“Employee of the Month”
Directed by John Patterson | Written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess | 52 min
Melfi’s very own episode
By Colin Hart
9.7 / 10
After watching this episode five times in the past week, I’ve reached the conclusion that “Employee of the Month” is not perfect. After first run-through and years-long incubation, I used to think it a 10 out of 10. Upon closer examination, however, some of the material runs a bit on-the-nose and inconsequential. It’s not a second-by-second tour-de-force like “College.” But does it have to be?
“Employee of the Month” is extremely powerful, that cannot be denied. In only a few key scenes, “Employee of the Month” stakes its claim as one of the most emotional and simultaneously painful episodes in The Sopranos canon.
The main plot, or character, that people most associate with this episode is Jennifer Melfi. Or rather, the rape of Jennifer Melfi. And no, the episode isn’t powerful in the bold, daring sort of way — a graphic depiction of rape is must-see prestige TV, right? This isn’t Game of Thrones ladies and gentlemen; nothing about the hour is unbowed, unbent or unbroken. The rape of Jennifer Melfi is brutal (and graphic), yes, but it is unshakeable, providing our most moral character on a most immoral show with a narrative climax, and an all-time ethical dilemma.
Five times in the past week. I wasn’t sure how to judge this episode, so I had to make certain. After further scrutiny, it so happens that selective memory had been my enemy. There are plenty of mob-related placeholders that run concurrently to Melfi’s main plotline. They don’t distract or detract, but they vary the tone when perhaps the tone shouldn’t be varied. Melfi is recovering from rape trauma, and meanwhile the rest of the episode is darkly comic a la “Fortunate Son,” with Ralph Cifaretto, Jackie Jr., Johnny Sacrimoni and Janice Soprano all given spotlights. Only one portion of the episode is a true standalone, while the rest is “nothing happens” fare that subtly advances the season’s overall plot.
Even parts of the Melfi standalone fall into the trappings of other Melfi standalones — on-the-nose theme exploitations, usually centered on Italian-American nationalism, a David Chase favorite. Melfi’s husband, Richard (whom she had previously divorced but has now taken back), has an unfounded shamefulness of his heritage. He blames it on pop culture gangster clichés, from the mythologizing of Al Capone to ABC’s “goombah-fest” Gangster. For me, this overriding theme of Italian roots shouldn’t take precedent over the larger tragedy here.
Richard is such a piece of shit that he is more concerned with the rapist’s name — Jesus 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.
That is not to say this episode isn’t good — these are only reasons why it isn’t perfect. There are more, too, chief among them the therapy session between Melfi and Dr. Kupferberg in which they spell out what an earlier dream sequence meant. Sometimes it’s best to let surreal dogs lie, especially when the symbolism already made sense to begin with.
There are a few flaws, true, but “Employee of the Month” is still one of The Sopranos’ greatest episodes. It has some of the highest emotional peaks of the series — 15 minutes of the episode are pure gold while the rest is mere bronze, but that gold can go a long way.
The rape. It doesn’t even occur until nearly 20 minutes in, sticking true to The Sopranos’ “nothing happens” aesthetic. The early portion of the episode sets up our obligatory early-season Melfi spotlight. She argues with her “I’m tired of everyone assuming I’m a gangster because my last name ends in a vowel” husband, while floating the idea (originating from her talks with Kupferberg) that Tony is now ready to move on to behavioral modification therapy. Tony is insulted, while Melfi hides guilt.
She is walking to her car in the parking garage, on the phone with Richard, when she is attacked from behind. The man beats Melfi, drags her to the stairwell and penetrates amidst screams of pain. I applaud actress Lorraine Bracco for her work here, the cries sending chills up my spine. The entire scene is fraught with panic — John Patterson’s camera keeps Jesus Rossi’s bare, thrusting ass visible for an excruciatingly long time.
And, when it is finally over, how does it fit into The Sopranos universe? The entire storyline may just be a writer’s machination to our Melfi in a position to make the series’ toughest choice ever (“No”) by episode’s end. But the violent, onscreen rape is defensible, in my opinion, because it is necessarily reprehensible — static camera, an uncomfortably dingy setting and absence of any soundtrack or background noise all make this the least glamorous, and therefore most credibly realistic, rape scene in cinematic history.
After the rape, some of the storytelling gets a little sloppy. Jesus Rossi walks away a free man after the chain of command is mishandled (or something like that), and this is revealed to Melfi via phone call — hardly believable. It’s all part of David Chase’s typical cynicism toward the justice system, but this development seems particularly cruel and contrived.
