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some thoughts on 'the sopranos'
july 1, 2006

Sunday, June 4, in preparation for watching this season's final episode of the HBO series The Sopranos, Mary and I had a Sopranos marathon during the day, watching all prior eleven episodes of the season, which we had recorded on our DVR. We ordered pizza to eat during the marathon.

After the final episode aired, I was surprised to read the next day how many fans and critics thought the season was a disappointment.

The Sopranos has been on the air since 1999, albeit it with long gaps between seasons. The series was originally scheduled to end this year, David Chase, the show's creator, having said he felt he explored all the ideas he wished to over the series' run, but then Chase decided that in addition to this year's "final" twelve episodes, there would be eight "bonus episodes", which at the time of this writing are scheduled to air in early 2007.

The series is one of the best ever shown on television, topped only by HBO's other landmark show, Six Feet Under.

The theme of Six Feet Under is Mortality. The prodigal son returns, and as a result of returning, dies.

The theme of The Sopranos is Power.

Tony Soprano is the middle-aged head of a crime family living in New Jersey, having inherited that position from his father (the family was ruled briefly before Tony's rise by his uncle, Junior).

On the surface, Tony appears to be living any adolescent boy's fantasy. He has the security of family, with a wife and two children, and yet is still free to sleep with as many other women as he wants. He doesn't have to work, receiving a more than comfortable income from the privilege of his position (mobsters under him must kick-up part of their earnings to him, essentially in acknowledgement of his father's legacy). He spends most of his time with his male friends, shooting the breeze, drinking in bars, watching topless dancers, getting into fights. He's physically powerful, so he doesn't have to worry about being intimidated. If someone annoys him, it's easy for him to either beat up the offender himself, or have one of his underlings do the beating for him. If someone annoys him too much, or gets in his way, he can, in fact, kill that person, without risk of reprisal (and no one dreams more of killing, than a little boy).

What makes The Sopranos so fascinating is the way in which the show demonstrates that such an idealized adolescent life cannot lead to true happiness.

Over the years, the love has slowly leaked out of Tony's marriage to Carmella, due to his emotional and sexual withdrawal from her, and her reaction to that withdrawal. Because of his withdrawal, Carmella began seeking love elsewhere, unsuccessfully, first with her parish priest, then with a building contractor, finally with a member of Tony's own crew, Furio, with whom she fell in love. Although Tony has slept with hundreds of women, and Carmella never slept with any other man, including Furio- the affair never got beyond exchanged smiles and private talks- Carmella's cumulative disgust with Tony's sexual betrayals, and her revelation to him of her own emotional betrayal, causes the marriage to collapse. Carmella orders Tony to move out. Like any adolescent boy, he's unprepared for the eviction, bunking with some of his buddies, where they spend their time on a sofa, watching TV, drinking, making fart jokes. He repeatedly shows up back at "home", to eat, do his laundry, swim in the family's pool.

Big as he is, Tony is helpless on his own, without the context of true family, as opposed to mob family. He does everything he can to reconcile with Carmella. Tellingly, what allows Tony to move back home is not a declaration of his love for Carmella, but rather a financial arrangement, not unlike the deals Tony makes in his mob life over "no works" and "no shows". In exchange for Tony being able to return back home, he agrees to fund Carmella's attempts to establish herself as an independent woman, by financing a spec house she wants to build with her father. (Over the course of the series, Carmella has become increasingly concerned over the fact her financial security is based solely on Tony. As her emotional relationship with Tony becomes more and more tenuous, she tries to establish financial independence from her husband, first as a real estate agent, then as a home contractor. Both careers, of course, center around homes/family. This theme is explored to a far greater extent in the just-aired season.)

As Tony's bonus, he will be allowed to continue whoring around, but discretely (a "don't ask, don't tell" policy). Carmella, in condoning Tony's extra-marital affairs, in exchange for him funding her spec house project, has agreed to become a prostitute, or perhaps more correctly, a madam.

Much as Tony's idealized life as husband is subverted, so too is his role as father.

His older child, Meadow, is doing well, and may become either a doctor or lawyer, certainly a lot of parents' top two choices, and a fulfillment of a mother's wish that her daughter do better than she (in this case, financial independence from a husband, given that either a doctor or lawyer is certain to earn more money than the profession chosen by Meadow's fiancé, dentistry).

