Isabella (1.12)

Combining Prozac and Lithium can apparently give you hallucinations of a beautiful exchange student
named Isabella. A botched assassination attempt pulls Tony out of his funk.

Episode 12 – Originally aired March 28, 1999
Written by Robin Green & Mitch Burgess
Directed by Allen Coulter


It was all the way back in the Pilot that we first understood that Corrado and Livia might be willing to enter into a murderous conspiracy, when he ominously suggested to her that “something may have to be done” about Tony.  David Chase has been playing with this storyline all season long, sometimes shining a light on it, sometimes burying it beneath other stories.  Chase tinkers with the tempo of the storyline even now.  The first part of this hour is so dreamy and ethereal that we might not expect Corrado and Livia’s conspiracy to reach critical mass in this episode.  But it does.  Chase loves to dodge our expectations.

Jimmy Altieri inadvertently does everything he can in this episode to convince his colleagues—and us—that he has indeed flipped.  We still do not have hard evidence, however, that he is a rat: no 302, no physical proof of the wire, no confirmation from anyone in law enforcement.  (And Pussy is still suspiciously AWOL.)  We are all going by Tony’s intuition.  But Tony himself may no longer be sure of this intuition.  When we last saw Tony in the previous episode, “Nobody Knows Anything,” he was standing before the Pulaski Skyway, full of worry.  That worry has morphed into full-fledged depression here.  David Chase may relish the wild freedom of uncertainty and ambiguity, but his creation, Tony Soprano, is unable to function in such an unstable world.  Moody, suicidal, and unwilling to change out of his bathrobe, he grumbles a line that echoes the title of the previous episode: “I don’t know nothin’ no more.”

In his depression, Tony is abandoning reality—and the camera and scoring abandon their usual realism as well.  The camera loses its customary stability, tilting and wobbling around, and at one point even moving into a 90-degree angle, putting Tony at odds with the normal horizontality of the world.  Some of these early scenes are scored with non-diagetic music (something rarely done on this series because it sacrifices verisimilitude): the Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears” plays twice, casting its moody pall over the episode.

Tony 90 degrees

The end result of these audio-visual manipulations is a dreamy, fantastical world.  Tony’s brain populates this hazy world with a fantasy of its own: Isabella.  When Cusamano reveals to Tony that he never had a houseguest, shapely or otherwise, we are as surprised as he is.  But we shouldn’t be: all of the scenes with the beautiful young dental student contain peculiar moments and weird quirks that signal fantasy.  I’ve compiled three of these scenes into one clip:

In Scene 1, Tony walks through a picturesque white arch that seems like a portal to an elegant, magical world.  We have never seen it before in this backyard.  Scene 2 appears just after Melfi has upped his Prozac dosage, so we assume that Tony has just visited a pharmacy to get his new meds—but the outdated term “Chemist” and antiquated bottles in the window place the scene somewhere beyond the real, modern world.  In Scene 3, Tony’s reverie of the old country opens and closes with white billowing curtains.  Meanwhile, at the restaurant, white curtains billow behind him and Isabella, providing a clue that this scene is also just a dreamy reverie.  (The curtains also recall the rippling white canvas that Isabella sat beneath in Cusamano’s backyard when Tony first approached her.)

In my clip, I let Scene 3 play out till its end because it leads into one of those funny, well-timed edits that is so typical of The Sopranos: Meadow seems to respond to Tony’s burgeoning interest in dentistry with, “Dad, we’re eating!”  So: the ephemeral reverie of the restaurant is cut short by the fucking regularness of a dinner call. But I let the scene play out to note something else as well: I believe Isabella’s mention of gum tumors and soft tissue of the mouth is a key motif of the series, one that Chase builds upon in a significant way in Season 6.  (In my previous write-up, I railed against those who claim to have solved The Sopranos by treating it like a Treasure Hunt, and here I am sort of doing the same.  So sue me.)

Tony really gets his money’s worth from Dr. Melfi in this episode.  She figures out that Isabella is a projection of Tony’s wish for a nurturing mother, a consoling counterbalance to his actual mother Livia.  In this hour, cruel Livia recounts—yet again—a news story about fratricide, whereas sweet Isabella sweetly suckles the baby Antonio.  Livia plots to destroy her family, whereas Isabella talks of stonemasons who rebuild the fondamenta, the foundations of family homes.

