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The Sopranos: I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano (Review)

From pretty much the opening scene, I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano begins wrapping up loose ends with a ruthless efficiency. Jimmy, the rat identified in Nobody Knows Anything, is murdered less than five minutes into the episode. All the various plot threads seeded throughout the show’s first year come to a head. The feud between Junior and Tony is resolved. The FBI swoop in. Tony and Melfi talk it out and figure out exactly what their relationship is. Even Artie’s restaurant becomes a focal point, providing a direct link back to the very first episode.

For all the talk of randomness and inconsistency in The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti, everything here seems to come a full circle. It’s absolutely stunningly executed, and one of the best things that can be said about I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano (and one of the best things that could be said about any piece of television drama ever) is the fact that it feels so much deeper and richer than its runtime. We know that it’s an hour-long, but it really feels so much meatier and more substantial than that.

It’s a beautiful culmination to a year’s worth of television.

Lights out...

Lights out…

I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano seems like David Chase made a list of the dangling plot threads running through the season, and decided to close them off as efficiently and effectively as possible. There’s even a nice attempt to bring some closure to the relationship between Melfi and Tony, suggesting a logical progression. Melfi would develop into something of a problem character as the show went on, more of a plot function than a character in her own right. There are times – later in the run – where the show seems to struggle with what to do with her.

This is understandable. After all, Melfi is much more interesting as a sounding-board for Tony than she is as a character with her own social circle and family members. Her middle-class lifestyle is probably closer to that of the average HBO subscriber, and I suspect that’s part of the reason that it feels so mundane when compared to the shady dealings of Tony and his supporting cast. There’s something of a vicarious thrill in watching law-breakers, something that even the earliest gangster films were able to effortlessly hone in on. On the other hand, dinner table discussions are much less compelling.

Smother dearest...

Smother dearest…

And it’s worth noting that Melfi’s plot function is relatively vital. The Sopranos has been compared to something of a televised novel, and that makes a great deal of sense. Episodes are frequently more like chapters in an on-going narrative than self-contained units of story. Themes and characters run through, with arcs cleverly structured to span years. However, there’s also a sense that Tony has a richer internal life than many television protagonists. By nature of his profession, he’s not a talkative individual. He’s unlikely to share openly with those around him.

Melfi allows Tony to articulate his inner thoughts in a way that wouldn’t feel organic otherwise. If you were to adapt The Sopranos into a great American novel, you could probably exorcise Melfi completely. Tony’s thoughts about the ducks could be articulated in prose; his flashbacks could be offered as a chapter break. However, in television, it’s not possible to so firmly delineate between a character’s external and internal lives. Melfi allows Tony to express his own ideas and insights, which really serve to make Tony a more interesting and compelling character to us.

Talk about running him down...

Talk about running him down…

This is probably why Melfi comes to feel like a bit of a drag as the show continues on, as the show struggles with the notion that one member of its well-rounded ensemble doesn’t really feel like a character. So you get a couple of token attempts to draw her into the narrative, or to make the show (even briefly) about her. It doesn’t really work, and it often feels like The Sopranos is trying too hard to integrate her as part of the narrative.

I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano manages to make Melfi vitally important by playing to her role in the show. She exists pretty much as the echo chamber where Tony can express himself openly and honestly – she’s the vehicle for his introspection and insight. That’s why it’s so important that he sends her away while he takes care of matters. You can’t have meditation and reflection getting in the way of Tony’s basic survival.

There's an Artie to his cooking...

There’s an Artie to his cooking…

It’s Melfi who pokes Tony on towards the necessary revelations he needs to have. “Isn’t it interesting?” she asks about his mother’s sudden dementia. “How this memory loss incident just cropped up after you failed to be killed in the carjacking incident? Do you think it was a carjacking?” Indeed, I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano even makes Melfi more of a proactive character. “Look, ordinarily, a patient is helped to make his own breakthroughs, but your life is in danger – so, okay, I’m willing to put the cards on the table.”

This is interesting, because it underscores Melfi’s complicity in Tony’s actions. Up until this point, her involvement was mostly passive. She could ask questions that might point him in a particular direction, but there was a very clear sense that Tony was the one making the judgements and decisions. Melfi didn’t lead him directly to conclusions, so she could rationalise that she wasn’t necessarily complicit in helping a New Jersey mob boss run his organisation.

