“Employee of the Month” Review
“Dr. Melfi’s Very Own Episode.”
It only takes a few key scenes for “Employee of the Month” to stake its claim as one of the most emotional and painful episodes in The Sopranos canon. While it isn’t a perfect installment, it remains extremely powerful nonetheless.
“Employee of the Month” is best known for its traumatic main storyline: Dr. Jennifer Melfi is raped by a stranger in a parking garage. The scene in question is brutal, graphic and unshakeable. It’s the toughest and most unsettling sequence in all of The Sopranos. Nevertheless, series creator David Chase transcends the difficult subject matter. By telling this story with the delicacy, intricacy and ethicality that it deserves, Chase crafts a thought-provoking parable on morality.
We’ve seen throughout The Sopranos that our violent main characters never face real-world repercussions for their actions. So why should it be any different when a random stranger is the one committing the violence? We desperately want to see vengeance, but Chase wants us to consider the consequences.
The first 15-minutes of the episode stick to The Sopranos “nothing happens” aesthetic. At first, it feels like the obligatory early-season Melfi spotlight (in the vein of “Meadowlands” and “Toodle-Fucking-Oo”). She argues with her spineless husband Richard (“I’m so fed up with everyone assuming I’m a thug because my last name ends in a vowel”) and attends therapy sessions with her ineffectual psychiatrist Dr. Kupferberg (“I didn’t know that”). In her regular appointments with Tony Soprano, she floats the idea that he should be treated by a behavioral modification therapist instead. Tony is insulted, while Melfi hides shame.
The rape scene itself is an extremely upsetting twist. Even though it’s incredibly realistic, it’s something that we feel should never happen to such a morally righteous character. As Dr. Melfi walks through the parking garage after work one night, she is suddenly attacked from behind. The assailant drags her to the stairwell and penetrates amidst screams of pain, every second as harrowing as it sounds.
I applaud actress Lorraine Bracco for her brave performance here. Very few could pull this off so convincingly, so heartbreakingly. In truth, it’s such an unfortunately painful scene — John Patterson’s camera keeps the rapist’s bare thrusting ass in frame for an excruciatingly long time.
And when it is finally over, how does it fit into The Sopranos universe? The storyline is defensible, in my opinion, because it is necessarily reprehensible. The static camera and uncomfortably dingy setting make this one of the most credibly realistic rape scenes in cinematic history, therefore providing an honest depiction of one of the most evil atrocities that can ever be committed.
In the past, The Sopranos has used violence in a variety of different ways — from addictive action (Furio’s rampage in “Big Girls Don’t Cry”) to emotional tragedy (Big Pussy’s execution in “Funhouse”) to comic levity (Mikey Palmice’s death in “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”). “Employee of the Month” is the first time that the violence has been used to disturb and disgust. For once, the spotlight is turned inward, and our role as bystanding audience is put to the test.
After the incident, however, some of the storytelling gets a little sloppy. For example, the police officers detaining the prime suspect mishandle the chain of custody (or something like that), and he’s able to walk away a free man. It happens so suddenly that it’s hardly believable. Even though this development doubles as a cynical commentary on the American justice system, it seems particularly cruel and contrived.
Elsewhere, certain sections of the episode fall into the trappings of other Dr. Melfi storylines with an unnecessary focus on Italian-American nationalism. It’s one of Chase’s favorite topics, but it usually results in some of the series’ most on-the-nose moments. The sentiment manifests itself when Richard is more concerned with the rapist’s last name (“Rossi? That’s an Italian name, isn’t it? The lady on the phone said he was Puerto Rican”) than with the well-being of his wife.
The sociopolitical themes at times take precedent over the larger tragedy, varying the tone when perhaps the tone shouldn’t be varied. Elsewhere, the rest of the episode exists in a completely different mood entirely (i.e., Ralph Cifaretto, Jackie Jr., Johnny Sack and Janice Soprano are all given ample screen time). It goes to show that the “main storyline” isn’t always what you think — none of the other characters have any idea of what Melfi is going through.
Elsewhere in “Employee of the Month,” Janice continues her petty argument with Livia’s former housemaid over the theft of her prosthetic leg. Her storyline is mostly used as comic relief, and she ends the episode getting roughed up by some Russians before finding herself “born again” in the grace of God. Tony visits her in the hospital: “All this soul-searching, it’s always on my fucking time.”
