“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano”
Directed by John Patterson | Written by David Chase | 60 min
A debut season for the ages
By Colin Hart
9.6 / 10
“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” is 60 minutes long with not a second wasted. As far as season finales go, it is a perfect capstone to the previous twelve episodes that came before. As far as first season finales go, I’m not sure it gets better than this, historically speaking.
The Sopranos season one is built on themes of family and trust. Tony Soprano, of course, has two families and the big question of this opening season has been to which one does he truly belong? The lines and loyalties are often blurred.
The basic plotline of season one, when stripped down to TV Essentialz, is Tony vs. Uncle Junior. But David Chase and crew have progressed this story rather unconventionally by way of detours into college road trips, script writing, Boca Raton, girls’ high school soccer and gangsta rap. The way the season progressed was revolutionary back in 1999 and it is still unique compared to the multitudes of shows that have come since. Season one has been a long, meditative (funeral) march moving with the pace and grace of natural life.
The plot points that have been slowly brewing—Livia’s true evil, the feds, Junior vs. Tony—are all picked up in earnest in “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” offering thrills for fans of both the mob and metaphysical aspects of the show.
A lot of HBO shows typically use the season finale as an anticlimax to reflect on what came before, the carnage usually occurring in the penultimate episode (The Wire and Game of Thrones often do this). Some Sopranos finales—namely “Army of One” (season 3), “All Due Respect” (season 5) and “Kaisha” (season 6A)—take this approach. “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano,” on the other hand, is a true climax through and through.
There are plenty of obligatory finale deaths to go around. Jimmy Altieri—who seems to be an obvious snitch—is given the axe (not literally, though) early on and his body is later found with a rat stuffed in its mouth. Tony gets in on the action later, shooting Junior loyalist Chucky Signore at the pier, absurdly procuring a gun from a large, grotesque, orange fish.
Most satisfying of all, of course, is Mikey Palmice’s death at the hands of Chris and Paulie. An on-foot chase through the woods, two gun-toting mobsters pursuing a third, all three fittingly wearing tracksuits. It’s a scene of great underplayed levity—Chris finally getting redemption for Brendan Filone’s murder, while Paulie is more concerned with the poison ivy he ran into.
The theme of Tony’s twin families has been the cornerstone for this first season and it dictates how all his actions play out in the finale. Tony knows that Uncle Junior staged the unsuccessful attempt on his life in “Isabella,” so he acts accordingly and orders Junior’s regime to be wiped out. Junior, however, sorta escapes Tony’s wrath when he is, at long last, arrested by the feds. Poor Uncle Jun.
One of the episode’s best scenes comes towards the end, as Junior is given the chance to admit that Tony Soprano was the Family’s actual boss in exchange for his freedom. The camera is close-up on Junior’s face, actor Dominic Chianese saying all he needs to say with a simple stare, but his line of stone-faced denial hits even harder: “My nephew running things? Not that strunz. Not in this life.”
Of course, it wasn’t just a Family-sanctioned hit on Tony last episode, it was “f”amily-sanctioned as well. Tony finds out via the FBI that his mother was the one who came up with the idea, which obviously shakes him more than if this were just a simple matter of business. It’s the worst possible thing ever, right? His own mother. Like Oedipus Rex in reverse.
Livia has been one of the driving forces of the season thanks to Nancy Marchand’s performance and her character has emerged as an extremely unconventional yet undeniably evil villain. Her convenient “memory loss” might be the result of declining health or it could be more of her manipulative tricks. She also “accidentally” reveals to Artie Bucco that Tony was the one who burnt down his restaurant way back in the pilot, thus setting Artie off on Tony, which in turn sets Tony off on his mother. The hatred is reciprocated.
“I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” is a masterpiece because of how successfully it wraps up the season’s main storylines. As former Star-Ledger TV critic Alan Sepinwall notes, David Chase didn’t even know if The Sopranos would be picked up for a second season when this was filmed, and so this finale leaves room for future developments but also can serve as a suitable ending point. Season one is surely the most cohesive and linear of all Sopranos seasons, future years being far more free-wheeling and unconcerned with plot. “I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano” gives us several rewarding payoffs.
Many characters are given fitting closure, Uncle Junior’s prideful scene with the feds being just one of the many highlights. Carmela also gets a fitting conclusion to the season, finally calling out Father Phil for being a manipulative asshole who uses spiritually hungry women for the whiff of sexuality.