But Tony's son, his legacy, A.J., is a mess. He's completely unmotivated, not bright, and repeatedly gets into trouble. Worse still, Tony has a fear his son may be homosexual. When A.J. comes down the family stairs after a night of carousing in New York City, not realizing his eyebrows were shaved while he slept off a booze binge, exaggerated Magic Marker eyebrows drawn on his forehead, Tony angrily demands to know if that's a Gay Thing. Even when A.J. does do something successfully, staging an admission-fee party, Tony's worry is that party planners are gay. In the most recent season, Tony's disgust reaches a breaking point when he happens upon his son chatting on the Internet in his underwear, "giggling like a girl". (This subtext of homosexuality becomes overt in the most recent season, in its exploration of two of the series' characters, Vito, who becomes openly gay, and Phil, who remains a repressed homosexual.)

As unstable as his nuclear family is, Tony's extended family is far worse. His mother and afore-mentioned uncle, Junior, plot to have him killed (in the most recent season, his uncle does in fact shoot Tony, sending Tony to the hospital, although this attempt to kill Tony is based on Junior's confused belief, caused by advancing dementia, that he's instead shooting an old foe). Tony's sister Janis is a rose bush in his side, always demanding more money from him, and is the indirect cause of his getting shot. His cousin Christopher, who Tony has picked to be his right hand man, and heir apparent within the mob, is not only dumb, but an on-again, off-again drug addict. His captains, by their eyes-down disapproval, repeatedly force him to make decisions he otherwise, as an individual, would not make (most recently, Tony B.'s death, Vito's death.)

As an escape valve from the duties of family life, Tony does have the freedom, through a time-honored mob tradition of goomahs, of being able to sleep with almost any woman he wants. But other than the physical release, much like shitting, this freedom brings little joy. Most of the women eventually want an emotional commitment, which Tony is unprepared to give, which leads to a spiraling-down of the relationship, in one case causing one of his girlfriends to commit suicide. The freedom to have almost any woman you want does not, in The Sopranos, turn out to be a good thing. It winds up becoming just another headache.

Although Tony is financially supported by his crew, the stress of maintaining control over that crew, and therefore his income, is a strain. More than a few members of his mob family have betrayed him over the years, becoming informants for the feds, and his authority and financial ambitions are often thwarted by the much larger, and far more powerful, New York mob.

This stress has caused him to have debilitating anxiety attacks. Trying to understand and control this weakness within him, he seeks out the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (the original "high concept" of the show was a mob boss who is in therapy). Dr. Melfi acts as an alternate female persona within the series, someone Tony can talk to, and gain insight from, although because of her adherence to the doctor- patient relationship, she is the one woman on the show he wants to bed, but can't.

Finally, although Tony is physically powerful, and has a crew more than willing to carry out his orders, his violence is rarely productive, and rarely gains him an advantage. More often than not, the people he personally strikes out against he does so simply because he is under stress, and wrongfully projects the source of that stress onto an innocent party. As one of countless examples, Tony is at the mob's hang-out, a strip club called Bada-Bing. He's seen a report on television that our borders are still largely unprotected from terrorists. A bartender, overhearing Tony's worries, volunteers that he doesn't think the terrorist threat is that serious. Tony works himself up into a fury, attacks the bartender, beating him to the point where the man has to be hospitalized. Tony is a man enslaved to anger. His physical strength, as it manifests through his violence, is almost never a means to advance his power, but rather a means of self-medicating his feelings of powerlessness.

Each season of The Sopranos tends to have a thematic arc which carries across all episodes.

Season five, the season before the most recent season, had as its plot the consequences caused by the release of several mob members after years in prison, their sentences completed; and as its theme, the idea that we are helpless victims of our own fate. I Have No Control Over My Life.

The season focuses on one releasee, Tony's cousin, also named Tony, referred to as Tony B., who wants to go straight.

Tony B. studied massage therapy in prison, and now that he's been released, wants to work at a legitimate job until he's saved up enough money to open his own clinic.

Although Tony offers Tony B. an opportunity to get back into the mob, with its promise of easy money and lack of responsibility, Tony B. opts to instead get a physically-demanding job as a driver for a Korean dry-cleaner.

After the Korean owner of the dry cleaners gets to know Tony B. better, he offers to fund Tony B.'s clinic, in a business partnership. Tony B. gladly accepts the offer, and starts spending his nights after his truck route cleaning up, and painting, the store front he and his Korean boss have rented.

