Exit 'Sopranos'

HBO's mob show starts a long goodbye

by Ellen Gray

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

3 April 2007


“Is this it?” Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) asks her mobster husband as they’re awakened by a furious banging on their door in the opening minutes of Sunday’s “The Sopranos.”

Yep, this is it.

Call it the seventh season or the hind legs of the sixth.

Call it anything you like.

But as the final nine episodes of the HBO drama get under way this weekend, know that this is, at last, the beginning of the end.

People who’ve been longing to see “Sopranos” creator David Chase pull the trigger on one character or another, people who are dying to know if Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is going to get out of this alive and especially people who are still waiting for the Russian to come out of the woods—not gonna happen, folks—may not be thrilled to learn that Sunday’s episode largely takes place at a cabin in the Adirondacks.

There will also be karaoke.

(Insert your chosen epithets here. Take as long as you like.)

Now, if you’re finished screaming, let’s talk about why “Soprano Home Movies”—which actually begins with a flashback to 2004—is a much better idea than it might sound.

“The Sopranos,” after all, has never just been a show about whacking. Or about resolving things. It’s also not been a show about second chances, even if some of its characters are deluded enough to believe in them.

But we all know that when a post-shooting Tony spouts the rhetoric about every day being a gift, he’s indulging in the same sentimentality that keeps him from fully acknowledging that his mother never loved him.

It’s still all about mom.

Livia—and sadly, Nancy Marchand, too—is long dead, but you can her voice in Sunday’s episode, coming both from her daughter, Janice (Aida Turturro), and from the son whose years in therapy haven’t been enough to erase the poison of his upbringing.

Tony Soprano may be a mobster because his father was.

But he’s a monster because of his mother.

Beginning with Season 1’s “College,” in which Tony took time out from some father-daughter bonding with daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) to strangle a mob snitch, the show’s finest episodes have been the ones that focused on the hopeless divide between its central character’s highest aspirations and his worst instincts.

I’ve been rewatching Season 1, and what strikes me now about “College,” though, isn’t the divide itself but how much it’s widened since.

The snitch, after all, was a snitch—someone who’d presumably been as bad as Tony, then turned on former friends and fled to a new life and a new identity in Maine.

Moreover, he had recognized Tony and was fully prepared to kill him.

Shocking at the time for the personal way the violence played out, the episode’s almost a quaint artifact now.

Not only have we seen Tony do worse things since, but we’ve seen him do them for far worse reasons.

On Sunday, he does something truly despicable to one of the few people in his life who can still lay any claim to innocence.

He does it out of anger, out of wounded pride, and out of a deep well of meanness that it doesn’t require Tony’s shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), to trace directly to his mother.

And what he does doesn’t require him to lay a hand on his victim.

I can’t pretend to know where any of this is going. Tony’s thoughts on his own final exit, expressed in a conversation with his brother-in-law Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa), don’t seem out of line.

But as I listen to Bobby and Janice’s young daughter singing about “four little ducks”—echoes of the birds whose leaving triggered Tony’s first panic attacks all those years ago?—I’m satisfied, at least, that “The Sopranos” hasn’t lost touch with its roots.

+ + + +

Fate whacks Tony & family

A lot’s happened since we first met “The Sopranos” in January 1999, and not all of it’s been about the whacking.

Here’s a look at how Tony and some of his nearest and dearest have fared:

Who: Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini)

Then: After the ducks that had taken refuge in his swimming pool flew away, this “waste-management” executive began having panic attacks and was referred to a psychiatrist, who put him on Prozac and started probing his childhood.

Now: Though he’s no longer passing out at every turn, Tony’s years of therapy haven’t freed him from the legacy of his late parents, especially his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand). Her malice continues to surface in him from time to time, making a mean business even meaner. And though he continues to pay lip service to the idea that last season’s near-death experience changed him, it’s clearer every day that it hasn’t.

Memorable line from Season 1: “Nowadays, everybody’s got to go to shrinks and counselors and go on `Sally Jessy Raphael’ and talk about their problems. What ever happened to Gary Cooper, the strong, silent type? That was an American.”

Who: Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco)

Then: Preoccupied with her children and her priest, Father Phil (Paul Schulze), a movie buff and baked-ziti fan, Tony’s wife was just beginning to understand her complicity in her husband’s mob activities—and even in his extramarital affairs.

Now: Having almost lost Tony twice—first to divorce, then to bullets—Carm’s a far more independent woman than she was eight years ago, devoting much of the energy that used to go to shopping to her new career as a real estate investor.

Memorable line from Season 1: “Father is a spiritual mentor. He’s helping me to be a better Catholic ... What’s different between you and me is you’re going to Hell when you die.”

Who: Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler)

Then: Sweating out her SATs, visiting colleges—and cluing in her little brother on what was really going to be paying the tuition—Meadow already looked like the Soprano most likely to succeed in leaving behind mob culture.

Now: She’s sweating out her MCATs, hoping to become a pediatrician.

Memorable line from Season 1: “Did the (kids next door) ever find $50,000 in Krugerrands and a .45 automatic while hunting for Easter eggs?”

Who: Anthony “A.J.” Soprano Jr. (Robert Iler)

Then: A pudgy 13-year-old whose birthday figured in the very first episode, he was diagnosed with “borderline” attention-deficit disorder after he was caught stealing Communion wine. Fear that his son will turn out just like him plagued Tony.

Now: A college dropout, he’s living with Blanca (Dania Ramirez), who’s 10 years older than him, and helping to bring up her young son. Seems to have matured a bit, but hasn’t yet found a job he can stick to.

Memorable line from Season 1: “So what, no f———ziti now?”

Who: Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli)

Then: Tony’s headstrong nephew, he worked as Tony’s driver and itched to become a “made” member of the mob, so much so that he sometimes jumped the gun, so to speak. At the same time, he was working—not very promisingly—on a screenplay about mob life.

Now: With the upcoming premiere of the mob-slasher movie he produced, “Cleaver,” the now-married Christopher’s achieved at least one of his dreams. But will that be enough to keep his head off the chopping block?

Memorable line from Season 1: “This is the last time I show any f———initiative.”

Who: Corrado “Uncle Junior” Soprano (Dominic Chianese)

Then: With the death of mob boss Jackie Aprile (Michael Rispoli), Junior ascended to leadership, with Tony’s help, becoming a figurehead whom Tony manipulated using techniques he’d learned in therapy. However, his close relationship with his sister-in-law, Livia, placed Tony in danger.

Now: After being committed to a mental institution in the near-fatal shooting of his nephew (whom he’d mistaken for someone else), the demented former mob boss narrowly escaped death at the hands of A.J. last season, and remains locked up.

Memorable line from Season 1: “We used to be recession-proof. No more. You can’t blame it all on the Justice Department.”

Who: Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco)

Then: Though when Tony’s doctor referred him to her, she knew that her patient had mob ties, that’s about all she knew: When he mentioned RICO (the anti-racketeering law) she thought he was referring to a relative. Their early interactions were often comical, as he described an incident as, say, having coffee with someone, while the audience saw footage of him chasing the person down and beating him. But she did succeed in helping Tony with his panic attacks.

Now: Having managed to avoid either dating Tony or letting him deal with the man who raped her—and then was freed on a technicality—Dr. Melfi, who was driven back to her own psychiatrist during Tony’s therapy, continues to see her frustrating patient. It’s not clear how much hope she has that he’ll ever really be better.

Memorable line from Season 1: “Hope comes in many forms.”

//Mixed media