Nevertheless, every scene with Melfi post-rape is immediate and heart-wrenching, mostly because of Lorraine Bracco’s immediate and heart-wrenching performance. She has been beaten but she is not broken. Her strength to even speak — Bracco’s voice hoarse yet wholesome — is commendable and powerful.
It’s almost a shame that her post-rape plight is seamlessly incorporated into the surrounding “nothing happens” fare. The three subplots exceed Melfi’s in terms of screen time, but don’t come close in terms of emotional poignancy.
Janice continues her petty argument with Livia’s former housemaid Svetlana over the theft of her prosthetic leg. She believes that the vinyl records bequeathed to Svetlana are rightfully hers, but that’s just typical Janice Soprano behavior. Her storyline is mostly comic relief, and she ends the episode getting roughed up by some Russians and finding herself “born again” in the grace of God. As Tony says, “all this soul-searching, it’s always on my fucking time!”
Meanwhile, Ralphie tries to bond with the ever-arrogant Jackie Jr. (Chris refers to him as “Little Lord Fuckpants”) by bringing the kid along on some mob-related errands. In fact, Ralphie is starting to become more arrogant and annoying than his young protégé. Is the Douchebag Crown about to be passed? Tony passes Ralphie over as capo of the Aprile crew in favor of Gigi Cestone, suggesting further rifts to come.
Additional headaches for Tony come in the form of Johnny Sac’s move to New Jersey. The NYC boss claims he’s not trying to stick his beak in, but Tony knows a watchful eye when he sees one. Sac didn’t move across the bridge for the lower property taxes and scenic locale.
Of course, whom we really want to see in “Employee of the Month” is Dr. Melfi. A particularly harrowing scene involves her in line at a fast-food joint, dropping her soda in shock after seeing a picture of Jesus Rossi on the wall, which gives the episode its title.
Melfi’s later dream sequence is a nice touch of surrealism, focusing on her subconscious desire for poetic justice — Jesus Rossi being mauled by a Rottweiler. We could have figured out for ourselves that Tony is the dog, but every element of the dream is unnecessarily spelled out for us in a subsequent therapy session between Melfi and Kupferberg.
The main dilemma of “Employee of the Month” is this: should Melfi sic Tony on her rapist, or should she remain silent and save her soul? Everything Melfi has done throughout The Sopranos has led up to this moment, and this is effectively the climax of her character arc for the entire series.
Tony is a toxic influence upon everyone he comes into contact with, but he has genuine feelings for Dr. Melfi. He shows real concern when he hears about her “car crash” and sees how startled she is when she drops her cane. These are the reasons why Melfi took Tony back as a patient — she believes he has some capacity for good. And because of that her current predicament is so hard to watch.
As an audience, we know that Jesus Rossi deserves to be flayed alive by Tony. Melfi knows it too. Nothing has given her more satisfaction than seeing “that employee of the month cocksucker” torn limb from limb by the Rottweiler in her dream. But to give in to Tony’s toxic influence would be to essentially sell her soul. In the long run, nothing good can come from it.
And so, in the poignant final moments, Melfi rejects Tony’s offer to help. She breaks out in tears during a therapy session, Tony rushing to her side to console her. Melfi regains her composure, tells him she’s alright and to go sit back down. Tony does, but is very concerned. “You wanna say something?” he asks.
The long pause — and the pause is everything; the pause makes the scene, the episode, the season and the series in one prolonged moment of silence — “No.”
With that cut to black, the story of Melfi’s rape is closed and never mentioned again. They say David Chase is so cynical that he actually hates his audience. If you subscribe to this theory, then you’ll agree it is particularly cruel for Chase to judge us for wanting Melfi’s final response to be different.
Even though there are over 50 episodes remaining, Melfi’s arc comes to a head with this one. 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 slow-moving arc will be her final willingness to get rid of Tony.
For now, her personal triumph serves as the character’s finest hour of the entire series.
– At the start of the final scene, Tony begins by telling Melfi that maybe he’s ready to move on and give the behavioral modification therapy she suggested a try. It’s with this that Melfi shakes her head “No!” and breaks out in tears. She could have completed both of her main series arcs in one fell swoop had she the strength, yet will have to wait until Season 6B’s “The Blue Comet” for her final rejection of Tony. She rejects coming under Tony’s influence, but is not ready to leave him as a patient.
-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.”
-I noticed that the statue Tony looks at in the pilot is now on a sill behind Melfi’s chair.
-Melfi’s son has gone from smart-aleck asshole in season one to snarky deconstructionist in season two, to his current incarnation as cynical anarchist here in season three.
-Janice gets pushed into the electric guitar which she had been attempting to play. Her noggin plays a purer note than any she could hack with her fingers. A hilarious moment.
“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.”
“I oughtta stick a shish-kabob up your ass!”