James Gandolfini: Barry Wetcher

On ''The Sopranos,'' Tony, near death, dreams about the life he might have led, while everyone else contemplates going on without the head of the family

January 13, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

”The Sopranos”: Tony’s near-death experiences

Let us now praise Sopranos dream sequences.

I’m getting into controversial territory, I know; I wasn’t hooked by the talking fish that heralded Big Pussy’s demise in the final episode of the second season (were you?), nor sold on Tony’s antidepressant-induced fantasy involving a voluptuous Italian guest at the Cusumanos’ place in season 1. But with Tony in a coma (did his girth save his life after all?), the twilight between life and death made vivid in David Chase’s exquisite script became an absorbing, poignant meditation on the path some parallel Tony Soprano might have taken.

What if he were an honest and faithful salesman, missing his wife and kids while on the road? And what if that Dream Tony had his identity snatched out from under him in a businessman’s bar, his life upended in a mix-up of wallets and briefcases? Would Dream Tony accept the identity of ”Kevin Finnerty” — a name with echoes of the infinite beyond — or would he fight to recover ownership of his real self? ”My whole life is in that case,” he says. ”I’m 46 years old. Who am I? Where am I going?”

So much is happening to the soul of one comatose man, and there are so many details to analyze, with Lost-worthy scholarship, for their spiritual and psychological import: Is the blinking beacon that flashes outside the window of Dream Tony’s hotel room God? Or heaven? Are the images of a raging brush fire on the hotel-bar TV screen hell? (That same TV screen throws up the question ”Are sin, disease, and death real?”) Bits of the Tony Soprano we know drift back to us, meanwhile, in the grouper sandwich Dream Tony eats in a bar (a reference to Big Pussy and the fish?) and in the stuffed bear and cutesy sign (”Please ‘bear’ with us”) diverting hotel guests from an out-of-service elevator (a nod to the bears in the Sopranos’ backyard?).

Oh, and here’s some rich irony: While Dream Tony loves his wife too much to be able to cheat on her with a willing stranger, this Kevin Finnerty guy appears to be a business cheat, someone crooked enough to make serene monks mad.

All this imagery is so entrancing that we receive a fabulous jolt when we’re yanked back into the land of the living, with Carmela and the kids and all those whose futures turn on the fate of one fat, unconscious man attached to a breathing tube. The image of a dangling telephone receiver, mottled with Tony’s blood, has become a searing visual symbol of the new season, but I’m just as stirred by the image of Edie Falco’s face in close-up, bare of make-up, as that astonishing actress imbues Carmela with nothing short of greatness in her love — complicated as it is — for her husband. ”You are not going to hell,” she tells him, and in Falco’s showstopping performance, we cling with Carmela to that belief and hope.

Think of the plot tracks The Sopranos has laid in just two episodes: While Tony follows the pull of death and goes deep within himself, everyone he knows on earth begins to lose focus. A.J. — or Van Helsing, as Paulie calls the long-haired kid with the short fuse — is in a dangerous fury. (”I’m gonna put a bullet in [Uncle Junior’s] f—in’ mummy head,” he vows), Meadow begins to reconsider her career goals, and Christopher stews. Paulie and Vito set the stage for what could be a doozy of a competition down the road. (I love the line, but is Vito really witty enough to describe Uncle June as having ”Marvin Gayed his own nephew”?) Bobby Bacala may be turning into the kind of involved, child-oriented daddy that gives child-oriented daddies a bad rep.

The depth of Silvio’s scowl is in direct proportion to the height of his hair. Something’s gonna blow. What do you think that will be?

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