Blundetto is acting a little rattled after attacking a New York capo.
A long, strange dream helps Tony figure some stuff out.
Episode 64 – Originally aired May 16, 2004
Written by David Chase and Matthew Weiner
Directed by Allen Courlter
Oh man, how to begin? How does one analyze an episode that defies analysis? Many viewers found “The Test Dream” to be a test of their patience (and perhaps that is exactly what Chase meant it to be). I found it to be a wild and wonderful hour, one that is best enjoyed if you just sit back and let it play out without overthinking it. I believe—though I’m not sure—that the episode’s detractors were in the minority. (I think the majority of Sopranos viewers understood by now that we could expect some serious weirdness from David Chase every now and then.) Most of the detractors had a problem with the running time of the extended dream sequence, if not the sheer strangeness of it. Some also thought that the long dream sequence was simply a way to fill time this season. I’ve never understood this “filler” argument. Why would Chase and his team “fill” time with a complicated dream sequence that is possibly more difficult to write, film, and edit? I know that filler moments may very well exist in The Sopranos—after all, David and his team are only human, subject to fatigue, frustration, and boredom just like everyone else. But I don’t think anything in this episode is merely filler. That being said, I do have a major gripe with the dream sequence, but I’ll get to that later. Let me start off by ignoring my own advice—let me, as usual, overthink this hour.
Even though the dream sequence dominates all discussions about this episode, Chase’s foray into Tony’s subconscious doesn’t actually begin until we’re about 20 minutes into the hour. The episode begins with a shot of Tony grunting and sweating his way through sex, and for a moment we might think that it is Carmela wriggling beneath him. But the William Wegman prints on the wall are a giveaway that this is Valentina’s home. After their lovemaking, Valentina goes to the kitchen to cook up some Eggbeaters with Tabasco. In a cruel irony, she turns her attention away from the stove to complain about Tony’s lack of attention to her, and that inattention causes her kimono catches on fire. Tony quickly douses the flames. In a clever cut, the camera lingers on Valentina’s blaring smoke alarm and then cuts to Blundetto exhaling smoke and dousing his cigarette:
Angelo Garepe comes by the gambling den that Blundetto is running to give him a signboard that reads “Because I’m the Boss…That’s Why!” Afterwards, he goes to buy a toy, possibly for his grandchild (we might remember from a previous episode that Angelo enjoys being a grandfather). On the way home he gets pulled over by the Leotardo brothers, Billy and Phil. The imagery of Angelo being murdered in the trunk of Phil’s car is indelible: Angelo begs for his life behind a bloodied plastic wrap before Phil ruthlessly sinks two bullets into him. But the scene is also notable because it is almost certainly making a reference to the killing of Billy Batts in the movie GoodFellas. (Frank Vincent plays the whacker now but he was the whackee in film.)
Tony’s new Guatemalan housekeeper frustrates the hell out of him. After she throws out his newspaper, he decides to escape to the Plaza Hotel for a few days. It turns out to be a momentous decision—as the walls start to close in on his cousin Blundetto, Tony is living across the river in NYC, making it more difficult for him to get a handle on the worsening situation.
Some of Chase’s tracking shots at the Plaza Hotel reminded me of Kubrick’s camerawork at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. But I don’t necessarily think that Chase is making a conscious reference to Kubrick’s film. The real parallel between this episode and The Shining may be the staggering amount of “armchair analysis” that viewers have done for both of these works. (For an interesting chronicle of the various theories and interpretations that some hardcore Shining fans have come up with, see the documentary Room 237.)
