Directed by Alan Coulter | Written by Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess | 47 min
A Different Kind of Surrealism
By Colin Hart
9.4 / 10
The few detractors of The Sopranos call into question the show’s frequent pit-stops 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 with your traditional mob thrills.
I do have a bias in favor of surrealism that I must come clean with—in art, in music, in film and, the rare case here, television. Big fan of Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo, huge supporter of Sun Ra and Trout Mask Replica, and I worship at the altar of Lynch and Fellini. Don’t even get me started on Luis Bunuel.
Dream sequences have always been common in TV, mostly as an easy way to provide subtext, but rarely does TV lend itself to outright surrealism. Of course, the David Lynch-helmed Twin Peaks is the most famous example, but The Sopranos reaches high watermarks in this area too.
David Lynch certainly has the modern-day trademark on weird and spooky meta-shit, which makes it hard to come up with something that is both surreal and unique nowadays. It’s easy to dub most any surreal dream-sequence in TV or film to be Lynchian. However, David Chase and The Sopranos manage to craft a unique brand of subconscious showmanship with nary a rip-off in sight.
The Sopranos’ earlier dream sequences could probably be called Lynchian, but “Isabella” and other surreal Sopranos classics like “Funhouse” and “The Test Dream” 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. There aren’t any dancing midgets or anthropomorphic rabbits, but there is a decidedly uneasy atmosphere.
Since the events of last episode, Tony has gone into a depressive state. He remains in bed and mentions suicide a couple of times, which prompts Melfi to up his dosage of lithium. From his bedroom window, Tony sees an Italian stunner in the Cusamano’s backyard. He goes over to meet her and is benumbed by her busty physique, her broken English and her long black curls. Isabella tells him that she is a foreign-exchange dental student.
In a separate encounter, Tony takes her out to lunch and, while enraptured with her words, has a vision of her in a house in the old country, a newborn baby suckling at her breast. A strangely beautiful scene, a subconscious hallucination stemming from his own mother’s lack of love.
The big shock is that the whole thing was just a subconscious hallucination—Isabella and his time spent with her were all in his head. Tony, and the audience, doesn’t find this out until the end of the episode, when Tony’s neighbor Cooze mentions that there never was an Isabella. Even a scene earlier in the episode, in which Carmela saw Isabella and made a comment about her, is rendered null and void as she denies it ever having happened.
The key component that gives The Sopranos its own signature brand of surrealism is the fact that the surreal scenes feel very “lived in”. This is obvious in “Isabella,” as we are fooled into believing that Tony’s fantasy was actually reality. The later dream episodes will retain this naturalistic quality, while also being a tad more obtuse and filmic.
The wind blows heavily in the background throughout the episode, carrying the surreal qualities of Dream Land into reality. The main mob action holds 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 connects the “feel” of both worlds seamlessly and it is part of what makes this episode so great.
While Tony is busy sleepwalking through his daydreams, Uncle Junior—at behest of mother Livia—has ordered the hit on his own nephew. Typical of The Sopranos, the two African Americans who are hired to do the job fail miserably and hysterically. Even the depressed Tony cracks a laugh as he escapes the assassination plot, but not before he crashes his car and ends up in the hospital.
In the hospital, the feds and Agent Harris briefly talk to Tony and Carmela regarding a possible witness-protection deal. It is a great scene, once again underlying Family and family. The exchanges between Tony and Carm are perfect: “I took an oath, Carm.” “What are you, some kid in a treehouse?”
The therapy scenes also remain top-notch, as 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 attempted hit on his life has fueled Tony 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 “Isabella” is quite simply the most gorgeously rendered episode of season one.
- The fact that Isabella is just a dream-figment is subtly established early on. If you’ll remember back to “Down Neck,” Tony takes his Prozac, looks into the mirror, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” comes on the soundtrack and Tony flashes back into his childhood. A similar occurrence happens in “Isabella”—Tony takes his increased dosage of lithium, looks in the mirror and “Tiny Tears” by Tindersticks comes on the soundtrack. A hazy-faced Tony sits on the bathtub, a psychedelic vibe in the air. It is in the next scene that 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.
- When Carmela sees Isabella—which we now know was just a dream—she threatens to cut his dick off. Carmela often fires back with snappy retorts, but one this extreme should be another tip-off that this is Tony’s imagination. Not to mention the Freudian castration-anxiety implications.
- Good soundtrack selections here. Aside from the Tindersticks popping up thrice, 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!)
- “Thousand bucks for Honus Wagner and jack shit for Jesus.”
- “If I had an ounce of self-respect, I’d cut your dick off.”