Tony Soprano and Dr. Melfi part ways. Arguments are heating up with the New York famiglia over the HUD scam so Tony
goes to Florida to enlist Lil Carmine’s help. T has a bad dream while in Miami.
EPISODE 50 - ORIGINALLY AIRED NOVEMBER 24, 2002 WRITTEN BY CHASE, GREEN, BURGESS AND DAVID FLEBOTTE ADDITIONAL STORY BY TERRY WINTER DIRECTED BY TIM VAN PATTEN
A major event takes place in “Calling All Cars”: Tony decides to stop therapy. Despite containing this significant and surprising twist, the episode originally felt like a comparatively minor one to me – I just didn’t find it very memorable. After subsequent viewings, however, I have reassessed my opinion of the hour. “Calling All Cars” is a very substantial episode. It dives deeply into the well of imagery and symbolism (ugh, how I dislike that word) that the series has labored to establish over the last four seasons, while providing a wealth of images that will be recalled in future episodes. “Calling All Cars” also helps to break our preconceived ideas about how late-season episodes are supposed to function in the final stretch of a TV season.
The previous episode signaled that we were in the endgame of Season 4 by raising multiple mortal threats against Tony Soprano. “Calling All Cars” continues to escalate some of this tension – but not to the degree that we would traditionally expect a dramatic series to do. The friction between NJ and NY over the HUD profits is growing. Vic the Appraiser gets the worst of it right now, but Johnny Sac hints to Paulie that Tony might have to be whacked over the issue. Tony hopes that a meeting with Little Carmine may ease the stalemate with Carmine Sr. But the primary focus in this hour is not on these external tensions; it is on Tony’s internal anxieties. The episode opens with a surreal dream sequence, one that alludes to several things that are eating at Tony, including his dalliance with Svetlana, Gloria’s suicide, Ralph’s murder and Carmela’s increasing self-determination. In the following scene, Tony expresses to Dr. Melfi his dissatisfaction with the way his psychotherapy has been—or has not been—progressing. He is still having nutty dreams that he can’t figure out or control. And he still cannot exercise any impulse control, which is leading him to commit mistakes at work (i.e. the unsanctioned murder of Ralph Cifaretto). He is angry and frustrated, and wants to take a time-out from therapy.
Arguably, the main story of the hour isn’t about Tony’s external or internal issues – in fact, it isn’t about Tony at all. It’s about Bobby and Janice. Bobby is having difficulty accepting Karen’s death, even going so far as to bury an anniversary cake at her gravesite. He refuses the reality of her death by refusing to pay off the funeral bill. Janice tells him that “This dispute with the [funeral] bill is morbid clinging.” Soon after making this criticism, Janice does one of the most morbid things we’ve ever seen anyone in SopranoWorld do.
Valerie Palmer-Mehta, in her essay “Disciplining the Masculine,” describes Janice as being in “full feminine masquerade” in this episode. Jan pretends to be matronly and caring but she has a devious, self-serving plan up her sleeve. She knows that Little Bobby and Sophia are struggling with their mother’s death (mainly because she saw them freak out at the phony séance that AJ conducted). She capitalizes on the children’s pain to draw Bobby closer to her. She instant-messages Little Bobby and Sophia with the user-name Vlad666. When the kids ask who she is, she gives the mysterious and frightening reply, “Rising Damp.” Jan then leads them to the Ouija board. (Throughout the seasons, Janice and AJ seem to be the truest inheritors of Livia Soprano’s cruelty and callousness, and their parallel use of the Ouija board here solidifies this similarity between them.) After sending the kids into a state of terror, she sits and waits for Bobby’s inevitable phone call for aid. When she comes over to Bobby’s house to help, she sensibly tells him, “The dead have nothing to say to us.” She suggests that they reheat Karen’s last ziti, and Bobby quietly assents while a tear runs down his cheek. Janice has definitively replaced Karen. The Queen is dead; long live the Queen.
