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'The Sopranos': One to go

June 3, 2007 | 10:26 pm

Sopranostp2 When “The Sopranos” debuted, no one knew quite how to describe it, and everybody has spent the last eight years trying. A struggling mob boss enters therapy to deal with his mother issues and spends the years vacillating between what seems to be the private search for mental health and the public actions of a sociopath. A post-modern mob story, “The Sopranos” sometimes seemed a sardonic, often hilarious treatise on love, death, family and self-help; and sometimes like an epic battle for the American soul, as embodied by Tony Soprano.

But if the second-to-last episode is to be believed, if it isn’t some fever dream of Tony’s, some vestige of last season’s post-shooting hallucinations, “The Sopranos” was, at its heart, just a really great gangster drama.

Opening with Silvio’s garroting of Burt, Episode 8 clipped along at a murderous pace as Phil Leotardo called for Tony’s head and Tony paid him the same courtesy. War was declared, somewhat openly, and once again Tony called on the services of his "cousins from Italy.” This time, however, things went awry, and another silver-haired gentlemen took the bullet for Phil.

Phil’s gang did not suffer from the same misfortunes, and within a few minutes, both Bobby and Silvio were, in the parlance of the genre, shot full of lead.

There were, of course, a few truly “Soprano” moments in the aftermath. Paulie admired A.J.’s female friend—“look at the stems on blondie”—even as he and Tony prepared to go into hiding; A.J. dissolved into an only slightly whinier version of his old man when told that his Uncle Bobby has been shot—“and I was having such a hard time maintaining.”  It was only one episode ago when Tony managed to view A.J.’s suicide attempt as yet another of his personal misfortunes, but never very sensitive to irony, Tony reacted by throwing him to the ground and dragging him into the closet.

For the most part, the narrative, shot in shortest, most pause-free scenes ever seen on “The Sopranos,” was classic gangland payback; there was no tortured ambivalence, no kinder gentler Tony as he called for Phil’s death or prepared Carmela and his family for flight. With his back to the wall, Tony is who he is: a mob boss. Even Dr. Melfi passed final judgment. Her work with Tony outed at a dinner party by her own shrink (the psychiatric profession is only slightly more scrupulous than the mob), she was forced to consider the evidence that talk therapy with a sociopath only helps polish the criminal. And so, acting more like a jilted girlfriend than a therapist, she literally and figuratively, showed Tony the door. As that door slammed, any hope Tony had of escaping the limited possibilities of a gangster’s archetypal fate was severed.

We were left, in the moments before “the final episode. Ever” with the image of Tony alone on a bare mattress, clutching a machine gun, his eyes fixed on a closed door. It is the end, one way or another, of Little Rico, Little Caesar, Sonny Corleone, Michael Corleone and Bugsy Siegel. Yes, Tony may yet kill himself, or go to the feds and save his skin or somehow avoid being the body slumped over a restaurant table surrounded by police tape, but any hope he had of being a different sort of mob boss, a different sort of anti-hero, is gone.

He is simply a man alone in the dark with his gun.

-- Mary McNamara

(Photo: HBO)