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Sopranos Watch: Runaway Train

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SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched last night’s Sopranos yet, barricade yourself in a safehouse until you have.

HBO/Craig Blankenhorn

So, it turns out that everyone predicting a high body count was right. Last night’s episode, The Blue Comet, was not only plot-packed–it was a rare Sopranos episode that seemed like, if anything, it was moving too fast–but dense with character and beautifully made.

Bobby’s murder in the toy-train store, complete with the train’s eye view as Baccala’s doom came hurtling down the tracks at him, will go down as one of the most memorable Sopranos visuals ever. And the replay of Bobby’s words as Tony lay himself down with a machine gun in his hideout–going to the mattress if not the mattresses–was haunting. “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens.” Poor Bobby heard that one all right. (Ultimately, though, you’ve got to feel worse for his kids. First their mother in a car accident, now this–and suddenly their only earthly parent is Janice freakin’ Soprano.)

The Sopranos could have survived the loss of Bobby, but with Sil down–comatose, we hear, and not likely to recover–this must be the end for Tony, even if he survives, and even if he wins the war. Sil, Tony’s consigliere, was Tony’s brain, his better, cooler-headed self; he saved Tony from far too many bad decisions, and that will cost Tony far more than any loss of muscle.

And yet despite the loss of favorite characters and actors–salut, Miami Steve–was there anything in the episode as brutal as Dr. Melfi’s firing of her longtime patient? Melfi’s scolding of Tony was long overdue, but the episode’s writers (David Chase and Matthew Weiner) didn’t let her claim too much moral high ground. If everything she said about Tony was right, what she didn’t say about herself was conspicuous: that she was really letting Tony go because she was professionally and personally shamed by Elliot Kupferberg, her own therapist. Like anyone else on The Sopranos, Melfi is not above vanity and self-deception. But there are moral lapses and there are moral lapses, and Tony’s attempt to draw equivalence got the biggest laugh of the night: “I gotta be honest. I think as a doctor, what you’re doing is immoral!”

In all, The Blue Comet was masterful at playing out the tension between wanting to see Tony destroyed and wanting him to be victorious. It has never been plainer that he deserves whatever he’s got coming to him. (For instance, coldly consigning Uncle Junior to a state mental facility rather than pony up for his care. Yes Jun shot him, but Tony’s always been able to sentimentally reattach to his uncle–as long as it didn’t cost him a nickel.) And yet who wants him taken down by Phil Leotardo? Paulie’s right: there’s no bigger c__________ than Phil, and he’s managed to become an even less sympathetic boss than Tony, rigid, resentful, cruel, petty and utterly joyless.

Yes, you could say many of the same things about Tony, but Tony is a philosopher compared with the emotionally stunted Phil, twisted by his anger, his stingy religious morality and his warped, childish sense of honor. His ultimate reason for the decapitation attack against the Sopranos: “They make anybody and everybody over there. And the way that they do it is all f___ed up. The guys don’t get their finger pricked, there’s no sword and gun on the table.” This is how you run a Mafia family? It sounds like how a third-grader runs a clubhouse.

Lastly, there’s A.J. Is there yet more to be played out in the terrorism angle? Tony’s aid to the FBI obviously delivered his tipoff last night, but we saw further signs of A.J.’s deepening obsession with WMDs and IEDs, as his lady friend read him an Internet report about a purported nuclear plot by al Qaeda. I don’t expect A.J. to suddenly become a jihadi in the season finale, but it seems as though David Chase, in his dark-inflected way, is making a few comments on how terrorism is perceived and used in post-9/11 society. On the one hand, it’s a useful device to pursue ulterior power interests (as when Tony passes on information to earn credit with the Feds); on the other, it can be distracting to the point of danger and mental illness (as with A.J., so depressed and fixated on hypothetical doom that he can’t motivate himself to flee a very real threat).

If I continue to have one problem with these final episodes, it’s that I’m unconvinced what has changed to force all these events right now. David Chase has said that he decided to stop the series because it had reached its endpoint, but from what’s going on, I’m not sure why the series couldn’t have ended two seasons ago, or, for that matter, continue for two seasons more. Every situation that has been forced to crisis has been going on for years: the conflict with New York, Tony’s strained relationship with Melfi, A.J.’s downward spiral. Maybe it took Phil taking control of the family to finally get the war started, but does that mean that Johnny Sack’s good health was the only thing that kept the series from ending in 2004?

These last few episodes have been so good, though, that I can live with that quibble. Maybe the point is that life is like this: you go through a repeating cycle of habits and mistakes, and every time you survive one of those cycles, you mistakenly believe the pattern will go on forever. Then one year, for no particularly good reason, you run out of luck.

One way or another, it ends next Sunday. What are you betting on: bang or whimper?