Calling All Cars: “Tony of the Spirits”
By Colin Hart
8.8 / 10
After the freewheeling nature of season three of The Sopranos, season four has felt rather minimal — almost empty, even. Of course, that’s been an intentional aesthetic choice from series creator David Chase, yet one thing that has been noticeably lacking are the series’ more surreal elements. Right on cue, “Calling All Cars” is bookended by two outstanding dream sequences, each one showcasing The Sopranos at its most experimental.
The episode begins with a claustrophobic fantasy in which Tony Soprano is trapped in his father’s car with Ralph Cifaretto, Gloria Trillo and Svetlana Kirilenko, all being driven by Carmela to an unknown destination. A caterpillar crawls across Ralphie’s bald head before morphing into a butterfly.
The lack of dreams has also corresponded with a lack of meaningful therapy sessions between Tony and Dr. Melfi. Thanks to the Fellini-esque opening sequence, they finally have something to talk about. But it’s too little too late for Tony — he storms out on Melfi for what he says will be the final time.
Ever since the beginning, Tony has been unwilling to change, yet “Calling All Cars” is the first episode that he actually admits it. He cites a lack of progress and his problems at work as primary reasons for quitting therapy; however, the real reason is self-resentment — introspection leads only to disgust.
Ralph’s murder obviously still weighs heavy on Tony’s mind, and the potential mob war with New York City that has erupted in its wake has everyone on high alert. At such a crucial juncture, Tony’s leadership skills are badly needed. Regrettably, he continues his loose cannon approach. The nightmares that bookend the episode are proof that he needs therapy now more than ever.
Outside of work, Tony’s brief affair with Svetlana comes to an end. It’s a big deal: the first time he’s ever been dumped by one of his mistresses. Perhaps it’s a necessary blow to Tony’s ego, but it ultimately doesn’t matter because he’ll never change anyways.
Predictably, Melfi tries to persuade Tony into giving therapy another chance, but he is obnoxiously adamant in his decision. Whereas any other psychiatrist would be jumping for joy that such a toxic patient is finally leaving, Melfi is greatly upset … just as she’s been all the other times that Tony has threatened the same. In her own way, she’s just as resistant to change as everyone else in the series. Only she hasn’t admitted it yet.
The rest of the episode — a sub-plot involving Bobby Baccalieri continuously mourning his dead wife, a Ouija board frightening his young kids and a manipulative Janice Soprano forcibly inserting herself into all their lives — is largely forgettable.
Despite the supernatural subject matter, the storyline never rises above surface level. Chase’s decision to show things from the perspectives of the Baccalieri kids is puzzling for sure, but at least the 11-year-old Bobby Jr. is a more respectable character than AJ Soprano, who ruins everything in only a few scenes.
Likewise, Janice is just as self-centered as her brother, but at least her actions in “Calling All Cars” can be considered some of her noblest endeavors. All she wants is a stable relationship, even if she has to resort to reverse psychology and trickery to get it. With a dating record that includes Ralph Cifaretto, Richie Aprile and Aaron Arkaway, we should be commending Janice for her initiative.
By Sopranos standards, the majority of “Calling All Cars” is average, yet the masterful ending makes the entire installment worthwhile. A Lynchian nightmare concludes the episode, unexpectedly becoming the most terrifying scene of the entire series.
In the dream, Ralph leads Tony to an old Southern Colonial mansion. Tony climbs the porch, knocks on the door and peers inside through the screen. At the top of a brightly illuminated staircase stands a motionless, shadowy figure. She slowly descends to the final step, her gaze remaining fixed yet never coming into view. Mysteriously compelled, Tony enters.
This is filmmaking at its finest — the composition is beautiful, the audio is all-encompassing and the dreadful suspense would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. In fact, it’s the most “dreamlike” dream in Sopranos history. We’re right there with Tony, watching the Livia-like specter beckon us inside, the sense of dread palpable.
Unsurprisingly, Tony wakes up in a cold sweat. He stares at himself in a dark mirror before looking outside to the blinding Miami sunlight from his hotel balcony. Although the nightmare is over, Tony’s bad dream never ends. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” sardonically plays over the end credits.
It’s a perfect ending that completely overshadows everything that came before. Even though “Calling All Cars” is somewhat unmemorable, the final minutes are completely unforgettable.
- The opening dream sequence is certainly influenced by the works of Federico Fellini, notably the opening traffic jam sequence of 8 ½. Dr. Melfi suggests that the dream implies that Tony wants to come clean with Carmela about the other passengers in the car (Gloria, Svetlana and Ralph). Another sign that his guilty conscious is causing severe psychological damage.
- A previous season four episode, “Everybody Hurts,” is named after the R.E.M. song of the same name, which just so happens to also pay homage to 8½ in its music video.
- Tony heads down to Miami to meet with Beansy and arrange a sit-down with “Little” Carmine Lupertazzi Jr. in the hopes of avoiding a war with NYC. Back in New Jersey, tensions are growing because Johnny Sacrimoni and Carmine Lupertazzi Sr. want in on Tony’s HUD scam. Meanwhile, Johnny plays the dimwitted Paulie off both sides.
- Apparently, Carmela’s father, Hugh, saw Connie Francis at the local hardware store.
- AJ and his girlfriend play a prank on the Baccalieri kids, which ends up being another cringeworthy moment for everyone’s least favorite Soprano. The scene is redeemed by Bobby Baccala Jr. punching AJ before being restrained by his father.
- Director Tim Van Patten zooms in on AJ’s face before cutting to another scene. It’s a questionable directorial choice that sticks out like a sore thumb.
- “Calling All Cars” was written by David Chase, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, David Flebotte and Terence Winter and directed by Tim Van Patten.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
- “Freud says, ‘dreams are wishes.’”
- “Fuck the dream. It’s just a dream.”
- “How would you like it if little Oriental kids were making fun of you?”
- “I’m a fat fucking crook from New Jersey.”