Hell Hath No Fury Like the Family
Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, April 5, 2006
The last time audiences saw Tony Soprano, he was fleeing from FBI agents on foot through an icy patch of New Jersey woodlands. Not exactly the most dignified image of one of the most feared mafiosos in the imaginative world of “The Sopranos.” “Be of good cheer,” advises Neil Mink, Tony’s lawyer, for the hulking mobster had skirted his way past more than just jail time – fortuitously, he hadn’t even been named in an indictment sting that landed one of Tony’s colleagues in prison.
For once, a “Sopranos” season finale ended more with a whimper than a bang, as Tony gingerly trod home through the snow. Fifteen months later, the highly anticipated sixth – and final – season of the HBO drama is here, and the excruciating wait is over. As if culminating the legend of Tony Soprano – one of the most charismatic, dangerous and formidable mob bosses to ever extort fiction – isn’t enough pressure, this season is being heralded with the same fanfare that has preceded every season of the show since its pilot.
A critical darling from day one, “The Sopranos” finally received all due respect from the 2004 Emmy Awards, garnering four awards including the Outstanding Drama Series prize that had eluded it for years. While series tentpoles James Gandolfini and Edie Falco had both won multiple Best Acting Emmys for their portrayal of the Mafia monarchs of New Jersey, this was the first year that “The Sopranos” reversed the trend of falling short of “The West Wing” in the race for the Outstanding Drama honor – and its accompanying industry respect.
Moreover, 2004’s Emmys reaffirmed the status of the show as an ensemble effort, one that perceives the life of crime through more than a single pair of heavyset eyes. Michael Imperioli and Drea Matteo both picked up awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their deeply affecting turns as ill-fated lovers Christopher Moltisanti and Adriana La Cerva.
Very rarely can a television series dictate its own terms with as little network interference or compromise as “Sopranos” series creator David Chase and his crew have managed with this show. Tony and his crew have become larger-than-life pop culture icons, as closely linked to television in the past decade as “The Godfather” was to Hollywood in the 1970s.
With the sun shining down on the crown jewel of HBO original programming, it’s a sure bet that this season will push the boundaries past anything that’s come before. If the cast and crew manage to pull this off, it will be a narrative coup for the ages – as singularly identifiable as the blood-soaked conclusions to “The Godfather” and “Scarface.”
At least that’s where Tony’s dark path is heading, based on the events of the last season. Season five of “The Sopranos” was a milestone for the series. In an era when shows average only a season or two before being swept under the rug, “The Sopranos” looked itself in the mirror and refused to yield to a creative mid-life crisis – a period marked by characters hardening and losing their appeal, and stories running dry while meandering over beaten paths. Instead, the show’s creators slipped another magazine into their Glock 23 and came out firing.
On top of the routine headaches from quelling internal power struggles in “the business” – and holding egomaniacs in check – Tony (Gandolfini) was trucking it alone at the start of the season. Separated from his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) – sick of his infidelities – Tony watched from the sidelines as his wife and only son, Anthony, Jr. (Robert Iller), drifted apart under the domestic strain.
Cluttering matters even further was the flood of former Mafia associates released from prison, eager to get back in the game. Prominent among these were Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), incarcerated for 15 years after a failed hijacking that Tony missed due to a panic attack, and Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), a longtime soldier for New York’s Lupertazzi family.
The season’s drama reached a fever pitch over the last four episodes when Blundetto went rogue, killing Leotardo’s younger brother in retaliation for a mob hit on Blundetto’s friend. Backed into a corner while trying to protect his cousin, Tony kills Blundetto himself to spare him from a protracted death at the hands of Leotardo – setting the stage for the current season’s precarious strain between the New York and New Jersey mob families.
Every season of “The Sopranos” has led to this point – the two families now stand at the precipice of an all-out mob war. The crumbs have been left for several enticing plotlines for the final season. Will AJ end up falling into the family business like his old man, despite Tony’s wishes? (Meadow’s always been the promising scholar to AJ’s rebel waiting to ignite, so this seed seems to have an air of certainty to it.)
Out of Tony’s closest associates – Christopher, Silvio, Paulie, Bobby and Vito – who will be the first to fall in the mÃªlÃ©e, or attempt their own insurrection for power? (Egocentric and volatile, Vito and Paulie appear to be the best bets.)
Will Tony ever be able to end the cycle of violence raining down upon his house? (That question was answered a long time ago, despite Tony’s frequent – and feverish – dreams that indicate a man torn by the dark path his life is taking.)
How it all ends will remain a mystery for the better part of a year. HBO has partitioned the sixth season into two blocks of continuous episodes – 12 episodes in 2006 and another eight additional episodes set to debut in early 2007, an effective strategy the network used for the final season of “Sex and the City.”
But one thing’s for sure – Tony and his crew won’t go quietly. “This ain’t negotiation time,” Christopher demands of Tony early in the first season, “This is ‘Scarface,’ final scene, [freakin’] bazookas under each arm, say hello to my little friend!”
Finally, thanks to Chase and crew, that time has come.