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Real, dream families blend for Tony Soprano

The last time “The Sopranos” let viewers eavesdrop on one of Tony Soprano’s dreams, it was a (controversially) long series of encounters with people in his life. At its end, Tony faced his childhood coach and, holding a literally impotent gun, was told that, as Tony said later, he “was unprepared, as usual,” for life.

That life was almost ended by Uncle Junior, and now, after two days in a coma, Tony Soprano had a different sort of dream, finding himself in a parallel universe. Once again, it was a dream full of rich imagery and symbolism that demands repeated viewing and detailed analysis.

Tony did not question this alternate universe, which was markedly different from reality; he was a salesperson living an apparently flatline sort of life. Arriving at a convention for work, he talked to his wife on the phone, and that woman was a bland, non-Carmela female; on his home voice mail message, his kids had chipper voices, most definitely not the morose but hyperbolic children Tony Soprano calls his own.

In these scenes, James Gandolfini even dropped his slurring accent, speaking in crisper sentences, and his shoulders seemed higher than usual, the weight of his mob boss life gone. What did not disappear, however, was the sound of Tony’s nasal breathing.

“I’m 46 years old,” Tony told a group of people at a bar, wheezing. “Who am I? Where am I going?”

Throughout the series’ life, that sound has been audible in those moments when Tony Soprano is the most vulnerable, as he clearly was in that moment at the bar. The meaning of this often-irritating sound design and acting couldn’t have been clearer in Tony’s real-world hospital room, where a respirator exaggerated and amplified those already familiar sounds. On the verge of death and brain damage, Tony was vulnerable, being challenged both physically and mentally. He was having an existential crisis via a literal identity crisis.

As if in a sort of twisted, hall-of-mirrors version of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Tony was reflecting on his own life through the salesman version of himself, imagining an idealized reality just as Willy Loman does. This dream life was not perfect—he tried to cheat on his wife, for example. Later, instead of waiting for an elevator, Dreamworld Tony took the bright-red stairs and tripped, landing in the hospital. There he learned that he shows signs of Alzheimer’s, essentially becoming his delusional uncle.

In his dream, Tony also became another man. At a bar, he accidentally picked up the wallet and briefcase of a man named Kevin Finnerty—a man who, on his driver’s license, looked somewhat like Tony. To function in our ID-dependent society, Tony was forced to pretend to be Kevin just to book a hotel room and, later, to be treated in a hospital.

Family mattersThis identity-blurring dream sequence was intercut in the episode with scenes from Tony’s real life, as his family—genetic and otherwise—reacted to his condition. His son AJ had the most trouble, avoiding the issue by referring to his dad by his full name and trying to engage Meadow in a conversation about hybrid cars. Ultimately, AJ was able to deal with his father’s condition by, essentially, becoming him, channeling his anger. “Hey, Dad. I’m going to get Uncle Junior for this. Don’t worry,” he told his silent, comatose father. Crying, he said, “You’re my dad, and I’m going to put a bullet in his f---ing mummy head, I promise.”

Where exactly Tony was in his dreamspace wasn’t clear, but hospital room visits from the two other people he loves most in the world introduced two possibilities. Meadow read a Jacques Prévert poem to Tony which, if taken literally, suggested he’s on his way to heaven: “Our Father which art in heaven, Stay there. And we will stay on earth, Which is sometimes so pretty.”

Carmela, meanwhile, in her few moments of non-self-centered reaction to his condition, reminisced with Tony, apologizing to him for once saying he was damned. “But you are not going to hell. You’re coming back here. I love you.” She paused between those first two sentences, almost saying, in effect, you’re not going to hell now, but maybe later.

But the episode ended with Tony looking out at the window of his hotel room at a light in the distance. While it may have represented the proverbial, go-toward-it light, the light belonged to an airport-style searchlight, scanning all 360 degrees of the horizon. Moby’s “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die” played on the soundtrack and its lyrics, like the endlessly circling light, suggested a third option for Tony’s afterlife, purgatory: “I don’t want to fight the tide/I don’t want to swim forever/When it’s cold I’d like to die.”

Wherever Tony may be or may be going, he and Uncle Junior are now out of command in New Jersey, and because of that, his associates began to show signs of unraveling. And that’s an existential crisis that threatens to turn into a nightmare.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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