion, however, sets the stage for the next three genetic dialogs that bear out Tony’s concerns about AJ, as the plot focuses more on AJ now that Livia is out of the picture and Meadow is away at college.
AJ and his friend have broken in to the school and stolen a math test. While they are at it they urinate on the wall, leaving behind “evidence” that the principal will use against them.
Principal: “Both of you got ninety-six percent correct- remarkable! I’d like to call your parents and share the good news with them.”
AJ: “Oh, uh, you really don’t have to.”
Principal: “What do you want to tell me? If you cooperate now, it’ll be easier later.”
AJ: “All we did was study hard.”
Principal: “I don’t have to waste my time with you- It was both your urines that Mr.Lugomorph spent two hours scrubbing. Your DNA was an exact match.”
AJ’s Friend: “Oh Jeez!”
AJ: “He was the one who peed first. I didn’t even have to pee until he did it.”
This reference to DNA brings the practical application of genetics to forensic science back in focus. Although it’s comical at this level of adolescent mischief, it follows the form of a classic dialog between the FBI and a suspect or potential informant being interrogated: “If you cooperate now, it’ll be easier later.” It doesn’t take much to “break” AJ and his friend, and they fall for the principal’s trick reference to DNA evidence, suggesting that Tony is correct in his assessment that AJ lacks the street smarts and toughness to succeed as a criminal. To AJ’s credit, however, he is clearly the “brains” behind the operation and does a good job parrying the principal’s leading questions until his friend cracks in response to the principal’s mention that their DNA was an “exact match”. Even then AJ’s first instinct is toward self-preservation when he blames his friend for making him pee on the wall.
It’s not just that Tony is concerned that AJ lacks the “right stuff” to succeed as a criminal. It’s also Tony’s knowledge that AJ has grown up in a different world from Tony’s, and that even if Tony did take AJ under his wing and successfully groom him to follow in his footsteps, there’s no future in being an old-fashioned mobster. The track record of the children of Tony and his associates isn’t very good: Jackie Aprile Jr. was just whacked, Little Carmine gets no respect, and Christopher is struggling with drug addiction and impatience with his slow pace of progress up the ladder of success within the organization. The FBI is closing in on all the families, there’s competition from new mobs (e.g. Russian, Columbian) on the block, and besides, there are far greater opportunities for AJ in the legitimate business world where many of the same qualities that used to make a good mobster can be put to far more lucrative use with much less legal exposure and risk to one’s health.
AJ is talking to Meadow who is in her dorm room at Columbia. He wants to tell her about Jackie Aprile Jr.’s death but she thinks he is talking about his expulsion from school for stealing the math test.
AJ: “There’s something I gotta tell you.”
Meadow: “I heard.”
Meadow: “Like Mom’s not totally gonna tell me you got expelled?”
AJ: “Not that…”
Meadow: “I heard you cracked and copped to everything.”
AJ: “They had my DNA.”
Meadow: “Moron! It takes like six weeks to get DNA tests.”
This follow-up conversation to the last dialog emphasizes the contrast between Meadow, the Ivy League college student, and AJ the budding juvenile delinquent. AJ still doesn’t realize that the principal’s pseudo-forensic DNA evidence was a lie, but Meadow sees through it right away. Here the context of the reference to the forensic use of DNA, a conversation between brother and sister, takes on a familial significance as well as a forensic one. It allows us to see another side of AJ and Meadow’s relationship where they display the potential to help each other out and work together in a way that
Tony and his sister rarely achieve. At the same time, in this scene some new qualities of both AJ and Meadow’s characters emerge that suggest a familial turn of the helix toward the qualities we’ve already seen displayed by Tony and Carmela. AJ may not have Meadow’s academic skills and Tony’s street-smarts, but he does show signs of Tony’s talent for leadership, Janice’s penchant for cooking up schemes to cheat the system, and Tony’s loyalty to his family. AJ realizes that Meadow has feelings for Jackie Aprile Jr., and he is trying to tell Meadow that Jackie has been shot. Despite his immaturity in other ways, he is showing concern for his sister’s feelings and surprising maturity and responsibility in taking the initiative to tell her about Jackie Jr.’s death on his own.