When Tony’s housekeeper reminds him of his appointment (with Dr. Melfi), we think that she may unwittingly be speaking of his appointment with death—his assassins wait for him near Melfi’s office.  The scenes that lead up to the bungled assassination attempt have an almost mytho-poetic resonance to them.  Chase dips into a repository of mythological imagery, from within The Sopranos as well as from other works, to give these scenes their poetic resonance.  After Tony is reminded of his appointment, the next shot is of the backyard trees being buffeted by wind:

trees overhead

While watching David Chase’s 2012 film Not Fade Away, I found a scene that immediately made me think of this sequence in “Isabella.”  In the film, Douglas and Grace watch the movie Blow-Up at a theater:

Douglas: What kind of movie is this?  Nothing happens.  And there’s no orchestra to tell you, “Watch out, this guy’s gonna get killed.”  [Sounds of wind rustling through the trees in the film.]
Grace: I think the trees are the music.

sopanos - not fade away - blowup

The wind now rustling through the trees in “Isabella” seem to somehow similarly signal to us “Watch out, Tony is gonna get killed.”  (But perhaps I only feel this way upon rewatch because I know that in future seasons of The Sopranos, “wind” and “trees” will become strongly associated with issues of life, death and the troubling questions that surround our mortality.)

Tony looks for Isabella in Cusamano’s backyard, but finds her chair empty.  Chase has given us a poetic shot of an empty chair before.  In episode 1.03, an anguished Tony focused on the unoccupied chair in Hockney’s painting “Another Splash.”  In that episode, he grappled with the possibility that life is meaningless, asking Melfi, “All this shit’s for nothing?”  In the present episode, mired in depression, the possibility that it’s all meaningless takes on a greater likelihood for Tony.  He tells Melfi, “I don’t feel nothin’.  Dead.  Empty.  I’m not a husband…I’m not a father…I’m not a friend…I’m nothing.”

2 empty chairs

In addition to using his own mythological images, like trees and wind and empty chairs, Chase cribs from a mythic Godfather scene: Tony is attacked on the street just after he purchases some orange juice, very similar to how Vito Corleone is gunned down in the street after inspecting oranges.  And like Vito, Tony survives the assassination attempt.  Tony is treated for minor wounds at the hospital while his kids wait for him beneath a poster proclaiming the necessity of having a safe family:

safe families

As their “uncles” Paulie and Silvio stride toward them, we recognize that these kids don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever really having a safe family.  This is even more true of Tony, who has just had members of his family/famiglia try to kill him.

Immediately after the attempted hit, Tony (and the camera and scoring) begin to return to normal.  He regains his sense of humor, offering Father Phil a sandwich and asking if he is going to sleep over.  Isabella doesn’t appear to him anymore.  When he meets Cooz out back, we see the garden arch as it actually looks, no longer the white picturesque gateway to Tony’s fantasyworld:

garden arch

(What was Cooz doing out there with the shovel, anyway?  Burying that box of sand that Tony gave him a coupla episodes ago?)  Tony feels invigorated, he’s got a new zest for life.  Cream’s cheerful “I Feel Free” plays over the credits, with its upbeat lyric “When I dance with you, we move like the sea,” which is a stark contrast to the sea imagery heard earlier in “Tiny Tears”: “Tiny tears make up an ocean, tiny tears make up a sea.”

The tonal and lyrical differences between “Tiny Tears” and “I Feel Free” underscore the radically different tone shift between the early part of the episode and the latter part.  The mood is slow and languorous before the assassination attempt, but things get much more boisterous and invigorated after the attempt.  In a real sense, that assassination attempt on Tony is the climactic moment of Season One.  While the season finale is a great episode, it doesn’t have anything quite as heart-pounding as the attack against Tony here.  This is a pattern that Chase would repeat in later seasons, providing the climactic action in the penultimate episode rather than the ultimate episode.  I think that perhaps part of the reason why Chase did this is because he didn’t want The Sopranos to take that “easy route” that so many other TV shows take, using high drama and cliffhangers in their season finales in an attempt to hook their viewers into coming back next season.  (This is an idea I’ll go more into in the next write-up.)



