Friday, May 21, 2004

Dream a Little Dream: Judging from what I've read and heard here and there, a lot of folks were disappointed by the extended dream sequence in last Sunday's episode of The Sopranos. Some thought it was overly pretentious, or gimmicky, or simply inane. They're wrong; it was, in fact, a very daring piece of drama.

Generally, when an extended dream sequence appears in drama, it is wholly self-indulgent and laced with bizarre imagery that has little or no reason for existing other than the writers were running out of ideas and sat around and said, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if..." You get a bunch of strange images and possibly even psychedelic special effects and in the end, all you come away with is a wasted third act and a few stills that look cool in promotional commercials. Not so in this case. This dream sequence was outstanding for the exact reason that despite having logical incoherency, it was completely coherent dramatically.

The main theme snaking through the whole thing was Tony's knowledge that he will, in all likelihood, have to whack is lifelong friend, Tony B. This is an enormous conflict for Tony, not just because the characters are so close, but because of the guilt he feels over Tony B.'s long incarceration which he simply lucked out of because of his own flawed psyche. In his vain, subconscious attempts to justify his upcoming evil work as necessary or unavoidable, we get an extended tour of Tony's character.

First, Tony finds himself in bed with the deceased Carmine, who states that he is suffering in the afterlife, and tells Tony he's got a job for him; the implication is that he must whack Tony B. Carmine is representative of the time when there was an orderly relationship with the New York family. This indicates to Tony that this is the way to restore things back to the way they were. Message: Whacking Tony B. is required to prevent an inter-family war hanging over everyone's head. You have no choice.

Suddenly Tony is talking to his shrink except his shrink is not Dr. Melfi, but his mother (who Tony blames for his hateful life), represented by Annabella Sciorra, one of Tony's mistresses from an earlier season. After some odd dialogue she poignantly says she died before she could have children. Message: You want to blame the need to kill your best friend on your mother, but how long can you continue to do that now that she's dead.

After a few more scenes, his children come into play. Tony's teeth are falling out and he needs a dentist, and we are presented with Meadows fiance, Finn (an aspiring dentist). Does Tony draw a parallel between rescuing his lost teeth and Finn rescuing his daughter from her mob background? But then Finn's parents accuse Finn of slackerhood and Tony is put in mind of AJ. Message: Your kids are still depending on you for survival and welfare. You can't let things get out of control for their sake as much as yours.

Tony is distracted by Finn's parents. His father is a corrupt cop who Tony used in n earlier season. His mother is Annette Benning (played by Annette Benning). Tony and Finn's father leave to hit the bathroom. Both Carmella and Annette Benning mention that they don't want their husband to "come out of there with just his c*ck in their hand" and when Tony enters a stall he checks for a hidden gun in the toilet, just like Michael Corleone, but there is none - all this is, of course, a reference to The Godfather. Later in the sequence Finn's father asks Tony about the job he has to do (whacking Tony B.). Tony says he's done his homework and pulls out a copy of the Valachi Papers. Message: You are in the mob. You're a made man and will behave like one and get your dirty work finished.

Outside, Tony B. has just committed the fatal whacking, the one that will cause Tony to have to whack him in turn. A 'mob' of people are standing around. In time they question why Tony did not stop it and why he doesn't kill Tony B. Tony makes the excuse that he has no piece (no gun). This does little good and Tony finds himself being chased through the streets by the mob. Message: No excuses. No talking your way out of it. If you don't get your job done, the mob will get you. You are helpless.

In the process of escaping the mob, Tony ends up in bed, having sex with Artie's ex-wife, Charmaine, who he maintains a nostalgic attraction to -- they were involved when they were teenagers -- and generally sees as a possible Carmella substitute. Suddenly, Tony is sitting on a horse (Pie-oh-my?) the living room of his house telling Carmella he wants to get back together. She tells him there are some rules he will have to follow, including don't bring you horse (whores?) in the house. Tony protests weakly. Message: The refuge of your wife and home life is gone too, and it's your own fault for thinking with the little head. There's no escape for you there either.

Lastly we get the most riveting scene, where Tony confronts his former football coach. The coach has no fear of or respect for Tony. He looks at the gun Tony is holding and calls it "a bigger dingus that the one God gave you." He alludes that Tony could have been a great leader but has wasted his life and is a pathetic failure. He sneers at the idea of Tony in therapy. He tells Tony to get on with what he was going to do -- which is kill his coach. The coach, of course, is Tony's conscience and he's going to have to kill his conscience if he is ever going to be able to whack Tony B. As he takes aim at the coach, the bullets slip out of the gun to the floor and crumble in his fingers as he tries to pick them up.

There's a lot more to the dream than I mentioned, I'm sure even having see it twice I missed a lot. And it's certain that there could be varying interpretations, but any reasonable interpretation would have to acknowledge that dream sequence wonderfully intertwines every aspect of Tony's state of mind with the pre-existing situation with Tony B. Tony loves his family and friends, but he cannot separate them from his mob life. They suffer because of it and Tony, although he consistently rationalizes it away, is beginning to see how the horrible things he does affect them so tragically. The whacking of Tony B. (if it comes) will be the most blatant evidence of this; it's possible Tony sees it as an act from which he can never recover -- the final death of his conscience. He searches his past for a reason things turned out like this, makes plenty of excuses, but always carries the fugitive notion that it's finally his own doing.

In drama, or any form of fiction, the most important thing is to dramatize (no surprise there). That is to say, you should never directly explain your character's feelings and motivations. Such things should be revealed indirectly through action whenever possible. The effect of this is to draw the audience in as a participant -- an idea that has been discovered by the consumer is much more powerful than one that has been explained to him. Using a dream sequence takes that to an extreme; it puts a larger burden on the audience to make the important conceptual connections between the dream and the "real world". With a sequence as complex as this one, it may take multiple viewings (reruns and TIVO to the rescue). It's a big risk. The writers have to be good enough to choose the right words and symbols to convey the underlying message without the framework of "reality"; everything has to be within the framework of the dreamer's mind. The audience has to be knowledgeable of the character's pre-existing conflicts and thoughtful and diligent enough to close the communication loop.

That's a lot to ask of an audience. I certainly don't make a habit of parking myself in front of the TV with the intent of being thoughtful and diligent. But if I do put the effort in I expect to be rewarded. I was. And I applaud HBO for taking the big risk when every other network would have just asked for car chase or a gory murder.