Watch yourself...

Watch yourself…

Here, the show argues that her deniability is gone. She’s not just trying to help Tony set his own course, she’s spelling his situation out to him. There is every possibility that what she tells Tony will lead the man to murder his mother. (Indeed, he’s actively prepared to smother her at one point, until fate intervenes.) Melfi argues that she’s helping Tony survive, but how does she weigh that against the cost of helping him?

Is the life of Livia unimportant to her simply because Melfi has never met Livia? Is she only helping Tony because she happens to know him, and any deaths that happen outside the office and out of her immediate awareness can be rationalised? One of the recurring themes of The Sopranos, and one the show would revisit in the very next episode, is the idea that people are inherently numb to violence and suffering once it takes place outside of their field of vision.

Talk about a skilful execution...

Talk about a skilful execution…

In Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office, it’s telling that Melfi is more shook up about the suicide of a patient she knew than by the death of Mikey or anybody else caught in the crossfire. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano is pretty much the point at which Melfi’s plausible deniability disappears, and she is completely caught in the web of Tony Soprano. It’s interesting how Tony tries to use the situation to assert his control over Melfi, to push her under his thumb – as he’s been trying and failing to do for most of the season.

“I’ll take care of it, and you’re going to be able to come back,” he explains, as if trying to position himself as a night in shining armour. In away, I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano is the moment where Melfi loses a lot of her personal autonomy. The show would make several attempts to reassert it (most obviously in Employee of the Month), but she is complicit now. She is tainted. She can no longer claim to be objectively neutral. She has helped Tony make decisions knowing that they’d lead him to murder.

Happily married...

Happily married…

Perhaps this is why so much of the remainder of the show feels like it’s struggling to define Melfi as her own character. She’s been completely drawn into Tony’s orbit. She’s not an impartial outsider any longer. Tony finally got what he wanted from her – he got her to commit to him. Of course, she does try to run away in Guy Walks Into a Psychiatrist’s Office, but I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano represents the point of no return for Melfi. The battles for her soul will become smaller and the victories more hollow from here on out.

The show brings other season-long plots to fruition. Most suitably, it brings Artie a full circle. The destruction of his restaurant served as the basis of the show’s pilot, so it all comes back around when Livia manipulates Artie into almost murdering her son with a hunting rifle. I love how Tony assumes that it’s some grand conspiracy manipulating Artie. “They got in your ear?” he asks, demonstrating just how skilfully manipulative Livia is. There is no gigantic scheme seeking to undermine Tony. It’s just a sick woman in a hospital bed.

Parting shots...

Parting shots…

There’s also a lovely sense of how incredibly messed up Tony’s priorities are. “Why the #!$? would I blow your restaurant?” he asks Artie. The restaurateur responds,  “To help me!” The irony, of course, is that Arties’ not crazy. He’s entirely correct. To Tony, blowing up Artie’s restaurant was a favour. Most people would help you lift stuff while you move. Tony, on the other hand, will blow up your restaurant for you. That’s a true buddy.

Again, Artie is made completely complicit in what Tony does. His wife continues to be repulsed by the mob, but Artie is honest enough to concede that it pays the bills. Having murderers and thugs frequent your establishment can be good for business, and Artie won’t hesitate to capitalise in his own way on the work that Tony does. “When are you gonna get it through your head that a certain amount of that kind of patronage creates buzz?”

Preying on the faithful...

Preying on the faithful…

That’s one of the fascinating things about The Sopranos, and a wonderful way for David Chase to generate sympathy for Tony. Tony can be a monster, but it’s hard not to pity the man when we see how the community feeds on him. Father Phil takes exception to being called a parasite, but that’s what he is – at least when he’s not a vulture. “Is that Jackie’s watch?” Carmela asks when Phil fidgets with the watch on his wrist. For a spiritual man, his motivations seems especially materialistic. “I just realised this morning that I can set one of the dials to the millennial countdown.”

Father Phil is an interesting example of the show’s attitude towards set-up and pay-off. He appeared in Isabella, but he’s been largely absent from the show since Pax Soprana. However, the show doesn’t forget about him, and makes him an integral part of the climax of Carmela’s character arc. (Indeed, Tony’s one line to him in Isabella is a shout-out to his role in College.) It’s a very clever way of structuring a season, and demonstrates how tightly Chase has constructed this year of television.