And then fate intervenes.

One night, walking with his girlfriend along the city streets, Tony B. sees a car careen down the street, tossing a package out its side window. Tony B. opens the package, discovers thousands of dollars inside.

The money will allow Tony B. to realize his dream right now, to open his massage parlor and start a new life. Which is what he tells his girlfriend he intends to do.

But the ease with which he acquired this small fortune, literally thrown at him, causes him instead to eschew his discipline, and indulge himself in buying a new suit (at his coming-out party following his prison release, he had to wear one of his old suits, wide lapels, wrong colors, from twenty years ago). After the indulgence of flashy new clothes, he starts showing up at mob poker games, getting back into the habit of staying up late, throwing money around.

Soon, through bad card hands, he's lost the money dropped down from Heaven onto his head, but not his renewed taste for mob life. He starts performing mob hits, as a source of high income, allowing him to continue his mob life, abandoning the idea of going legit with his massage parlor (he finds an excuse to beat up his Korean partner, mocking the man for not being able to speak proper English).

One of his mob hits, however, results in him killing Phil Leotardo's brother. Phil is another just-released con, now a captain in the New York mob, run by Johnny Sacks.

Phil, beside himself, will not settle for anything less than being allowed to kill Tony B. in retaliation.

Tony resists that idea as long as he can, but then offers to Johnny Sacks that he, Tony, will kill his cousin himself.

Johnny Sacks turns down Tony's offer. Phil, an obvious sadist, has to be allowed to kill Tony B. himself, as slowly as Phil wants, and over as many days as Phil wants.

The season ends with Tony killing Tony B., who he loves, himself. Johnny Sacks and Tony reach an accord. Phil will be given more power within Johnny Sacks' organization, as recompense. As soon as the accord is agreed upon, federal agents swarm across the snow of Sacks' estate, to arrest him for RICO violations.

Tony escapes, sliding across the snowy sidewalks until he arrives back home, stumbling across the backyard by the pool, much like the bear that had shown up by the pool earlier in the season, after Tony had been evicted from his home by Carmella. The final shot of the season is Tony letting himself in through the rear sliding door.

The two principal characters in the season, Tony and Tony B. (one episode is titled, "The Two Tonys"), come to a realization they cannot control their lives. Tony B. is given every opportunity to go straight, even the absurd advantage of free money, but he cannot prevent his fate of dying violently. Tony loves his cousin, and hates the idea of having to kill him, but he cannot prevent what he must do, because of his obligation to maintain order.

If the theme of season five was I Have No Control Over My Life, the theme of the most recent season is, Or Do I?

Because there are such long lapses between The Sopranos seasons (almost two years between season five and the just-completed season six), there's much anticipation about each new season's opening episode.

Traditionally, each new season has started with Tony walking down the long drive of his property to collect the morning paper, but this season, we start with one of the federal agents who had been assigned to Tony's case intoning H.L. Mencken's famous saying, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public," after which he vomits out the side window of his car.

We then see a montage of different Sopranos characters who will represent the themes of the upcoming season, to the music of William S. Burroughs' recitation of Seven Souls.

Tony is not included in the montage, and in fact first appears in the backyard of his uncle, Junior, digging holes, helping Junior try to locate forty thousand dollars Junior insists he buried after a job with Pussy Malanga back in the seventies (Junior's rapidly deteriorating mind is convinced Malanga is stalking him over the forty thousand).

As the first episode of the new season progresses, we see that things have gone well for the Soprano family. Although the feds are still investigating Tony, the investigation has stalled (the two informants the feds have recruited die, bringing the feds back to square one). Tony is rich, so that he and Carmella can indulge themselves in their new passion, ordering expensive sushi, at forty dollars a bite, at a restaurant they've discovered (and which becomes the new malt shop for them. Although even here, Tony can't resist "cheating" on Carmella, going to the restaurant by himself on at least one occasion ). With Johnny Sacks in prison, Tony initially thought there'd be difficulties and dangers in dealing with Johnny's appointed representative, Phil, but in fact, since Phil is "old school", the anticipated problems never emerge.

Life is good. Carmella is working with her father on her spec house, a symbol within the series of her independence, and Tony has gotten so fat (so successful) his weight exceeds the dial on his bathroom scale, even when he removes his clothes.

