The Sopranos: “The Test Dream”
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The Sopranos: “The Test Dream”

“The Test Dream” (season 5, episode 11; originally aired 5/16/2004)

In which Tony checks into the Plaza Hotel

In literature, a recurring dream is a kind of omen, a place you keep returning to because you can’t escape it. Maybe it’s that way in real life, too. I haven’t had many recurring dreams in my life, but I’ve certainly had the “test” dream that gives this episode its title, the dream where I’m in school, and there’s a test, and I’m in no way prepared for it. (In most cases, it’s a class in college I forgot I signed up for.) The common interpretation of this dream—for whatever that’s worth—is that having the test dream means that you, well, aren’t ready for something. The same goes for one of those dreams where you show up in a public place, naked, and can’t quite seem to get your hands on any clothes. 

In a way, a recurring dream like this is like a haunting, an image from another world you can’t really get to but can access at odd hours that pastes itself all over your own reality. The Sopranos has always made fine use of the mystical and of the idea of ghosts—even if we’ve only seen one ghostly visitor in the show proper—and its dream sequences have always been intertwined with a spooky sense of whatever’s next. On the one level, yeah, Tony’s dreams in this episode can be easily explained via popular psychological readings of these common dream symbols. On another level, there’s a whole mess of intertextual clues here, that point both backward and forward in the history of the series (shades of Buffy’s “Restless,” which was a kind of Rosetta stone for the next season of the show). But down below that, there’s a restless, haunted fear of the dead and the past, a fear of what might happen if we get down to the bottom and see what’s really going on.

That fear, of course, has been one of the major driving forces of this season. We’ve been digging deeper and deeper into Tony’s psyche, trying to find that point at which he could have become a different man, could have embarked on a life that didn’t lead to this point, where he’s so riddled with anxiety and stress that he’s dreaming about everybody chasing him and Lee Harvey Oswald taking shots at him and his teeth falling out. (Consult that dream dictionary, and you’ll find the loss of teeth in dreams represents a loss of “power,” which more or less sits with where Tony is right now, especially since he’s figured out his cousin is going to make a move on Phil and Billy Leotardo and there’s nothing he can do about it.) I like the way “The Test Dream” loops around and around and back in on itself, descending further and further through Tony’s mind, until we reach the place where it all begins, the bottom level from which we’ll have to work our way back up.

It’s fitting, I think, that the dream featuring Coach Molinaro takes place down below ground, behind the scenes at an athletic complex of some sort. We’re in the basement of the subconscious, the place where things that really bother us get shoved so we don’t have to deal with them, and Tony’s come back here again, to visit the one guy who seemingly was interested in helping him find a life outside of the one he ended up in. This whole section is so prosaic that it becomes kind of beautiful: At one time, Tony had a coach who thought that he, himself, had the makings of a good leader of young men, of a high-school coach who might help young athletes get their legs under themselves and head out into the world. (Imagine for a second James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano as Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights to get a vision of how ridiculous this would be.) Tony perhaps correctly diagnoses this problem to Carmela on the phone in the final scene of the episode—Coach Molinaro just wanted to make sure Tony didn’t get into trouble—but there’s also something to what the coach is saying. Tony did become a leader, just not one who contributed anything to society. In that respect, Junior’s taunting about how Tony never had the makings of a varsity athlete earlier in the season become all the more poignant.

