I Like to Watch

Should you waste your time analyzing Tony Soprano's dreams or fearing for Donna Moss' life? The boss of you weighs in. Plus: How will "The Sopranos" and "24" end? Place your bets here.

By Heather Havrilesky

Published May 24, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Dreamscape architecture

Dear ILTW,

Why didn't you explain to me Tony Soprano's dream on HBO's "The Sopranos" last week? Isn't that your duty?

-- Jerice

Dear Jerice,

If I explained everything to you, you'd never learn to think on your own. You'd end up looking to me for all the answers, much like a small child. This would put me in the uncomfortable position of being above you, on a pedestal, like some kind of a demigod: untouchable, omnipotent, beyond reproach ...

OK, so here goes: Tony wakes up next to Carmine Lupertazzi, who says he misses his wife. This suggests that Tony is preoccupied with his own mortality, and he misses Carmela. The phone rings. Tony answers, and a voice tells him that someone needs to go, which refers to Tony's pressing need to get rid of Tony B. The fact that Tony doesn't question this order means that, in order to keep the family together, there's no other way to handle the mess he's in. Next, Tony is in therapy, talking about his dream to Gloria (Annabella Sciorra), the girlfriend who committed suicide after he broke up with her. Gloria may present a parallel to Tony B. in this scene, since Tony's warm feelings for her were replaced by intense guilt. Next, Tony is in a car with a bunch of murdered mob associates including Big Pussy and Ralphie, and Tony's father is driving them all to "the job." The car ride reflects the fact that Tony has inherited uncomfortable obligations and escaping them would mean turning his back on his identity.

Then, Tony is at his house where he talks to Carmela about meeting the parents of Meadow's fiance, Finn, for dinner. Tony's teeth start falling out, indicating a sense of powerlessness. At dinner, Artie's wife, Charmaine, flirts with Tony, which reflects Tony's nostalgia for his youth, his guilt over betraying Artie and his desire to have a wife again. Then everything goes haywire: Finn's parents are corrupt cop Vin Makazian (John Heard) and Annette Bening, Tony shows everyone the bloody tooth in his hand, Finn turns into Anthony, Vin sings "Three Times a Lady," and Carmela and Annette start talking about penises, which must represent knives or umbrellas in this case, since according to Freud, those things represent penises in dreams.

OK, I give up. Critics, fans and curious viewers nationwide have been knocking themselves out interpreting this dream sequence, but I don't think picking apart each image or examining every reference really gets us any closer to the center of Tony's story. What matters the most about Tony's dream isn't some intellectual deconstruction of its elements which might hint at the plot of the last two episodes, but the overall emotional impact it has on the viewer. When you see Tony crawling across the floor in his underwear, then pulling bloody teeth from his mouth and picking up bullets from the floor that are disintegrating in his hands, what general feeling do you have about the state he's in?

From the first season, David Chase has offered us a vivid taste of the isolation and melancholy that come from having power. When Tony decides to stay at the Plaza in a room overlooking the treetops of Central Park, we don't need to be reminded that this is a lonely, alienated man who feels trapped in his place at the top. It's precisely the subliminal nature of these images that makes watching "The Sopranos" such a moody, visceral experience.

That said, I really felt that the dream went on for too long while key plot points -- Tony B. attacking Billy and Phil Leotardo -- occurred off-screen. Chase has a right to indulge his flights of fancy whenever he wants, but with only two episodes left, I'd personally prefer to know more about how Adriana is handling her relationship with the FBI, or how Meadow and her lame fiancé are getting along. Ever since Tony B. went from wanting to go legit and become a massage therapist to acting like an out-of-control gambler and thug, beating up his business partner and going behind Tony's back in accepting a hit job, I've found his character arc a little bit tough to buy.

But when you're taking big risks on every show, you don't get every single thing perfect, and it's pretty absurd the way we "Sopranos" viewers march around, crowing endlessly about what we'd rather have seen the night before. The show's strengths inevitably make up for its weaknesses several times over. Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), with her hypnotized staccato delivery, has bugged me from her first scene, but James Gandolfini is such a good actor, he could have a nuanced discussion with a grapefruit.