The theme of whether or not one can gain control of one's life plays out over the season primarily in the evolving stories of Tony, Carmella, and Vito, one of Tony's captains, and to a lesser extent in the stories of Christopher, Tony's mob son, and A.J., Tony's real son.

The theme is introduced in a story that begins and resolves in that first episode, the story of Eugene Pontecorvo.

Eugene works for Tony, one of his "soldiers". As all members of the crew must, he's taken a vow to remain in the mob until death (although Tony allowed an exception to that rule for his cousin, Tony B.) Eugene has been happy in the mob, but much like Tony B., in the previous season, an unexpected influx of money acts as catalyst to destroy Eugene.

Eugene learns he's inherited two million dollars from an aunt, and because of this windfall wants out. He'd like to move to Florida. He and wife have been scouting houses over the Internet, talking to realtors, and have found the perfect home. His son is beginning to get mixed-up in drugs. Both parents feel the move to Florida will allow them to start over, to rescue their son, to "change their lives".

But Tony won't approve the change. Tony's view, in this opening episode, is that once you commit to something (participation in the mob), you are not allowed, later in life, to rethink that commitment. Because of Tony's refusal to let Eugene change his life, Eugene commits suicide (as a consequence of his suicide, his wife and children, not subject to any mob oaths, will therefore be able to move to Florida. Eugene saves his family posthumously).

Eugene's suicide is intercut with Tony being shot by his uncle, Junior, who in his dementia state mistakes Tony for Pussy Malanga. As the first episode ends, Eugene is dangling from the end of a rope in his basement, while the phone receiver with 911 on the line is dangling in Junior's home as Tony, shot in the abdomen, passes out. Eugene's realization that he cannot change his life results in his death. Tony's near-brush with death wakes him up to the possibility of being able to change his own life.

The second episode of the season opens with an overhead view of Tony lying on his back in bed. It's a brilliant image, because even though the image presented to us is of Tony on a hotel bed, our anticipation, after the shooting at the end of the previous episode, evokes Tony lying in a hospital bed, where in fact he "actually" is (we're in for two episodes where Tony walks through a dream world, hovering near death). This brush with death causes Tony to rethink his life, to consider whether he should be less violent, more flexible. This possibility that Tony on his death bed might reject his mob life is referenced later in the season, in episode 74, when Tony and Christopher return from a business trip from Pennsylvania, happen across some bikers stealing cases of wine from a liquor shop, and get in a shooting match with them as Tony and Christopher steal the wine from the thieves. It's the first "bad thing" Tony has done this season, a rejection of his death bed epiphany. After enjoying the spoils of their theft, drinking a few bottles of the wine at a restaurant, Tony tells Christopher he may "have to sleep on my back tonight," on one level a reference to the fact he's had too much to eat and drink, so that sleeping on his stomach would be uncomfortable, but which on a deeper level means that by reverting to his old ways, he is returning to the hospital bed of his near-death, when he was flat on his back. The point is underscored when Christopher announces, as Tony proudly adds his share of the wine to his basement wine racks, that Christopher obtained a few hundred dollars for the sale of all his cases, which most viewers would see as a disappointingly low amount. The spoils were not worth the transgression from goodness.

One of the strengths of The Sopranos is that all the characters are treated as real people, rather than ideals. Carmella, Tony's wife, was initially presented in the series as a sympathetic, long-suffering wife, but as the series progressed, we came to realize she was instead a shallow, artificial woman.

In the first episode of the just-completed season, Tony gives her a brand new car, which she enthusiastically accepts as a symbol of her success in the world. She shows it off to different girlfriends, including, unforgivably, Johnny Sacks' wife, who's dealing with severely diminished income, in effect rubbing it in her face.

Towards the end of that first episode, however, she brags about her new car to Angie, a mob widow who is advancing in the crew (later in the season, one of Carmella's girlfriends says of Angie that "she's no longer one of us [the impotent wives] she's one of them [the all-powerful mobsters].") Angie in fact has a much better car than Carmella. And one she earned on her own, without the help of a husband. Throughout this season, Carmella's failures trying to establish herself as an independent woman (her father used cheap materials in the first-story frame of their spec house, causing the project to be condemned by the building inspectors, and later on he steals the building materials on the site), are contrasted with Angie's rise to true power. Whenever Carmella and Angie are shown in the same scene, Carmella, who should be in charge, by virtue of being married to Tony, is superseded by Angie. As one of many examples, the girls' meeting for the silent auction is one of the few opportunities for Carmella to show her power, but that opportunity is casually shot down by Angie's repeated walk-aways from the meeting to deal with "real" business on her cell phone.

