Dream sequences are a well-worn trope in television, and they’ve been used to showcase fantastical visions, reflect a character’s feelings, or tell stories outside of the show’s canon. But they also often seem to take place at a moment that is removed from the rest of the series. What David Chase did with The Sopranos (available to stream anytime on HBO Now) was make the dream sequences inseparable from the rest of the story. When explaining his approach in The Essential Sopranos Reader, he said that The Sopranos “is a story about psychology. A man goes to his therapist. So those dreams are earned, because so much psychology has to do with dreams.”
While we most often see inside the head of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), we do get the occasional look into the mind of his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), his crew, and even his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). Here’s a look back at The Sopranos and its expert use of dreams sequences, and how those moments became essential to both its story and the act of bringing us closer to understanding its characters.
The Exploration of Anxiety
To help understand the intention behind these dream sequences, you only need to look at what these characters are going through at the time. Given that Tony seeing a therapist is a major plot point in the first season, it carries over to his subconscious.
It starts with Tony ogling Dr. Melfi before he sees his associate, Hesh (Jerry Adler), outside the window. Before long, he finds her waiting room teeming over with members of his crew, as well as his son, A.J. (Robert Iler) who’s briefly seen peering through the office door. Suddenly, his boss, Jackie Aprile (Michael Rispoli), appears in Melfi’s office, rattling on about the smell of thunderstorms. Tony then approaches Melfi, whose back is to him, and as she turns around, it turns out to be his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand) in her chair — which is a big enough scare to wake Tony up.
It’s a pretty straightforward dream that speaks to exactly what’s worrying Tony. Simply put, he’s a stubborn, middle-aged alpha male trying to swallow his pride and endure therapy — with the added concern being that he’s in the mafia; an entity that doesn’t take kindly to its members airing their laundry. This all comes into play here, with the idea of his crew crawling around the sanctuary of his therapist’s office while he tries to keep the whole ordeal a secret. The glimpse of A.J., however, shows something deeper, Tony’s sense of shortcoming over him needing therapy at all. Add a healthy dose of Tony’s mother issues for the big reveal, and you’ve got a pretty effective dream sequence.
This is used to similar effect a few episodes later in a Christopher-centric episode that looks at his sense of self-worth in the wake of his first murder, Czech gangster Emil Kolar (Bruce Smolanoff). While the sequence looks and feels much more surreal throughout, it manages to tap directly into Christopher’s fears, even ending with a horror movie-like twist. And once again, it sets up the tone for the story — Christopher’s fear of being caught, coupled with his fear of dying a nobody.
Dreams As A Plot Point
By the time season two came to a close, one of the show’s most talked-about dream sequences was used simply to fast-track a critical plot point: specifically, Tony’s realization that one of his best friends, Sal “Pussy” Bonpensiero (Vincent Pastore) is an FBI informant.
A half-dozen of Tony’s dream sequences are sprinkled throughout the episode, which are explained as “fever dreams” brought on by food poisoning. The decision to tell the story this way had more to do with David Chase’s impatience than anything. As they were building the story, they needed a way for Tony to be certain about Pussy’s betrayal.
The obvious solution would’ve been to have Pussy followed, then confirmed he was meeting with the FBI, then have that information relayed back from Tony. Chase didn’t believe was the ideal approach, and in his interview for the book Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong he explained that had he gone that way, he “f*cking would have wanted to kill somebody. So I thought, ‘How can he just know it?’ Can’t we skip all that crap?”
These half-dozen dreams, random as they seem, continue to tell a story, with questions about Pussy being the common thread throughout. These dreams once again find their way back to the sanctuary of Melfi’s office, before eventually to Pussy’s confession to Tony, but with Pussy as a talking fish. Dreams are weird, but not as weird as the fact that this actually comes up later.
As a result, we have a dream that functions as a kind of storytelling shortcut. Regardless, the dreams are enough for Tony to rally his troops and kill their life-long friend and associate, a man whom he’d been suspicious of for over a year. It’s also worth noting that, on their way out to the harbor, Tony’s last dream of the episode is a squeaky-clean, sitcom-friendly family dinner, almost as if he was assuring himself of this decision in advance.
Dr. Melfi’s Perspective
While several characters end up with some screen time for their subconscious, it’s Dr. Melfi’s dreams that reveal her perception of Tony. She’s an outsider to his world, but someone that knows him as well as anyone. Her first dream sequence comes during the second season, when Dr. Melfi has been able to come out of hiding after Tony’s war with his uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), and is refusing to see Tony professionally over another patient’s suicide.
She’s wracked with guilt over her decision and regularly carries on about it to her own shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg (Peter Bogdanovich). The two analyze her dream together, which involves Tony having a panic attack while driving, and ends with him in a fatal car crash, all set to the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz‘s “Optimistic Voices.” Dr. Melfi still has feelings for him, something she readily admits in therapy, and while she feels a professional need to be there for him as her patient — she tells her therapist that taking him back would be “very therapeutic” for her.
While she does see Tony as someone who needs to be nurtured, when she’s attacked in the stairwell of her parking garage, the dream that follows shows that she also sees him as a protector. What sets this apart is Tony, in this dream, doesn’t even appear as himself, but rather as a Rottweiler who heroically comes to save her in a moment of need. Once again discussing the dream in therapy, this time she sees Tony as someone who cares for her, and would be willing to do anything in his power to help her.