Yet, typical of David Chase and The Sopranos, many things are also left ambiguous. Even though there were plenty of reasons to believe that Jimmy Altieri was a rat, it is never actually confirmed—his final “oh my god” utterance open to interpretation. And where is Pussy? (Answer: season two)
Livia’s memory loss also lacks clarification, her actions in her final scene offering up plenty of ambiguity. Tony—following his confrontation with Artie—goes to the hospital with the intent to, er, smother his mother with a pillow. The doctors tell him that she has had a stroke, but Tony believes this to be just another farce. Tony, in a rage, confronts Livia as she is carted away to an emergency room. As Tony is restrained by doctors, what appears to be a smile forms on Livia’s face, but her oxygen mask keeps us from being sure.
The pilot episode told the fundamental story of a man afraid to lose his family. Here we are twelve hours later and the verdict is still not out on whether Tony Soprano is a good man, but season one closes with a scene that underscores exactly what family Tony cares about the most.
A family gathering is how many Sopranos seasons will end, with the series finale “Made in America” specifically referencing the ending of this episode. In a violent thunderstorm, Tony, Carmela and the kids come across a tree blocking the road and are forced to seek refuge at Artie’s new restaurant, Nuovo Vesuvio’s. Tony managed to dissuade Artie from killing him earlier, and so the host welcomes him with open arms.
Inside a candlelit Vesuvio’s, eating their meals, are Silvio and Paulie, Chris and Adriana, along with other members of Tony’s Family, the restaurant aglow with friendly chatter. And there he sits with his “f”amily, happy to be alive and well with the ones he loves. In a line that will be echoed in the show’s final moments, Tony tells his kids to remember and cherish the little moments.
It’s a perfect end to a masterful season of television, one of the greatest debut seasons of all time.
- Lorraine Bracco delivers her finest performance of the season of this episode in only two scenes. The first is a therapy session where she lays the cards on the table, correctly assuming that Tony’s mother wass responsible for the “carjacking.” This was before Tony found out the same truth from the feds, prompting him to explode in anger, flip a table and aggressively threaten her.
- Melfi’s second great scene occurs later in the episode when Tony comes back to warn her that her life may be in danger (Tony seeing a therapist was one of the main reasons that Uncle Junior wanted him dead) and that she should leave town. Her reaction is fantastic, showing an exasperated human side to her character. Even though we’ve seen Melfi’s family in a previous episode, this is the first time where we truly recognize that she has a life outside of her encounters with Tony Soprano, with other patients she cares about too.
- The episode is directed by John Patterson, who is possibly the greatest of all Sopranos directors. He directed the earlier “Meadowlands,” and David Chase will entrust him to helm every season finale until his untimely death in 2005. Jimmy Altieri’s death is a particularly memorable sequence mainly due to Patterson’s expert directing, tension built via close-up and slo-mo as Chris and Silvio do the rest. We know what is going to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting.
- Ending with “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen is another stroke of genius. The Sopranos is sometimes unbelievable in the way it can perfectly set a tone. And, for what it’s worth, I think Nebraska is only the THIRD greatest Springsteen record of the ’80s (there were only three anyways).
- Aside from the final scene, the only times Tony is truly happy throughout the episode are when one of his enemies is about to go down. He is obliged to kill Chucky Signore and he can’t contain his good spirits on the day when Mikey Palmice’s hit is supposed to happen.
- Much of the emotional heft of this episode is derived from the Artie storyline, which masterfully picks up a plot thread that has been dormant since the pilot.
- Even Tony acknowledges how dumb of a plan it was to burn down Artie’s old restaurant, as he tries to dissuade him: “Ask yourself a question, Artie. Am I that fucking stupid?”
- The episode’s title, while being an homage to I Dream of Jeannie, comes from Tony’s erotic dreams about his neighbor (we saw her in “A Hit is a Hit”). Said dreams are not shown.
- “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”
- “We’ve got bigger things to talk about than Jean Cusamano’s ass.”
- “Like the man said: rust never sleeps.”
- “Has Tony thought about changing? Father, please.”
- “Ma. I know what you did. Your only son. Your male child.”
- “Someday soon you’re gonna have families of your own, and if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments like this, that were good. Cheers.”