Dr. Melfi is brutally raped and thinks about asking Tony for help. Janice pays a price for stealing Svetlana’s prosthetic leg. Ralph Cifaretto and Jackie Jr. do some male-bonding as they beat the crap out of a business associate.
EPISODE 30 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 18, 2001 WRITTEN BY GREEN AND BURGESS DIRECTED BY JOHN PATTERSON
Very few Sopranos episodes have had as much written about them as “Employee of the Month” has. And understandably so. It is a sharp and powerful episode, and one of the highlights of the series.
The hour starts off with the return of some familiar faces: Irina, under the pretext of trying to help recover Svetlana’s stolen prosthesis, tries to reconnect with Tony; and Richard LaPenna is back together with Dr. Melfi. While Irina’s return becomes more of a substantial storyline in later episodes, it is Richard’s return that is consequential in this one. We first met Richard in “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” where he functioned as the meta-mouthpiece of all those critics that had a problem with the series’ violence and/or depiction of Italian-Americans. Richard spoke for those who felt that HBO should drop The Sopranos. Now he speaks for those that feel Melfi should drop her client Tony Soprano. He tries to get Melfi to hand her mobster-patient over to a behavior-modification specialist. Melfi insists that she is making progress with him, as evidenced by the significant breakthrough they had last week. Perhaps there was something profound and revelatory in last week’s session, when she made connections between food and violence and Tony’s panic attacks. But we had a sense that Tony was not nearly as impressed by this “breakthrough” as Dr. Melfi was. And this is immediately clear in their first session of this episode:
Melfi: Did you bring your log?
Tony: My log??
Tony doesn’t even remember that he was supposed to keep a record of his thoughts and associations over the last couple of days. Melfi gets frustrated. How can she help a man who is not willing to help himself? Taking the advice of Richard and Dr. Kupferberg, she begins the process of halting Tony’s therapy, bringing him a brochure for treatment somewhere else.
Tony’s therapy is a perhaps the central conceit of The Sopranos; the very first scene of the series took place in Melfi’s office. It is easier to believe that major characters on the show will be killed than it is to believe that Tony’s sessions will be halted. If Melfi strongly believes that her time with Tony must soon come to an end, then it must be an equally strong event that changes her mind (and allows the central conceit to continue)…
The violation of Jennifer Melfi in the stairway of her office building is perhaps the most visceral, credible depiction of rape that has ever been seen on American television. The entire attack is about a minute long, and Chase pulls no punches in that long minute. Nor does he include any gratuitous moments. In her essay, “Tony’s Options: The Sopranos and the Televisuality of the Gangster Genre,” Martha Nochimson does an excellent breakdown of the scene. She notes that the brutality of the attack is emphasized by the dark color scheme, the cold building materials of the stairway, the lack of sunlight, and the absence of all sounds other than Melfi’s screams and the rapist’s grunts. By shooting the rape through the black bars of the staircase, our sense of Melfi’s entrapment is heightened. Martha continues:
The supreme achievement of the composition is to dehumanize the act as few media portrayed rape scenes do. The aesthetics of the sequence convey the essence of rape as anger and hatred, leaving not a shred of romanticized intensity for old stereotypes to cling to.
Jesus Rossi is arrested for the crime and it seems like justice will be served. But SopranoWorld, like our own world, can sometimes be an absurd place. Rossi is released on a technicality. Despite Jennifer and Richard’s protests, nothing can be done about it. Jen Melfi, however, can take another avenue to reach justice. She unwittingly discovers that Rossi works at a local fast-food joint when she sees his “Employee of the Month” photo tacked up on the wall. She can now sic her mobster-client on her attacker if she wants, all she has to do is say the word.
Tony Soprano has a power and a resolve that the police and Richard LaPenna do not—or cannot—have. This contrast between Richard and Tony is highlighted through camerawork and the juxtaposition of two scenes. Richard comes into Melfi’s bedroom (gently knocking and asking it’s ok to enter first) and vents his frustration at being hamstrung by the law. The camera first captures his fists as they clench in anger, but then comes back to his relaxed hands as he admits that he is powerless to do anything more. Chase cuts immediately from this image to an extremely low angle shot of Tony that amplifies his size and strength. He confidently, powerfully swings his axe to split some firewood.
Tony can cleave Rossi in half as forcefully and easily as he does this wooden log. (“Chopping a log” can also be seen as the masculine inverse of the more effeminate “keeping a log” of thoughts and emotions which Melfi had, in vain, asked Tony to do.) It is Tony’s animal nature that makes him a difficult client, but it is precisely this beastliness that Melfi finds so appealing right now. Tony appears as an animal—a protective Rottweiler—in a dream that she has soon after the attack. Like all Sopranos dream sequences, this one is permeated with ambiguous images and is open to interpretation. I find it interesting that, in her dream, it is a soda machine that she gets her hand stuck in, in light of the fact that it was soda that she dropped in her shock at seeing Rossi’s picture at the fast-food place.