  • As a treatment for depression, Carmela suggests one of those hats with built-in lights that some Alaskans wear during their long winters.  Chase and the writers may be recycling this tidbit from an episode of Northern Exposure that featured the hat (and also dealt with depression).
  • Fittingly, Al DiMeola’s “Milonga del Angel” plays during the restaurant scene in which Tony and Isabella have lunch—Isabella is something of angel, an unreal fantasy.
  • Stonemasons: Tony tells Isabella that his grandfather was a stonemason.  In “Calling All Cars” (4.11), Tony seems to dream of himself as his stonemason grandfather.
  • Stonehearted: We catch a glimpse of how cold AJ can be when the family comes to the hospital.  AJ regards his father more with curiosity than concern, relishes his sandwich a bit too much given the circumstances, and later uses Tony’s misfortune to try to wiggle out of attending a school dance.  (Meadow is critical of him: “Self-involved much?”)  It is in this episode that we truly come to understand the intensity of Livia’s pathological selfishness, and begin to glean that her grandson AJ may have a similar trait.
  • Dr. Melfi has some good insights in this hour, and perhaps the most important is her suspicion that Livia was involved in the assassination plot—but she doesn’t fully share her suspicions with Tony now.  (That’ll come in the next episode.)
  • The painting of Isabella Rossellini (a la Blue Velvet) that I used for my header pic was created by artist Gabriel T. Toro.
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Ron Bernard

37 responses to “Isabella (1.12)

  1. Hi Ron,

    Another interesting thing I noticed, and maybe it’s nothing, but the grunting that Tony does in this episode as he’s fighting off his attackers, sounds very much like the sounds Melfi heard from the Cussamano’s bathroom, which we find out later is Tony working out. Could that have been some foreshadowing as well?


  2. Have to admit, this is easily my favorite episode of Season 1. Though how real the dreams can feel in some ways to Tony and the audience doesn’t mean these aren’t things that his subconscious has been longing for during his adult years – especially since the start of the show which is probably best seen as the start of Tony’s downward spiral. Watching Tony lose touch with the real world and his fantasies is always the best part of this show.

    Awesome post for this episode.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s also very interesting that Isabella only wears white through out Tony’s delusion. And that the garden arch that Tony walks under is also white. When he goes to talk to Cusamano about Isabella, the garden structure is also back to it’s normal, wood appearance!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I believe the painting is titled “A Bigger Splash”. Love the write ups! Great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am a huge fan of this episode. The gloomy, depressing start off was appropriate considering all that Tony was dealing with at the time. And the last time we seen him in front of the Pulaski skyway, he didn’t look too good. The music for the “Tiny Tears Hit” as I like to call it was brilliant. It’s an excellent song and completely set the mood for the first half of this episode. I suppose this episode did pick up tempo and wasn’t so gloomy after the hit went south. Tony, as you stated is definitely in better sprits. Isabella and the dream sequences were great. Some of the best parts of this series are the dreams. Funny how Chase makes the significant event before the season’s end, here as well as future seasons. As usual, the acting was terrific. I especially like when Junior and Livia are watching the news. Corrado seems (as he should) genuinely scared. He knew then and there he made a huge mistake. Livia’s reaction, “is this true?” Corrado: “What do you think, they made it up?” LOL. At the Sopranos residence she already starts her “who’s Meadow” BS. This is basically the beginning of the end of her relationship with Corrado. Speaking of Corrado, I always wondered if he intended for Mikey to kill Donnie right then and there, or just take care of it later. We all seen how hits happen in SopranoLand; it could just be a simple line such as “make sure.” That was an excellent scene with Junior peeping out the back window of his Lincoln.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think Tony didn’t feel anything because he was over medicating himself. Anti-depressants make you feel nothing, not happy, not sad…Tony ios an excitement junkie, that’s why he breaks out in a rash when he has to work at Barone Sanitation. Even when he finds out the receptionist is a born again Christian…the challenge to get her made it more interesting…he just has a low tolerance for boredom, that’s why he has so many women..he loves his wife, but he needs something different sometimes, and she can’t hang out at the strip club or roll around on large stacks of cash…she’s not Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas after all!! She just a regular wife….with mundane, regular life stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carm is just a regular wife with a regular life… she has a higher tolerance for boredom than Tony but I think she gets bored too, that’s why she keeps developing crushes on these various guys, even on that skeevy Father Phil..


