“Calling All Cars” Review
“Tony of the Spirits”
After the freewheeling nature of season three of The Sopranos, season four has felt rather minimal. I’d even say that the storylines have felt somewhat empty, as if the growing malaise is quietly effecting everyone and everything. 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 Ralph’s bald head before morphing into a butterfly. Sounds of screaming and anguish can be heard in the background.
It’s a salient way to open the episode — an artful flourish that immediately grabs our attention. It’s also the first time we’ve been inside Tony’s subconscious since “Everybody Hurts” (and his most distinctive hallucination since “Funhouse”). The lack of dreams in season four has corresponded with a lack of meaningful therapy sessions between Tony and Dr. Melfi, so naturally the next scene is an extended session in which the Fellini-esque fantasy is analyzed. But it’s too little too late for Tony — he’s sick of their familiar song-and-dance routine and storms out of Melfi’s office for what he claims will be the final time.
Once again, he’s done with therapy. But isn’t that another song-and-dance that’s also becoming tedious?
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 and fakes a feud with Carmine Lupertazzi and Johnny Sacrimoni in order to hide Ralph’s death from his crew. 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, which is also a big deal: it’s 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 — as he readily admits — 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 like 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 subplot 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 somewhat removed from the mafia storyline. Nevertheless, it’s still a (relatively) touching coming-of-age fable about moving on from a dead relative.
The storyline is mostly told from the perspectives of the young Baccalieri kids, which may seem strange at first but only adds to the universal lesson being taught. It also helps that the 11-year-old Bobby Jr. is contrasted with the 17-year-old AJ Soprano, who comes across as nothing more than a selfish spoiled brat (an evergreen description of his character moving forward). Bobby Jr. and his father will forever be more respectable than AJ and Tony.
The supernatural subject matter fits right in with the surreal dream sequences (and is a nice callback to past spooky episodes like “From Where to Eternity” and “Proshai, Livushka”) but exists to differentiate two psychological approaches: Janice’s idea that “the dead have nothing to say to us” and Tony’s fear of being haunted by the dead at all times. Whereas Tony resigns himself to forever being “a miserable prick,” Janice is actively trying to change her life for the better.
Even though Janice is just as self-centered as her brother, her actions in “Calling All Cars” are some of her noblest endeavors. All she wants is a stable relationship with a “good” man, even if she has to resort to manipulation and reverse psychology to get it. Sure, she uses the ghost of the late Mrs. Baccalieri to her advantage, but she also helps Bobby work up the courage to finally eat his wife’s last batch of baked ziti. With a dating record that includes Ralph Cifaretto and Richie Aprile, we should be commending Janice for her initiative.
By Sopranos standards, the majority of “Calling All Cars” is another “nothing happens” affair, 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. The fact that we are thrust into the scene without warning only amplifies the overwhelming feeling of foreboding.
In the dream, a bald 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 petrifying suspense would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. In fact, it’s the most realistic 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 brings a sense of finality to an otherwise sedate installment. We’re reminded that season four is almost over and the overall sense of stagnation can explode into something shocking at any moment. Of course, season four has also made a point to purposely ignore audience expectations. Similar to how the surrealism takes us by surprise, the final two episodes of the season will also be something we can’t anticipate.
For now, it’s best to just enjoy “Calling All Cars” for what it is: a very unique chapter of The Sopranos that reveals its mysteries through rich symbolism and rewards upon repeated viewings.
- 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, Florida 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 Sack and Carmine Sr. want in on Tony’s HUD scam. Meanwhile, Johnny continues to play the dimwitted Paulie off both sides (which Tony and Silvio begin to suspect).
- This is the first time we’re introduced to Little Carmine, the spoiled heir to the NYC throne. He talks in malapropisms, always tries to sound intelligent and is unintentionally one of the funniest characters on the show. An example of Little Carmine trying to impart a business analogy to Tony: “I am reminded of Louis the Whatever’s finance minister … De something. He built this chateau. Nicole and I saw it when we went to Paris. It even outshone Ver-sales, where the king lived.”
- 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. The scene isn’t all that important, so why call so much attention to it?
- The final dream parallels Tony’s coma in the beginning of season six. Once again, he finds himself at an old house being beckoned in by a Livia-like specter who symbolizes darkness and death.
- The ending scene, with a panicked Tony being overwhelmed by the bright sunlight, parallels the ending of “Whoever Did This.” No matter the location, he can’t escape his inner demons.
- “Calling All Cars” was written by series creator 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.”