The Sopranos was THE television show of the early 2000s. Everyone watched it. They discussed, debated, examined, and quoted it (“Oh, poor you!” and “Toodle-fucking-oo?” were particular favorites in my family). There were show-based teeshirts – still have my Satriale’s Pork Store one – and cookbooks. At the center of it all, the man at the top of the mob-chain and patriarch of the titular family, was Anthony “Tony” Soprano. Tony could’ve been the classic mobster with a simple psychopathic personality, but the writers (and Mr Gandolfini’s wonderful portrayal) made him so much more. He was a complex man and became an icon for TV’s anti-hero. He was also possibly the first male with borderline personality disorder in pop culture to go mainstream.
In order to show what I’m talking about I’ll go through the nine key symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder (of which one need only have five in order to be diagnosed according to the National Institute of Mental Health) and show just how mobster Tony Soprano fit them.
Extreme reactions — including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions — to abandonment, whether real or perceived
The concern over being left or abandoned was nearly constant in Tony Sopranos’ mind and at times so intense he suffered panic attacks and blackouts. Throughout the show he tried to preemptively prevent others from leaving him – his crew, his friends (mob and non-mob alike), his wife, his girlfriends, his children, his therapist – and when they appeared to make moves towards that choice he grew both furious and desperate. When his therapist, Dr Melfi, tried to end their therapy he alternatively flipped out and tried to tempt his way back into her care via gifts and visits to her office…sometimes he used both methods in the same interaction. After his wife, Carmella, declared she wanted a divorce – and disclosed a crush on a member of his crew – Tony exploded in a rage, punching a hole in the wall beside her head. He even seemed upset when a flock of ducks in his pool took off, his face draining into utter, dejected, emptiness as he watched them go.
A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
The most obvious relationship that played out this way was the one Tony had with his mother, Livia. “She was a saint…fuck her!” was his often uttered feelings concerning her. Now admittedly she had her own severe emotional/mental issues (Dr Melfi suggested Livia herself was a borderline), but that sort of same-breath love/loathe way of approaching others wasn’t something Tony just had with his mom. He felt the same about nearly everyone. His crew was made up of the best and most loyal guys around, until they were ungrateful pricks up his ass and trying to stab him in the back all the time. His wife was amazing, until she made him put with her whiny bullshit. His kids were great and he was incredibly proud of them, but they were also spoiled brats he wished he could smack some respect into. His therapist really got him and was also a bitch who didn’t understand at all. There were countless times Tony sang the praises of a person in his life only to declare “fuck him/her/them” and then backtrack into complimenting them once more; sometimes virtually in the same sentence.
Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
For the most part Tony knew who he was in the sense of being a mob boss and family man. How he felt about his success in those roles was another matter. He swung between feeling fantastic and fully in charge of everything and everyone in his world to feeling stressed out and overwhelmed whether anything actually changed or not. He was the cock of the walk until he was barely able to function from self-loathing and depression. …Doubt he hated himself on occasion? This was his reaction to finding out his son, AJ, suffered from depression: “It’s in his blood, this miserable fucking existence. My rotten fucking putrid genes have infected my kid’s soul. That’s my gift to my son.”
Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating
Admittedly there was never an incident in which Tony attempted suicide or self-harmed in the manner of intentional cutting or similar acts. In fact, outside his generally dangerous behaviors and indulgences previously mentioned, he made no acts that would be considered suicidal or self-harming. However, he threatened suicide and wondered aloud in therapy what the point of “it all” was more than once.
Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
There were times Tony had such intense waves of anxiety he would pass out. One minute he was cracking jokes at a backyard BBQ or chit-chatting at a fancy clubhouse gathering and the next he was hyperventilating into unconsciousness. Waves of anger were similarly displayed with Tony jovial one moment and exploding into a violent rage the next – often over minor incidents such as having food he wanted eaten before he got to it or a bartender saying something he considered stupid. These sudden changes in emotion could last for a few hours to couple days before they switched with a new stimuli – like a stupid comment throwing him into a rage, sometimes just a juvenile joke was enough to lighten a day-long melancholy.
Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom
All one must do is recall what Tony said when he described his depression: “This isn’t painful. Getting shot is painful. Getting stabbed in the ribs is painful. This shit isn’t painful. It’s empty…dead.” Beyond that it can be seen in his facial expressions; when alone or thought others weren’t looking Tony’s face often seemed an alternating mix of deep thoughtfulness, dark depression, and blank emptiness.
Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
Tony’s violent rage has already been discussed at length concerning episodes both at work and home. That the triggers for the violence could be for the smallest infractions, perceived or actual, has also been covered. It’s clear that Tony let his anger rule his actions more than once at work, at home, and in therapy. He punched in walls (home), broke tables (therapy), and once got into a physical altercation with AJ over feeling disrespected.
Having stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality.
One could say Tony had paranoid thoughts given he often worried about those around him betraying (and killing) him, but given his profession it’s not an unreasonable concern. Even if you take into account these worries came up more frequently when Tony felt stressed or anxious, it’s still valid. There were times when Tony would zone out, which could be seen as a dissociation, but given he never mentioned feeling cut off from/outside of himself it’s hard to say…he could’ve just been daydreaming or lost in thought like so many others. Thus the closest and clearest time Tony ever came to losing touch with reality was during a deep depressive episode when he hallucinated a beautiful foreign exchange student visiting next door named Isabella. Not only did he imagine her, but as he listened to her speak he said he found himself back in rustic Italy with her breastfeeding an infant named Antonio. …While Dr Melfi declared the whole incident a side effect of his prescribed lithium and he didn’t have another experience like that after he stopped taking the medicine, one never knows.
Throughout the show Dr Melfi and other characters made suggestions and references that Tony was a sociopath; this is understandable, but not quite accurate. Understandable in that he did have some antisocial characteristics – especially violent criminality – and as such it likely led to the default assumption of him being a sociopath like other criminals of that ilk. Once you presume Tony is a sociopath all his other issues can be dismissed as manipulative malingering; the problem is that Tony was not malingering in his issues, as was shown in the day-to-day activities of his life. His emotions were that intense and mercurial, he honestly felt depression and guilt (at times), and while he could be manipulative to get what he wanted, what he often wanted was to not to be abandoned or otherwise rejected…things someone with borderline personality disorder, not sociopathy, would want.