  7. Hi Ron!
    Thank you for sharing all of your incredible insight! I was curious, what were your thoughts on the final scene with Tony standing in front of the empty lawn chairs? Considering the symbolism of empty chairs and everything in the show seems to have a deeper meaning, wanted to get your take before submitting my own thoughts on the symbolism.

    Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm I never really noticed those empty lawn chairs but now that you bring it up, they are definitely placed in a way that isn’t as we typically see them. I wonder if Chase is equating them to the empty chairs in the painting and in Cusamano’s yard, which I associate with the “emptiness” that is a major theme of the series…


  8. 43:08, Junior goes to Green Grove to confront Livia about her memory loss. If you look closely you see he is wearing a ‘Members Only’ jacket…

    Liked by 1 person

    • “It’s the jaaackett”


      • Where’s the jaaacket??! …. do u think it was a coincidence Junior was wearing a members only jacket in this episode? Or for that matter, a coincidence that the jaaacket richie gave tony also played a big role in the coming season?


        • I think the Members Only jacket now is a coincidence because neither Chase nor HBO was planning for there to even be a Season 6, much less planning wardrobe details for S6.. But all the incidents around Richie’s jacket must have been pre-planned because they all occurred within the span of one season.


          • Yeah, but what i think he does is, is he mines the previous seasons of anything that strikes his fancy that he could be able to use as a glue to something else in the season that he was writing t tge time. No matter how small. He works backwards.

            Liked by 1 person

  9. Whatever people say about “College,” I think this is the best episode of the show’s first season. Or as Chrissie says, “Some fuckin’ shit, huh?”

    It has an arc (like Noah), a story of a man in decline suddenly roused. Tony is the hero in this episode, I think, not the Anti-Hero of the larger narrative. “Tiny Tears” fucking rocks when it’s used here. The cinematography is great, the botched assassination thrilling, the symbolism rich as always, the Cream feeling free. Dialog is often very back & forth here, Sorkinesque weaves. Consider how much info is dumped about each character in the scene where everyone visits Tony & home. So many dynamics playing off of one another. In grad school, I had a fiction professor who emphasized “spec & defam,” basically putting new spins on things. Or heighten their realism. Chrissie in the fishing hat? Oh man.

    Your Ronness, can we determine once and for all that Altieri was a rat? I hear some fans come to his defense but when confronted w/ it in the next episode, he just caves. Seems very guilty then as in this episode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know that people related to the production have said Altieri was a rat, and that’s how I lean too. But I’m not convinced enough to issue a decree across the land yet lol.

      Anyway, spec & defam?? I’m not familiar with this term..


      • Spec & Defam is just short for Specification & Defamiliarization. Beyond more elemental story tools like superobjective (“what does the protagonist want and what must they do/be willing to do in order to get it”), my professor was of a mind that most good writing comes down to making it new. Defamiliarization, taking the uncommon & casting it in a new light, is what Sopranos does with the nuclear family, for instance, fulfilling Wieseltier’s great quote about the show improving the American sense of reality.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I can’t make any promises but I’ll try not to make it a habit of jumping back and forth between your write ups. Sometimes it feels necessary though.
    I wanted to come back to this episode, not only because its my favorite episode, but to comment on the possible inspiration of the use of wind and trees throughout the series.
    I recently rewatched The Seventh Seal after last watching it a few years back. That was before I had realized the artistic quality of The Sopranos, so I did not make the connection between the two.
    Rewatching it, I was blown away by the mention and usage of trees & wind:
    (man climbs into a tree and sings) “I’m a little bird that sings at its will” (death starts cutting the tree).. “I’m sawing down your tree, since your time is up.”
    A different scene: “The trees are so still.” “Because there’s no wind.” “He means they’re unusually still.”
    Another scene: “He saw us, hes chasing us” ..”hes overtaking us.. hes coming toward us.”
    We then immediately see four different shots of trees blowing in the wind.
    One of the final scenes in the film reminded me of the last scene of “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”. In both the film and that last scene of the episode, they’re sitting at a table with a storm raging outside. Both scenes are also dimly lit, as fire is the only source of light. (candles in the restaurant and the fire torches in the seventh seal)
    Death then arrives in different forms.
    Seventh Seal: Death arrives, the characters see him but we do not.
    Dream of Jeannie: We hear the tree falling outside. If it wasn’t dead already, it is now.
    “I am sawing down your tree, since your time is up.”
    Without making this connection between the film and the series before, I was still able fully appreciate and grasp what David Chase was doing, but this adds another layer.
    Bergman was obviously very influential so its not too surprising to see some reflections in Chase. Plus the themes of death and “nothingness”.
    Speaking of influence and Bergman, and since it is New Years Eve, I’ll be watching the Phantom Carriage tonight which was a major influence on Bergman. Its my favorite silent film and I’ve made it a new years eve tradition. I know you love film since you reference it often.
    I also wanted to mention that it was googling “trees wind & bells in the sopranos”, that first led me to this site in 2018 I think it was.
    So in other words.. I guess I could say “a great wind carried me across the sky”… straight towards Sopranos Autopsy.
    Happy New Year

