“Calling All Cars” (season 4, episode 11; originally aired 11/24/2002)
In which everyone is haunted by the dead.
It’s easy to say “Whoever Did This” is a great episode of The Sopranos. It’s easy to say “Pine Barrens” or “Funhouse” or “College” is a great episode of this show. Those are all episodes that set new standards for the places the show was willing to go, the kinds of stories it was willing to tell, and the envelopes it was willing to push. But it’s far harder to call out one of these midseason episodes, one of these episodes where seemingly nothing happens and there’s no real break from the show’s format and things just continue as they always have. But it’s in those episodes that a show like The Sopranos gets the fuel that makes the bigger, flashier episodes run. In just about every week this season, at least one of you has said I haven’t given a certain episode enough credit and suggested it’s one of your favorite episodes. And season four, of all seasons, is the season where it’s easiest to see that point of view. The “just hanging out” episodes this season are as good as the show ever did, even if nothing happens in them.
I mention all of this because I’d like to single out “Calling All Cars” as an example of an episode of the show that doesn’t do anything particularly huge—most of the plot development is set-up for what seems to be building tension between New York and New Jersey—but an episode that’s, nonetheless, really top notch. This is a smaller-scale episode of the show, clocking in at just under 48 minutes (where episodes normally run well over 55 minutes), and it really only follows two storylines: Tony’s attempts to keep the peace with New York without caving entirely and Bobby’s gradual move past the death of his wife (as manipulated by Janice). Sure, there’s other stuff around the edges, but this is essentially an episode about two men dealing with trauma in very different ways. And it’s pretty much gorgeous and perfectly wrought at every turn.
The big story development, I guess, is that Tony leaves therapy with Dr. Melfi. There are two therapy scenes in this episode, a rarity for season four, and they’re both very, very good. In both, Melfi bumps up against the intractable problem at the very center of why her therapy with Tony simply can’t work: He’s a criminal who does terrible things and destroys people’s lives. Until he’s willing to at least broach that subject with her (and with himself), it’s going to be impossible for him to ever move past the very basic things Melfi has done to help him. You can feel this frustration embedded in the show itself, which found itself uncertain of what to do with Melfi post-“Employee Of The Month” and ended up vamping for time. It hasn’t all been bad vamping (even if too much of it involved Kupferberg), but it’s also suggested the writers had lost the thread of the character’s arc. Here, though, first Tony—when being forced to consider the question of whether Ralphie has recently changed in his dream analysis—and then Melfi—who tries to talk to Tony about how to bring about real change—realize that there’s a threshold they can’t cross, topics they can’t discuss.
I have critic friends who were driven nuts by this tenet of the show’s design. Because Melfi couldn’t make real progress with Tony, the therapy scenes very quickly fell into a rut as the show went on. In “Calling All Cars,” this gets turned into a plot point, in fact, with Tony pointing out just how little the two have made in the way of breakthroughs in recent years. Melfi can’t really help Tony not because there would be no show without her—this show could work fairly well without her, particularly in its last three seasons—but because the things she would need to do to really help him would either get him killed or eventually remove him so far from the life he knew that the show would cease to be the same as it always was.
Still, there’s a surprising sweetness to these scenes, which seem meant to mirror the scenes in season one when Tony quit therapy in a fit of rage. Here, he’s resigned to the fact that it’s over, that Melfi ultimately couldn’t do anything more than bring him back from the edge of clinical depression. Even as she tries to bring him back under her care, he’s headed out the door. And yet his kissoff—wherein he suggests he should have gotten her the same diamond pin he gets for all his comares when he breaks up with them (or at least the diamond pin he SAYS he gets them)—ultimately shows that on some level, he thought of Melfi as just another woman he could buy off, just another woman whose relationship to him was purely mercenary. Given the distraught look on her face when she calls Kupferberg, she had clearly come to find their sessions as something more than just a weekly gabfest with a mob boss. She really did think she could help Tony; if she ever realized she couldn’t, there’d be no reason for her to stick around.
“Calling All Cars” is an episode marked by absence, as much as anything else. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of my favorite episodes: Absence and loss is one of the themes driving The Sopranos that I most respond to, and the story here of Bobby coming to realize it’s time to move on after Karen’s death is a lovely, delicate little story of a man who’s been trapped alone with his grief far too long and now needs to find some other path. For all of this show’s interest in the afterlife and what comes next, Janice—Janice!—speaks one of the most truthful lines in the entire run of the series as she’s trying to get Bobby to realize that it’s time for him to let Karen go (thanks to a series of circumstances she mostly conspired to make happen, but that’s neither here nor there). As he slowly comes to realize that his kids need him to be a stronger father, Janice looks up at him and says, “The dead have nothing to say to us, Bobby. It's our own narcissism that makes us think they even care.” Given how thoroughly the dead—from Tony’s parents to Gloria to Ralphie—haunt this episode, it’s not hard to see this as an answer not to the question Bobby’s asking but the question Tony’s asking over in the other storyline.
Still, Karen’s ziti, one of the richest symbols the show would ever come up with (in a season filled with rich symbols), becomes the emotional climax not just of this episode but arguably of the season. In a season that’s been filled with episode after episode where Tony and Carmela are shown to be living in the same house, existing in the same space, but in totally different worlds, it’s somehow very moving to watch a man struggle to hold it together after losing his wife, then watch him force himself to stop missing her for the good of his kids. Oh, sure, he’ll always miss Karen, but Janice, blunt though she may be, is right. She’s right there. And Karen’s off somewhere else, and burying a cake for her on her and Bobby’s wedding anniversary isn’t the way to bring her back. Bobby and Sophia need a father, and even if the only reason they’re playing with the Ouija Board is because Janice is typically terrible in guiding them to it (via a vaguely Satanic AIM account!), Bobby sees their actions as the impetus for him to finally start moving forward. The moment when he agrees to eat the ziti and a tear rolls down his cheek is one of the most emotionally honest, least adorned moments in the run of the show, and it’s relatively unheralded, perhaps because it’s not “big” enough.