The soda thus connects Melfi’s dream (essentially a revenge fantasy) to Rossi’s known place of employment, underscoring how easy it would be for Melfi to wreak vengeance through Tony: she can give Tony and his goons the precise coordinates of Rossi’s whereabouts. In her own therapy session, Melfi and Eliot analyze the contents of this dream, and it becomes clear to her that it would be very satisfying to use Tony to squash her attacker. But she assures Eliot, “I’m not going to break the social compact.”
She seems less sure that she will follow civilization’s rules when Tony is actually in her office. Sitting in front of her potential savior, Melfi loses countenance. She shakes and weeps. Tony, in an automatic and tender gesture, rises from his seat to come closer and comfort her. Dr. Melfi begins to regain her composure and sends him back to his chair. When he asks, with genuine concern, “What…? You wanna say something?” it is Jennifer Melfi’s moment of truth. She composes herself, and then firmly, unambiguously, says “No.” Chase cuts to black and delays the roll of the final credits for a few moments to allow us to grasp the full significance of her decision.
David Chase gave his thoughts on this final scene to Entertainment Weekly for the article, “Chase ‘n’ the Russian”:
If you’re raised on a steady diet of Hollywood movies and network television, you start to think, ‘Obviously there’s going to be some moral accounting here.’ That’s not the way the world works. It all comes down to why you’re watching. If all you want to see is big Tony Soprano take that guy’s head and bang it against the wall like a cantaloupe…The point is – Melfi, despite pain and suffering, made her moral, ethical choice and we should applaud her for it. That’s the story.
FAITH AND FIREARMS (MELFI vs. JANICE)
Two episodes ago, at her mother’s funeral, Janice confronted Svetlana about the record collection that Livia bequeathed to her. Last episode, Svetlana refused to hand the records over, so Janice stole her prosthetic leg. Tony had warned her that Svetlana had Russian mafiya connections, and now she gets her comeuppance. She returns the leg after getting a solid thwack from a Russian thug. When Tony goes to pick Janice up from the hospital, she seems to have turned a corner. She genuinely wonders how she could have fallen so low as to steal a prosthetic leg. She decides to put her faith in the Lord, and her wide-eyed expression is somewhat typical of those who suddenly find God (or, more accurately, decide to suddenly find God). Carmela had a similarly glazed expression after suddenly “re-finding” God in episode 2.09:
Both women turn to religion when confronted by violence: Carmela after Chris is shot in a gun battle, and Janice after she suffers at the hands of the mafiya. Carmela’s newfound religiosity didn’t last long – she abandoned reading the Bible and went back to her usual popular fiction before the episode ended. Janice will wear a pose of religiosity for some time (much as she wore the “Parvati” façade last year), and will try to parlay her faith into a money-making scheme before abandoning it altogether. Tony has been down this road before with his sister, and he knows that her faith will be a relatively short-lived thing.
We can compare Janice to last year’s religious Carmela, and we can contrast her to this episode’s non-religious Melfi:
In fairness, I can’t say for certain that Melfi is not religious – we simply never see her make any expressions of faith, not even in this episode when she greatly suffers. Janice and Melfi are both battered here, and the images of their bruised faces serve to link the two. But the way in which they respond couldn’t be more different. Janice turns to an easy faith with glassy-eyed fragility, while Melfi turns away from an easy solution with steely-eyed strength. Janice hands all responsibility over to God, but Melfi takes responsibility for her own future. While Janice uses religion as a crutch, Melfi remains upright by refusing to utilize Tony for revenge. While Janice clings to Christ, Melfi lets Jesus go (Jesus Rossi, her attacker).
THE FEMALE BODY
Nancy McGuire Roche devotes an entire essay, “Honoring the Social Compact: The Last Temptation of Melfi,” to this episode. She provides a keen analysis, focusing mainly on the gender issues that arise in “Employee of the Month.” She writes:
The female body is a subliminal topic of narrative in this episode. In the segue directly after Melfi learns her attacker has been set free, there is a brief scene in which the screen is visually dominated by the nearly nude forms of strippers in the Bada Bing…The message of this segue is perfectly clear. This is the social compact. Women may dance naked with thugs and goons nearby to protect them. Men may watch only if they mind their manners and offer money in homage…The strippers of the Bada Bing are valuable: they make money. Yet they are the property of the Bada Bing while they are in residence. In their assent to being viewed as property of the strip club, they need never fear rape or violence (at least within the club).
Roche may be correct that the Bing girls are protected from the men by thugs and goons. But who protects them from the thugs? Two episodes from now, stripper Tracee will be the victim of Ralphie’s violence.
