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JAMES GANDOLFINI AND CAST IN SCENE FROM NEW SEASON OF THE SOPRANOS
HBO  /  Reuters file
Michael Imperioli, James Gandolfini, Tony Sirico and Steven Van Zandt survive to fight another day in season five of "The Sopranos."
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/7/2004 12:29:49 AM ET 2004-06-07T04:29:49
COMMENTARY

Carmela and Tony snuggling on the couch. Tony Blundetto shot gruesomely in the face.  AJ sort of screwing up but not exactly. Wow, how’d we get here?

The fifth-season finale didn't pack quite the wallop of previous episodes, but it symbolized everything this season got right. It tied up the Tony Blundetto plot, then turned around and neatly excised the fallout with a string of indictments for the New York crew. It remembered subplots like Junior’s memory loss and Carmela’s ugly breakup with Mr. Wegler. It moved Tony forward in therapy — only a fraction of an inch, but it’s something, which is more than you can say about much of the fourth season. 

The fans waited what felt like forever for season four, and after 18 months got an uneven season that never really caught fire. Hamstrung by an unwieldy cast, the fourth season repeatedly bogged down in one-off subplots that took time away from central storylines (Bacala Sr.'s return from “retirement,” and subsequent demise, is one example), and the central storylines (Christopher's heroin problem, Carmela's infatuation with Furio) took too long to get into gear.

More action, less talk
Season five had the same issues with the too-large cast — characters would rotate to the fore for an episode, only to drop out of sight again for weeks afterward — but this year, most of the plots resolved in a timely fashion.

Carmela got a crush on a man — and actually went to bed with him. Johnny Sack and Little Carmine squared off against each other — and actually put a few people in the ground as a result. Most notably, Adriana kept meeting with her FBI contact, albeit unwillingly — and actually wound up dead after nearly two seasons of dividing her loyalties. Her role on the “Friends” spin-off “Joey” is probably to thank for that, but her death was crucial to the show’s dramatic credibility.

The shifts in focus worked better this year, tying into each other and into the themes of the series as a whole much more smoothly. Janice’s anger-management episode worked on a black-humor level, as Janice's ridiculous self-absorption usually does. At the same time, it provided insight into Tony’s rage, which often manifests itself in the panic attacks we've seen him suffer since the first season, and which he’s started dealing with more honestly outside of Dr. Melfi's office (by confessing one of them to Tony Blundetto, for instance).

The episode in which Finn, Meadow’s hipster-haircut-sporting boyfriend, was drawn closer to The Family, then got freaked out by the implications, also served more than one purpose. After her involvement with the tragicomic Jackie Aprile Jr., Meadow moved further out of the family's orbit, but her all-night scrap with Finn did more than just poke fun at the pretensions of college, relationship psychobabble and Meadow's own hypocrisies. Worn down by arguing, Finn suggests getting married, apparently not understanding that doing so will seal off all routes of escape. The engagement parallels the choices Carmela has made, or tried to make, in her marriage not just to Tony but to the Soprano family, for better or for worse — and for life.

And the dream-sequence episode, a 20-minute love letter to devoted viewers and to the Mob-movie genre, sewed up a number of subplots while at the same time advancing Tony's therapy.

Meanwhile, Carmela's negotiation of her separation from Tony underpinned the season. Season four ended with an intense blowout and Tony's ouster from the house, and season five saw the aftermath as Carmela dealt with marauding bears, AJ's continued foolishness, and dating other men — not to mention Tony's underhanded strategy to cut her off from legal representation.

Eventually, she decided it wasn't a fight she could win, and when Tony suggested a reconciliation, she agreed — setting the price at a piece of land — once again letting him buy her complicity in the life that, whether or not she wants to admit it, the two of them share.

The short lifespan of a Soprano lieutenant
That life got increasingly complicated for Tony in season five. The vacuum of power at the top of the New York family put Tony in the middle of an ugly struggle between Johnny Sack's heavily symbolic cloud of cigarette smoke and Little Carmine's malapropisms, and while Carmine Jr. eventually ceded the field, the hostilities left Tony with a big problem — namely, Tony Blundetto, fresh out of jail and utterly adrift.

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Steve Buscemi directed one of the most beloved episodes from season three, “Pine Barrens” (an episode referenced in the fifth-season finale by Tony's sprint through the snow), and he seemed like a natural casting fit for “The Sopranos” after his roles in “Reservoir Dogs” and “Fargo.” The minute Buscemi appeared onscreen in his post-parole “Miami Vice” togs, the anticipation of his arrival on the show paid off.

But Blundetto was initially determined to make a go of things without The Family's help, and his decision to give up on going straight seemed abrupt; he went from studying anatomy to carrying out hits in almost no time. And Blundetto is the latest in a line of Sopranos lieutenants — Big Pussy, Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto — who have betrayed Tony and gotten Moe Greened as a result. Key capos come and go in the Mafia, but it's starting to feel formulaic — shouldn't we see more of the right-hand men we already know, like Paulie Walnuts? 

The uncomfortable scene between Tony and Paulie in the finale seemed to address the fact that Paulie didn't have as much to do this season — but what happened to Paulie going behind Tony’s back, then putting his foot in it with Carmine Sr. last year? Uncle Junior got a whole episode devoted to his dementia, but that subplot disappeared until the finale — where does the show plan to go with it?

“The Sopranos” could still afford to tune up a few things as it heads into the sixth (and allegedly final) season. The cast size has slimmed down handily in the last couple of episodes, between Adriana's death and the arrests of pretty much the entire New York family.

But David Chase should avoid bringing on yet another doomed stunt-cast deputy in favor of finishing the good work the show started this season, following through on hints he's dropped — Junior's decline, AJ's discovery that he's got a future as that sketchy kid in your high school who makes fake IDs, and Christopher's ongoing frustrations with Tony.

Viewers have watched the Freudian conflict between Tony and Christopher growing for five seasons now. Tony treats Christopher like his son, and Christopher rebels against and chafes at Tony the same way, considering leaving The Family for Hollywood, scuffling with Paulie, competing with Tony B. for Tony S.'s attention. Can the relationship return to status quo after Adriana's murder?

We'll have to see.

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