The end is near for ‘The Sopranos’
“THE SOPRANOS” begins its final run of nine installments this Sunday on HBO with the sound of law enforcement banging at Tony Soprano’s door. “Is this it?”
Carmela says, sitting up in bed. I took that line as a poke at the audience, mocking the otherworldly hype and expectation about the conclusion of the series, which is to say who gets to live and who gets to die.
Some of what makes “The Sopranos” great is unforeseen magic, inexorably tied to the freedom success on HBO has granted ó the way Robert Iler, for instance, who plays AJ Soprano, has gone in real time from chubby kid to the sullen, direction-less twentysomething that perfectly embodies the questionable citizen Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) have produced.
Perhaps, over the course of its eight years and 86 hours, the show’s ultimate sleight-of-hand is the way in which the gruesome acts of violence these guys commit invites our repulsion even as these same crimes are quickly forgiven (and/or forgotten). Part of this, true, involves the romanticizing of the mob in popular culture, but all the buzzing about who will get bumped off as the series wraps up ó Paulie? Syl? Christopher? ó belies the fact that what makes “The Sopranos” meaningful is the way it observes (grouses about, really) the texture of contemporary life.
“The Sopranos” is a bitter comedy about family, the clash of the old world and the new, of parent and child, the violence and criminal behavior set off by the fact that the very same week Tony sits opposite a therapist whose job is to ask, “So, where are you?”
So where were we?
“The Sopranos” began last season with a plot event ó Tony shot by his demented Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) ó which set in motion a season that was, in retrospect, kind of baroque: A comatose mob boss has a near-death experience in which he’s being hounded by Buddhist monks, who mistake him for a salesman of a faulty heating system.
There was also the outing of the gay mob lieutenant Vito, played as a tragedy of identity, and Tony’s nephew Christopher’s trip to Hollywood to woo Sir Ben Kingsley (“Sir Kingsley!” as Christopher saluted him) for his mob-themed slasher movie “Cleaver.”
In the brief flush of action that propels us back into the series’ final season, Tony is arrested on a gun charge, a flashback reminding us that he tossed the weapon in question into the snow back in 2004, while fleeing a raid on New York crime boss Johnny Sack’s house. The gun arrest (a nuisance charge by the Essex County sheriff’s office) turns out to be a palate teaser, for various bills will finally come due now, RICO cases being brought to fruition and the Cosa Nostra gasping into the 21st century without viable successors, white-haired men meting out justice and jockeying for position with other white hairs, the larger “war on terror” making them seem quaint by comparison.
The first two episodes feature ripples of the attrition: Johnny Sack is dying of cancer in prison (given counsel and comfort by an orderly played by director Sydney Pollack, in a pretty hilarious turn as an oncologist who shot his wife), while a wise guy is arrested at the after-party for the “Cleaver” screening, a movie on which Tony is the silent investor and other mobsters are the producers, including Christopher (Michael Imperioli).
This is all a continuation of last season’s thematics of a changing world ó Tony selling out a property in the old neighborhood to Jamba Juice, his lieutenants unable to shake down a Starbucks-like barista impervious to their muscle.
“My estimate? Historically?” Tony says Sunday of the fate awaiting mob bosses. “Eighty percent of the time it ends in the can like Johnny Sack, or on the embalming table at Cozarelli’s.”
He says this while sitting in a boat in upstate New York near the Canadian border with his doormat brother-in-law Bobby Bacala (Steven R. Schirripa), on a weekend getaway where Bobby and Tony’s voluble sister Janice (Aida Turturro) have invited Tony and Carmela up to celebrate his birthday.
It comes as something of a shock that Tony’s only turning 47: He’s noticeably slower, weaker and more engrossed in his legacy. There is about this taut, superbly written lake episode (by Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider, series creator David Chase and Matthew Weiner) an idyllic quiet that slowly becomes unnerving. We’re reminded, once again, that we’re in the presence of nouveau riche conservatives ó the offspring of immigrants relaxing as the Caribbean nanny watches the kid, everyone in agreement that they oughta build a wall around the country to keep the illegals out.
In a mob story, a secluded lake portends bad things; on “The Sopranos,” that bad thing turns out to be family members in close proximity to each other over a long boozy night of karaoke and Monopoly. The Janice character arrived on the show at the beginning of Season 2 ó a hippie returning from Seattle with a Rolling Stones tongue tattooed on her breast ó and since then she’s been nothing but a headache.
Janice only performs “acts of Janice,” is how Tony described his big sister to his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) last year, and at the lake the two begin laying into each other, hovering and jabbing until the replayed dynamic inevitably spills over into violence. The ensuing brawl, sumo in nature, upsets the order of things briefly; it reaffirms that Tony is ever-dependent on guile to emerge victorious.
But they are his pyrrhic victories. The years have helped make Tony Soprano a tragic figure ó he’s aged in his eight TV years like a president, so that the guy you see getting out his SUV at the close of the opening credits is a shadow.
Gandolfini, in his performance, has by increments become more lumbering ó slower, softer and wiser, but still, if he can summon the energy, that brute.
Interviewed several years ago on National Public Radio, Chase said that he had an ending for the character in mind.
“The gangster movie is a long American tradition,” he said. “But they’ve all been, except for ‘The Godfather’ trilogy Ö it’s usually the rise and fall. It’s been that way since the beginning. The criminal rises from the gutter, has his moment of glory, and then goes down and pays for his crime in a hail of bullets. That’s usually the template.
“As Tony has his rise,” Chase added of his protagonist, “he’s always having his fall every day. His rise and his fall seem to be happening all the time together.” You feel in the two episodes HBO sent out the bitter comedy unable to keep pace with what is mournful and sad ó the show’s final parlor trick toward absolute empathy with a sociopath examining his inner life.
The full circle arrives, glaringly, in the one place that Tony has been a constant ó the therapy room. So that, as the curtain begins to close, you get the scene in which the mob guy, teary-eyed over a betrayal, is going deeper than the therapist.
“Without invalidating your feelings,” she says, “is it possible that on some level you’re reading into all this?”
“I’ve been coming here for years,” Tony Soprano responds. “I know too much about the subconscious now.”
The end is near for ‘The Sopranos’