Talk about starting with a bang. Last night’s Sopranos premiere broke with the show’s traditional slow-building intro by jam-packing two hours of plot into 60 minutes and capping the episode with one of its most startling violent acts: de-fanged, housebound and Alzheimers’-suffering ex-mob boss Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) shooting New Jersey mob kingpin Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) in the chest at close range. It was vintage Sopranos, expected yet somehow surprising, and twisted and pathetic rather than superficially exciting. You always figured Tony might get shot, but not like this. It was downright humiliating, especially when director Tim van Patten cut to a God’s-eye-view shot of fat, bloody Tony lying on the kitchen floor, laboring to hoist his bathroom-scale-certified 280 pounds high enough to grab the wall phone and call 911.
Tony can’t die, of course; at least he can’t die this soon. Series creator David Chase can go on all he likes about how every cast member is fair game, but you still know he’s not going to kill his leading man with 19 episodes left to go. So as powerful as that shooting was, it still feels a bit like wheel-spinning. (Michael Imperioli’s Chris Moltisanti survived a less embarrassing shooting incident in Season Two.) But it’s still a shocking development, one that sets the stage for Chase and his writers to indulge their David Lynch-Dennis Potter fixation by pulling Tony out of this world and putting him into another one. The lead sentence from one of my Star-Ledger colleague Alan Sepinwall’s Sopranos preview pieces now makes sense: “There are going to be more dreams. Deal with it.”
Judging from the first four episodes sent for review by HBO, the show’s new school version of classical filmmaking craft is at an all-time high. Every camera move, shot, cut and line is charged with a sense of purpose. Watching the premiere again last night, I was struck by how deftly Van Patten and screenwriter Terence Winter weave symbolic images and lines into the narrative—elements that confirm the final season’s preoccupation with score-settling, moral accountability, the necessity of confronting one’s own mortality and the realization that joining the mob means making a lifetime commitment to evil—without making a big, flashy deal of it. “The bonefish are back in season,” Tony told wife Carmela (Edie Falco), while indulging their marriage-building habit of eating together in fancy restaurants. Earlier, the show’s opening music montage—set to a dance club remix of William S. Burroughs reading fragments of his poem “Seven Souls,” which alludes to a “director” who “directs the film of your life from conception to death”—showed a bit of a Carmela dream in which she hung out in the bare wood skeleton of the new house she was building on Tony’s dime and smoked a joint with the ghost of Chris’ girlfriend Adriana (Drea de Mateo), who was executed last season for snitching to the F.B.I.. It’s significant that Tony and Carmela would externalize the idea of a new beginning for their dysfunctional marriage by building a new house; it’s also significant that this house would be contaminated, in Carmela’s dream, by the appearance of a woman who was “disappeared’ for daring to go against the family, and that Carmela would later run afoul of a building inspector because the construction supervisor, Carmela’s dad, was cutting costs by using substandard material and assuming (wrongly) that he’d get away with it by calling a corrupt pal in government. Chase and company seem to be tightening the noose around every character’s neck, forcing them to consider how their crime-funded personal adventures will end. As Tony told Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) last season, there are only two outcomes for guys like him: “Dead, or in the can.” You can end up in one of those places through greed, overreaching, incompetence or bad luck, or by deciding to rat out the family, and I suppose we can expect plenty more deaths this season. Judging from the sudden, black-comedic plotzing of snitch Ray Curto (George Loros) and the revelation that Eugene Pontecorvo (Robert Funaro) was a pigeon as well, there are as many snitches in this mob family as there are straight-up gangsters.
