In the End, Will Tony Dodge the Bul­let?

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

As has been tra­di­tional with “The So­pra­nos,” the latest cy­cle of episodes (tech­ni­cally not a new sea­son but in­stead the sec­ond half of the sixth sea­son, ac­cord­ing to HBO) starts off slowly and even un­event­fully. Many reg­u­lars are miss­ing in ac­tion from tonight’s cur­tain raiser. Michael Im­pe­ri­oli, who plays Tony’s nephew and mob lieu­tenant Christo­pher, is seen for less than a minute. He makes a phone call to wish Tony a happy birth­day. Tony thanks him and slams down the phone. He’s as happy about get­ting old as movie stars and fash­ion mod­els are.

The specter of mor­tal­ity isn’t some­thing he longs to see along the road ahead, ei­ther. He’s held death at bay, if just barely, for decades. But there will come a time when that will no longer be pos­si­ble. Will it come some­where in that ninth episode? Smart money says it won’t — in part be­cause Chase has let it be known that one thing he doesn’t like about the clas­sic Hol­ly­wood gang­ster movies, most of them made at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, is that they ended with the death of the ma­jor mob­ster and the im­plicit moral that “crime doesn’t pay.”

They had to end that way be­cause of rules in the Mo­tion Pic­ture Pro­duc­tion Code, to which all the ma­jor stu­dios sub­scribed.

It’s very hard to imag­ine James Gan­dolfini as Tony aping Ed­ward G. Robin­son in “Lit­tle Cae­sar,” ly­ing in or near the gut­ter as life leaks out of his body and gasp­ing rhetor­i­cally, “Mother of mercy — is this the end of Rico?” Or the end of Tony? Chase likes to do what the au­di­ence least ex­pects, notes HBO vice pres­i­dent Quentin Schaf­fer, and what they ex­pect is prob­a­bly Tony ex­pir­ing in the tra­di­tional hail of bul­lets.

No, there will be some other kind of hail.

Per­haps Tony, who’s teetered so long on the bound­ary be­tween neu­ro­sis and psy­chosis, will fi­nally slip over to the dark side, where the no­to­ri­ous Un­cle Ju­nior (Do­minic Chi­anese) is al­ready liv­ing — so se­nile he not only wan­dered off to his old neigh­bor­hood ex­pect­ing it to be un­changed from his youth but also, of course, shot Tony in the stom­ach dur­ing a har­row­ing se­quence of episodes last year. Among other things, the or­deal showed us ex­plic­itly what kind of dam­age bul­lets can do to a hu­man body, even when the in­jury isn’t fa­tal.

Th­ese in­stall­ments were good ex­am­ples of how un­pre­dictable “The So­pra­nos” could be, with Tony si­mul­ta­ne­ously ly­ing in a hospi­tal bed and liv­ing a strange, sur­real dream life in which he was visit­ing a ho­tel in an­other city as a del­e­gate to some sort of con­ven­tion, imag­in­ing hos­tile nuns and monks threat­en­ing and thwart­ing him. Some view­ers were irked by what they con­sid­ered Chase’s self-in­dul­gence, but oth­ers, this critic in­cluded, mar­veled at the dar­ing in­her­ent in the de­par­ture, in the un­ortho­dox nar­ra­tive con­struc­tion, in the fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails and pos­si­ble sym­bol­ism of Tony’s dream jour­ney.

Tony has con­tem­pla­tive mo­ments in tonight’s episode, when the world comes to a stop and he sits gaz­ing out at a serene and se­cluded lake near the vacation home of Tony’s stocky sis­ter Jan­ice (Aida Tur­turro, for­mi­da­ble as ever) and her hus­band, Bobby “Ba­cala” Bac­calieri (Steven R. Schirripa). Tony looks at the lake so long­ingly that you feel sure there’ll be a re­turn visit, or at least a fly­over, by the way­ward ducks that Tony found in his swim­ming pool dur­ing the first episode of “The So­pra­nos” in 1999.

We didn’t know what we were in for then, and we don’t re­ally know what we’re in for now. Be­cause Chase con­tin­ues work on the ninth episode (the only one he has di­rected, as well as writ­ten, since that first one), HBO was able to dis­trib­ute only two of the new episodes to crit­ics, not the four or six made avail­able in past years. Chase doesn’t want episodes re­leased even in rough-cut ver­sions un­til he’s had a chance to go over them. He su­per­vises edit­ing and post-pro­duc­tion on each in­stall­ment. This is, in­dis­putably, his baby, and he’s not about to let any­one else take over.