We could almost certainly spend the entirety of this piece (and the bulk of several others) just trying to untangle the web of symbols and themes working their way through “The Test Dream.” (Even though I know some of you hate this episode, I expect this comments section to be hopping.) In particular, I’m blown away by the use of DeBussy’s “Clair De Lune” and how it keeps popping up in various places, first as a piece of music, then as the idea of moonlight (and its flipside, the sun finally coming up in the episode’s final line). I’m also impressed by the way that Artie Bucco becomes Tony’s ferryman back to his high school days—fitting, since he’s Tony’s oldest friend who’s not involved in mob life—and I like the way that the transitions between levels of the dream are always undertaken with Artie in tow. He’s the guy who can get Tony back to where he needs to go, to the place where things could have gone differently if he’d listened to what Coach Molinaro said. Of course he didn’t, and that’s led to a life of stress and anxiety and gradual, creeping awareness of the cost he exacts from society, awareness he buries as deeply as possible, so it only comes out in panic attacks or therapy sessions or dreams. And the sad thing about all of this is that Coach Molinaro—who acts as a similar conscience figure to Tony as the therapist Carmela saw back in season three acted as to her (they’re even shot similarly)—is now just a dull echo. Tony couldn’t listen to him if he wanted to. Yet another wonderful motif here: The way that Melfi is always just a few steps out of Tony’s grasp, as she’s always been in real life. She’s the one he can’t find, both in the dream and in the hotel.

Yet I’m not sure how helpful all of that would be. Many of the symbols are fairly obvious. Take, for instance, the moment when Tony’s riding the horse around in the house, and Carmela’s telling him that he can’t have the horse in the house anymore (in a very funny moment). The episode has already linked Tony’s mistresses with horses pretty heavily—thanks to the sound of horse hooves pounding along while Tony’s having sex with Charmaine (as Artie watches enthusiastically) and the cut from Tony “riding” Charmaine to Tony riding Pie-O-My—so it’s obvious that this is Tony’s mind letting him know that if he gets back with Carmela—something he evidently wants—he’s going to have to let go of all of his women on the side. Edie Falco even says “horse” so it sort of sounds like “whores.” This is not to suggest any of this is bad. One of the reasons writers like to use dreams is because dreams speak to us in symbols and raw emotions that we almost immediately understand. You show up for the test, but you haven’t studied, and you know exactly how to feel. It’s a way of getting into a character’s psychological depths in a fairly obvious fashion that still feels somewhat risky. Not every dream sequence needs to be filled with backwards-talking Twin Peaks stuff to work.

At the same time, that means it’s easy to try and read too heavily into “The Test Dream” (and believe me, I’m aware of the irony of me cautioning against trying to read into things too much). A lot of this stuff looks and sounds impressive, but it ends up tied to stuff that’s pretty obvious on a certain level. Again, this doesn’t mean any of it is bad—I’ve watched this episode around 10 times, and I’d count it as another of my favorites in the series—but I think the series used dream sequences when it wanted to be very clear about certain things, similarly to how Melfi was often the voice of reason within the show’s universe, the person the audience could rely on to say things that we could take as relatively certain. The dream sequences are impressive and beautifully evocative of what it’s like to hang out in Tony Soprano’s head, but they’re also fairly straightforward at the same time. There’s far more nuance and possible interpretation in that final, lovely conversation between Tony and Carmela as the sun is just starting to come up. (“Is it light where you are?” is just a beautiful line.)

The dream, in pure story terms, mostly seems to be there to take us out of the place where Tony’s being a hilariously asshole-ish person to Valentina (who suffers second-degree burns but is comforted by a boyfriend who tells her that she’ll eventually look just the same) to a place where he’s ready to deal with the fact that he’ll have to deal with his cousin if there’s going to be peace between both sides of the New York struggle, to say nothing of New York and New Jersey. David Chase—who’s the voice of the guy Tony talks to on the phone in the dream—talked a bit about this in this interview with Alan Sepinwall at The Star-Ledger back in 2006, but he was fond of using these dream sequences to give Tony information he would already know but wouldn’t have put the pieces together on just yet. Rather than having Tony hear a rumor somewhere—or having Tony B. tell his cousin just what he’s planning to do—this is a way for Tony to put together a puzzle he doesn’t quite have the picture for. He’s got the pieces. He just needs to see what it looks like when assembled.

