''The Sopranos'': While you were out
Whether he's out of the woods remains to be seen; at least the Skip is out of a coma. Thanks in some small ironic part to the sound of stoo-stoo-stoopid Paulie's dumb-cluck yammering (a brain-drilling whine agitating enough to rev the heartbeat of even the near dead), Tony is back among the conscious again. Which means he's out of dreamland. Which to some of yas, I gather, is a good thing, because you've had enough, already, with T and the white light of the great beyond and the trouble with the Buddhist monks (''to some extent, all Caucasians look alike,'' one says wisely) and the whole Kevin Finnerty identity crisis. Not to mention you've had enough with wondering whether the voice of the wife heard talking on the phone to Dream Tony belongs to Carmela, Charmaine Bucco, Gloria Trillo, or what. Still, you've got to admit it was nice to see Steve Buscemi's Tony Blundetto, however briefly, in the afterlife.
But none of that dream time went to waste. I'm sure of it. For one thing, the rich worlds of spiritual and psychoanalytical exploration, represented by dreams and visions, have always co-existed with worldly whacking and ziti in The Sopranos the only TV show I can think of that has ever seriously approached (let alone appreciated) the hard work of psychotherapy, and prayer. To be ''bored'' by Tony's dreams is to be left with ciphers like 24's Jack Bauer (great show, but he's got to be the world's least reflective man), or the flashback-plagued, insight-deficient gang on Lost.
I'm just saying. Anyhow, while Tony was out, the very notion of family which, as Anthony Sr. told Anthony Jr. in the season opener, is the only thing you can count on has been coming dangerously undone in ways probably as important to future wide-awake action as the effects of a gunshot. Unstrung by exhaustion and by her son's own rage, Carmela lashes out at A.J. (''You're a cross to bear!''), then reflects later on whether she and her husband have made the kids complicit in Tony's criminal doings. And T's business associates? Fuhgeddaboudit. They're bitching and squabbling like the schoolyard bullies they no doubt once were. Here's Carmela, sitting by her husband's hospital bed reading Sue Grafton (one of those perfect quality-of-Soprano-life details at which the series excels) and waiting for brusque visits from Tony's imperious surgeon Dr. Plepler (ditto on the perfect names), and meanwhile, Paulie and Vito are setting up for a showdown. (When the going gets tough, tough guys on a diet like Vito go for a bag of baby carrots.) Silvio discovers he can't give three orders as acting head of the family without reaching for the asthma medicine. And uh-oh, Christuhfuh's got the movie bug again!
Actually, the flare-up of Chris' creative rash is great news for us: It's a pleasure to see Tim Daly back as debt-ridden recovering addict and TV scripter J.T. Dolan, now a writing teacher pompously lobbing psychobabble at students (''As writers we are all hung up but we are also hung up on our own hang-up'') before goons haul Chris's old former 12-step buddy away for a pitch meeting he can't refuse. I don't imagine Tony's nephew and his fellow would-be-movie-producer mobsters will get very far with the indie project Chris has in mind, brilliant as it is: ''Saw meets Godfather II''. If only for the chance to sit in on the investors' meeting something that could only happen over Tony's possibly dead body it was worth keeping the big guy in a coma one more week. Just as Silvio observes to his wife, with the reliable lack of originality for which we love him, ''with great power comes great responsibility,'' so devotees know this: With great Sopranos story pacing also come great comic subplots. Not to mention critical insights into the differences between Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy, as explicated by wiseguys who cut up people for real, not just for box-office receipts.
One quibble with this newest episode: Would Dr. Melfi really conduct a private session with the wife of her longtime patient Anthony? Much as I loved Carmela's insights into her marriage (''the minute I met Tony, I knew who that guy was....There are far bigger crooks than my husband''), I hope not. One wish: that the complications of Vito's life on the down low get more airtime, something that looks promising with Finn in town. And one question: You know that expression on Carmela's face when she caught Paulie and Vito looking glum in the hospital elevator after they handed over their envelope of obeisance cash to the boss's wife? What was she thinking? Do you think she knew what she saw? As Dr. Melfi observed, ''clarity can't be a bad thing.''