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.