Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) obsession with his psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) in The Sopranos is secretly perfect, as it adds a lot of depth to Tony’s character. Throughout the series’ six seasons, there is a “will they won’t they” tension between the two characters, often hinting towards a potential love affair. Tony and Melfi’s relationship remains strictly professional, but there are several moments when Tony fantasizes about Dr. Melfi, and these show a very relevant side of Tony’s subconscious.
When Tony begins seeing Dr. Melfi as her patient, he is very reluctant to engage with the therapy. But during their first sessions, Dr. Melfi uncovers Tony’s hatred towards his mother, a self-absorbed and manipulative woman who can never be happy and wishes the same upon her children. Tony continues to hide his vulnerability (and his true self, telling Dr. Melfi he works as a waste management consultant) from his doctor, while Dr. Melfi tries to help him get rid of his panic attacks by talking about his family and finding the root of the attacks. While apparently intransigent, Tony develops a secret obsession with Dr. Melfi, and this adds a layer of perfection to James Gandolfini’s character.
When Tony starts fantasizing about Dr. Melfi repeatedly, he decides to pursue her as a love interest and goes as far as telling her he loves her. Dr. Melfi explains that this is a relatively common phenomenon between patient and therapist: “I’ve been gentle, that’s my job… I’ve been a broad, generic, sympathetic woman to you because that’s what this work calls for.” She adds that Tony made her all the things his wife and mother lack, to which Tony has an angry reaction and insults Freud. But most importantly, Tony is obsessed with Dr. Melfi because he sees her as his savior. This means he secretly wants to be saved, to renounce his old ways, and to deserve his family. Tony’s obsession with Dr. Melfi is a perfect detail that confirms Tony is much more than a mindless mafia boss.
Tony also has an obsession with ducks which goes hand-in-hand with his fantasies about Dr. Melfi. Also during therapy, Tony finds out the ducks stand as a symbol for his family, who he is afraid of losing, just like he lost the ducks in The Sopranos‘ pilot episode. With Dr. Melfi’s help, Tony realizes he doesn’t deserve his family, and he starts seeking redemption – his attraction to Melfi is just a result of this. Tony wants to choose the light, but old habits die hard, and the New Jersey mafia is not easy to leave.
Tony has several love affairs throughout The Sopranos‘ six seasons, but his fixation with Dr. Melfi is special (and not just because it remains unconsummated). Dr. Melfi helps Tony see that his panic attacks (which he passes on to his son A.J.) are not the Sopranos’ family curse, but a psychiatric illness suffered by the Soprano men which results from several generations of unresolved trauma. Although Tony remains relatively resistant to therapy, he subconsciously hopes for salvation, and this hope is translated into a desire for Dr. Melfi.