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March 10, 2006
A Final Round With The Family

This weekend ends the longest hiatus in recent memory for a television series as The Sopranos returns for its sixth and final season on HBO. Having watched the series since its inception -- and maintaining my subscription to HBO largely because of it -- the anticipation of the final season and the resolution of its many story lines has created a strong possibility of creating almost impossible expectations for the creators and cast to meet. According to the New York Sun, however, the last twenty shows deliver in every way on the promise built up over the series' first five seasons:

It's every man for himself in the final season of "The Sopranos." The New Jersey crew of captains, thugs, and murderers, led by its charismatic general, no longer manages its mid-range Mafia business with precision; the money doesn't flow the way it used to, and neither does the blood. Loyalty has given way to doubt. The polluted air they breathe - from those hideous smokestacks and sickening stogies in the background of the show's still-mesmerizing credit sequence - has poisoned them at last. The festering emotional wounds of previous seasons have opened up and bled profusely onto every frame. "You're part of something bigger," Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) tells Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) at the end of Episode 4, a reflective moment that reveals Tony's latest and most powerful obsession yet: the fleeting magic of life itself.

The epic journey of Tony Soprano takes a surprising and heart-wrenching turn this season, in a manner that no critic who loves this show would ever want to ruin with disclosure. But it can be revealed, without stealing its impact, that the cumulative effect of this season's first four episodes is to turn "The Sopranos" on its head, in ways impossible to anticipate. It will be difficult for "Sopranos" fans to view the results without flinching at the painful recognition of mortality on display in every scene, at every turn. The Tony Soprano that emerges from the shambles created by the calamitous events of the first four episodes borrows less from "Goodfellas" than "King Lear." He is a tragic figure who has faced his demons at last, but too late to undo their damage. ...

To call this series the best show on television diminishes its value. "The Sopranos" has achieved a level of artistic achievement that puts the experience of watching these episodes on a list of rare pleasures in life - the kind that might have come from hearing a new Beethoven symphony as he conducted it, or watching the paint dry on a fresh Picasso. No one will watch the show's final season without weeping for Tony Soprano, or mourning his imminent departure from our midst.

That has always been the brilliance of this series. Rather than steep the Mob in its own mythos, The Sopranos strips away the illusions of mobsters even if the characters themselves don't understand that. The hypocrisy of talking about honor while finding ways to cheat, steal, and kill has always been evident, especially when Tony gives speeches about family and then runs around with anyone in a skirt behind his wife's back -- who has her own problem with hypocrisy and illusions. It differs from the Godfather series in that it doesn't give any pretensions to culture, except the culture of theft and extortion.

And yet, people still feel some sympathy for Tony Soprano despite themselves. When that sympathy reaches an apex, the writers always manage to demonstrate why the sympathy is badly misplaced, but some part of the viewer still wants to see him prevail against Johnny Sack and other enemies from his milieu. Even the feds don't get a lot of sympathy here, but they should, and we know it.

David Blum notes that the final season will owe more to King Lear than Goodfellas, a direction also attempted by Francis Ford Coppola in his final entry in the Godfather series. Fans of the show have seen that since the first season, as the writers have brilliantly led viewers through Tony's own machinations that have always threatened to trap himself. Those webs will finally start trapping everyone around him, and Blum promises that Tony will recognize his fate but too late to stop it. We have always known it, but it's too late for us to stop watching it. Will we root for Tony as justice comes to him through the suffering of both of his families? We shouldn't -- but some part of us will.

The final season begins on Sunday, and will air in two groups of episodes, wrapping up next winter.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at March 10, 2006 5:45 AM

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