The point is, David Chase experiments with nonlinear narrative because he can. His bizarre leaps of faith and rambling digressions pave the way for the emergence of more inventive television across the board. That doesn't mean everything he churns out is pure genius, as some would have you believe. It just means that, after five years, he's earned the right to do it his way. With or without a detailed analysis, whether or not you got bored five minutes into the dream, you get the picture: Tony is facing the biggest challenge of his tenure as boss, and he doesn't feel up to it, to say the least.

As it turns out, the turmoil of Tony's dream was the perfect set-up for last night's episode. Although Tony B. has it coming to him, Tony's nagging conscience, combined with Johnny Sack's increasingly arrogant behavior, led Tony to refuse the new New York boss's demands. This is new territory for Tony: Despite whatever ambivalence and confusion he might have suffered in the past, whenever someone threatened the well-being of the family, they had to go. The appearance of Big Pussy, Ralphie and other victims of Tony's wrath in the dream make sense in this context (Artie's presence is, of course, still a mystery). In this case, Tony's flying without a radar into the crosshairs of a vengeful foe, and it's almost certain someone's going to pay for it.

Of course, you couldn't expect the same mercy to be extended to Adriana. Even though it was clear she was doomed from early in the season, it was still tough not to hope for the best. Maybe Tony's soft spot for her would save her? Or Christopher would show some mercy, find her a lawyer, help her craft a plan to get out of the mess she was in? No such luck. To me, Adriana may be the most tragic character on the show since Big Pussy. Unlike some of the others, like Richie and Ralphie, who actively worked against Tony and arrogantly flaunted their disregard for him, Adriana was just trapped. The irony, of course, is that while Tony valiantly saves Tony B., who openly disregarded Tony's wishes at every turn and in so doing screwed the family, Tony unceremoniously disposed of Adriana without a second thought.

It's sort of sad, isn't it? Adriana was one of my favorite characters. Do you feel sad, too, Jerice? I bet you do.


Calling Sorkin! Come in, Sorkin!

Dear ILTW,

And what was that on NBC's "The West Wing" last night?

Is Leo dying? Is that hideous, smarmy blonde Condoleezza going to keep having airtime? Are we trying to show Dubya what a smart president would do? Why isn't Stockard Channing in every scene? Was that the season finale?

God, what is happening to my world?

-- Jerice

Dear Jerice,

This is what's happening to your world: You're becoming dependent on me, whom you shall heretofore refer to as "Master."

It's exhilarating how little work it takes to become the boss of you. But it does bother me a little that you noticed that thing about Leo feeling tired. What, are you thinking for yourself or something? You know I don't encourage that.

You're right about Leo, though. He's either planning some kind of an uprising, or he's about to kick the bucket. Either way, I don't like it. Leo used to be loyal to a fault. Why must he get all bossy and hawkish out of the blue? As much as I've criticized the hopelessly self-righteous, unfathomably idealistic braying of these characters under Aaron Sorkin's reign, it's somehow disappointing to see Leo, of all people, falling into a scoldy Dr. Kerry Weaver routine.

I don't know if I like Donna running around having affairs, either. I thought Donna was sort of that spunky office girl who never goes anywhere and lives a sort of pathetic, overworked existence. Dumping her into the middle of Gaza was sort of like "ER" dropping Noah Wyle off in Kenya so he could sweat and swoon in front of a new backdrop. It feels a little bit forced and overly exotic for a show that generally takes place in the same interior setting week after week.

And anyway, do we still care that Josh still cares about Donna? I'm not sure we do. But ... maybe this whole thing is just a dream! Maybe Toby and Josh and C.J. and Bartlet will all wake up and realize the whole crazy "ER"-style season was the longest extended dream sequence known to modern television.

And if it is a dream, then the missiles President Bartlet is about to drop on the Palestinians represent penises, and the Oval Office clearly represents a woman, and the entire Middle East represents Bartlet's conflicted feelings about his mother.

What an amazing finale!


