He looks old. He feels old. On the season premiere of “The Sopranos,” mob boss-family man Tony Soprano is marking his 47th birthday in a funk.
“I’m old, Carm,” he tells his wife, “and my body has suffered a trauma that it will probably never fully recover from. So why don’t we just face the facts?”
A central fact for Tony is that last season, brain-addled Uncle Junior shot and nearly killed him. Nothing so traumatic will greet Tony (or the audience) when this HBO drama returns with the first of its final nine episodes. But the opener delivers fresh evidence that Tony’s deepest fears are right on target. Time is running out, and he seems to be bracing for the end.
So are viewers, with the glorious series just weeks from its conclusion.
(Warning: spoilers ahead for the season premiere, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.)
Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmela (Edie Falco) are guests of his sister Janice and her mobster husband, Bobby, at their upstate New York summer house. The woodsy, lakeside retreat is far removed from the series’ usual New Jersey locale, and a beautiful place to celebrate Tony’s birthday.
But even in this tranquil setting, good feelings seem forced.
“Look at you and me, Tony,” says Janice (Aida Turturro) as the foursome shares drinks by the water. “Who would have thought we’d have the kind of relationship we have now? The credit goes to you. You really changed.”
“So I had to change,” Tony bristles. “YOU were fine?”
“You’re different,” persists Janice, “since that stuff last year. The shooting.”
Doubts are what make Tony fascinating
Sure, Tony’s near-death experience left him different. It gave him more reason to feel, and fear, his mortality.
A mob boss can’t afford to have doubts. But Tony is riddled with them. Perhaps this, more than anything, makes “The Sopranos” a masterpiece, while making viewers love the often-less-than-lovable Tony: His epic, doomed struggle to boss his own deep-seated dread.
Back in 1999, “The Sopranos” began with Tony besieged by panic attacks. He felt the rules by which he lived and did business were no longer respected by others in his world. That’s what drove him to psychiatrist Dr. Melfi in the series’ very first scene, establishing himself as a tormented tough guy.
Now, out on the sparkling lake with Bobby, he sings much the same tune.
“My estimate: 80 percent of the time it ends up in the can,” he sighs, “or on the embalming table at Cozarelli’s.”
“Don’t even say that,” replies Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa).
“No risk, no reward,” Tony goes on. But what is the reward? And is it worth the risk? Those questions plague Tony with escalating urgency — and with little to suggest that he will find any reassuring answers.
Monopoly rules and RICO worries
Meanwhile, of course, other problems loom.
We know Carmela is still upset by the long-ago disappearance of Adriana, fiancee of Tony’s nephew Christopher. Little does Carmela suspect (yet) that poor Adriana, forced to cooperate with the government, was executed on Tony’s orders and with Christopher’s compliance. Will she discover Tony’s monstrous deed?
Oh, yeah — the Feds. They’ve been building a RICO case against Tony for ages, and they pop up in the season premiere.
During the episode, we glimpse Christopher (Michael Imperioli), with whom Tony feels a growing disappointment. Also offspring Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) and ne’er-do-well A.J. (Robert Iler), who since last year tattooed girlfriend Blanca’s name on his arm.
With all this, too bad Tony can’t enjoy his weekend getaway.
How could he, with his sister’s constant baiting? The title of this episode, “Soprano Home Movies,” comes from Janice’s birthday gift to Tony. She had their family’s home videos transferred to DVD — the perfect gift for someone haunted by an unhappy childhood.
“Very thoughtful,” Tony thanks Janice with barely veiled sarcasm.
The party continues. The booze flows. A karaoke session finds Carmela wailing the rock ballad “Love Hurts.”
Then the foursome settles down for a friendly game of Monopoly, which quickly gives rise to a dispute many viewers will take sides on: Should money paid to Chance and Community Chest be deposited in the bank, as the rules specify? Or go in the middle of the game board, with the first player to land on Free Parking winning the stash?
The latter way is how Tony and Janice played it as kids.
Bobby protests. “You know, the Parker brothers took time to think this all out,” he reminds everyone. “I think we should respect that.”
But at this advanced stage of “The Sopranos,” respect is wearing thinner than before. And in Tony’s threatened world, rules matter even less.