This returns us to the idea of the dead, who figure throughout this episode. (Tellingly, the one dead person who doesn’t turn up is Livia, though Tony mentions her and Gloria is always a good Livia stand-in.) Tony takes two car trips with the dead, one conducted by his father, the other by Artie (who seems jovial enough, hanging out with all of these specters). Gloria turns up in Dr. Melfi’s office as his therapist. Coach Molinaro is, himself, likely dead, and John Heard, who played Vin Makazian, turns up as Finn’s father. (Tony seems to realize who he is, but can’t quite put it together, though he certainly puts together that Finn’s mother is Annette Bening.) Carmine and Tony start out the dream in bed together.

There’s a tradition in most cultures that the dead can visit us in our dreams because that’s a place where the spirit world pokes through to ours. Realistically speaking, it’s just because the dead are on our minds a lot, and our minds conjure up ways for us to see them. But in that tradition, the dead are always turning up to tell us things we should know, to relay messages and warnings and information we might need. The dead don’t have a lot to say here, but they are guiding Tony back to the place he keeps going, the place he’s apparently been many times before. (Did Coach tell him the same thing he always does? Carmela asks. Yes, he did, Tony confirms.) They’re silent witnesses to a man who needs to figure some shit out about just how dangerous his cousin actually is and ends up popping by some of the places he used to haunt, the places that could have made him a different man. But they, just like that idea of a recurring dream, are echoes, things Tony Soprano is doomed to revisit until he dies. Ebenezer Scrooge pops up in the middle of the episode, a man who had a great redemption after a visit from a dead friend and some other ghosts—or, perhaps, a lengthy dream brought on by poorly cooked food. But Tony’s in too deep. The redemption isn’t coming, and, as he tells Annette Bening, things are just going to get worse.

Stray observations:

  • I need to police myself to make sure this isn’t the longest stray observations section in recorded history. Let’s start by pointing out that the Christmas Carol clip is preceded by one from Chinatown. I tried like hell to work out the meaning of that, but I have no idea. Have at it!
  • The scene where “Vin” serenades “Annette” with “Three Times A Lady” is one of my favorites in the episode. It’s so long and off-putting and odd that it eventually becomes deeply, deeply hilarious. (And, of course, the song pops back up as Tony talks to Carmela. True love, I guess.)
  • I love the casualness Phil displays as he and his brother kill Angelo. He’s already getting the back of the car open so that the not-yet-dead body can be tossed inside.
  • I also love how Billy’s death occurs offscreen for now, and how Christopher describes it in such vivid terms that we can almost see it for ourselves. In fact, when Chris snatches up that Toblerone, I’m always tempted to think we’re still in the dream. But no. Chris just really likes Toblerone.
  • More movie references: The chase of Tony by the angry mob is very much a Frankenstein homage. It’s in keeping with the show’s occasional viewing of Tony as a monster, though it seems a little weird that he could cast himself in that role until you consider that the monster is viewed mostly sympathetically—as a misunderstood creature.
  • I like the use of TV sets as “windows,” for lack of a better term. I really enjoy watching these characters watch themselves on TV, which is also kind of a sly gag on who they really are.
  • Just once in my life, I think I’d like to stay in the Plaza Hotel, subject of my admiration since Home Alone 2: Lost In New York.
  • Movie/mob references: Tony looks for a gun behind the toilet, like in Godfather, and he also finds the book The Valachi Papers, which confirmed the existence of the Mafia.
  • “Plus, she’s a licensed notary public. I’m thinking this is the kind of woman I need.”
  • “There are some non-negotiable conditions.” “Like what?” “You can’t have your horse in here!”

Speaking With The Fishes:

  • At risk of opening this discussion up again, this episode is positively filled with “Tony’s doomed” moments, but the one that strikes me as most significant is that Tony plays the Michael Corleone role when he goes to the bathroom but doesn’t find the gun. In the series finale, of course, Members Only guy goes into the bathroom and… we’ll get to that.
  • The mention of “long term parking” also strikes me as a deliberate call to what’s about to happen, especially since we get a flashback to Billy Leotardo’s death in that episode.
  • It often seems like “The Test Dream” is an elaborate test run for Tony’s wanderings in Purgatory at the start of season six, which would give that episode title a whole new meaning.

Next week: Christopher checks a car into “Long Term Parking.”

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