2004 was a banner year for HBO’s original hour-long programming. In addition to the debuts of the multifaceted Carnivale and smashing Deadwood, the eventual moldiness of Six Feet Under’s fourth season was offset by the brilliant third season of The Wire, possibly the single greatest season of any of the network’s series. Yet it was the meat-and-potatoes heartiness of David Chase’s return to The Sopranos that may come to ultimately define the channel’s benchmark of quality, the scale on which all future shows deserve to be measured. It isn’t just that this new season had the most satisfying plot and character development of The Sopranos’ continued run, nor its refusal to placate continued complaints that the show has become too slow and dense, and isn’t as exciting as it once was. What makes The Sopranos an oasis in today’s climate of declining entertainment standards from reality TV to theatrical features is that Chase’s drama has never been tempted by complacency. If it began with a high-concept hook into a long-running pop-culture fascination with the gangster ethic, how it has delved further and further into explorations of the characters and the black-hole of their psychological and moral conditioning has gone beyond the brutal, tongue-in-cheek comedy of the breakthrough first season.
The long-running dialogue between Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is how the show explores the division of Tony’s criminality, the rift between his decency (he’s a generous, loyal, traditional family man who loves his children) and his licentiousness (he’s also a selfish, thieving liar who’s unfaithful to his wife) the touchstone of our fascination with him. Melfi’s sustained non-judgmental regard of Tony’s behavior is addressed brilliantly in the first episode “The Two Tonys” as Tony makes frank romantic overtures to her and she shuts him down by speaking of his depravity: “In a personal relationship I don’t think I could sit silent.” Of course she’s speaking for the audience: If Tony Soprano were standing in front of us we’d be repelled, but as mere spectators he makes for a great diversion so it’s perfectly agreeable to sympathize with this murderer’s personal tribulations. And as Chase’s indictment of our willingness to give in to blunt fascinations with sex, violence, and luxury that lurks beneath the show’s melodramatic exterior, this fifth season deepens our confusion and tests our loyalty to both the character and the show.
The best episodes of season five challenge the notion of Tony as the criminal-hero directly. Our embattled captain of industry begins the season embroiled in a spiteful separation from Carmela (Edie Falco) thus allowed more freedom to chase tail and indulge his various sexual proclivities, hitting not just on Melfi but on Christopher’s embattled fiancé Adriana (Drea de Matteo) in “Irregular Around the Margins,” an episode that takes a dark turn at the halfway mark but inevitably concludes with Tony above reproach for triggering the ensuing chaos. “In Camelot” showcases Tony’s meeting with Fran Felstein (Polly Bergin), his father’s mistress from years ago who hits Tony up for her due piece of the pie; her presence stirs up not just questions about the role Tony’s father played in creating his emotional Frankenstein of a mother (while Tony still insists on foisting all blame upon her) but the role Tony is currently playing in the mental demolition of his own family. “Cold Cuts” (directed by Mike Figgis) finds Janice (Aida Turturro) heading into group anger management therapy after going postal at her stepdaughter’s soccer game, and further uncertainties arise over Tony’s own reactionary, violence-driven behavior as he unsympathetically pokes and prods not just Janice but his own underlings at work. He is a man who must have psychological domination at every moment, in every relationship.
Other episodes and storylines are adroitly critical of the mafia’s ethical void and Tony’s strenuous position managing his personal stakes in the venture. A major character introduced in season five is Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), a cousin of Tony’s who gets out of jail with the intention of becoming a licensed massage therapist. He insists he’s going straight but even a small taste of Tony S.’s lifestyle is enough to break his resolve, and he eventually finds himself in the middle of an escalating power struggle over in the neighboring New York family. The relationship between the two Tonys is further complicated by the fact that many years ago Tony S. was set to participate in the heist that sent Tony B. to jail, and feels guilty that he avoided arrest. His excuse for not showing up is explored brilliantly in “Unidentified Black Males,” an episode that tacitly studies the characters’ generational racist tendencies as well as their instinctual duplicity toward themselves and each other. “Two black guys jumped me outside a bar,” is what Tony S. has repeated claimed happened to him on that night long ago, and that it is Melfi who eventually draws the painful truth from him is what causes him to vividly liken their therapy sessions to “taking a shit.”
If “Long Term Parking” is the season’s most emotionally hard-hitting piece, concluding Adriana’s long relationship with the F.B.I. in a way that is chilling in its simple inevitability, it is “The Test Dream,” co-written by David Chase and directed by series regular Allen Coulter, that stands as its riskiest and most demanding achievement. Just as the conflict between Tony and New York boss Johnny Sack (the curtly effective Vincent Curatola) is reaching its apex, Chase sidesteps his narrative to spring the series’s most complex and searching dream sequence, a 25-minute long journey into Tony’s mind that is as visually arresting as it is thematically fascinating. Drawing from psychologically accurate dream imagery and somehow encompassing appearances by Annette Bening (!) as well as past regulars Joe Pantoliano (Ralphie) and David Proval (Richie), it somehow forwards the season’s plot without addressing it head-on. If not the most outwardly satisfying episode of the entire series, it is arguably the boldest.
The overall arc of season five is so rich and rewarding that the unexpectedly supple trove of smaller accomplishments dares to go unrecognized. The storylines given to secondary characters, exploring their individual moral crises—Uncle Junior’s worsening dementia, Christopher’s resentment over the fast-tracked success of Tony B. and his difficult sobriety, Janice’s marriage to Bobby Bacala, Meadow’s engagement to new boyfriend Finn, A.J.’s further lack of interest in education and career opportunities—are drawn in swift, full-bodied strokes, and the ever-expanding cast (also including heavyweights Robert Loggia, David Strathairn, and Frank Vincent in small but crucial roles) is uniformly excellent, with both Drea de Matteo and Michael Imperioli giving their supporting characters the intimacy of leads. Perhaps the one disappointment is that Edie Falco isn’t allowed quite enough room to explore Carmela’s broadening realization from seasons past of how deeply she is imprisoned by her relationship with Tony. It could be a necessary side effect of requiring Carmela to spend so much time away from her husband, but her showcase episode “Sentimental Education,” in which Carmela finds herself in her first extramarital relationship, is the season’s one tonal misfire; the character has always been too conscious of her own desires to be portrayed as such an easy sexual victim. But better than ever is Gandolfini, whose ongoing performance is incomparable. Few actors have gone so deeply into their characters that you forget you’re watching a performance. It’s not his explosiveness but his tenderness that is the secret to the series’s success. Without him The Sopranos would merely be a cold exercise in postmodern cruelty both physical and emotional; his presence cements an ordinary humanity so fragile that there is no act you cannot excuse
Season five was arguably the best-looking season yet, and the DVD does a solid job of highlighting the theatrical quality of the photography. Blacks are deep while remaining sharp, and colors are vibrant and rich without becoming overbearing. Sound is crisp and even throughout.
As with most HBO box sets, extras are limited. Five audio commentaries of some interest are provided, though shockingly not for the most obvious candidate, "The Test Dream." Director Mike Figgis ("Cold Cuts") is surprisingly candid about what it’s like to be an outsider in the world of The Sopranos, and Peter Bogdanovich ("Sentimental Education") does a great job of pointing out how the editing and camerawork reinforce the emotional content of the material. Drea de Matteo’s commentary on her swan song "Long Term Parking," on the other hand, is repetitive and limited to observations regarding her makeup and farewell parties. Standard recaps are also provided for seasons one to four as well as individual episodes.
The next-best thing to hanging out at the Bing.