The Sopranos never shied away from the power of dreams and the subconscious. Often mistaken as “just a mafia show” by those who never gave the series a chance, some of The Sopranos magic came from its willingness to embrace more abstract concepts such as intuition and dream logic, which aren’t exactly traits commonly associated with mafia films. (Then again neither are therapy and the human condition, but I digress.) In this article I plan to explore first a few examples of the power of dreams in the show, leading towards the “Kevin Finnerty” episodes, which I do not believe to be dreams and conclude by looking at what the show was trying to tell us about intuition, specifically in regards to Tony. I’d like to begin by looking at a few of Tony’s most famous dreams and intuitive moments from the show.
In Season 1’s “Isabella,” Tony’s depression induced dreams/hallucinations bring him to a place where he envisions a beautiful Italian woman staying next door with his neighbors. She’s a mother figure; everything his mother wasn’t and symbolized what Tony had been missing and always desired from his mother. Later in that same episode, Tony survives an attempted hit on his life organized by his Uncle Junior at the urging of his own mother, Livia. Tony’s mind, his subconscious, through this fantasy of Isabella, was giving him the clues to figure out and accept who was trying to plan out his demise. Dr. Melfi was already trying to work with Tony to see that his mother was not someone he could trust. My interpretation of “Isabella” has always been that Tony, despite not wanting to believe Melfi, knew she was right. It was during this episode that Tony’s intuition finally took over and assisted him, allowing him to come to the level of acceptance required to know that his mother wanted him dead.
In Season 2, we saw perhaps the most famous “Tony dream episode” of the series, “Funhouse,” where Tony’s fever dreams take him to a place where he can finally come to grips with what he couldn’t before: Big Pussy was an FBI informant. In a more traditional narrative, someone would’ve outed Big Pussy; most likely laying a trap for him to fall in. In a shining example of David Chase’s fearless storytelling style, he allowed Tony’s subconscious to figure out what had been questioned for nearly all of the show’s first two seasons. This cemented Tony in the audience’s mind as someone whose leadership skills we should trust and that Tony had abilities his peers did not. It gave the character added depth as Chase doubled down on making his lead character different from any other portrayal of mob boss witnessed on either film or television.
Season 5 gave us “The Test Dream,” an episode which featured a 20-minute dream sequence bringing back numerous faces from previous seasons. I would also argue that unlike in previous dream episodes, Tony’s intuition failed him here or at the very least, his interpretation of what his intuition was presenting him. By far the most detailed of all of Tony’s dreams, “The Test Dream” sees Tony wrestle with his subconscious about whether or not he is prepared to give up Tony B. While the dream does touch on other issues in his life (namely his desire to be reunited with Carmela), the focus switches back to various deceased characters trying to point Tony in the direction of killing his own cousin, Tony B. Another part of the dream was “another Coach Molinaro” dream, as Tony would later tell Carmela. In that part of the dream, Tony was unprepared in his attempt to kill his former Coach, resulting in a lecture and then Tony trying to vocalize his value and success in life to the Coach. That was the part of Tony’s subconscious that was struggling over whether to kill Tony B or not and also the part of the dream Tony paid most attention to—he was confronting his self-doubt and fear here. He didn’t want to kill Tony B and had a lot of feelings over their relationship as a whole. He believed he had to though and he was trying to get prepared for it. Confronting his former Coach was an obstacle his subconscious threw in his way to test his confidence.
Looking at the series as a whole, Tony Soprano killing his cousin instead of allowing Phil to have his revenge was a turning point towards Tony Soprano’s downfall. The ending of the show can be tied to that event, that refusal to Johnny Sack and New York. Tony knew that him killing Tony B wouldn’t sit well with anyone from New York yet Tony did it anyway, in part because Johnny Sack wouldn’t guarantee a quick death for Tony B and also because Tony Soprano felt it was his job to do, his mess to clean up. In the dream, Big Pussy, Mikey, Ralphie and Tony’s father were all driving him “to do the job,” a line that Ralphie says when Tony asks where they’re going. Knowing Tony’s relationship with those men while they were living, their relationships with Tony were rocky at best.
Mikey helped plan Tony’s attempted assassination. Big Pussy flipped on Tony. Tony and Ralphie had many well-documented issues. Johnny Boy was never there for his son, as Melfi tried to help Tony discover, although unsuccessfully. Furthermore, Tony also killed Big Pussy and Ralphie himself and ordered Mikey’s murder. So the question becomes, why did Tony trust these men in his subconscious, in his dreams when they told him to kill Tony B when he couldn’t trust them in real life? Was Tony’s subconscious using untrustworthy sources as a way for him to see what NOT to do? While there is no definitive answer to that question, it does warrant debate among fans and scholars alike.