Unlike Tony, however, Dr. Melfi struggles with the right and wrong of the situation and ends up leaving her vague idea of vengeance where she discovered it — in her dreams.
A Sense Of Dread
As the show was nearing the end of its fourth season, the deaths of Ralph (Joe Pantoliano) by Tony’s own hand and Gloria (Annabella Sciorra) by her own were weighed heavily on him for different reasons. During this time, Tony’s dreams become more eerie in nature while he becomes increasingly frustrated when trying to understand them (which, in his case, means having them interpreted by Dr. Melfi). It’s in these dreams where Tony is not in control and ends up surrounded by ghosts from his past, explaining through his broken English that he’s a stonemason looking for work.
This goes back to one of the first things Tony ever revealed to Dr. Melfi: the feeling that he’d gotten in at the end and that the best was over. Knowing that lingering feeling of dread, he finds himself back in his grandfather’s time, speaking with his accent (presumably), and looking for the work his grandfather did. It’s here while he’s reliving the past that he first sees a shadowy figure standing silently, who seems to resemble both the embodiment of death and his late mother, Livia (remember these two have a lot in common already).
Tony’s earlier dream about Gloria, however, was much more sentimental, possibly because it came after a day filled with heavy drinking, or possibly out of the guilt he feels over her suicide. Still, the tedium of his dreams comes out in Tony’s therapy, and both the dreams and therapy start to wear on him, prompting Tony to call a ‘time-out’ between him and Dr. Melfi.
Dreams As An Episode
In one of the show’s finest moments in high-concept storytelling, we end up inside Tony’s mind for the bulk of an episode, starting in his hotel room at The Plaza (where he seeks respite from wars in his professional and personal life) with a startling visit from the late Carmine Sr. (Tony Lip). From then on, it’s a tell-all straight from Tony’s id, from family dinners to ‘family’ shootings, all scattered with characters from The Sopranos past and present, with a sense of tension lingering uncomfortably throughout.
In the dream’s final moments, Tony finds himself at his old high school, talking to his old football coach (Charles Scalies), who wastes no time laying into Tony. He criticizes Tony for the decisions he has made in life, ones that lead him to a life of organized crime. Tony asserts his leadership role before attempting to kill him, only to find his bullets crumbling into nothing, making it a pitch-perfect anxiety dream we can all relate to.
It also serves as some of the most profound insight into Tony’s past, as he wakes up and calls Carmela, casually referencing one of his “Coach Melinaro dreams,” which Carmela is more than familiar with. Beyond its surface-level anxiety, this being a recurring dream hints at Tony’s profound unhappiness with the way his life turned out.
Tony Lost In His Subconscious
Speaking of Tony being unhappy with how his life turned out, the two episodes we spend with him in a coma after getting shot by Junior reveals a whole new side to the character — Tony Soprano, Jersey accent-free traveling salesman. In what’s essentially a near-death experience, metaphysical themes run heavy throughout, from his lost briefcase (“My whole life was in it”) to his mistaken identity with a man named Kevin Finnerty. In the meantime, we’re given glimpses of how the outside world was affecting what went on inside his head.
It wouldn’t be a Sopranos dream without ghosts from his past showing up, and as Tony arrives at a large house, he’s told by his cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), that everyone’s waiting for him. It’s also here that he sees a familiar figure, the shadowy mother/death apparition. What would normally be the moment Tony would wake up, here he finds himself pulled between what’s inside the house and the voices of his daughter begging him not to leave them.
Even once he’s out of his coma the metaphysical themes stick around a bit, from scrawled notes with Ojibwa sayings to conversations about quantum entanglement and the interconnectivity of life with John Schwinn (Hal Holbrook), a former scientist staying in a room near Tony’s. While he never really recalls the “other” Tony Soprano who was trapped out in Costa Mesa, California, coming so close to death changes Tony, as well as his outlook on life. For a little while, which is a pretty clear statement on the half-life of real change, if you think about it.
Honesty And Catharsis
The last time we ever get inside Tony’s head is shortly after Christopher’s death, while everyone around him is in mourning. Suddenly, we’re taken to Tony in therapy, his face still badly bruised from a car accident, and holding nothing back about his former protege. He calls Christopher a “sniveling drug addict” and the “worst mistake of his career” before admitting that his death is nothing short of a celebration for him.
Sure, it’s harsh, but it’s not something completely out of character for Tony to say, especially given the fact that Christopher was really just one long disappointment to him. It isn’t until Tony starts to divulge his past murders, those of his friends and family, that it becomes clear that this is all happening in his head — and not because of the carelessness of Tony’s admissions, but the honesty. Tony lies to everyone habitually, including Dr. Melfi, so the sudden embrace of his vile contempt for his late nephew Christopher — whom he killed — gets aired out in his dream.
It’s this kind of unabashed honesty that we’d only get from characters like this in a dream. Lying is inherent to their nature as criminals, so much so that the only place they’re capable of being honest is in their dreams. And it’s the show’s dream sequences that allows us inside their heads and affords us insight that might not have been possible otherwise.