Some viewers speculated that Chase was using the Plaza as a sort of stand-in for heaven or purgatory or something metaphysical like that. Others found it noteworthy that the Plaza is the place where Carmela and Meadow have their annual tea. I think the greatest significance of the Plaza may have more to do with the concept of luxury, for which the hotel has a worldwide reputation. Tony Soprano has become accustomed to a comfortable, even luxurious, lifestyle and he gets frustrated now by the most minor inconveniences. Most of us would not get so flustered to find that our housekeeper has tossed out our newspaper with the trash, but it sends Tony packing for the Plaza. (We might remember that his disproportionate, angry responses to inconvenience and frustration was the main subject of the previous episode.) At the upscale hotel, we see several images of Tony pampering and indulging himself. He enjoys a sumptuous meal and the stately bed in his swanky room. He helps himself to a neighboring guest’s newspaper, and even gives some thought to helping himself to his buddy’s wife. (He doesn’t speak, however, when Charmaine answers his phone call.)
While Tony indulges and insulates himself at the hotel, bad things are happening back in mob-land. He returns to his room to find a message from Silvio that Angelo Garepe has been killed. He immediately starts calling around trying to locate Blundetto. Neither Dot nor Aunt Quinn nor Paulie know where Blundetto is. As soon as Tony ends the phone call to Paulie, another luxurious indulgence beckons him, drawing his attention away from the serious matter at hand:
The next shot, unsurprisingly, finds Tony laying in bed. What is surprising is when a woman’s voice offers Tony oral sex and he turns to find—holy shit!—Carmine Lupertazzi laying in bed next to him. This is our entry into dream-land. For the next 20 minutes, we are showered with a surreal cornucopia of images, sounds, references and allusions. The Sopranos has always been a very referential show; years before this episode aired, David Pattie wrote in his essay, “Mobbed Up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film,” that the series is…
…supersaturated with intertextual references to literature, culture, television and, of course, the modern gangster film…These references are neither deeply embedded nor diffuse; they are obsessively foregrounded.
“The Test Dream” is super-supersaturated with cultural references (including references to previous Sopranos episodes). And this is my biggest gripe with the dream sequence. It sacrifices texture for the sake of intertextuality. The 20-minute sequence just doesn’t feel very dream-like to me. It seems more like some kind of carnivalesque cultural literacy test—“Step right up folks, figure out 10 of the references and win a stuffed bear!” I wouldn’t even bother to make this criticism if this was another TV show (especially if that show had the stugots to do something as bold and audacious as this dream sequence), but I raise the criticism here because The Sopranos is usually so exceptionally good at recreating the tone and texture of events, whether it is a therapy session or a backyard barbecue or a parent-teacher conference. Texture is particularly important in dreams because it is that ineffable texture, at least in my experience, that truly differentiates a dream from waking life. It is the impression made by a dream’s texture that often haunts me after I wake, usually far more than whatever “plot” the dream may have had…
Perhaps my complaint about the dream comes out of the fact that I was one of those people that totally missed the “plot” of the dream when it first aired. I think I was too caught up in trying to unravel the meaning of all the overlapping references and startling images and overlaid sound effects that I missed the simple point: Tony’s subconscious is telling him that he needs to whack Blundetto. The next day, after reading on various online forums that this was the whole “purpose” of the dream, I went back to my DVR (or was it my VCR?) and re-watched the episode. And yup, this dream is all about Tony subconsciously preparing for what he must do to Blundetto. (This is the “test” referred to in the episode title which Tony must pass.)
Of course, the dream may be pointing to other stuff besides Blundetto’s ultimate demise. It’s possible to read a lot into the dream sequence because almost every moment within it feels loaded with significance. (Some of the moments outside the dream seem significant also—the hotel porter is named “Jesus,” for Christ’s sake.) I’m not gonna spend much time listing every interesting little moment within the dream, but there were a couple of things that stood out for me, for one reason or another:
- The Chinatown clip caught my eye (mainly because Chinatown is one of my top 5 favorite films, but also because the jab that Angelo makes about Rusty fucking his wife in installments sounds a lot like the “Chinaman” joke that Jake Gittes makes in the film).
- The clip from High Noon is interesting in that it is the only time (I think) that Gary Cooper is visually referenced in the series.