So only Episodes 78 and 79 were dis­trib­uted to the press.

No. 78, air­ing tonight at 9, is called “So­prano Home Movies,” though we see only fleet­ing glimpses of the old Su­per 8 films that Jan­ice has had trans­ferred to DVDs as a birth­day present for Tony. (Tony’s wife, Carmela, played im­pec­ca­bly by Edie Falco, ear­lier gave him a unique gift all her own — fol­lowed by a rel­a­tively pro­saic set of golf clubs.) The group tries play­ing karaoke with a video game and then set­tles into a round of Mo­nop­oly.

It could be any fam­ily group­ing, sib­lings and in-laws, in any Amer­i­can home, ex­cept that Tony cheats at Mo­nop­oly — it’s just es­sen­tial to him that he win — and he and Bobby get into a ridicu­lous ar­gu­ment that turns phys­i­cal and then vi­o­lent, so vi­o­lent that some­one could con­ceiv­ably end up in the hospi­tal, or worse. Vi­o­lence has nat­u­rally been part of vir­tu­ally ev­ery episode of “The So­pra­nos,” yet it al­most al­ways star­tles, even if we think we know it’s com­ing. Skill­ful direc­tors, as well as the art­ful scripts, have kept the vi­o­lence men­ac­ing, fright­en­ing and of­ten very sad.

“So­prano Home Movies” was di­rected by Tim Van Patten, who amounted to al­most noth­ing as an ac­tor, ap­peared to have lit­tle se­ri­ous fu­ture in show busi­ness and then turned out to be a first-class and in­ven­tive di­rec­tor, as proven by “So­pra­nos” episodes and other TV work he has done.

Next week’s episode makes its own com­ment on vi­o­lence; there’s a kind of fake-out in which we dis­cover that the car­nage we’re see­ing is the make-be­lieve, thrill-kill kind, a scene from “Cleaver,” the hor­ror-slasher movie that Christo­pher and com­rades made with mob-friendly folk from Hol­ly­wood. A more vir­u­lent killer, mean­while, strikes a mem­ber of the mob who is veg­e­tat­ing in prison; the di­ag­no­sis is lung can­cer and the out­look is three months. One of the trustys in the prison hospi­tal is played by film di­rec­tor Syd­ney Pol­lack: “I killed my wife,” he mat­ter-of­factly ex­plains, af­ter he found her “cheat­ing on me with a chi­ro­prac­tor.”

Ger­aldo Rivera and Daniel Bald­win ap­pear as them­selves, Tim Daly re­turns as an in­tim­i­dated screen­writer, and Tony has an­other ses­sion with Dr. Melfi, played by Lor­raine Bracco. That Tony sought help from a psy­chi­a­trist in that first episode years ago, and was able to ad­mit he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing feel­ings of in­se­cu­rity and even re­gret, helps ex­plain our lin­ger­ing sym­pa­thy for him — even though he has been known to beat an in­no­cent man to a pulp just be­cause he felt the need to re­assert his author­ity and his im­age as a thug.

“The So­pra­nos” has al­ways been about much more than the mob, and as this fi­nal move­ment builds to a cli­max, the prospects and pos­si­bil­i­ties are both tan­ta­liz­ing and scary. Tony’s world — ab­surd, per­verse and bes­tial as it is — has come to seem very real, very plau­si­ble, very Amer­i­can. Chase has il­lu­mi­nated so many dark cor­ners al­ready that one shud­ders in an­tic­i­pa­tion of those still to come.

With­out ques­tion, “The So­pra­nos” is a land­mark in television drama — one of the liveli­est and dead­li­est land­marks ever. It will be ex­hil­a­rat­ing and de­press­ing to see it go.

ABOVE AND BE­LOW LEFT: BY CRAIG BLANKEN­HORN

Hail, the con­quer­ing an­ti­hero: Steven Van Zandt and James Gan­dolfini in the ac­claimed HBO se­ries, which re­turns af­ter a long hia­tus.

BY MAR­ION CUR­TIS — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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