Roche notes that women are portrayed in a variety of ways within “Employee of the Month.” Adriana appears at Vesuvio in a tight red dress that would capture the attention of any man. Ginny Sacrimoni, first introduced in this episode, has a body that also captures men’s attention, but in quite the opposite way – the guys laugh at her and try to top each other’s “fat jokes.” Melfi herself runs the gamut of seductiveness: early on, she’s dressed in a sharp, sexy business suit; at home with Richard, she wears comfy clothes; after the shock of Jesus’ release, she turns into a frumpy woman. (Becoming unattractive is a way of protecting herself from another attack, notes Roche.)
“Employee of the Month” can almost be considered a stand-alone episode. But it’s not, there are too many other things going on. John Sacrimoni, a captain of a NY family, has raised Tony’s hackles by moving to New Jersey. (Like many New Yorkers, he wants to take advantage of New Jersey’s property values and lower congestion.) Assemblyman Ronald Zellman, sitting comfortably in the mob’s pocket, is forging ahead on the Riverfront Esplanade project. Meadow is still on poor terms with her father over Noah. And Jackie is getting pulled into the mob, despite Tony’s wish to keep him out.
FORTUNATE SON (Continued)
In the previous episode, we saw Tony try to prevent Jackie from becoming involved in criminal activity. In this episode, Ralph undermines Tony’s efforts. Ralphie is now dating Rosalie Aprile, and he wants to bond with her son. So he takes the young man with him to a collect a debt. Bashir seems genuinely surprised to see Ralph now appear at his business and demand the money, as a future date for payment had been agreed upon. It seems quite possible that the only reason Ralph picks a fight with Bashir is to strengthen his relationship with Jackie Jr. The two men pound on their victim (dirty fighter Ralph tells Jackie to hit him “in the breadbasket”) before Ralph hands Jackie some money that he fished out of the battered man’s wallet. By contrasting Tony and Ralph’s relationship to Jackie (Good Father vs. Bad Father), Chase begins the process of turning Ralph into one of the arch-villains of the series. It simultaneously increases our sympathy towards Tony. Soprano may be a criminal, but he’s not as bad as Ralph Cifaretto. This narrative paradigm was established last season—with Richie Aprile—and Chase will use it again in future seasons.
I’m not sure if it’s a parallel worth noting, but here goes: Ralph smashes a model airplane when he goes to bash Bashir; we might remember that when Chris went to dominate Dominic in episode 2.05, a model car was destroyed.
It’s almost as though Chase is saying once you get involved with the mob (or it gets involved with you), everything else takes a backseat. Any hobbies or outside interests that you may have are bound to be crushed.
Janice is trying to learn how to play the Stones’ “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on her Fender when the mafiya visit her. She has sought “satisfaction” previously in Hinduism (“Vishnu and Richard Alpert,” Tony reminds her) and Animism (“the Coyote Spirit”); now she tries to find it in Christianity.
- In this episode which aired less than 6 months before the 9/11 attacks, Gigi tells the guys that more of our tax money should go to fighting terrorism. (Residents of NY and NJ, like Gigi, were probably more cognizant of the threat of terrorism than the rest of the country at that time due to their proximity to the 1993 WTC attack.)
- The Code of Silence: One of the most problematic issues between Tony and Melfi during their therapy sessions is his oath of omerta – he can’t truly open up to her if he is to live by the Mob’s rules. The tables have turned in this episode: it is Melfi who must remain silent if she is to live by the rules of her society – she must not mention one word about the rape to Tony Soprano.
- I try not to read Todd VanDerWerff’s episode write-ups at AVclub.com until I’ve mostly completed writing my own episode summary; in general, I agree with his thoughts so strongly that I fear I will subconsciously pilfer his words and ideas if I expose myself to his analysis too early. He gets to the core of this hour with typical clarity: “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.” He’s right to find this surprising: typically in SopranoWorld, people make choices (that are often morally questionable, if not absolutely wrong) in order to gain power or material wealth – the soul is rarely any character’s primary concern.
- The line from Gladiator that Ralphie repeats connects to this idea of Melfi gaining her soul: “What we do in life echoes through eternity.”
- Daniel Lanois’ “Fisherman’s Daughter” plays over the end credits. Chase uses a section of the song that has no vocals, which adds to the power of the final scene – Melfi’s stern “No” in effect becomes the final word of the hour. Lanois’ atmospheric soundscapes are used in the end credits of at least two other episodes.
- Maurice Yacowar notes that the episode title may also refer to characters other than Jesus Rossi: 1) Gigi Cestone, who is made Captain over reckless Ralph; 2) Jackie, who had pissed himself in the Rutgers holdup but is nevertheless praised by Chris here.