Meanwhile, Tony receives a call from Svetlana. She thanks him for the diamond brooch, but she is unwilling to continue any romantic relationship with him, despite his attempt to keep the possibility open. Chase cuts from this scene to Melfi’s office, where Tony finally terminates his therapy. Svetlana’s rejection of him, along with her criticism of his weakness in the previous episode, may have played a role in Tony’s decision to nix therapy. He may believe that going to a therapist confirms Svetlana’s insinuation that he is not “the strong silent type.” Dr. Margaret Crastnopol at Slate.com writes:
Tony has absorbed Svetlana’s excellent interpretation of his cowardice, and it has shamed him, and his solution is to look for aspects of weakness in himself and get rid of them by cutting off the treatment that exposes this vulnerability. Kinda like shooting the messenger. Not the operation that’s needed, but the one he would inevitably choose, like ordering the destruction of the painting of his beloved dead horse so he won’t have to see it.
Others have a different interpretation why Tony ends his long-running relationship with Melfi. Judith Shulevitz, also at Slate.com, notes that in the first therapy session of the hour, Tony almost lets it slip to Dr. Melfi that he committed murder (of Ralph); he may be walking away from treatment now in order to prevent himself from saying too much to his therapist. Some viewers think he walks away because of genuine frustration, while some say Melfi is getting axed because she has become less of an important character over time, and some believe that it’s just another plot-twist. Whatever the reason, Tony is done. Doctor Melfi stands up to shake his hand. Tony kisses her gently on the cheek and walks out.
Tony heads down to Miami Beach where Beansie Gaeta has arranged a meeting with Little Carmine. We heard Tony refer to this younger Carmine as “Brainless the Second” in “The Weight” (4.04), and our first glimpse of him now hints that this description is accurate. Little Carmine mispronounces words and makes his point so archly that Tony can’t even be sure what his point is. Little Carmine agrees to intercede on Tony’s behalf, but we wonder if this boob might just make things worse between New Jersey and New York.
As I mentioned earlier, the threat of mob violence is something of a red herring in the homestretch of Season 4. Tony’s internal disquiet is much more of a significant issue. Tony may stay out of NY’s reach and away from the FBI’s noose, but he cannot escape his subconscious anxieties. The dream that appears in the final scene is very short but it is one of the most haunting and evocative dreams of the entire series. It is largely through this dream that “Calling All Cars” earns its high marks. The dream-sequence pulls together a rich, complex set of symbols, associations and images, some of which have been appearing since the Pilot episode. We may not even clearly recognize the symbolic quality of these images – their significance as metaphors may only barely register on the far edge of our consciousness. Take, for example, the image of the legs (of an unknown woman as she steps out of a car) which opens the dream-sequence:
There is a high probability that the leg belongs to Gloria Trillo, because she was sitting in the same spot in the car in Tony’s dream earlier in the hour, but also because Chase had highlighted Gloria’s legs throughout Season 3, particularly the first time Tony met her in Melfi’s waiting room:
The first time we met Tony, it was also in Melfi’s waiting room, and he was framed by a pair of female legs. By presenting leg imagery in the dream now, Chase may be suggesting that Tony is still in the same situation he was in all those years ago when the Pilot aired. Tony still has a tendency to get ensnared and enclosed by dark, destructive women who approximate his mother Livia – but he no longer has the therapy sessions to help him through such emotional traps:
The dream is scored with the prominent sound of crickets, perhaps recalling the conversation in “Commendatori” where Tony says his favorite part of the Godfather movies is the cricket-scored scene when Vito Corleone returns to Italy. Tony appears as an immigrant stonemason in the dream, evoking the times that he told Meadow (in the Pilot) and Isabella (in “Isabella”) that this was his grandfather’s trade. The house that stonemason Tony walks up to seems vaguely familiar – I was convinced it was Hesh’s house from Season One, but I’m not so sure after taking a closer look:
Even looking at the screengrabs side-by-side, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s the same house, just with some trim and detailing changed. (Not that it really matters; it just speaks to the dream-like way that Chase plants his images in our minds. Many viewers were later reminded of this “dream” house when Tony/Kevin Finnerty came upon a similar looking home during his dream/coma/near-death-experience in Season 6’s “Mayham.”) When stonemason Tony pushes the door of the house open, he comes across a surreal image. A shadowy figure stands in the staircase, its dark particles seeming to resolve from out of its ghostly outline and bleed into the surroundings. Is it Livia “rising damp” from her grave? Or, if not her grave, from the dark recesses of Tony’s subconscious?
I cannot be certain that the obscure figure is Tony’s mother, but David Chase hinted that it is Livia in a 2005 interview with Martha Nochimson (Dying to Belong.) Additionally, because I’ve come to associate Livia with staircases, the Lady on the Stairs strongly evokes her in my mind:
Janice may have been wrong in telling Bobby earlier that the dead have nothing to say to us. Dead Livia appears now in Tony’s dream, and manages—without uttering a sound—to still somehow communicate her fearsome philosophy of meaninglessness.
