“Is this it?!?” So sputters Carmela Soprano as a deputy’s forceful knock shakes the door of her North Caldwell McMansion at 6am on a late summer morning. The answer is no and yes: Tony Soprano’s ensuing brush with the law proves to be just a minor irritant, but after years of ruling the North Jersey underworld while balancing fatherhood, marriage and enough childhood baggage to fill the Mariana Trench, the mob boss is dying by a thousand cuts—and thanks to years of therapy, he’s finally smart enough to know it. Tony’s increasing self-awareness brings a renewed sense of focus to The Sopranos as the series’s final nine episodes begin on Sunday 8: For years, he’s done everything possible to avoid choosing which family to prioritize, and playing for time is no longer an option.
For at least four years, there’s been a deep rift in Sopranos fandom between viewers hungry for incident and those who believe that seeing the characters be themselves is the whole point. The Sunday 8 “Soprano Home Movies” is one of the rare episodes that will leave neither group disappointed. Most of the hour simply involves Tony, Carmela, his sister Janice (Aida Turturro) and brother-in-law Bobby Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) lazing around a remote lakeside cabin, getting drunk and playing Monopoly. On paper, it sounds like the sort of episode that invites comparison to the breathless fan fiction that clogs a thousand websites devoted to series from Star Trek to Grey’s Anatomy. The truly obsessed are rewarded with new examples of Tony’s complex relationship to his past, while those who favor plot over character development are provided the beginning of a conflict that begins to push Tony toward the most important crossroads of his 47 years.
When a series starts to build to a preordained conclusion, narrative housekeeping often prevails over organic characterization, as the writers begin going down the list of things they’ve wanted to do before the clock runs out. Blessedly, there’s no trace of this in the opening episodes of The Sopranos’ final stretch—the weariness engulfing Tony, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent, who has shown unexpected depth with each successive episode) feels like the product of organic self-awareness rather than writerly acrobatics. Thowaway allusions to past incidents emphasize the interconnected nature of the world David Chase has created, rather than playing like bones tossed out to the diehards. Characters that began as plot devices—most notably imprisoned New York boss John Sacramoni (Vince Curatola)—are treated with a respect that expands the series’s already rich emotional palette. The line between heroes and villains is blurrier than ever; even Little Carmine Lupertazzi (Ray Abruzzo) is allowed to come off as a real person instead of just a malapropism machine.
The April 15 “Stage 5” makes it clear that “Soprano Home Movies” was not a fluke. Juxtaposing a sobering portrait of Sacramoni’s daily humiliation in prison with the premiere of Cleaver, Christopher’s long-gestating gangland Saw rip-off, it’s an episode that embodies all of The Sopranos’ best dichotomous qualities—humor and tragedy, accessibility and continuity, fate and chance—without ever seeming showy (no small achievement, seeing as the episode also includes a guest appearance by Sydney Pollack that rivals the director-actor’s work in films by Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Robert Altman). The ending brings us closer to an inevitable reckoning between Tony and Phil, but it’s one driven by their mutual need to find out what their lives in the underworld mean rather than simple revenge.
“Psychiatry and cunnilingus have brought us to this,” Tony said at a flash point in the first season, and over the past eight years, “this” has evolved from a snapshot of a mob family on its last legs into a series that has done more than any other to make dramatic television the medium that offers the clearest reflection of our society. That distinction belonged to the novel in the 1920s, theater in the ’40s and ’50s and cinema in the ’70s, and largely due to Chase, serial TV has had bragging rights for coming up on a decade. “A hundred years from now, [when] we’re dead and gone, people will be watching this fucking thing,” Tony tells Christopher after the Cleaver screening. Where the movie is concerned, he’s talking out his ass; in regards to Chase’s masterpiece, however, he’s hit the bull’s-eye.