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The conversation in Melfi’s office does not happen. It is another fantasy. Notice that Tony goes out of the donut shop and through a door marked `Montclair Physicians Suite’. Hardly where her office (or any medical facility) would be situated. And I find it hard to believe, with what symptoms he was reporting, that she would choose to increase his medication. Two of the symptoms of Prozac overdose are confusion and hallucinations, so he was probably taking too many.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Brian Schroeder

    trees and wind are also a metaphor for death and disorder in Miller’s Crossing, where the forest is where men lose their hats (heads) and die miserably, like an animal (out here in the woods)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wind, oranges/orange juice, and billowing white canopies… in The Godfather, the last shot of Vito’s death in the garden includes a white canvas blowing in the wind.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This episode is so amazing! I find very interesting the fact that isabella is an aspiring dentist who wants to cure dental’s tumors: in psychiatric language loosing teeth meaning loosing power (Freud reconnect that to fear of castration, like it happened into 5×11 dream), and that put Isabella in antipodes with Livia, who wants to remove Tony’s power

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great insights, particularly on the clues that Isabella is a fantasy. I also always thought Tony talked differently in these scenes. He sounds more like James Gandolfini rather than Tony Soprano. Also, the restaurant where they have lunch seems to be a giveaway as well. If you look at the aesthetics, the concrete patio wall, it looks very old-country to me and certainly doesn’t look like New Jersey. It certainly doesn’t look like any upscale Italian restaurant that Tony would frequent. I think it may be the only time where we see Tony drinking white wine instead of red as well.

    One thing about this episode that has always bothered me. When Tony has his confrontation with Carmela at the window while looking at Isabella, she is wearing the same suit that she wears in the hospital. So did Tony’s subconscious mind just happen to know what Carmela was wearing that morning, down to the pearl barette in her hair? It’s possible that in his state he saw and registered what she was wearing that day but it seems strange to me that it would be so spot-on, when the reality is that he’s slaying in bed with his eyes glassed over, so deep in his depressed state, that he would register exactly what she had put on that morning, down to her jewelry and her hairstyle.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Dentist, dental tumors (cancer), teeth … MOUTH … squealing … RATS … FBI. Perhaps Tony subconsciously knows that some (many?) of his capos/subordinates are not to be and/or should not be trusted? Funny that his hallucination of a woman in (virginal) white is studying to be a dentist.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Pingback: The Soprano Onceover: #35. “Isabella” (S1E12) | janiojala

  18. Tony’s airbag did not deploy when he hit a car (following the assassination attempt). Hmm … 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Hmm …
    Has anyone else noticed the seating arrangement in the Soprano’s livingroom? The two chairs placed at the far end of the room, where Tony and Carmela sit, look like thrones! With his leg propped up on the coffee table, Tony definitely looks like the proverbial king, doesn’t he? But Silvio, Chris, and Paulie crowding behind him and proclaiming their allegiance to him looked/sounded too forced and out-of-character for them.


  20. I really like this episode, but I always find it too hard to suspend my disbelief during the assassination attempt. There are just too many things that go comically wrong (namely, that both would-be killers stick their guns out within grabbing distance of Tony). I get that it can be ascribed to panic or inexperience, but it never quite does it for me.

    I’m willing to believe that the details of how it plays out are also being filtered through Tony’s unreliable perception of reality, but that only goes so far.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This episode is so Fellini. Particularly ‘Juliet Of The Spirit’ Fellini.

    Liked by 1 person

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