Tony snaps out of the disturbing dream, startled and damp with sweat. He lumbers into the bathroom to regain his composure but the red nightlight bathes him in a hellish glow and provides no comfort. He sees a sliver of sunlight through the curtains and makes his way out to the balcony. In the warm and bright Florida air, he can calm himself.
I love how Chase utilizes the Fontainebleau Hotel and Miami Beach here. The hotel has appeared in several films over the last 50 years, its iconic curved form attracting many film directors and producers. (For instance, the movie Tony Rome, starring Frank Sinatra, featured the hotel as a backdrop in several scenes.) The sweeping lines of the hotel’s curved terraces lead our eye to Tony as he gets a grip on himself after the terrifying dream.
Chase may have chosen this hotel to shoot the final scene simply because there is a long tradition of filming at the Fontainebleau. But there may be more to it than that. When it opened in 1954, the hotel was panned in architectural circles for being too frivolous, too gaudy, too curved at a time when the straight lines of High Modernism ruled American architecture. It was not considered to be serious architecture. And I think this is why the hotel and Miami Beach work so well here. Miami Beach carries the connotations, in our national consciousness, as a place of frolicking, frivolous fun. We associate the place primarily with sea, sand and superficiality. By abandoning psychotherapy, Tony has essentially chosen superficiality over seriousness – and now finds himself in a place that is an embodiment—at least in our collective consciousness—of superficiality. As he stands on the hotel balcony, the Beach Boys’ easygoing “Surfin USA” wafts up from below. Now that Tony has quit therapy, he is no longer able to delve deeply into his own psyche, he will only surf along the surface of his life. Tony has some serious matters lurking in his subconscious (including some major mommy-issues, as the dream reminds us). But he has beached himself by quitting therapy, leaving himself stranded without Dr. Melfi to help him find his way. Melfi had told Tony at the top of the hour that “meaning is elucidated through verbalization.” Without the therapy sessions where he can verbalize, the meanings of things will be more difficult for Tony to clarify and understand. He is now at greater risk of being consumed by the philosophy of meaninglessness that he has inherited from his mother.
“LEGS” ONE MORE TIME
Janice is selfish, callous and insecure like both her mother and Gloria Trillo, whose legs seem to be evoked in this hour. Janice’s legs are also highlighted in this episode, as she carries out her conniving plan to ingratiate herself back into Bobby’s life – the camera enters the scene of Janice waiting for Bobby’s inevitable call for help by tracking along her legs:
- To his great dismay, Corrado has been found competent to stand trial. (This is a significant event, but it’s dealt with so quickly in the episode that I’ve only mentioned it down here in this section.)
- In the October 2005 interview with Martha Nochimson, David Chase said that the “Lady on the Stairs” dream will relate to a future dream-sequence. (My guess is that he was referring to the sequence in “Mayham” which appeared six months after the interview.)
- Some viewers have noted that as Janice and Bobby sit down to eat Karen’s last ziti, Janice’s wine glass inexplicably and suddenly moves, as though it was shifted by Karen’s ghost. I’m not gonna touch this one – come up with your own explanation:
- Let me clarify why I say, in the intro paragraph, that I don’t like the word “symbol.” Once something is perceived to be a symbol (for example, “staircases are a symbol of callousness and cruelty”), then some viewers/readers tend to always equate staircases with callousness and cruelty. David Chase is far too devoted to ambiguity to present imagery that must be interpreted in some fixed, absolute way. That’s why I prefer the term “association.” It is justifiable, I believe, to associate staircases on The Sopranos with callousness and cruelty, but it is not necessary to do so every single time a staircase appears. (In fact, a staircase becomes the setting for a warm and loving scene between Tony and Meadow in the very next episode.)
- Morris Lapidus, the architect of the Fontainebleau, took us on a field trip to his famous hotel when I was in junior high. He would have been in his 80s, but was still spry and vivacious. I could sense a hint of bitterness as he recounted the criticisms that the “Less is more” crowd directed at his work. He lived for over 10 more years after I met him, and I was glad to see that in those years, his talent and joyfulness were rediscovered and interest in him revived. He became one of the Rock Stars of the architecture world.