- Some dream interpretation guidebooks say that if your teeth fall out in your dream, it indicates you are worried about losing power. Tony may certainly have this worry, but I think that his brain may also be making some connection to dental-student Finn. Sven Weber points out in his essay, “The Sopranos Asleep,” that there might also be some subconscious connection to dental-student Isabella, who appeared in Tony’s hallucinations in episode 1.12. (I think Isabella is a key figure of the series, but I’ll get into that next season.)
- There is a shot of a tree being rustled by wind just after Phil Leotardo gets shot in the dream. Tree/wind imagery is a vital motif of the series, one whose significance gets more established in the next episode, “Long Term Parking.”
- The scene of Tony getting chased by an “angry mob” looks like something out of a Frankenstein film, but it could be a punning reference to the NJ and NY “mob” that is made angry by Blundetto’s actions.
- There is a too-complicated-to-explain interconnection made between Manhattan horse-and-carriage rides, Pie-O-My the horse, whores, and Charmaine Bucco. (“She likes it when you rub her muzzle,” Artie says as Tony pumps his wife.)
- It was strange to see John Heard (“Det. Vin Makazian”) appear here as Finn’s father. (I remember reading somewhere that Chase cast Heard for the role simply because he missed working with him.)
- It was also strange to see Annette Bening appear here as Finn’s mother.
Bening is playing herself (“You’re Annette Bening,” Tony says to her) and so her appearance has a similar effect as those earlier Season 5 celebrity appearances (found mostly in episode 5.04 “All Happy Families”)—it points to the fictional nature of The Sopranos and the self-awareness that the series has of itself as a fiction. (The fact that Bening occasionally looks into the camera serves to further break down the fictional “fourth wall.”) Most TV shows go to great lengths to help their viewers “suspend their disbelief” in order to make their fictional, created worlds seem more believable. But Chase, with a wink, actually makes a concerted effort here to call attention to the fact that SopranoWorld is a make-believe world, a production for TV. Sven Weber notes in his essay that this episode “displays elements that reflect on its own constructedness as a product of television.” These elements include: the presence of several TV sets within the dream, one of which displays Tony’s life in “real time”; an on-the-street interview (conducted by Gloria Trillo) much like ones found on live TV news programs; and the weird “mirroring” of the studio set in which Tony has sex with Charmaine:
Another self-referential characteristic of this dream is how it refers to previous Sopranos dream-sequences, most notably a sequence from Season 4. In “Calling All Cars,” Tony dreamt of himself as a stonemason who was driven to a masonry job. In the current episode, Ralphie tells Tony that he is being driven to a “job” (the job now is ostensibly to kill Blundetto, not do masonry). The vehicle and the rear projection footage are the same as what appeared in the “Calling All Cars” dream (although the color-grading has changed and Ralph’s hairstyle is different):
One of the moments of greatest self-reflexivity within the dream is when Blundetto finishes Phil Leotardo off with an invisible gun. Though it is an imaginary trigger that he squeezes, we still hear the real sound of real shells falling to the ground—and the sound serves to underscore just how much of SopranoWorld is actually fabricated in post-production. Any remaining illusion of fictionality is dispensed with when Frank Vincent, the actor who plays Phil Leotardo, lifts his head to ask, “What do I gotta count to before can I get up?” I think one reason why Chase uses these self-reflexive moments is to revolt against TV conventions. He is resisting the leash that some viewers want to put on him. David Chase knows that some viewers would think of “The Test Dream” as a breach of the “contract” that stipulates he must entertain us every week in an easy-to-understand manner. By revealing the show to be a construction, he makes the point that the terms of any such contract are also a construction. As viewers, we may have certain boilerplate expectations of how a television series is supposed to operate. But Chase makes his own terms.