One of the things that’s been fascinating about season four on this rewatch is just how much the story development stutters and stops, before starting up again. Junior’s RICO trial gets put on the back burner, largely forgotten about, brought back with a new legal strategy, then forgotten about again. And then tonight, it’s back again, with the court determining that Junior’s mentally competent enough to stand trial and testify in his own case. And yet even at the same time, Junior’s showing the troubling early signs of actual dementia, at least if the shaving cream still on his face is any indication. Season four is great like that, great at burying storylines that don’t seem like they’re going to ever return, then become major climaxes of the season (come to think of it, the mourning for Karen fits that profile, too). The show was always at its best when suggesting the way that time can intensify emotions, not mute them, and season four is a terrific example of that.
Or, put another way, the New York vs. New Jersey thing continues to very, very slowly heat up. (At this point, even if you’re watching the series for the first time through, it’s gotta be hard to imagine that a full-scale mob war will break out in the next two episodes.) As with everything else this season, the central culprit is money, and with Ralphie out of the picture (and Tony forced to lie to both families about where he might be), the HUD scams become even more of a headache for Tony, especially as Johnny Sack and Carmine keep insisting that they need a large cut of the profits, because both families share Zellman. Tony’s pretty good about figuring ways to get out of these sorts of situations, but he’s cornered especially by his inability to share just what happened to Ralphie. He’s stuck, and in this case, the absence—of Ralphie—is something that makes his life even more of a pressure cooker.
But, as mentioned, “Calling All Cars” is an episode driven by ideas of absence. Melfi wonders what she’ll be like without Tony. Tony seems to miss everyone he’s ever known who died (and also seems to acknowledge to himself that Carmela is drifting, placing her in the driver’s seat of his dream). Bobby is unable to move past Karen. And without Ralphie around, Tony, New Jersey, and New York are forced to bargain without the guy who constantly distracted everyone, simply due to what a jackass he was. Absence is a driving force on the show, yes, but it’s felt particularly keenly in this episode. When Carmela said back in the season premiere that sooner or later everything ends, it’s not hard to imagine that the writers already had this episode in mind and were headed toward it.
All of which brings us to the episode’s final puzzle piece, one of its finest moments: Tony’s final dream. We’re dumped into the middle of it, jarringly. The bald Ralphie (signaling that it’s a dead Ralphie, though this time, he doesn’t have a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly on his head) and Tony are making their way to an old, stately home, the sort that middle class families used to move into in the mid-20th century. Tony knocks at the door, saying he’s there for the masonry job (remember: his grandfather was a stonemason). But he gets no response, only the dark figure of a woman on the stairwell, shrouded in shadow (Gloria? Livia?). Between the insect noises outside, and the unsteady apparition on the staircase, the scene takes on the real feel of a nightmare, and it’s no wonder that Tony wakes from it in a sweat, seemingly on the verge of having a panic attack (as with the end of “Whoever Did This,” he has to stumble out into daylight, and the camera move to follow him is virtually identical). Janice may be right that the dead don’t really care about the living, but she’s also right that our own narcissism can sometimes trip us up. Sometimes, the dead speak for the parts of us we don’t dare acknowledge.
- In addition to having all kinds of great, moving scenes, this is a tremendously funny episode of television. The scene where A.J. tries to get out of watching over Bobby’s kids by just generally being the worst babysitter in the world is another good showcase for Robert Iler and a great way to show off just how damn goofy he could be.
- I love the appraiser character and his constant gallop from the various gangsters who want to let him know in no uncertain terms that he works for THEM.
- In a way, the phrase that titles the episode is another reference to absence; when calling all cars, a crime has been committed, and there’s a need to find someone, anyone, to right it.
- I think the way that Tony eases into talking about how Svetlana dumped HIM, instead of vice versa, is pretty darn brilliant, and it’s one of the things I like best about that last therapy scene. Svetlana becomes such a great character this season that it’s easy to see why Tony’s miffed enough to bring it up in therapy. And Melfi could not seem more disheartened by her patient’s inability to keep it in his pants.
- I like that the show did so much random location footage shooting this season. Did it really NEED to send James Gandolfini to Miami Beach? Probably not. But it’s great that the show did!
- Strangely eerie music choices: “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
- OK, if we’re gonna nitpick, let’s nitpick: I don’t like Tony’s Freudian slip about the leg in the second therapy session. It feels cheap.
- Great moments in Tony: Even if Junior’s mental incapacity thing doesn’t work, Tony’s found out where the jurors in the trial stay and is totally cool with intimidating them.
- "The sides alone were over $30."
- "How'd you like it if little Oriental kids were making fun of you?"
- "Go back inside, get your appraising shit, and start appraising."
- "What are you? Marge Hindenbrender now?"
- "She couldn't even handle a Nancy Drew. It was too mysterious."
Speaking To The Fishes:
- Lots of great foreshadowing in this one. In particular, nearly an exact duplicate of the scene where Tony confronts the mysterious, shadowy woman at a house will play out at the end of his time in purgatory in season six. There, it’s far more clear that the woman in question is Livia.
- This also could be totally offbase, but the house Tony visits in his dream sure REMINDS me of the house he hides out at as “The Blue Comet” ends. Am I wrong?
- Finally, this is the first appearance of the lovable malaprop machine, Little Carmine. May he live long and prosper.
Next week: Nearly everything the season has been building toward comes to a head in “Eloise.”