Meanwhile, Ralphie tries to bond with the ever-arrogant Jackie Jr. by bringing the kid along on some mob-related errands. In fact, Ralphie is starting to become even more arrogant and annoying than his young protégé. He acts out after Tony passes him over as capo of the Aprile crew, suggesting future turmoil to come.
Additional headaches come in the form of Johnny Sack’s move to New Jersey. The New York City underboss claims he only bought the house because his wife liked it, but Tony knows a watchful eye when he sees one. Sack didn’t move across the bridge for the lower property taxes and scenic locale. Once again, the seeds of impending violence have been planted.
Surrounded by all of this is Dr. Melfi, who tries to go on with her life in the wake of tragedy. Simply put, her resolve and strength is commendable and powerful. She still attends therapy sessions with Tony (who shows real concern for her “car accident”) and discusses her feelings with Dr. Kupferberg (who tries to remain impartial). She’s been beaten but not broken.
Nevertheless, the incident still happened and there’s no moving past it. A particularly haunting scene finds Melfi waiting in line at a fast-food joint, dropping her soda after seeing a picture of her assailant on the wall. The framed certificate is the source of the episode’s unlikely namesake.
Later on, Melfi has a nightmarish dream that shows her subconscious desire for poetic justice — Jesus Rossi being mauled by a Rottweiler.
The main moral dilemma of “Employee of the Month” is revealed: should Melfi sic Tony on her rapist, or should she remain silent and save her soul? Everything she’s done so far on the series has led up to this moment, and this is effectively the climax of her character arc.
As an audience, we know that Jesus Rossi deserves to be flayed alive. Melfi knows it, too. She confesses to Kupferberg that nothing has given her more satisfaction than seeing “that employee-of-the-month cocksucker” torn limb from limb by the dog in her dream. But to give in to Tony’s toxic influence would be the inherently wrong thing to do. Even though the assault was unjust, enacting revenge could be damning.
And so, in the poignant final moments, Melfi ultimately rejects her desire to ask Tony for help. After she breaks out in tears during a therapy session, Tony rushes to console her. She regains her composure and tells him to sit back down. Tony remains concerned. “You wanna say something?” he asks.
The long pause — a prolonged, agonizing moment of silence — “No,” is Dr. Melfi’s painfully assured final response.
With the emotional cut to black, the story of Melfi’s darkest hour is shut forever and never mentioned again. We wanted her choice to be different, but she’s ultimately done the right thing.
Even though there are over 50 episodes remaining, Melfi’s character has served her fundamental purpose. She can choose to entangle her life with Tony’s, or she can choose to let life go on. She decides on the latter and will never let a temptation of this magnitude sway her again. For the rest of the series, her new moral dilemma will be to remove Tony from her life completely. For now, however, she remains the most admirable character in The Sopranos universe. It’s amazing that such a tragic moment results in such a life-affirming personal triumph.
“Employee of the Month” is the most difficult episode of the series. It’s also one of the most believable. Even in The Sopranos universe, the world doesn’t revolve around Tony. Unspeakable violence can happen to anyone, and everyone has the freewill to choose how they deal with it.
- At the start of the final scene, Tony tells Melfi that maybe he’s ready to give the behavioral modification therapy she suggested a try. Melfi shakes her head, cries out “No!” and breaks down in tears. Even though she doesn’t tell Tony about what happened, she feels “safe” by his presence. He’s like an attack dog and could be set on Jesus Rossi if ever she desired.
- A quote from David Chase: “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 is to see 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.”
- Melfi’s son, Jason, has gone from smart-aleck asshole in season one to snarky deconstructionist in season two to his current persona of cynical anarchist here in season three.
- Janice is attacked by Russians while she’s at home practicing the electric guitar. She gets pushed into the amplifier, and her head plays a purer note than any she could’ve hacked with her fingers. A hilarious moment. She’s ultimately forced to give back Svetlana’s prosthetic leg.
- “Employee of the Month” was written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess and directed by John Patterson.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “I oughtta shove a shish kebab up your ass!”
- “See, that’s what’s wrong with the world right there. An innocent person is driving along minding their own business and some fucking asshole comes out and smashes into them.”