As corrupt as Carmella has become, and as unsuccessful as her attempts to gain independent power have been, a trip to Paris offers her a chance to change her life by changing her values.

Throughout the trip, she is repeatedly enthralled by the magnificence of the public art on display in the city (a point is made of comparing the standards of France versus the standards of her home environment, most obviously in one edit where a close-up on a statue's ageless, gold-gilded face in Paris leads to a jump cut of the Bada-Bing sign outside the mob strip club).

Carmella's insight into the transience of life on earth affects her, but to what extent, and with what repercussions, we won't know until the eight bonus episodes (Tony can only see Carmella's trip to France in superficial ways, asking her if she's had any French toast or French fries. This refusal on his part to see beyond the obvious leads to the season's final episode, where he's wearing another cliché of France, a beret, which Carmella brought back for him as a gift. Her gift, in other words, was not sharing her insight with him, because he wouldn't understand what she was saying, but instead giving him something which simply reinforces his own prejudices).

The theme of whether or not one can change his or her own life is expressed most overtly in the story of Vito, one of Tony's captains.

We learned towards the end of the prior season that Vito is gay. This is information he has kept from everyone, real family and mob family, because of the devastating effects on his life the revelation would have.

In one of the early episodes of the just-finished season, two men associated with Tony's mob, collecting money from a gay bar, happen upon Vito, in full leather, his arm around another man. Vito begs them not to tell anyone, that it's not what it looks like, but of course they do. Within a day, everyone in the mob knows Vito is gay.

Complicating the issue is the fact that Vito is married to Phil's cousin.

Tony's New Jersey crew are stunned to learn their friend Vito is gay. Phil, a member of the New York mob, already harboring a grudge against Tony because Tony B. killed his brother, turns to a murderous rage, demanding that Tony whack Vito immediately.

Vito abandons his family, wife, son, and daughter, fleeing in the middle of the night. He drives to New Hampshire, whose state motto is Live Free or Die, his car breaking down after driving over a felled tree limb during a rain storm. He pulls his suitcases out of his trunk, dons a rain slicker whose bright red color makes him look like the Satan he's perceived as being in New Jersey, and walks down the highway through the storm.

He arrives in a small town that turns out to be the most gay-tolerant hamlet in North America.

The diner where Vito goes for breakfast the next morning has as its customers an openly gay couple, who no one seems to mind, and as its short order cook a tall gay male who Vito has an affair with, moves in with, falls in love with (the tone of The Sopranos is primarily satiric, as opposed, for example, to the tone of Six Feet Under, which is primarily serious. As an example of The Soprano's approach to its material, the short order cook turns out not only to be a volunteer fireman, but early in the story arc reenacts that hoariest of all clichés, dashing into a burning building to rescue a baby).

Vito himself eventually joins the volunteer fire department, and has his own triumph, in this case (again, keeping the tone satiric), of rescuing a priest.

Although his life in the New Hampshire town is everything he ever wished for, and he has indeed successfully changed his life, Vito becomes bored. His true life in New Hampshire allows him to openly be who he is, validating his worth, but he misses the late hours, easy money, and ethnic food of his false, secret life in New Jersey.

He decides to abandon Heaven, and return to the mob. Changing his life turns out not to be as important as he thought.

On his way back home, he has a second accident with his car (as a parallel to the earlier accident when he left home), only this time another person is involved in the accident, an archetypical New England type. This man wants to file a police report, which leads Vito to shoot him in the back of his head. The show's creators are reminding us that although we might feel sympathy for Vito, he is not, in fact, a good person.

Vito's fate lies in Tony's hands. Will Tony accept him back into the mob? Knowing he's gay?

The subtlety of the series can often be found in its use of symbolism.

Episode 71, titled "Live Free or Die", opens with Tony trying to relax by his pool. The lid of his outdoor air-conditioning unit starts to rattle. The rattle annoys Tony, so he gets up, tries to adjust the lid so it stops rattling. It does stop. He sits back down, starts to relax again, when the lid begins again to rattle.

