From the get-go, fans of classic TV pegged The Sopranos as a series that owed plenty to English playwright and screenwriter Dennis Potter. Sunday’s episode made the connection official by drawing on Potter’s The Singing Detective. Originally aired in 1986, and featuring Michael Gambon in a tour-de-force performance as psoriasis-deformed writer Philip E. Marlow, The Singing Detective fused three narratives: a present-day drama about a psychiatrist trying to get the root of Marlow’s childhood trauma, flashbacks to the writer’s past, and a Raymond Chandler-eseque 1940s film noir fantasy. Sunday’s Sopranos, titled “Join the Club”—an intense hour that envisoned an alternate life for comatose mob boss Tony Soprano, who’d been shot his Alzheimer’s ridden Uncle Junior—felt like a muscular American response to Potter’s masterpiece, from the hospital location to the expressive, knowingly nostalgic use of pop music (at one point Carmela reminisces about her early years with Tony while Tom Petty’s “American Girl” plays softly on a boombox) to its depiction of dreams as the brain’s abstract way of working out real-world conundrums.
Did I say “dreams”? As you might know, Chase is already on record in the Star-Ledger as saying that he doesn’t consider this episode or next week’s follow-up to contain dream sequences per se (though he’s characteristically coy about saying what they actually are). Whatever label you hang on it, this material is more linear and outwardly “realistic” than the Sopranos dreamtime norm. and it boasts more explicitly theological imagery. In it, Tony is “Tony Soprano,” a “precision optics salesman” who has somehow switched ID with a heating equipment salesman named Kevin Finnerty. Tony has to assume Finnerty’s identity in order to have shelter and food. But the longer he pretends to be Finnerty (a disreputable character, judging from the two monks who angrily accost him in the hotel) the harder it is to escape this four-star prison and get back to the domestic life he claims to value so much, a life that’s only heard in snippets on the other end of a long-distance phone line. (The tone of this extended sequence is very Dennis Potter, but the unexplained identity swap has a touch of David Lynch’s Lost Highway about it.)
Taking Chase at his word, my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall describes the sequence not as a dream, but as a mini-drama about Tony’s soul being trapped in purgatory: “Here Tony’s stuck in Orange County, quite possibly the most personality-free corner of the world, with no way to leave (a.k.a. Purgatory),” Alan writes. “On one end of town is a shining beacon (Heaven), on the other, a raging forest fire (Hell). Over and over, he stops to assess the worth of his own life, asking, ’Who am I? Where am I going?’ Then he steals the identity (sin) of Kevin Finnerty—a heating salesman who lives in one of the hottest states of the union (Arizona)—checks into another hotel, and falls down a red staircase, at which point he learns he has Alzheimer’s (eternal damnation). And while Carmela’s busy in the real world telling him he’s not going to Hell, Tony’s in Purgatory debating whether to tell his wife this is exactly the fate he has in store. It may be hair-splitting to call this something other than a dream, but Tony’s misadventures in Costa Mesa were much more linear and coherent than his regular dreams have ever been. There were important details scribbled in the margins (the bartender joking, ’Around here, it’s dead,’ or the ’Are sin, disease and death real?’ commercial on the TV), but there was an actual story here instead of Tony bouncing from one surreal tableau to another.”
I think it is splitting hairs to argue that this is a purgatorial vision rather than a dream, simply because in terms of plot function, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Religious scenarios and dreams employ similar visual language; both bring us back to moral choice, and force us to ask big (often rhetorical) questions. In Coma World, and in the “real” world outside, the moral and the physical are often depicted as variants of the same thing. As Alan observes, in Coma World, a television asks, “Are sin, disease and death real?” then flashes an implied answer, a yellow crucifix. (Translation: they are, so watch yourself.) This is not a new approach for The Sopranos. Remember Season Two, when Tony decoded the dream telling him that Big Pussy was an informant? It happened after a bout of food poisoning; subliminally, Tony understood the toxic truth about his friend but was having a hard time digesting it. Along those lines, I’m guessing it’s no accident that Tony sustained injuries to the pancreas, which neutralizes acid, and the gallbladder, which creates bile (he always had anger management issues). Nor do I think it’s accidental that the risk of scepsis is described as “an infection in the blood” (lots of other things are “in the blood” of a family, including Alzheimers’ and a propensity for depression or violent behavior).