I'd rather be sailing to Tahiti

Dear ILTW,

Where is your finale review of Fox's "The O.C."? I'm sure I only add to a growing list of freaks and Internet junkies asking you this. How can I be sure I enjoyed it until I know that you did? I mean, I think they did passably well with the massive Fonzie-on-water skis that is a "Whose baby is it?" plot line, but what doth the oracle of pop culture say? Except, of course for the "Abortion is a woman's right, but women only choose it because they don't know better and then they are scarred for life" speech, which set off some creepy alarms, but it wasn't awful, hence I need your input. And what the hell is up with the protagonists of both the WB's "Everwood" and "The O.C." getting their midseason girlfriends in the family way? Should we take this to mean that contraception fails more often between January and March? Weird. So yeah, shouldn't you be having an end-of-the-season soap review about now?!

My God, I am a sad, sad human being.

Oh well.

-- Andy

Dear Andy,

I like the way you admit that you're sad, and that you don't know how to feel about anything without taking your cue from me. You've definitely completed the third step, yielding control to a higher power -- i.e. yours truly. You should be proud of yourself. But not too proud.

Sadly, soon you will regret enjoying the finale of "The O.C.," since I felt that it was a mirror image of the plot of every other episode during the second half of the season. Sandy suspects Caleb's motives. Kristen is fed up with Julie Cooper. Jimmy and Hailey dig each other in a bland, minor-subplot sort of way. Ryan is silently conflicted over stuff. Seth is alternately witty and mopey. But worst of all is Marissa, tossing back swigs of hard alcohol to cope like some alien from the planet of shitty teen movies and after-school specials. "The O.C." is fresh and pretty and works in so many ways, so why doesn't anyone on its writing staff know how to wrap up an episode without throwing a big party that gets ruined when someone hauls off and punches someone else, makes a disturbing announcement, falls into the pool, gets wasted, etc.?

If it's so important for every single character to be involved in every single episode of the show, then someone had better invent something more significant for them to do than stand around in the sunshine, talking about the same big problem for the entire episode. Come on, guys. Study some of the story lines of "thirtysomething" or HBO's "Six Feet Under" and figure out how to lend some of these plots a little bit more emotional weight. Hire some old pros who know a thing or two about extending and expanding a show's premise instead of repeating the pilot over and over again.

To be fair, of course, "The O.C." has been on the air since last summer, save for a break during the World Series. Chances are that, with a few months off, the writers will find a way to generate some more interesting stories.

But my disappointment doesn't end there. Of all shows, you'd think that "The O.C." could handle an unwanted pregnancy without resorting to the same self-conscious path: "I know I'm just a midseason girlfriend, but I'm far too honorable to remove a 2-week-old zygote from my loins. I'd rather sacrifice my young life to the cause of raising the baby of my violent fiancé/unavailable midseason boyfriend." "I understand completely, young lady, because when I was younger, I removed a blastocyst from my uterus and it's traumatized me ever since. The only proper thing is to carry that fertilized egg to term, raise that unwanted child on a waitress' salary and suffer the consequences of being a hideous whore donkey for the rest of your days on earth."

But then, maybe it's all just a dream, and the baby represents happiness, rebirth and trust, while Seth's sailing away to Tahiti represents his need for space and privacy ...

Um, by the way, is Seth really sailing to Tahiti on a Sunfish or whatever that preteen-friendly boat he owns is? I assume, since he left notes for his parents and Summer, that he's not just cruising over to Catalina. Isn't it a wee bit ill-advised to set sail on the high seas in what looks like a 5-foot-long boat without a radio or a substantial supply of fresh water? See, this is where the morons who need to be rescued by the Coast Guard every five minutes get their big ideas.

Come on, "The O.C." Get your friggin' act together.


Cliffhanger prediction time!
Better break out the snacks and the soft pants, because you've got a lot of TV to watch. Tuesday night, Fox's "24" ends, hopefully with a bang. Wednesday, if there's a god, Fantasia wins the dubious accolade of "American Idol," also on Fox. And of course, "The Sopranos" finale looms in two weeks. Send me your predictions about what might happen in these finales! The most accurate prophecy will receive lots of gratifying mild praise and deeply fulfilling tiny little pats on the head.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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