Down To His Last Shot

Hail, the conquering antihero: Steven Van Zandt and James Gandolfini in the acclaimed HBO series, which returns after a long hiatus.
Hail, the conquering antihero: Steven Van Zandt and James Gandolfini in the acclaimed HBO series, which returns after a long hiatus. (By Craig Blankenhorn)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Tony Soprano almost celebrates his 47th birthday in the slammer, and all because of a gun he dropped in the snow three years earlier. Fortunately for him, fate -- and series creator David Chase -- intervene.

For eight years, which by a quixotic way of counting only amounts to six seasons, faithful viewers of "The Sopranos" have seen Tony survive threats, close calls and catastrophes; now comes the most fateful question of all: Will he survive the series itself? Or will he be killed off in the ninth and final episode, airing June 10?

Chase has said that the final nine episodes -- the first of which airs tonight on HBO -- will absolutely positively be the last for this powerful, seminal epic, a masterwork for television that belongs in the same select league as "Roots," "Holocaust," "Lonesome Dove" and a few other TV turning points. The audience, having invested time and stress, understandably wants to know: Will Tony live or die?

And yet you probably wouldn't want to be told even if we knew, which we don't. If a death scene has been filmed -- presumably it would be for the ninth episode, which, with Chase directing, is still being worked on -- no one has blabbed about it so far. The most loyal viewers are probably of two minds: They want retribution forced on Tony for all the deaths and bloodshed he has caused, and somehow they also want to see him survive, a conquering antihero, a giant of a man who endures despite numerous attempts by little men to pull him down.

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.

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