The rattling air conditioner lid is meant to symbolize Tony's awareness of the Vito Problem. He wants to enjoy himself, but the Vito issue keeps cropping up, unresolved. Superficial attempts to deal with the recurring annoyance of the problem are not enough. It has to be dealt with decisively.

How do we know the rattling air conditioner lid symbolizes Tony's ambivalence over Vito? Because in the scene, while Tony is trying to relax, he's reading a yachting magazine. Later in the episode, he tells Silvio, his consigliore, that he never would have been able to buy his yacht if it hadn't been for Vito's earnings as a captain. Still later in the episode, when the time comes to resolve the Vito issue, decide whether or not to have him killed, Tony is once again reading a magazine, only this time it's a business magazine. The point is clear. Tony must choose business over pleasure.

When Vito does contact Tony, surprising him in the food court of a mall, Vito makes what sounds like a reasonable offer. He'll give Tony $200,000 to get back in, and move to Atlantic City, where he won't have any contact with Tony's crew, and where the people he'll be dealing with, making money for Tony, are "more tolerant" because of their involvement in show biz. Tony, unambiguously presented in the series as heterosexual, doesn't have a problem with Vito's homosexuality.

But nothing will appease Phil's hatred of Vito, which Tony realizes (Phil is the plot-driver in both recent seasons. In season five, Tony must kill his cousin Tony B. because of Phil; in season six, he must kill his top earner Vito.)

Phil's extreme hatred of Vito is suspicious. Granted, Vito is married to a member of Phil's family, but it's not to Phil's sister, or daughter, but rather a cousin, and a cousin who wants Vito to stay alive.

Phil's extreme over-reaction to Vito's homosexuality (it's all Phil can think of), causes the viewer to wonder about Phil's own true sexuality (on Tony's crew, the man who most closely matches Phil's hatred of Vito's lifestyle is Paulie, an unmarried bachelor in his sixties who spends most of his free time with his mother).

Tony decides to have Vito killed, for strategic rather than emotional reasons, but before he can, Phil and two of his henchmen surprise Vito in his motel room, beating him to death.

The staging of Vito's death is interesting.

Vito opens his motel door, at which point Phil's two thugs attack him, beating him with sticks from either side. The camera then focuses on the room's closet. The closet doors open. Phil is standing in the closet. As we watch, Phil "comes out of the closet".

He sits on the edge of the motel bed, watching while his two henchmen beat Vito to death. In a reference to one of the most endurable film clichés, a woman about to have an orgasm, we see Phil's hand reach out, clenching the side of the mattress.

Phil's inner conflict over what he's done is so great, in the final episode he suffers a heart attack, last seen lying in a hospital bed, completing a circularity to the season, Phil flat on his back, near death, at the end of the season, instead of Tony, at the start of the season.

Christopher, heir apparent to Tony's authority in the mob, becomes dumber and less reliable in the most recent season.

He wants to change his life by becoming a movie maker, meeting with Ben Kingsley to discuss a script, "The Godfather Meets Saw", in which a crew member is killed by his mob boss, his body parts distributed across New Jersey. The body parts then reunite, seeking revenge.

Although Christopher, who has always had an addiction personality, has stayed clean for a while, it is his bonding experience with Tony, stealing the cases of wine from the bikers, that causes him to fall off the wagon. Soon, he's shooting heroin again. In a scene typical of the series' satiric approach, Christopher, after injecting himself with heroin, is pictured by a ferris wheel, nodding out on junk, absent-mindedly petting the head of a stray dog, like a Norman Rockwell portrait of A Boy and His Dog.

A.J., Tony's true son, wants to get into the mob, but can't. He parties at New York City clubs, but can't afford the nightly tabs that add up to thousands of dollars. When he and his father are out on Tony's yacht, Tony offers him another beer, a sign of a father accepting his son's maturity, but when A.J., emboldened by this acceptance, then asks his father, "What are we going to do about Junior", trying, by the plural first person, to include himself in his father's activities, Tony quickly lets him know that whatever is done about Junior (whatever is done in the father's life) is outside the sphere of the son's life.

As the season concludes, A.J. has accepted that he must find a path through life different from his father's, truly working for the first time in his life, connecting with a woman older than himself, with a child, who helps him to mature. Of all the characters in this season, it is A.J. who most successfully changes his life.

The season ends with a series of sentimental scenes at the Soprano's Christmas party. For whatever reason, the final episode is projected into the future, Christmas 2006, even though the season was aired in early 2006.