Jumping back to theology and morals, is it accidental that Carmela would choose this moment to apologize for telling Tony that he’s was going to hell when he died, a line delivered as he was about to get fed into an MRI machine? I don’t think so. (“It’s a sin,” she said, “and I will be judged for it.”) Nor do I think it’s chance that a bar patron making small talk with Tony would choose to name-check a specific type of car, the Infinity (without end), or that the bartender would later pronounce Tony’s assumed last name so that it sounds like, “finity” (finite, or limited). And what are the odds that of all the characters to publicly rebuke and humiliate Kevin Finnerty, Chase would choose men of god—monks!—and have them be enraged over Finnerty’s installation of a defective heating system? Knowing Chase, I doubt it’s random chance that in this alternate universe, whatever it is, Tony would have to choose between two professions, the installation of heating systems (hell) or precision optics (which help you see more clearly). There were also strong hints that Tony may have to face the choice of remaining loyal to his crime family (a group of self-interested goons who are already talking about divvying up the spoils when the boss dies) or informing to the feds. I doubt it’s an accident that Kevin Finnerty ate grouper—a fish showcased in a Season Two dream sequence (see above) which revealed that Big Pussy was an informant—or that once Tony gets comfortable at the hotel bar, he orders a grouper sandwich. (This line of speculation only goes so far, though. As a friend pointed out, the feds would gain nothing from trying to turn Tony, since he’s a top boss who’s theoretically the equal of the already-incarcerated Johnny Sack. If anything, they’d try to turn someone else in Tony’s family and bring Tony down.)
In any event, without putting too fine a point on it, and without getting sidetracked into the dream-vs.-purgatory conversation, it can be said that Tony’s coma vision suggests a moral reckoning, a recognition that this is the kind of traumatic event that should force any halfway self-aware person to ask what sort of life he’s built and whether he wants to keep living it as-is or change it. I doubt it’s an accident that we got to see other characters in this same episode experiencing what also looked like potential turning points in their own identities. We saw Meadow and Anthony Jr., admit to each other that their family’s lifestyle was embarrassing (after which point Anthony put his game face on, threw open a window and cursed at the press down on the street). We saw Meadow, who’s interested in being either a doctor or a lawyer, step up and second-guess her dad’s patriarchal jerk of a doctor; has she ever showed so much backbone? We saw Anthony swear revenge on Uncle Junior—a career best acting moment for Robert Iler (who has previously underwhelmed me) and an indication that Anthony has his father and grandfather’s volcanic temper and warped sense of righteousness and could very well follow them into a life of crime. We even saw Christopher, who’s been wanting to tell the world about mob life via screenwriting since Season One, get comfortable with F.B.I. agents who’ve started hanging out in the mob-run pork store and soliciting anti-terrorist tips.
Of course, The Sopranos being The Sopranos, there’s a chance that Chase brought this weighty stuff up only so that he could dismiss it with dark quip, then let Tony and company go back to being the same as they ever were. These characters occasionally ask tough questions of themselves, but they’re rarely serious about seeking answers. Tony’s psychotherapy avoids confronting the fact that he’s a criminal; Dr. Melfi’s “progress” at getting Tony to talk through his feelings and manage his rage seems a classic example of treating the symptoms rather than the disease (or to invoke a different cliché, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic). Tony can’t make any real progress toward improving his emotional or spiritual life until he identifies the rotting hole at the center of his personality and takes a hard look at it. Is Tony capable of that level of self-knowledge? I doubt it. As I wrote last week, that kind of decision would run counter to Chase’s traditionally cynical view of human nature, which answers the question, “Can a leopard change his spots,” with, “You’re kidding, right?”