Calling All Cars (4.11)

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

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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:

Trillo leg

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:

Gloria's legs revisited

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:

opening shot for C.A

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:

Dream House number 2

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?

Dark Mother dream

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:

Livia stairs

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.

BEACHED
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.

Calling All Cars final sequence

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.

Tony Rome, Sinatra - Fountainebleau

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.

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“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:

Janice Soprano legs

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ADDITIONAL NOTES:

  • 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.)

Dream House & Mayham house

  • 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.

11 responses to “Calling All Cars (4.11)

  1. This is probably my favorite Janice episode, exploring both sides of her. It really showcases her at her worst as a comic villain in the first half, then provides one of her best moments of grounded wisdom near the end, leaving you wondering about the ends justifying the means of Bobby’s (and in turn, the kids’) healing process. As I see it, regardless of the possible spookings and paranormal events in the show, Janice’s line about the dead is a very strong philosophy that is supported by the events of the series – even when the dead appear to characters, if they speak at all, their message basically amounts to “You will die some day”. I’d say Janice’s line is one of the more prominent and unambiguous instances of the show’s themes being brought from subtext to text. I also love Aida Turturro’s acting in the “Rising Damp” scene. Janice seems so proud of herself for coming up with that creative line.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the framing of Tony during the second scene of the hour, in Melfi’s office. Even though that’s his usual chair, he looks entirely uncomfortable in every shot, as he sinks into the chair in these weird angles that the camera accentuates. That is, until he starts ranting at her about his frustrations. Then, suddenly, he looks like he was born sitting in that chair. Commanding. Great direction by Van Patten and acting by Gandolfini here, as usual.

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  3. The “Rising Damp” identity Janice replies to Bobby’s children during their AOL chat may refer to the slow upward movement of water and moisture by capillary action in the walls and lower structure of houses. When left unchecked this may cause invasive mold to walls and structures and is certainly not very healthy; much like Janice’s invasion of Bobby’s house and family.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The colonial-style house in the dream here — in addition to resembling the Mayham “Inn at the Oaks” and Hesh’s place — also looks nearly identical to the house that Tony B. dies on the porch of in All Due Respect, and (arguably) the similarly-styled building seen right behind Tony on the mural at Holsten’s. I believe these are all intentional, that Chase used the house as a sort of continuous symbol of death and/or the afterlife.

    Stray thought: The way Tony wakes up from the final dream recalls the Gloria nightmare in Everybody Hurts — in both cases Tony bolts awake just as he’s about to seemingly be exposed to (his) death by a black-enshrouded woman.

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  5. Enjoyable reading of Sopranos autopsy. Helped me to engage with series (3rd viewing) with a bit more depth and understanding. Have to add that Tony S left the psychiatry sessions as he had reasoned that they had taken him as far as he could he go – always on his perceived terms- he mentioned that he was appreciative of learning the “tactics” from the Art of War and really she could not give him any further strategies of dealing with his complaints than what had already been; and quite frankly, as a viewer, these meetings were becoming dull and repetitive, Soprano was never interested in changing self. He had taken what he needed from these sessions. Period. The tactics he learnt now being put into play…a very scheming mind. Never forget that Soprano is only interested to working towards his own advantage
    . He is a fool in many ways but not when it comes to dealing with like-minded individuals…

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  6. This is an amazing blog that has positively transformed the way I enjoy the show!

    About “Calling Al Cars,” Dr. Crastnopol, in the article you quote above, also has some interesting things to say about Melfi’s underwhelming response to Tony’s announcement that he intends to quit therapy:

    >>Jennifer once again shows herself to be undereducated, undersupervised, underanalyzed, and all too human like the rest of us. She fails to recognize that Tony needed to have his criticisms of the treatment taken seriously instead of pooh-poohed defensively. If she had been able to master her own longings in relation to keeping and/or curing him, she might have been more open to … understanding his self-disillusionment vis-à-vis the part of him that was engaged with her in self-exploration. <<

    Chase's less-than-stellar opinion of psychiatry seems to run through the entire series (also including the counselor who wanted to send Meadow to the University of Barcelona and the worse-than-useless shrink who reaffirms all of Janice's delusional opinions of herself). In just about every session with Melfi, there are junctures where the psychiatrist, say, clams up in response to Tony missing the point of her analysis or allows him to steer the conversation off course, when a more forceful response would have helped him understand his own feelings better. (I appreciate that silence is a legitimate technique to elicit a response, but Melfi still seems to over-rely on it.)

    But the ultimate condemnation of Melfi in this episode is that Tony is more influenced by Svetlana about what to do about his treatment than he is by the trained professional herself. Or is Chase saying that Tony listens to Svetlana because she let him sleep with her? Tony, a man of voracious appetites who is not used to taking no for an answer, has wanted to sleep with Melfi all along, and he makes another try for her after he and Carmella separate later in this season. Melfi is always firm and professional in spurning Tony's advances, but she doesn't seem to handle them well in terms of how Tony's lust for her affects his attitude toward treatment.

