“I had the craziest dream,” we’ll often say, mostly as a disclaimer out of subconscious embarrassment over the fact that every single one of our dreams are completely bananas. Dreams are endlessly fascinating, unknowable things, but (much like smoking weed) film and television rarely get them right, often going too over the top with their depiction and/or using them as unequivocal plot devices to let you know what is preoccupying the protagonist. It’s become a trope, the character swiftly sitting up in bed in a cold sweat over what they just experienced, and the truth is messier than that; dreams are swirling maelstroms of thoughts, feelings, experiences and anxieties - sometimes mundane, sometimes profound, sometimes poetic, sometimes stupid.
‘The Test Dream’ is the eleventh episode of the fifth season of The Sopranos, and the one I still think about most out of all 86 of them. It gives over two thirds (roughly 30 minutes) of its runtime to one of Tony’s dreams, which takes place on a fairly unremarkable day by his standards, the boss visiting his mistress, getting irritated by his housekeeper’s ineptitude and dropping in on his cousin Tony B. Separated from his wife Carmela and staying at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Tony, after having sex with a prostitute he orders out of boredom off the suite’s TV, falls asleep and begins dreaming. Note there are no hallucinogenic drugs involved here, no external, real world sounds or movements affecting the dream - it’s just a regular one, at least in terms of circumstance, as the dream itself is sprawling.
Opening in the very same suite he fall asleep in, it sees Tony bounce between situations familiar to him and yet somehow a little skewed, disrupted, unsettled - off. Like all dreams, or at least my experience of them, consciousness being subjective as it is, it never settles into a groove, with seemingly innocent scenarios turning sinister, or perilous situations suddenly becoming slapstick and comical. Whether Tony’s riding a horse in the living room of his family home or just meeting his daughter Meadow’s parents for dinner, a sense of dread underpins everything. Initially, it’s over his long-standing existential crisis and preoccupation with death, with deceased New York don Carmine Lupertazzi, whom he wakes up in bed next to, lamenting how there is nothing “on the other side” and instructing Tony to speak to God on the phone (voiced by show creator David Chase, a meta touch and a perfect one given God tells Tony to kill someone, just as Chase does in the screenplays). Soon, however, it becomes clear that it is the grim inevitability of having to kill his cousin to save him from torture that is hanging heaviest in Tony’s mind and this is threaded through a lot of the scenes, though never in an overbearing way. For every nod to Tony’s violent duty, there is an oblique or tangential moment that throws us off course.
It nails some very recognisable elements to dreams along the way: when you think you’ve woken up but haven’t (there are two or three fake-outs), people’s voice and appearances changing/swapping but their identities remaining the same, teeth falling out (the classic anxiety dream), lucid dreams (“You know, douchebag, I realise I’m dreaming”) and school tests (hence the episode title ‘The Test Dream’, though in very Tony Soprano fashion his test is to kill his gym coach). It tackles the absurdity of how easily situations are solved and how simplistic conversations often are in dreams; at the dinner scene, the parents of Meadow’s boyfriend cheerily tell him: “We know all about you [being in the mafia] and we think it’s great!” “Well that’s a relief, huh Tony!” Carmela responds with a grin. Toward the close, it reflects the fact that dreams all too often descend into horror movies, with Tony being chased by an angry mob and shot at from a window by Lee Harvey Oswald (he always was obsessed with the Kennedys).
Chase uses the episode to have fun with the genre, putting finger guns in the place of real guns and playing with the fact that we all try to forget we are watching famous actors on screen during a scene in which we initially accept the casting of Annette Benning as Finn’s mother, only for Tony to lean over to her and goofily remark: “Hey you’re Annette Benning!” There are references to The Godfather too, Tony reaching behind a toilet cistern for a gun, and numerous nods to previous episodes, my favourite being Tony trying to fire a gun but finding the bullets are made of faeces, bringing to mind his infamous line: “I’m like King Midas in reverse, everything I touch turns to shit!”
In terms of cinematography, the episode has a lot of characters deliver lines directly into the camera, placing you the viewer in the dream and there’s a wonderfully Lynchian moment in which Carmela pleads with Tony to get dressed, at which point he defiantly gestures to a television set showing him getting dressed. On a recent watch, a brief rustling of wind in the trees stood out as important, foreshadowing Adriana’s death the following season.
When Tony finally does wake, there’s no swift sit-to-vertical in bed, camera zooming in as he screams. Instead, he just gets out of bed and retrieves a bottle of water and a Toblerone from the mini bar and looks a little dazed, as we all do after taking on that amount of information in a dream. When Christopher visits him and informs him of his cousin’s murderous rampage, we get the impression that the dream has somehow cemented Tony’s decision on how he must act. It’s not a grand statement about the importance of dreams - I kind of read the situation as Tony's latest act of selfishness; if a person is causing him anxiety/paranoia even in his sleep then they ‘gotta go’ - but it does convey this sense that they’re weirdly affecting and stay with you, as incoherent and obviously cerebrally misfiring as they are.
At the end of the episode, which, like all Sopranos episodes refreshingly ends not with a major conclusion or cliffhanger but on a muted note, in this case discussion of the neighbour’s dog barking, Tony, like a child, ends up reaching out to Carmela after his nightmare and calling her up. Something so abstract and bizarre has somehow made him want to reconnect with the most important person in his life, and who can say a dream hasn’t briefly altered how they’ve thought about someone, even though that makes absolutely no sense?
‘The Test Dream’ is one of the finest episodes of television full stop, and definitely sees the highest verisimilitude achieved when it comes to dreams, the contrary nature of which is perhaps best summed up in this exchange between Tony and Finn’s dad during the dream at a urinal:
“Well, this is real life.”
“No it’s not, this is it.”