This essay is part of our series Episodes, a bi-weekly column in which senior contributor Valerie Ettenhofer digs into the singular chapters of television that make the medium great. This entry looks at one of The Sopranos’ darkest chapters, “Employee of the Month.”
For six seasons, David Chase’s The Sopranos exposes viewers to a kind of violence that is almost second-nature, as reliable and mesmerizing as the video games and dope and plates of pasta that reflexively drive the characters on screen. Sometimes, as with Adriana La Cerva’s grim execution, these violent moments are gutting. Other times, like with the knock-down, drag-out brawl between Tony and scumbag Ralphie Cifaretto, the death in question is both repulsive and rewarding.
However, no other act of violence on The Sopranos is as singularly upsetting as the rape of Dr. Melfi. Played with much verve by Lorraine Bracco, Jennifer Melfi is the series’ persistent but often ineffectual moral compass. She’s the only main character — besides, perhaps, Meadow Soprano — who draws an ethical line in the sand and never so much as brushes over it. She has a curiosity about Tony’s psychology that veers from academic to carnal and back again, but in a series that’s rife with law-breakers, she mostly represents a smart, buttoned-up variation of the audience’s point-of-view.
In the third season episode titled “Employee of the Month,” Dr. Melfi is brutally raped by a stranger in the stairwell of a parking garage. The entire parking garage scene goes on for close to two minutes, with roughly half of that time spent on the attack itself. It feels endless. Aural details, like the echoing beep of her car’s locking system, the tearing of fabric as the man claws at her, and most of all, her frantic, throat-shredding screams, are disturbingly unforgettable. When she’s finally left, alone and bloodied and clutching at her violated body, the episode still has more than thirty minutes left to go. The first time I watched it, I felt like I was holding my breath for the rest of that runtime.
It would be easy to blame an unsettling trend — years of prime-time dramas using rape as a plot device, and often foregoing authenticity for melodrama in the process — on The Sopranos. Hell, the show has been blamed for the general uptick in TV violence for years. Yet, another HBO series, the prison drama Oz, began airing in 1997, and across its six seasons, it included no fewer than eleven different characters becoming victims of rape. The Sopranos didn’t invent the rape plot, but it refused to gamify this particular violence for its audience, contrasting it sharply against other throwaway violent scenes that could be perceived as entertaining or even funny.
Later series — many of which were written after The Sopranos but before the post-MeToo renaissance of survivors’ stories — have used rape plots as a sort of callously humanizing shorthand, a quick transformation for previously unlikeable characters. Shows like Scandal and House of Cards assume viewers’ understanding of the subtext of a survivor’s experience without actually diving into it, specifically because shows including The Sopranos had already done the hard work of establishing a realistic survivor’s experience.
Like the fantastic 2019 miniseries Unbelievable, “Employee of The Month” gains much of its impact from exploring the unjust and retraumatizing bureaucratic aftermath of sexual assault. In the scene that immediately follows Dr. Melfi’s attack, she sits in a hospital. Her voice is quiet, her makeup is running, and her hair is in shambles; she’s the opposite of the meticulously put-together, largely unflappable person we’ve known her to be up to this point. Her ex-husband enters, distressed, and she meekly comments on her sprained knee and hopes for a shower. She’s endlessly tough, and also, unsurprisingly, respectful of the tedious reporting process. Her son, on the other hand, is not. “You know, the whole world is a fucking sore!” he yells upon seeing his mother’s bruises. “It’s nothing but a fucking sore. A bunch of animals out there running wild, and they’re fucking winning!”
He’s not the only man who uses Dr. Melfi’s attack as a springboard for his own cynical conclusions about the world. Later, when a vague mix-up in the chain of command leads to her assailant walking free, Dr. Melfi’s ex-husband balls up his fists in a sign of impotent rage. He wants to kill the man with his bare hands, he says, but the system is so messed up that he’d be put in jail for doing so. Then, in therapy, Tony (James Gandolfini) is enraged on Dr. Melfi’s behalf, even though she tells him she’s simply been in a car accident. “See, that’s what’s wrong with the world, right there,” he laments. “An innocent person is driving along, minding their own business, and some fucking asshole comes out and smashes into them.” “You can’t control everything that happens,” Dr. Melfi shoots back, composed. “But you can get pissed off!” Tony answers.