    The dream with the shadowy figure is, I think, the most (or only?) terrifying scene in "The Sopranos," like something out of a horror movie. I agree that it could be Livia, as if Tony's decision to "tough it out" without therapy, like the tough immigrant Svetlana, will lead him back to the darkness of the depression and nihilism he inherited from his mother. And there's nothing scarier than that!

    Thank you for this excellent blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I always found the Staircase scene in this episode to be terrifying. I think an idea running through the episode is between the jokey way that some characters treat the afterlife – particularly AJ and Janice – and the real possibility that there are spirits who are haunting them. The ghost of Livia, even if only in Tony’s subconscious, is clearly haunting him, and is something he no longer has Melfi’s help to deal with. As for the wine glass scene – again, it seems to imply that Caren is a spirit that is haunting the Baccalieri household, and one that has recognized the malevolent influence of Janice on her husband and children. I’ve always thought the Sopranos did a good job of taking quite a spiritual world view in this way, while also pointing out some of the problems/hypocrisies of organized religion.

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  8. As far as the Janice wine glass incident – If you notice, they are eating on a mat (notice Bobby’s wine glass and plate are on the same mat). So if the same goes for Janice, then she could have shifted the mat closer to her which would drag the wine glass with it as well.

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    • As much as I am open to many interpretations about any given scene or incident, (especially on The Sopranos, with its central theme of ambiguity) I actually find the idea of the wine glass being moved accidentally by Janice a much more far-fetched idea than it being intentionally put in by Chase & Crew as an indication of something supernatural occurring. This is due to the fact that it occurs in THIS episode, particularly while they are sitting there eating Dead Karens’ ziti. If it had occurred in any other episode, I would assume it was probably a fluke that people were reading too much into….but not during Soprano Spook Fest hour. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Right, but the timing of her hand is too slim for me to believe this. had both hands been present in the scene, then i may agree with you. I doubt that is the case, however. Supernatural themes have been touched before (Paulie and the psychic) but i honestly do not believe this is one of the situations.

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  9. I don’t know whether it has any specific meaning, but in the opening dream sequence, when Tony looks at the back seat the first time, Gloria is sitting next to him. The second time he looks, he has Svetlana next to him.
    Then, when discussing the dream with Dr Melfi, Tony only mentions Carm, Gloria and Ralphie, not Svetlana. Bearing in mind that Svetlana’s impact in the last episode of this series, I doubt that to be a coincidence?
    There is a similar “glitch” in the dream sequence at the end. In the first shot of Tony walking away from the car, he is still wearing the grey shirt he was wearing in the car. In the second shot, he is only wearing a singlet. The former fits in more with Tony’s status of mob boss/businessman. The latter more with a stone mason. Does it indicate that Tony is getting closer to his ancestors, and thus Livia?
    That being said, I generally tend to disagree with the common consensus that Carmine Jr is dumb. Some posts, on Reddit amongst others, claim that Little Carmine might be the one behind the presumed hit on Tony at the end of season 6. I think that is a bit far fetched, but putting Carmine Jr down to an unimportant secondary character, as is often done, equally strikes me as selling the man short. Carmine Jr’s claims to the throne of the Lupertazzi-family is the direct cause for the mayhem in season 5 and 6. So what would those seasons have looked like without him?
    Also, I do find his first appearance in this episode all but lacking intelligence. Looking at the situation from his perspective, he actually strikes me as playing a pretty mean hand of cards.
    He is the only son, and therefore at least a potential heir, to Carmine Sr. Who is running what we, throughout season 3 and 4, have been made to believe is a very profitable business. Carmine Jr can thus be expected to at least consider the possibility of him taking over the reigns one day. The more so as his father is getting of age.
    Except, he very well understands that Johnny Sack can hardly be expected to give him the welcome back long lost son treatment. And he grasps that his leaving New York for Miami has diminished the credibility of his claims to the throne.
    And then no less than the boss of Jersey seeks his help. What better opportunity to create himself a way back into New York and get a strong ally at the same time?
    From that angle, Carmine is actually handling the conversation with Tony very smoothly.
    In the beginning of the episode, we catch Tony saying Silvio that the meeting should look like a coincidence, certainly not like them reaching out. Carmine heads of by saying that he appreciates Tony reaching out to him, letting Tony know that he is on to his game. It’s brought so smoothly that Tony does not even seem to notice how Carmine immediately blows his cover.
    Then Carmines goes on trying to drive a wedge between Tony and Johnny. Obviously for the sake of weakening Johnny’s position and improving his own. Tony however rebukes him and he’s smart enough to not insist at this time. And moves away with, truth be said, a bit of a strange story.
    To finally offer Tony the help he’s looking for, laying down the first potential fundaments for a future partnership.
    Really, all in all, he does not strike me as lacking intelligence. A bit theatrical, bordering on pompous, sure, but dumb not.
    Sorry for a post that ended up longer than anticipated.

    Liked by 1 person

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