"We are a family," Tony Soprano declared in the season finale of HBO's "The Sopranos" last night, "and even in this [messed]-up day and age, that means something." It seems to mean more all the time, and a feverishly eventful "Sopranos" season went out with startling visceral violence that alternated with trenchant, sobering dissertations on the state of the American home.

This has been such a rich, solid season of "Sopranos" chapters that the season finale -- made available in advance to critics only on the condition that their reviews not appear until the morning after -- probably disappointed a substantial contingent of the faithful. It may not have seemed spectacular or portentous enough. But it did resolve a divisive crisis that was threatening to split Soprano's mobster clan asunder even as his wife appeared to be dropping her demand for divorce, embarking on an abrupt reconciliation with roly-poly Tony that brought the family back together. For now, anyway.

That reconciliation was perhaps, and suspiciously, too abrupt. Tony (James Gandolfini) has promised Carmela (Edie Falco) that she can build her own $600,000 house, and she's jumped eagerly into the planning process -- but what are the odds that Tony will have a key that opens the front door? Carmela couldn't find a lawyer to represent her in her assault on her husband's assets, so she may be trying a wilier ploy, the kind of thing she'd expect Tony to do. We won't know until next season begins and we don't even know when that will be -- maybe not until March 2005 or later.

Some smug wags had confidently predicted that Tony's cousin Christopher (Michael Imperioli) would be whacked in the season finale, but such was not the case. Instead Tony grudgingly faced the truth that his cousin "Tony B" (Steve Buscemi) was at the root of many organizational and personnel problems and, in one of the final scenes, Tony coldly blew him away with a high-power rifle.

The deed done, Tony looked into the chilling, haunting face of the relative who'd been sprung from the slammer as the season started -- his dead eyes accusingly open, yet projecting a kind of peace. Big Tony spent a large part of the season unraveling the mystery of the guilt feelings, the shame and chagrin, that his newly sprung cousin evoked. Gandolfini's character spent most of one incredible episode dreaming, dreaming, dreaming -- dreaming all night in a Plaza Hotel suite about the fears and macho posturing that shaped this strange relationship and, indeed, his entire professional life and career trajectory.

Gandolfini has a tour de force virtually every week, but Tony's Dream was indeed a dream of a performance, with Gandolfini investigating every aspect of Tony's character -- all his demons, all his fears, all the vulnerabilities he dare not show the world outside his analyst's office.

Buscemi, one of the most distinctive and yet adaptable actors of our time, brought both humor and pathos to the character, a lifelong loser who, when he finally relents and gets back into the rackets, has the bad luck to have his foot run over by a car after he shoots the driver and the pretty passenger beside him.

David Chase, the genius who created the series and is an executive producer, co-wrote the season finale. As in a great novel, themes and incidents returned from the past to make unexpected reappearances -- among them an absurd but touching portrait of Tony standing next to a horse in whom he'd taken great pride and found great joy. But a psychotic hood played by Joe Pantoliano killed the horse -- and in a rage, Tony killed the killer. A bear also figured in several episodes this season and seemed about to materialize again at the very end last night, but that was no bear, that was Tony running through the woods to escape FBI agents similar to those who have generally made a horrible mess of their entire investigation of organized (yet disorganized) crime.

A recent cruel casualty was Christopher's fiancee, Adriana, played with immaculate pathos and anguish by Drea de Matteo. There are lots of honors and kudos more important than Emmy Awards, but nevertheless, De Matteo would seem a certainty to win an Emmy as actress or supporting actress at this year's ceremonies (at the end of summer). De Matteo made Adriana's trashiness immensely touching, and her modest little dreams seemed epic. But pressure from the coldblooded cretins at the FBI would have driven her mad if she hadn't been deemed expendable and murdered by the mob.

Some of the humor was pungently bittersweet. In a scene last night, one of Tony's men was severely beaten by a rival gangster. Tony visited his mangled underling in the hospital and offered these words of comfort and consolation: "It's all going to be taken care of through the plumbers' union health plan."

Earlier, the younger Tony, hiding out in an anonymous house, said good night to a hooker who'd spent part of the evening with him. From outside the closed door we heard her adding to her farewell: "Oh, and thanks for that massage. My toe doesn't hurt hardly at all now." When he was released from the slammer, the poor schnook had thought he was going to have a legitimate life as a "licensed massage therapist," but the odds were overwhelmingly against him, and he was soon carrying a gun again instead of his massage table.

Pop music aficionados like to see if they can identify whatever song Chase has chosen to play under the closing credits of each episode. Usually it's a fairly contemporary number, but a few weeks back, Chase probably stumped most of the show's fans with "Melancholy Serenade," the theme song Jackie Gleason wrote roughly 50 years ago for his CBS variety show. Gleason was "The Great One" then; "The Sopranos" is The Great One now. Its impact is explosive, its realism is fastidious, and its complexity can be awesome.

Vincent Curatola and James Gandolfini in the season finale of HBO's "Sopranos."