While this scene suggests that AJ is a more complex, and possibly more formidable character than his record of underachievement so far indicates, it also highlights some surprising weaknesses on Meadow’s part. Despite her intelligence and success in school, she fell for Jackie Aprile Jr. who was a college drop-out, unfaithful to her, and an aspiring gangster. Meadow’s brief affair with Jackie Jr. resembles the pattern of Tony and Carmela’s generation, of mob wives married to unfaithful gangsters that offer a certain type of power, potential for wealth and an exciting lifestyle, but at a significant emotional, legal and moral cost. Unlike her parent’s generation, Meadow has far more, and better options and alternatives than Jackie Aprile Jr., so why did she make such an ostensibly poor choice by getting romantically involved with him?
AJ’s maturity and Meadow’s poor judgment in these respects represent, superficially, behavior that seems out of character for them, but it also can be seen as an expression of their family environment, and by extension, a genetic predisposition to emulate their parent’s behavior given similar cues and opportunities. Despite all of Tony’s criticisms of Janice and the complications she causes him, he always reaches out to her when she needs help. Despite Carmela’s social skills, strong instincts for self preservation, her devotion to her Catholic religion and her mother’s lifelong efforts to steer her away from the likes of Tony, she picked him, sticks by him and even manages to rationalize her marriage to Tony without giving up her faith in the church. It seems that AJ has a little more of Tony in him, and Meadow has more of Carmela in her than we thought.
Meadow deserves credit for becoming quickly disenchanted with Jackie Aprile Jr. on her own, despite her strong feelings for him. Even so, his death affects her deeply, and her more socially desirable relationships with fellow Columbia students outside of her family and ethnic circle, so far, have been neither very successful nor very convincing. AJ deserves credit for acting perceptively, kindly and sympathetically toward his sister, but then he parlays his new-found maturity and social sophistication into more successful and sophisticated schemes to earn money organizing illegal drinking parties and using his family name and position to move up in the world socially by attracting a super-rich girlfriend and hanging out at exclusive clubs in the city. Although Meadow and AJ may have enjoyed a more privileged upbringing than their parents, they are still their parent’s children, and it’s not clear at all whether they are going to escape into the “legitimate” world or be dragged down by their family ties.
After AJ is expelled, Tony wants to send him to a military academy. While trying on the uniform for his new school, AJ has a panic attack and falls to the floor. Tony is talking to Dr. Melfi right after this.
Tony: “My son, has panic attacks. Now obviously we can’t send him to military school. Pediatrician said. He’s got that putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene!”
Dr. Melfi: “It’s a slight tick- in his fight-flight response. It doesn’t brand him as anything.”
Tony: “You know- it comes down through the ages. I remember hearing about my great, great, great grandfather- he drove a mule cart over a mountain road. He was transporting these valuable jugs of olive oil. Probably was a panic attack.”
Dr. Melfi: “When you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself. And that’s what we should be talking about.”
This is probably the quintessential reference to genetics in the series. Tony explicitly cites “that putrid, rotten fucking Soprano gene”. There is no doubt that, at least literally, he’s referring to a genetic basis for the anxiety syndrome that runs in the family. It’s likely Tony’s anger is directed at the fact that this trait interferes with his own work and effectiveness as a mob boss, and has put a stop to his plan to “save” AJ by sending him to military school.
Doctor Melfi’s response is classic and practical: “When you blame your genes, you’re really blaming yourself”. She has been trying to get Tony to accept responsibility for his behavior and his choices, and she’s not about to let him blame it all on a gene. She understands that genes don’t literally determine our behavior. Doctor Melfi also understands that at the individual level there is no way to separate genetic from non-genetic causes of our behavior. Her immediate response to Tony’s outburst is to play down the significance of AJ’s problem by saying “It’s a slight tick- in his fight-flight response. It doesn’t brand him as anything.” This one trait doesn’t irreversibly determine his fate. Just because AJ may have inherited Tony’s anxiety disorder it doesn’t mean he’s doomed to follow in Tony’s footsteps in every other respect.
