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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)

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-of-factly 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.

The Sopranos (one hour) premieres tonight at 9 on HBO.

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