March 28, 2007 — In the opening moments of the April 8 season premiere of “The Sopranos,” a loud knock at the front door startles Tony and Carmela out of sleep. “Is this it?” she asks, with a flash of panic. Well, Carmela, yes and no. No, the FBI agents at her door are not there to drag Tony away for good. (He spends only a night in jail on a minor charge.) But the larger answer really is yes, this is it: HBO’s celebrated drama will finish for good in June after only eight more episodes. It’s clear that David Chase, the mordantly funny creator of “The Sopranos,” is just having a laugh over all the hoopla about how his show will end. But maybe it’s also a hint: if you chose “Tony goes to prison” in your office pool, it looks you’re going to lose. Chase appears to be telling us that a jail cell is way too mild for this guy. If the season premiere is a kind of prologue, there’s a message here about the final hours of “The Sopranos”: this is gonna get ugly.
And yet the beauty of the episode (which was written by Diane Frolov, Andrew Scheider and Matthew Weiner, along with Chase) is that all this dark foreboding unfolds during one of the show’s quietest, most somber hours yet.
Sure, it ends with a huffing, puffing, blood-stained fistfight and a random whacking—but by “Sopranos” standards, this episode is practically a coffee klatch. Much of it is set during a lazy weekend at a picturesque lake house, and as the episode moves along, subplots and supporting characters gradually fall away until only four people remain: Tony, Carmela, his slithering sister Janice and her oafish husband, Bobby Bacala.
Their family retreat plays like an Albee chamber piece, with Tony, looking more doughy and piggish than ever, planted in the center.
It’s a poignant way to begin the show's march to the end. On "The Sopranos," nature has always served as a metaphor for Tony’s smothered humanity. He began with ducks in the pool behind his house, and now here he is, back in nature. But after years of destroying lives for his own selfish ends, there’s no longer any peace for Tony. He slumps into a picnic chair by the water and tells a story about a local kid who drowned. He’s living in material paradise and stuck in existential hell. He’s like a black hole dragging souls into the darkness with him, and by the end of this first episode he’ll have claimed one more.
The second hour of the season is more conventional—it’s brassier and more brutal, and less interesting for it. We check in on the progress of Christopher’s horror movie (lousy) and imprisoned boss Johnny Sack’s health (even worse). But this episode isn’t as self-contained as the marvelously unsettling season premiere. Hour two has the tone of a chess master getting all of his pawns in place. Better watch out, Tony. It feels like check-mate is coming.
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