The triumvirate of angry men in Dr. Melfi’s life throws her own, relatively measured reaction into sharp relief. After her attack, she’s skittish, jolting bodily when her cane clatters to the floor and racing out of a restaurant when she sees a picture of her attacker. She’s also more emotional than we’ve seen her before, beset by brief crying jags. At one point, she swipes ineffectually at her ex, a half-hearted gesture of futile anger at the faulty justice system she’d believed in up until this point. Tony has his codes, and she has hers. It’s obvious that she thinks hers are better, but this time, they’ve failed her.
Yet, for much of the episode, it’s Dr. Melfi’s quiet resilience that sets her apart from her enraged male counterparts. Several of the series’ characters are world-class sad-sacks, but moving forward seems to be the only option the analytical woman considers. She calmly cancels Tony’s appointment, coming up with a respectable lie, then sees him the very next week. She bursts, limping, through the door to her office with an almost childlike excitement to be back at work. There’s no one right way to react to trauma, but her determined, brave face is both admirable and heartbreaking.
A dream late in the episode, in which a rottweiler tears her attacker to shreds, proves to be cathartic for Dr. Melfi. “I felt such a sense of relief,” she tells her own therapist, Elliot (Peter Bogdonavich). “I felt safe for the first time since it happened.” She quickly realizes that the dog is a stand-in for Tony. None of the three men in her life have asked her if she’s angry, and as she begins to speak to Elliot in a deliberate, low tone, it’s clear that her rage has been there all along. “That employee of the month cocksucker is back on the street, and who’s gonna stop him — you?” She nearly spits the lines.
Before Elliot can really respond, she’s backtracking on her bloodthirsty statement, but she’s not apologetic. “Oh, don’t wahrry,” she replies, her brassy Brooklyn accent out in full force now. “I’m not going to break the social compact.” Unlike her ex-husband, Dr. Melfi isn’t bothered by the stereotyping of Italian-Americans as mobsters, and in this brief moment, she embraces the untapped power of her amoral associate. If she had a cigar in one hand, she might remind us of Tony.
After holding us, helpless, in its jaws for close to an hour, “Employee of the Month” leaves viewers shaken but in one piece with an all-time-great final scene. Tony, who has spent the rest of the episode rolling his eyes at his sister Janice after she has been beaten, and then palling around with a guy who will beat a stripper to death a few episodes later — he’s no hero for women, get it? — visits Dr. Melfi for his second therapy session since her attack. He’s a bundle of vicious impulses and regressive tendencies, but at this moment he surprises her by revealing that he’s done the homework that she’s been asking him to do for weeks: an anxiety journal and a reading about behavioral therapy.
Something about Tony, a rottweiler with a puppy dog personality, seems to break Dr. Melfi. He says he’s ready to move on to a specialist and she responds with a strangled but instantaneous “No!” At first, it seems like a plea for him to stay, and this scene certainly acts as a culmination of their ever-tangled relationship, but it’s more than that. This is the moment of truth. She knows the name of her attacker. She knows where he works. She knows that Tony would kill for her. Our one and only moral compass could ask for murder and get away with it, and thanks to the effortless machinery of the mafia, she’d never need to think about it again. It’s a moment of dizzyingly high tension, a potentially game-changing turning point that could lead to an entirely different version of the series we thought we were watching.
Dr. Melfi gasps a cry and covers her mouth as if trying to recapture the escaped word. Tony, who seems to have picked up on her trauma only seconds earlier through a series of meaningful looks, rushes across the room to where she’s sitting. He reaches for her as she cries, and despite his hulking, dominant presence, his tentative touch is somehow more gentle than ever. Violence is second-nature to him, but so is this moment of tenderness.
“What’d I do? Tell me, what’s the matter?” He asks. She ushers him back to his seat, making a feeble, barely audible excuse about her knee. She tries to restart the session, but he doesn’t buy it. “What?” He asks again. “You wanna say something?” Lorraine Bracco’s face here is all steely resolve, a battered Athena ready to go to battle or bestow wisdom. Dr. Melfi is composed as she answers again with the only word that can put an end to her violent fantasy. It’s the same word that she screamed at her attacker, the one that couldn’t stop him. This time, she says it calmly: “No.”