Episode 34 of The Sopranos is a portrait of predatory psychology. We gain a window into this criminal subculture's thought process, and the sights destroy any pretense of dignity among these rogues.
In Episode 32, Tony Soprano confronted Ralph Cifaretto after he beat his pregnant mistress Tracee to a dead pulp. "Is it my fault she's a klutz?" he asked, implying that her body got that way through a fall. Soprano punched him several times, after which Cifaretto yelled with pseudo-indignation, "Are you outta your fuc*in' mind layin' your hands on me? I'm a made guy!"
Episode 34 tracks the aftermath of their altercation. Soprano and Silvio Dante (who had perpetrated assault and battery against Tracee) have this dialogue during dinner:
SOPRANO: He bashed that poor girl's brains in.
DANTE: I hear ya. I know. It was a tragedy. The fact is, though, she was not related to you by blood or marriage…All things considered, he's got a legitimate beef.
At the same time, Cifaretto and fellow pinky-ringed pirates converse at a diner:
CIFARETTO: He knew it was wrong, what he did.
PIRATE #1: He's the boss. He can do what he wants.
PIRATE #2: Boss or no, you don't raise your hands to another made guy.
CIFARETTO: Rules are rules, otherwise what? Fuc*in' anarchy.
PIRATE: #2: At the very least, Tony owes you an apology.
CIFARETTO: …I could see if it was his daughter or a niece of his, but all this over some dead whore.
(Later at Thanksgiving dinner, Tony sees his daughter Meadow carry a pumpkin pie. In a poignant moment of paternal introspection, he thinks of when Tracee brought him a plate of bread in gratitude for giving her advice on her son's health. [Tracee was slightly older than Meadow.] It's an ephemeral moment, but it has an almost lachrymose effect. Tracee was neither intellectually nor temperamentally similar to Meadow, but she was a young woman just like Tony Soprano's daughter, and that's commonality enough to disquiet him. He's a father, with the instinctive apprehensions therein. Of course, he's also an adulterous, murderous monster.)
Cifaretto seeks the advice of Johnny Sack, a New York mobster relocated in New Jersey:
SACK: You want me to be frank? You brought this on yourself with that girl.
CIFARETTO: A) She was a whore, B) She hit me. (Pause.) And that wasn't my kid she was carrying. (Sigh.) It was the fu*kin' coke, I shoulda never started with that sh*t. Fu*kin' Miami, it's all over the place. [Cifaretto had spent some time in Miami.]
Sack has a meal with Tony, and they discuss The Cifaretto Question. He suggests Tony make him a capo (captain) to resolve the bad blood:
SOPRANO: No fu*kin' way. Never. You heard what he did. That poor girl just had a twentieth birthday!
SACK: Capo's what he mentioned. I threw cold water on it right away. (Pause.) But she was a whore Tony.
Sack arranges a meeting between Cifaretto and Soprano where he makes penance:
CIFARETTO: I was doing a lot of coke. I said some things and I did some things that I'm sorry for. It's not gonna happen again.
SOPRANO: What'd you do?
CIFARETTO: I was rude when you offered me the drink [at a casino early in the episode Cifaretto turned him down], and I disrespected The Bing [the headquarters for Sopranos' crew]…and the girl. That shouldn't have happened, but like I said, I was doing a lot of coke.
Episode 34 maintains Dr. Krakower's critique in the preceding episode. Cifaretto uses his former cocaine abuse to mitigate and damn near exculpate his murder of Tracee. (He won't even refer to her by name, just "the girl," a nameless victim of his rage.) This is a variant of the "patients [who] want to be excused for their current predicament because of events that occurred in their childhood." It also corresponds to David Chase's description of "The victim society that we have, that we're developing. The society of non-accountability." (Cifaretto may thus be termed a La Famiglia leftist.)
Episode 34 furthermore reveals Cifaretto and the gang to embrace a warped libertarian ethic. They hold self-ownership sacrosanct when it comes to a "made guy" (someone who is a member of an organized crime family); Cifaretto displays an acute sensitivity to property rights after Soprano punches him, joined by his cronies' stupefaction that the boss would hit another made man.
Self-ownership accrues to made men only, though. Cifaretto has immunity from aggression, but non-made individuals such as Tracee may be savaged with impunity.
This is a predatory version of caste. Underneath the prettification about the Mafia code of honor, what the system boils down to is reducing non-aristocrats (those who aren't a made man or related to one) to expendable beings. (Note how the description of Tracee as a whore has the intention of dehumanizing her.)
So, it's not that Cifaretto and his ilk are oblivious to the importance of self-ownership; they just don't think most people merit it. There are Made Men, and there are Whores. Bear this binary in mind the next time someone presents these wannabe nobles as men of honor.
April 20, 2001
Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.