“The Sopranos Reinvent Surrealism”
Apprehensive viewers of The Sopranos might call into question the show’s frequent detours into Tony’s dreams (especially in later seasons). I can understand where some of these views come from, but personally I’m a big fan of this aspect. They go a long way in expanding the scope of the show, tossing in a little metaphysical voodoo to go along with your traditional mob thrills.
Dream sequences have always been common in TV, mostly as an easy way to provide psychological subtext, yet rarely does TV lend itself to outright surrealism. Of course, Twin Peaks is the notable exception, but The Sopranos is another series that has avant-garde ambitions.
Because David Lynch owns the monopoly on modern-day dream sequences, it’s hard to come up with something that is both surreal and unique. However, David Chase and The Sopranos are able to craft a one-of-a-kind brand of subconscious showmanship with nary a rip-off in sight.
Even though some of The Sopranos‘ earlier dream sequences could be dubbed as “Lynchian,” the dreams depicted in “Isabella” have their own signature touch. The trick is that the dream sequences are based in realism. The dreamers don’t act any differently than they would in the waking world, and so the otherworldly quality has a grounding in reality.
Since the events of last episode, Tony has gone into a depressive state. He spends his days in bed and mentions suicide more than once, which prompts Melfi to increase his dosage of lithium. The only thing that can rouse him out of bed is the foreign-exchange student who is staying next-door at the Cusamano house. Tony goes over to meet her and is benumbed by her busty physique, her broken English and her long black curls.
In a separate encounter, Tony takes Isabella out to lunch and, enraptured by her beauty, has a fleeting vision of her in an old country house in Italy, a newborn baby suckling at her breast. The scene is strangely awe-inspiring, a subconscious hallucination stemming from his own mother’s lack of love.
The big shock is that the entire thing was just a subconscious hallucination — Isabella is only a figment of Tony’s imagination. Even a scene earlier in the episode, in which Carmela made a comment about seeing Isabella, is rendered null and void when she denies it ever having happened. Everything took place in his mind.
Throughout the episode, the wind blows heavily in the background, carrying the surreal qualities of Tony’s dreams into reality. The main mob storyline carries the same askew atmosphere we see in the scenes with Isabella, and it’s all gorgeously rendered by director Alan Coulter (director of “College” and, later, “The Test Dream”). He seamlessly connects the “feel” of both worlds, part of what makes this episode so great.
While Tony is busy sleepwalking through his daydreams, Uncle Junior — at the behest of Livia — has ordered an assassination on his own nephew. Typical of The Sopranos, the two black hitmen who are hired to do the job fail miserably and hysterically. Even the depressed Tony cracks a laugh as he escapes his would-be assailants, but not before he crashes his own car.
At the hospital, Agent Harris briefly talks to Tony and Carmela about a potential witness-protection deal. It’s another great scene, once again underlying Tony’s two families. The exchanges between Tony and his wife are perfect.
“I took an oath, Carm.”
“What are you, some kid in a treehouse?”
The therapy scenes also remain top-notch. We get to chart Tony’s emotional path throughout the episode — from severely depressed (“I’m like King Midas in reverse. Everything I touch turns to shit”) to having a newfound lust for life (“You know, when I was depressed, I said I didn’t wanna live. Well, I’ll tell you something. I didn’t want to die. Every fuckin’ particle of my being was fightin’ to live”). The attempt on Tony’s life has fueled him with a new sense of purpose, and he anxiously awaits the moment of reckoning as the episode closes.
“Isabella” is largely a meditative episode, but it closes with Tony — and the viewers — amped up for the carnage that’s about to go down in the finale. A calm before the storm is necessary, and the episode carries a captivating sense of calmness that we quite frankly don’t see too often in modern television.
When it comes to surrealism, “Isabella” is one of the most original installments in TV history.
- The fact that Isabella is just a figment of Tony’s imagination is subtly established early on. If you’ll remember back to “Down Neck,” Tony takes his Prozac, looks into the mirror and flashes back to his childhood as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” fills the soundtrack. A similar occurrence happens in “Isabella” — Tony takes his increased dosage of lithium, looks in the mirror and “Tiny Tears” by Tindersticks plays in the background. A hazy-faced Tony sits on the bathtub, a psychedelic vibe in the air. In the next scene, he sees Isabella outside his window.
- Also, later in the episode, Tony goes up to bed right before another Isabella scene, implying that it all happened while dreaming. However, the episode never confirms if it happens during Tony’s naps or during a drug-induced daydream.
- When Carmela sees Isabella — which we now know was just a dream — she threatens to cut Tony’s dick off. Carmela often fires back with snappy retorts, but one so extreme should be another tip-off that this is part of Tony’s imagination. Not to mention the Freudian castration-anxiety implications.
- Uncle Junior begins to grow frantic after the assassination attempt on his nephew fails. Meanwhile, Livia “conveniently” begins to exhibit signs of memory loss, unable to recognize Meadow during a family gathering. Looking back on it, the fact that Tony’s own mother and uncle are trying to kill him explains why he is the way he is for the rest of the series. You simply can’t recover from that.
- Good soundtrack selections here. Aside from the Tindersticks, we also get some background Al Di Meola (luncheon Latin-fusion!), and we close the episode with Cream’s “I Feel Free” (soulful psychedelic fuzz!)
- As Tony is shot at by the hitmen, he doesn’t seem to notice until a split second after it happens. A bullet is fired through the orange juice that he’s holding (homage to The Godfather), and he reacts in slo-mo. This potentially foreshadows the final scene of the series, namely the cut-to-black — does Tony die at the end? Death happens so fast that you don’t even see it coming.
- “Isabella” was written by Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess and directed by Allen Coulter.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “Thousand bucks for Honus Wagner and jack shit for Jesus.”
- “If I had an ounce of self-respect, I’d cut your dick off.”