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‘Sopranos’ heads for exit with quiet power

The most recent episodes of “The Sopranos” have been criticized for being too slow, too boring, too full of nothing, lacking what earlier episodes delivered consistently.

These episodes have not been without moments of violence, however. Earlier this season, for example, Silvio Dante was eating dinner at a restaurant with a candidate for boss of the New York family, who was graphically murdered.

As Silvio spoke, the volume dropped, and then suddenly everything shifted to slow motion. But this wasn't a digital cable or satellite feed hiccup. Instead, as Silvio talked and his mouth slowly opened and closed, his face was drenched with an almost graceful spray of blood. A few seconds later, everything returned to normal speed, and the shot shifted back to his dinner companions, Silvio — and viewers — finally realized that the other man was being shot repeatedly.

By slowing down the moment and focusing on Silvio alone, the editors perfectly captured his surprise — and viewers' surprise, too — by illustrating the way time slows during a horrific, unbelievable moment.

This week, the editors did something similar when Tony Soprano bet on a horse named “Meadow Gold.” As the announcer explained that the horse lost the race “by a nose,” the audio and video slowed down significantly and captured Tony’s face twisting into distress, conveying his horror at yet another gambling loss and disappointment that his bets in life weren’t paying off.

Season unfolding slowly, but remains fascinatingThese slow-motion moments also work as metaphors for this, the final season of “The Sopranos,” which has been unfolding with the same lethargic speed, at least compared to the pace of earlier seasons.

While there have always been episodes that have been criticized for not delivering fully, the show has never offered non-stop action. What “The Sopranos” is capable of delivering in its best episodes, however, sometimes creates an expectation that could only be met if Michael Bay directed every episode.

This with not much more than talk between just four characters: Tony, Carmela, Bobby, and Tony’s sister Janice.  Eventually, that led to a brutal hand-to-hand fight between Tony and his previously demure brother-in-law, and later to Bobby’s first hit.

But those eruptions of violence were the exceptions during the hour, as much of it was conversation: Tony and Bobby in a boat talking about Tony’s future, Janice and Carmela sitting by the lake discussing the men in their lives.

That was the perfect way for “The Sopranos” to begin its exit: quietly, but with moments that tell us more than a pile of bodies ever could.

Some fans and critics were not thrilled with the slow pace of the first half of this final season, during which Tony spent time in a coma after being shot by a delusional Uncle Junior. Their complaints have been met by an even slower second half. But this pacing offers more of what HBO’s drama has always done best, and it’s in these moments—where someone isn’t being shot, or threatened, or having sex with a random stripper—that the series truly comes to life.

“Sopranos” creator David Chase has consistently layered meaning and metaphor about family, masculinity, loyalty, and other themes on top of an engaging story about the mob. While most appreciate the combination of the two — that’s what leads critics and others to declare this the best television drama ever produced — some just want more violence, more sex, and more of what viewers would get if this show was on network TV.

While networks have followed HBO’s lead and developed quality dramas that have taken network television to new levels, few have succeeded in creating a drama that has reached the level of “The Sopranos.” Ironically, before HBO bought it, the show was initially rejected by the networks, where it would have ended up a very different series, if only because of the FCC’s content restrictions.

Network dramas tend to combine artful cinematography with stories that suggest depth but are usually rather hollow. As a result, they’re far more accessible, although the entertainment they offer doesn’t burrow deep within as “The Sopranos” tends to do, lingering long after an episode concludes.

Without being beholden to ratings, HBO can avoid pandering to the lowest common denominator while trying to craft televised art. “The Sopranos” uses its story to wrestle with big ideas, it doesn’t just insert ideas into a story.

As “The Sopranos” winds down and adopts a more leisurely pace, the tension has, in fact, been ratcheting upwards. Tony and Carmela’s always-precarious relationship has visible cracks. Phil Leotardo, the newly appointed New York boss, is desperate to prove himself, probably by challenging Tony. A.J. Soprano is moving slowly down the path his father once took. Tony is still not thrilled that Christopher used him as an unflattering model in his slasher film. Uncle Junior is still losing his mind, but is desperate to regain his former stature. And Dr. Melfi is finally challenging Tony to leave therapy unless he’s going to truly engage in self-improvement.

These loose ends may wrap up in the remaining five episodes. But like the forgotten Russian who escaped Paulie Walnuts and Christopher in the frequently cited “Pine Barrens” episode from season three, most probably will not.

That’s the way it should be, because anything less — or more, actually — would be a betrayal of what “The Sopranos” has established so far. And as the show has demonstrated over the past 81 episodes, betrayal is not something that leads to a happy ending.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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