Kristen Baldwin hopes the soap opera cliché will unlock a new facet of Dr. Melfi's character
Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos
Credit: Lorraine Bracco: Barry Wetcher

A critic responds to the ”Sopranos” brutal rape scene

To be honest, part of me found last Sunday’s episode of ”The Sopranos” disappointing. It was a wrenching and intense hour featuring an unexpected, jarring plot development: the rape of Tony’s therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, by a thug in a parking garage.

The rape scene is brutal in its directness, focusing mainly on Melfi’s face as she screams and sobs. There’s no ominous music or stylized camera work to remind the viewers that it’s just a TV show and to take them out of what’s being shown on screen. While I was riveted, I was disappointed in ”Sopranos” creator David Chase: Having a central female character be the victim of a rape is a standard — and tired — soap opera convention that writers often use to knock a strong heroine down a peg. What did Melfi do to deserve that?

By the end of the hour, though, Chase’s plan made sense: The story line repercussions of the assault could completely transform Tony’s relationship with Melfi. Before the rape, Jennifer realized that she’d been ”charmed by a sociopath,” and that’s why she’d kept Tony as one of her clients instead of sending him to a behaviorist. She even goes so far as to tell Tony he should see another doctor — but then comes the all important dream, where a Rottweiler, which Melfi interprets as a symbol for the Mob boss, attacks her rapist. ”I felt safe for the first time since it happened,” Jennifer tells her therapist.

For a physically and emotionally terrorized Melfi, Tony now represents protection — and, possibly, revenge. Chase didn’t brutalize Jennifer to make her a victim; he did it to push her to the brink of a moral and ethical crisis. Will Melfi sic Tony on her attacker, have him, in her words, ”squashed like a bug”? That’s no doubt that’s what the viewers want to see happen. (Who wasn’t screaming ”Tell him! Tell him!” at the TV screen during the final scene in Melfi’s office?) If you ask me, the good doctor is entitled to a little vengeance, no matter how out of character it might seem.

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