As I discussed in my article The Self Destruction of Tony Soprano, I believe Tony was in a steady decline from the ending of Season 4 on. All areas of his life—his family, his leadership skills, his intuition, were impacted by his decisions catching up to him and his ego began taking center stage. I believe a case can be made for “The Test Dream” having that name because Tony’s intuition was testing him, seeing if he would trust the unreliable narrators in the dream or if his mind was so clouded by all of the events in his life that he wouldn’t “smell the rat.” Tony obviously didn’t make the right choice and killed his cousin, escalating his issues with New York. This is when life intervened again, giving him a chance to start over in a sense: Tony was shot by Junior and wound up in a coma.
It would be wrong to call the episodes where Tony is in a coma and was living this other existence as “Kevin Finnerty” a dream. David Chase himself has even said so. While this experience can be classified in different ways, at its core, it was a near-death experience where Tony’s subconscious took over. It wasn’t a dream because it wasn’t a mere cataloging of thoughts being played out in Tony’s mind; this was a spiritual intervention being led by his own mind. The question of identity becomes a focal point as Tony begins to question whether or not he is Kevin, much like Tony Soprano was always struggling with the conflicting parts of his personality. Major issues in Tony’s life such as infidelity and the importance of family came up, and Tony/Kevin was able to see what life could, in fact, be like if he were not to keep repeating the mistakes he’s made over and over so far in life. Tony/Kevin is confronted by Monks, who claim that Kevin Finnerty has not held up his end of a business deal with them and Tony, despite telling them that he’s not Kevin, is being made to face the consequences, something that rarely happened to Tony in real life.
One of the most interesting parts of this whole experience was when Tony/Kevin falls down the stairs and while being treated for a concussion is told he has Alzheimer’s. Mirroring his gunshot in real life, the doctor here tells Tony/Kevin that this can be treated and that he should see his doctors when he gets home, which we can assume means Melfi. This sequence is perhaps the most telling part of all—Tony in both real life and here in this spiritual intervention is at a cross roads. Death is a very real possibility. Here, as Tony/Kevin, he’s being told that he doesn’t have to die and his intuition is pushing him towards Dr. Melfi and a chance to actually work on the behaviors that could ultimately lead towards his death. He’s first seen what life could be like without the behaviors, then given a look at what the big picture holds for him—change or die, which leads to the final part of the journey as Tony/Kevin, where the fear of death is firmly planted in him. He winds up at what he’s told is a “family reunion” where Tony B is outside, trying to take his briefcase (which represents his identity in this experience) and force him inside the home. Tony/Kevin intuitively knows he shouldn’t go in and the will to live kicks in, bringing Tony Soprano both back from this experience and out of his coma.
As I stated in my previous article, Tony was given a chance to start over and correct the course of his life following his coma. Despite initially changing his ways, Tony reverted, and I believe paid the ultimate price for it in the series finale, “Made in America.” So what does all of this mean? We’ve established through the earlier examples that Tony was able to tap into his subconscious through dreams to make better decisions as a result. I’ve also stated that I believe that sometimes his subconscious was testing him (The Test Dream) and didn’t always serve up easy answers on a silver platter. Finally, when Tony turned a corner towards his demise, his subconscious stepped in and used a near-death experience to tell him what his last two options were. Was Tony special? Was this ability unique to him? I don’t believe that’s what David Chase was telling us at all. Besides family (both in a traditional and mafia sense) what was the other most important element of the show? Therapy. Throughout his years with Dr. Melfi, Tony, despite being defiant was learning about the human condition and in particular, what he suffered from. Yes, he was making choices as to which parts to pay attention to and which parts he wanted to conveniently ignore, but his mind was absorbing it all, and his mind was dispensing these things to him through his dreams.
There were times when therapy was important to Tony and times when he went out of habit. That alone is part of what makes Tony a truly fascinating character study. The man was complex. A mob boss who battled with conflicting sides of his own personality. A man who never healed from childhood wounds but spent most of his life acting as if they had. A man whose impulses controlled him and alienated him, and his defiant nature sealed his fate. Tony had the tools all throughout the series to escape the parts of his life that caused him personal harm. Therapy took a very capable man and equipped him with the power of his subconscious. Ultimately, his defiance outweighed that strength though and leaves us wondering what could have been had Tony Soprano just listened to himself.