At the same time, by labeling AJ’s anxiety attack as “a slight tick- in his fight-flight response” she is also commenting indirectly on Tony’s similar make-up. Fight-flight response, in academic jargon, refers to basic instincts that go deep into our evolutionary past and reside in the more primitive areas of our mammalian brain (often described as “the four F’s: fighting, feeding, fleeing and mating”). One of Doctor Melfi’s jobs as a psychiatrist is to help Tony become more consciously aware of his behavior and to use his rational powers to control his baser instincts and behave in a more socially acceptable way. Tony, on the other hand, usually sees his overactive four F’s as a good thing.
The fact that Doctor Melfi prescribes Prozac, Lithium and other pharmacological treatments for Tony is a further indication that, as a psychiatrist, she recognizes unconscious biological influences on behavior and accepts that psychiatric problems may be caused by individual differences in how these mechanisms function. She doesn’t just prescribe Prozac and hope for the best- she combines drug treatment with intensive psychotherapy. Her approach to therapy reflects a complex interaction among nature, nurture and insightful analysis. Tony’s problem may be rooted in his “nature”, but it’s not beyond the power of therapy to save him. Doctor Melfi’s strategy seems to lie mainly in patiently working to change the way Tony sees himself. She never does, however, successfully refer Tony to a purely behavioral therapist, despite several half-hearted attempts. The fact that Tony is already a master at dispensing “behavioral therapy” in his own line of work as a mafia boss, and his penchant for parasitizing therapeutic insights (e.g. he used her advice to let his mother think she is in charge of the decision to move into a nursing home to solve the problem of what to do with Uncle Junior by making him the nominal head of the family while Tony ran things behind his back) might have made her skeptical that behavioral therapy would be any more successful than her approach. More likely, she wasn’t willing to give up Tony as a patient because of her fascination with him and the personal challenge of treating him.
Doctor Melfi’s faith in therapy for Tony, despite her ambivalence about treating him, implies that she believes Tony is not a hopeless psychopath. She may be able to understand, better than her own ex-husband and her own therapist do, how Tony could be more a victim of circumstance, born at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong mother, than a born sociopath. The origins and logic of Tony’s criminal behavior, as repulsive as it may be, may lie in his enculturation and family influences rather than an innate criminal disposition. Doctor melfi’s tenuous thread of empathy toward Tony may derive, in part, from the fact that she and Tony have recognized a common ancestral terroir in that Doctor Melfi’s family comes from Caserta, near Naples, not far from Avellino where Tony’s family roots lie. Had Tony’s family not been in the mafia, had he stayed in college, listened more carefully to his high school football coach and taken a job selling lawn furniture- he may have become a real “Captain of Industry”, politician, high-school gym teacher, cop, professional actor or even a psychotherapist or college professor. Jennifer Melfi, by the same token, might be thinking that had fate given her life a different twist, she might be on the other side of the couch as well.
Regardless of what might have been, Tony dreams about ducks as symbols of concern about his family, feels conflicted about whacking his close friends when business requires it, feels a tangible sense of loyalty and duty toward his mother, sister and uncle despite their transgressions against him, and genuinely cares about his marriage to Carmela. A full-blown psychopath wouldn’t have these feelings, probably wouldn’t be in therapy voluntarily, wouldn’t feel so protective of animals such as Adriana’s dog and Ralph’s racehorse, and wouldn’t feel anxiety and remorse to the point of developing panic attacks. A genuine psychopath would also be less conflicted and less concerned about the “ethics” of proper mob etiquette, especially when it requires some compromise, or delayed gratification on his part. It’s difficult to imagine Tony beating a young woman to death the way Ralph Cifarelli does, or smothering an old lady to death with a pillow for the money under her mattress like Paulie Walnuts, and with no apparent feelings of remorse afterwards. Tony has higher moral standards than these characters- he beats Ralph Cifarelli to death, for example, for whacking their racehorse “Pie-O’My” for the insurance money.