But aside from a sense of showmanship and a certain grim dramatic intelligence, is The Sopranos showing us anything we haven’t seen in prior seasons? I wish the answer were an unqualified yes. But unlike a typical episode of Deadwood, this season premiere doesn’t deepen on second viewing; in fact, its weaknesses become readily apparent. You can see Chase and the gang playing three card monte, trying to distract you from the fact that the six season-old series is repeating itself. Funaro’s performance, for instance, was real and touching, and his death scene (in a sustained wide shot with no cuts) was remarkable, at once horrific and restrained. But his character’s storyline was so dumb and unbelievable—as if a lifelong mob hitman would ask if he could just walk away!—and Eugene’s kissy-happy scenes with his wife were so cornball that it was hard to shake the feeling that even the writers viewed this subplot as a big sick joke—a gangsterland version of a scene in a war movie where a grunt tells everyone in his unit how much he loves his wife and kids and how he’s only got two days left, then steps on a mine. We’ve been here before, with Big Pussy and Adriana and other characters.
Throughout, certain creative questions loom. In this final season, is Chase truly revealing a sense of moral accountability that was often AWOL on The Sopranos, or just jerking our chain? In past seasons, the writers and producers responded to audience gripes about dangling plot threads by saying, in essence, “Some episodes of this show are not chapters in a novel, they’re the equivalent of self-contained short stories with recurring characters—we’re not about plot, so get over it”; this year is Chase executing an about-face and making The Sopranos more like Deadwood and The Wire? Or is he just bringing The Sopranos in line with classic gangster tales like White Heat and Scarface, which ended with the criminal heroes suffering, the better to send us home feeling secure in our own decency? The next couple of episodes, which are built around images of heaven, hell and purgatory, suggest The Sopranos is headed toward spiritual accountability—toward the Macbeth and Munich metaphor of violence as moral stain, the belief that evil deeds come back to haunt us. (The sight of Eugene trying to wipe a blood drop from his cheek was very “Out, damned spot!”) But no matter how many creative aces Chase pulls from his sleeve, he’ll have trouble allaying my gut feeling that the show should have ended two or three or even four seasons ago. By the end of Season One, The Sopranos, which Chase never imagined would last more than a year, had already said most of what it presumably wanted to say about the Freudian fallout of dysfunctional family life and the moral relativism and warped “ethics” embraced by gangsters. Each subsequent season was to some extent re-inventing the wheel, finding new ways to say the same things about its characters and situations. The Sopranos sustained itself through sex, violence and some very effective, at times Luis Buñuel-ish black humor. More a curdled social satire than a straightforward gangster story, it is arguably the most cynical long-running series of all time, a show in which nearly every scene depicts characters being confronted with the choice between selfish expediency and a higher good, and invariably choosing Option A. From Tony and Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) to Carmela and the kids to the F.B.I. agents investigating the family and the various politicians and businesspeople swirling around them, Chase’s characters rarely make choices out of altruism, a sense of cosmic rightness or simple kindness. When the “right thing” does manage to get done, it’s often piggybacking on self-interest. (At the funeral, Chris says he hangs with his AA sponsor not just because the guy keeps him from falling off the wagon, but also because he’s great at forging documents.)
Not for nothing did last night’s pilot start with the line, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Chase seems inclined to believe the worst of everything and everybody, including his audience (which, judging from the mail Sepinwall and I get at the paper, is more interested in fucking and whacking than in dream images and satirical jabs at American delusions). Chase shows human beings as he believes they usually are, not as they ought to be. On The Sopranos, self-interest and appetite trump law, justice, love and friendship. Immoral characters stumble to the brink of spiritual crisis, peer down into the abyss, take a few steps back, briefly ponder their lot in life, then ask, “Which way to the whorehouse?” The only major character that’s not a moral and ethical basket case is Dr. Melfi, who could have sought vengeance on her rapist through Tony but chose not to (and even she’s no Girl Scout). Everyone else is looking out for number one, even when, especially when, they claim to be acting for the greater good of family or society. In case you missed this theme, Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) spells it out in a future episode, stating that each person is really just an animal who’s alone from birth through death and must fight for every scrap he can get. In such a blatantly Hobbesean universe, it’s no surprise that characters would resist true change with every fiber of their being. Righting a sordidly misguided life must be like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around. It’s tempting to continue with business as usual while believing a line from a golden oldie that played during Junior’s bloody rampage: “Nothing can be done.”
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.