A long run...

A long run…

The pay-off to the relationship between Father Phil and Carmela is delightful, as Carmela calls out Phil on the way he treats Tony. “He’s a sinner, father,” she admits. “And you come up here and you eat his steaks and you use his home theatre system.” Everybody wants something, and – despite the implications of her complicity in her husband’s crimes – there’s something genuinely touching about the way that Carmela stands up for Tony.

“You wanna watch One True Thing?” she asks, in what might be the most delightful way to to pay-off an entire character arc in a single line. “Fine. At least admit it.” That’s Carmela in a nutshell, trying to come to terms with what she wants and how it is provided. There’s no shame in admitting that she wants a good life for her children, or that she wants financial security, but she has to be willing to admit that to herself before she can begin to accept her role in Tony’s life.

Foolin' around...

Foolin’ around…

We also get a bit more of an insight into how the FBI operate here. They don’t seem to function as a law enforcement agency so much as an agency with their own agenda and concerns. When Tony explains the situation to Melfi, he cautions her not to go to the cops. “They’re not going to help you, because you can’t give them anything.” The Sopranos is, in many ways, an exploration of the many forms of American capitalism, and how the entire country – from crime to law enforcement to family – has become a business arrangement, a quid pro quo deal where you are only as good as what you offer in return.

The FBI seems to be goading Tony into killing Junior and Livia as much as it’s trying to arrest him or get him to turn state’s witness. It’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation which provides Tony with the evidence he needs to finally motivate him to clean the slate – arguably making them somewhat complicit. And, as Tony discovers when they invite him to listen to their tapes, the FBI has its own financial concerns. “You wired Green Row?” he asks. “It was my idea,” an agent explains. “Everyone else thought it was a waste of money.” Of course, it all comes down to money.

Let it (F)B(I)...

Let it (F)B(I)…

Then again, The Sopranos has always been the story about how the little things get away from us. Think of the damage that the misidentification of the mole did in Nobody Knows Anything. Here, Tony seems to suggest that it was the events of “Sopranos-as-sit-com” episode Boca that pushed his feud with Junior to a head. “I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted.” He sums up, “Cunninglingus and psychiatrists brought us to this.”

Indeed, it’s ultimately Junior’s pride which spares Tony the weight of the FBI crashing down on top of him. “Your tenure as boss was a short one,” an FBI agent informs Junior. “Actually, it was unusual in several ways. Let me put this to you as simply as I can. You can avoid sentencing on these charges if you will testify that, in fact, you were not the boss of New Jersey; that, in fact, your nephew Antony Soprano was and is.”

Letting it all out...

Letting it all out…

It’s a pretty good deal, not unlike the place in the witness protection program offered to Tony in Isabella. However, it requires Junior to swallow his pride. He can’t do that. “My nephew running things? Not that strunz. Not in this life.” It’s perfectly in-character, and feels like the culmination of Junior’s character arc, which has always been based more on pride and respect than on reason or logic. The beautiful thing about this season is that so many of these plot twists might seem like convenient “get out of jail free” cards for Tony, if they weren’t so carefully and meticulously set up.

It’s appropriate, then, that the episode ends with a small moment. It’s the family, going out to dinner, as they would at the end of Made in America. In a way, the whole scene seems like a dream sequence, or even like the after life. Tony and his family are travelling in a storm, only to get waylaid. By coincidence, they find themselves at a familiar restaurant. When they walk inside everybody is there. It’s one big reunion, the cast after-party starting early.

Dance with the devil...

Dance with the devil…

Christopher and Adrianna  are sitting at the bar. Paulie and Silvio are sitting at a table, whining and complaining. Artie is running the restaurant. I like that Paulie is the mobster most frustrated by the fact that Tony is seeing a psychiatrist, despite the fact that he also say a psychiatrist. It’s another one of the wonderfully subtle suggestions we get throughout the first season that Paulie isn’t necessarily well-balanced, even by the standards of the New Jersey mafia. “I had some issues. Enough said. I lacked some coping skills.”

I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano is a beautiful season finalé, and a fitting end to one hell of a first season.

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