Because this past season has been characterized as the "final season", with the remaining eight episodes described as "bonus episodes", one has to wonder if the Christmas With The Sopranos ending of season six was how the series was originally meant to end.

David Chase promised in prior statements that once the series was finally over, all loose ends would be tied up. The most famous of these loose strings are whatever happened to the Russian that Paulie and Christopher chased through the New Jersey pine barrens, and whatever happened to Furio.

There are also oddities in the series which might be explained. For example, why is the same song played in two back-to-back episodes, episode 69 and 70? The song is The Three Bells (Les Trois Cloches) by The Browns. In episode 69, Jason, who has returned to New Jersey to sell the garbage collection business his late father owned, is confronted after boating by Paulie and Patsy, two of Tony's crew. In episode 70, Vito, fearing the secret about his homosexuality is out, grabs up the money he's hidden around his house, and drives to a motel. Are we meant to see a connection between the two scenes? In the song, bells ring three times, the day "Little Jimmy Brown" is born, the day he marries, and the day he dies.

In episode 76, Dom, one of the two thugs working for Phil who beat Vito to death in his motel room, stops by the Pork store where Tony and his crew hang out. He taunts two of Tony's crew, Silvio and Carlo, about Vito's homosexuality. Silvio and Carlo kill him. In episode 77, Carlo has gotten rid of the last of Dom's body parts, his head. This distribution of Dom's body parts in different locations obviously echoes the plot of Christopher's horror movie script. In the script, the body parts reunite, to seek revenge. Is this a hint at what the bonus episodes will explore? Dom's body parts reuniting (perhaps on a steel table in a coroner's office), leading to a police investigation?

The Sopranos is rarely moving. Given that its tone is satiric, that's not surprising. One can't expect it to be something it's not interested in being. (Although there was one particularly moving scene at the end of the second show of the most recent season, episode 67. Tony, after "waking up" in a dream world while in the real world he hovers near death, discovers his identity (driver's license, credit cards), has been replaced with that of a Kevin Finnerty, a solar heating systems salesman from Arizona (as far as you can get, culturally, from New Jersey), who looks just like him. Tony resists the idea he is Finnerty, calling home, being reassured by his wife and young children he is, in fact Tony Soprano, but the longer he remains in the dream world, the more he doubts his old identity. Is Kevin Finnerty meant to represent who he could have been, if he didn't go into the mob? Is Tony seeing into the future, a future in which he enters a witness protection program, is given the new identity of Kevin Finnerty, and eventually remarries, has children with his new wife? We don't know. But at the end of this episode, Tony returns to his hotel room, registered under the name of Kevin Finnerty, flickering bright lights on the horizon outside his hotel window, and picks up the phone, to call his wife again, for another identity reassurance. Except, once he picks the phone up, he hesitates, sighs, put the phone back on its cradle. He appears to have resigned himself to his new identity, to his impending death. A quiet moment, but a powerful one. As he gives up, the camera moves to the flickering bright lights on the horizon, as a woman (who sounds like Annie Lenox) sings a slow, sad song, end credits rolling. It's a haunting glimpse into death.)

Six Feet Under often moves me to tears, because it does keep a serious tone. The past few months, Mary and I have watched the entire series again, via Netflix, three shows every early Saturday morning, while bird song comes through our opened bedroom windows.

In its final season, Six Feet Under produced twelve extraordinary episodes, better than anything I've ever seen on TV before, and in many ways better than anything I've ever seen in movies. The very end of the series, the last ten minutes, where we watch as the surviving characters we've known these past five years age and, one by one, die, is more powerful, heart-breaking and, ultimately, consoling, than anything else I can remember viewing.

It will be interesting to see how David Chase decides to end The Sopranos. In the eight years it will have been on the air at the time of its conclusion, Chase has managed to produce one of the finest television series ever, a show with an unusually large ensemble, complex story lines, and depth of character. The Sopranos changed the way people viewed television.

There was a time in the early part of this young century when new episodes of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under aired back to back on Sunday nights. Those nights were incredible. During that same time, both shows were unable to capture the Emmy Award for Best Drama (The Sopranos finally did win, in 2004. Incredibly, the show that won as Best Drama all those years, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, was The West Wing).

What will the future hold for TV? Will it be the genius of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, or the shit of The West Wing?

Only HBO knows.