Although the dream-sequence didn’t feel quite like a dream to me, the final scene of the hour, after Tony wakes, ironically does have a very dream-like quality. Tony looks out at Manhattan/Central Park from his window, ghostly and diaphanous in the light of dawn. He pulls the thin curtain over the cityscape, making the view even more ethereal, before he picks up the phone to call Carmela:
The phone call also has a diaphanous quality, there is a gauzy, delicate tenderness in their conversation. Tony and Carmela know one another, even the silences in their conversation convey a deep understanding of each other. There is love and comfort and compassion between them, opaque and unspoken but growing more discernible with each passing minute, like something materializing out of the haze of a dream. As Tony and Carmela speak to one another, we recognize that they are pulling themselves closer to a full reconciliation. And this may be one of the more underappreciated reasons why Chase decided to throw in such a hallucinatory dream-sequence here: the troubling dream inches Tony and Carmela closer to the restoration of their marriage, an event that the narrative has been moving toward all season long. Many viewers predicted at the start of the season that Carmela would end up back with Tony. But no one could have predicted that their path to reconciliation would include such an extraordinary episode along the way.
PLUMBING The DEPTHS of The SUBCONSCIOUS MIND
My favorite part of the dream might be at the end of the sequence when Tony has a confrontation with Coach Molinaro. There are all kinds of things going on here that a Freudian analyst might have a field day with. Molinaro is an imposing Father/Authority figure (and a recurring character in Tony’s dreams, as we learn in his conversation with Carmela). The gun that Tony pulls out while stalking the coach can obviously be read as a phallic symbol, and Molinaro even refers to it as “a bigger dingus than the one God gave you.” (That the coach would call it a “dingus” rather than a “cock” or a “beef bazooka” or something else somehow seems perfect.) The bullets that melt in Tony’s fingers seem to reflect his fear of being impotent, unable to perform in the test that he is now facing. Tony’s subconscious is working overtime to tell him that he needs to find a way to control his cousin Blundetto.
David Chase has utilized Tony’s subconscious to provide revelations and to advance the narrative before, perhaps most notably in “Funhouse” (2.13) when a series of dreams unveiled Pussy’s betrayal to Tony. Televisual storytelling has been around for several decades now and many of TV’s traditional methods of spinning a yarn are aging and wearing thin. Chase’s use of the subconscious to help tell a story is an innovative technique within an old craft. Not all viewers, however, are thrilled by this innovation.
In an interview with Martha Nochimson (Dying to Belong) conducted about 18 months after “The Test Dream” aired, David Chase emphasized the psychological nature of The Sopranos in order to justify the lengthy dream sequences. (Although the series kicked off in a psychiatrist’s office, many viewers tend to overlook the importance of Chase’s psychological investigations into his characters.) Martha may have been thinking of this episode’s dream sequence when she asked him a question:
Martha: Tony’s dreams are increasingly full of allusions to movies and television. Are Tony’s dreams becoming a dead end for him because they’re over-influenced by the media?
Chase: No. People’s dreams don’t become a dead end. That’s the part of you that never becomes a dead end. I don’t see the difference whether the media gets into your dreams or a potato sandwich does. Or your mother. Who knows why things— Whether it all means anything, I don’t know.
I don’t know either. (Nor do I know what a “potato sandwich” is. Is it a potato between two slices of bread? Is this a New Jersey thing?) I’m not sure that it is possible to clearly uncover the meaning of dreams and that’s why I am not doing a deep deconstruction of this hour’s dream-sequence. I would refer those who do want such an interpretation to an essay that is well-known within Sopranos fandom, “Tony’s Vicarious Patricide,” by Elizabeth Lowrey (who runs the Chase Lounge website). The essay is not specifically about “The Test Dream” but a section of it is devoted to the episode because the hour figures heavily in her thesis about Tony Soprano. Lowrey employs her great powers of observation to bolster her sharp arguments. For example, she suggests that it is possible that Tony may harbor a subconscious desire to flip for the Feds and she cites the relevant dream-images:
- We see at one point that Tony’s tie has been cut in half—perhaps signifying that T wants to “cut ties” with the mob
- The Valachi Papers that Tony refers to as his “homework” is about a real-life mobster that became a federal informant
- The “flipped-image” that occurs as Tony makes love to Charmaine (see my pics above) may signify T’s desire to flip to the other team
I really appreciate how Lowrey doesn’t try to ram her arguments down our throats but instead draws us in with concise, intelligent prose. But I think she goes a little too far in some of her explanations and symbol-translations. Although she recognizes that symbols can have several interpretations, she goes on to make arguments that often require fairly strict readings of certain symbols for her conclusions to be valid. I think that David Chase is just too much of a poet to create such sharply defined symbols. His symbols and associations are often mythic rather than specific. Charles Harris writes in his book, Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth, that “the problem of the mythopoeic writer is how to translate mythic intimations, which are finally ineffable, into words capable of evoking that which may not be translated.” I think David Chase, like the novelist John Barth, wants to tap into something that is deep within ourselves and deep within the collective unconscious. It is something mysterious and evocative and difficult to explain. Chase dives into the well of Tony’s memories, into archetypes, into history, pop culture, films and fairytales here to fashion an hour that is cryptic and profuse and complicated but an hour that we nevertheless can intuitively grasp. Meanings are barely uncovered and significances are only hinted at, but we instinctually understand. Chase is the mythopoeic artist who bestows us with work that doesn’t need to be fully explained in order to be fully understood.