Despite the mixed results of her efforts to use both therapy and pharmacological treatments (combined with a good dose of vodka, therapy, personal anxiety and rationalization on her own behalf) in treating Tony, Doctor Melfi does an admirable job as a character in representing an intelligent, sincere, competent and appropriately complex mirror image of Tony’s character. She is an exemplary synthesis of the ethical, carefully reasoned and principled behaviors that Tony lacks. While Tony enjoys himself to the fullest most of the time, she struggles, like most of us, to maintain her integrity. Melfi is constantly debating whether or not she is treating Tony or enabling him, trying to help him or satisfying her own morbid attraction to him, or upholding the Hippocratic oath she’s sworn to obey versus doing more harm than good by helping him to function more effectively. Where Doctor Melfi succeeds in conforming to social norms, Tony largely fails. Where Doctor Melfi talks out her problems productively with her therapist, Tony’s awareness of his transgressions and corrective measures he might take remain largely suppressed and he deals with them instead by “somaticizing” them in the form of anxiety attacks and depression. While Doctor Melfi uses her insights into her patient’s personality, nature and behavior for their therapeutic benefit, Tony uses his insights into the personality, nature and behavior of other people to manipulate them to his advantage with little regard for their well-being
Tony and Doctor Melfi, nevertheless, clearly share a common attraction to each other on a personal level, they each live vicariously through each other’s worlds, and their different lifestyles don’t reside so much in any inherent potential difference in their respective human natures so much as how effectively they manage to control their impulses to act on it. This is nowhere more evident than the amazing self-control that Doctor Melfi displays after she is raped, her rapist is identified and arrested, and then released on a technicality. She knows that Tony would whack the guy in a second without being asked, so she keeps the entire incident secret from him, in spite of her residual rage and frustration, and unconscious dream imagery about Tony protecting her.
Tony and Doctor Melfi couldn’t be more different in some ways, but in other ways they almost meet at a common middle ground coming from two opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Tony’s most impressive similarity to Doctor Melfi occurs in his parallel universe of the Cosa Nostra. There, in his own separate world, Tony is a model citizen when it comes to taking on awesome responsibilities, mediating conflicts, upholding mob social conventions, dispensing advice, “medicine” and “therapy” while also receiving it from his consigliere and lawyer, running a business, seeing “clients”, and holding sit-downs. Doctor Melfi and Tony both work hard to keep their lives on track.
Both of them are very successful, work long hours, struggle with various crises and challenges and difficult people, and must handle a lot of stress. Doctor Melfi struggles with cognitive dissonance between the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession and her concern that by treating Tony she may also enable his criminal behavior and, indirectly, share responsibility for the harm he does to other people. Tony struggles with the fact that the oath of loyalty he swore in blood to the Cosa Nostra sometimes requires him to whack his friends and exercise strategic restraint against his enemies. The process of working one’s way up the ladder from petty criminal to mob boss is not unlike the process of working one’s way through high school, college and medical school and finally earning your degree and practicing. The only problem is that Tony’s life revolves around the wrong set of rules.
The Sopranos recognizes a fine and dangerous line between right and wrong in part because much of what comes to be accepted as such is decided by arbitrary social contract, and because much of the process is the same even if the outcome is so dramatically different. There is an obvious overlap in this regard not just between Tony and his therapist, but also between the mob and the FBI in that they share a lot in common even though they are, ultimately on opposite sides of the law. The Sopranos blurs the worlds of the mob and conventional society by showing much of the “human” side of the criminals along with the more hypocritical side of the conventional characters, such as those representing law enforcement, religion, government and business.
One of the many elements of brilliance in The Sopranos series is the way that the complex interaction in Tony’s character between nature and nurture in the causation of human behavior is portrayed. References to genetics, family, religion, society, culture, philosophy and chance and their manifestations in Tony’s character resemble a modern version of a Dostoyevsky novel. Although references to genetics throughout the series are relatively few, they are conspicuous in this context.