Much of this episode takes place within Tony’s subconscious mind, but Chase (as usual) attempts to reach deep into our minds as well through various arrangements of sounds and images. In one possible example, the red flashing light on the answering machine (which holds the message that Angelo has been whacked) might register subconsciously as an echo of the red flashing light on the smoke alarm seen earlier in the episode:
And we might remember that at the beginning of the episode, Chase cut from the bellowing smoke alarm to Blundetto exhaling smoke:
Through a kind of subconscious “transitive property” calculation, some viewers might have been able to make a mental connection between the message about Garepe’s death and Tony Blundetto. Or to put it more syllogistically:
- If the blinking answering machine can be equated with the blinking smoke alarm;
- And the smoke alarm can be equated with Tony Blundetto;
- Then the answering machine can be equated with Tony Blundetto.
I’m just having a bit of fun with this, I don’t truly believe that Chase was setting up a subconscious equation for us to solve here. When this episode first aired, I certainly didn’t make a connection between the message on the answering machine and Tony Blundetto. (Tony Soprano, however, does make the connection: after hearing the message, he immediately realizes that Blundetto might seek vengeance for the murder of his buddy Angelo). I just threw this out there to demonstrate a possible way that an individual viewer might make a connection that no one else makes. Perception and interpretation can be intensely personal acts. If “The Test Dream” shows us anything, it may be that our understanding of a work of art, like our understanding of a dream, is deeply personal and influenced by mysterious, hidden processes. There might be a specific, symbolic reason why Carmine Lupertazzi shows up in Tony’s dream to offer him a blow-job, but I’m perfectly content not knowing what that reason is. I’ll just chalk it up to the mystery of art.
- Angelo’s gift—the board reading “Because I’m the Boss…That’s Why!”—may remind Blundetto just how much he lost during his 17 years in prison. He is intelligent, decisive and cold-blooded enough to have perhaps become the Boss of the NJ famiglia. Perhaps he realizes this and it pushes him now to behave like his own boss, one who marches to the beat of his own drum as he whacks NY guys against Tony Soprano’s wishes.
- Karma on the radio? Angelo is listening to “Peanuts” by Frankie Valli just before he is killed. Angelo and Rusty Millio—played by Frankie Valli—together engineered the killing of Joey Peeps, and this is the reason why Phil pops Angelo now. (An irony of Angelo’s death is that he had really come to regret putting out the hit on Joey Peeps.)
- Poor you. Phil is upset that his car got a little banged up during the assassination of Angelo. We remember, of course, that Phil had a bit of work done on the car at Angie’s body shop just a couple of episodes ago.
- Blundetto’s attack on the Leotardo brothers (where he kills Billy and wings Philly) is not seen here but it will be shown via flashback in the next episode.
- Speaking of the next episode, the Plaza’s parking attendant here asks Tony if he wants to put the Escalade in short or long term parking. “Long Term Parking” will be one of the most stirring episodes of the entire series…