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‘Sopranos’ returns with a bang

Spoiler warning: This article discusses what happened in the "Sopranos" premiere. Didn't see it and don't want to know? Stop reading now.

Let me tell you something, AJ,” Tony Soprano said to his son in the middle of the sixth season premiere of “The Sopranos.” “I don’t care how close you are. In the end, your friends are going to let you down. Family, they’re the ones you can depend on.”

Tragically, Tony Soprano was wrong. Maybe dead wrong.

In the first season of the HBO show, which has earned its place among the greatest dramatic television series to ever air, Tony’s Uncle Junior worked with Tony’s mother, Livia, to have Tony killed. Livia felt betrayed when she learned that Tony was seeing a psychiatrist, and feared what Tony might tell his new confidante. Her plot failed, but now, Uncle Junior and long-dead Livia may have finally gotten their way.

The first episode of the last 20 episodes of “The Sopranos” introduced a few new stories but was largely a return to its complex core: the machinations of Tony’s business life. With Johnny Sack in jail, Tony worked to keep peace between New York and New Jersey, telling nephew Christopher that his concessions were “a strategy.”

The most dramatic of the show’s many subplots involved the unrelated deaths of two FBI informants. Raymond Curto dropped dead while giving unlucky FBI agent Robyn Sanseverino information, while Eugene Pontecorvo hung himself rather than live out a life under Tony Soprano’s command. Gene and wife Deanne wanted to leave their New Jersey lives for Florida, having received a few million dollars inheritance from a relative. But Tony reminded Gene of his Mob oath and refused his request — as did the FBI agents to whom he’d been reporting.

The time that’s passed since last season has also left Tony and Carmela’s relationship in a sort of awkward equilibrium, with Carmela embracing her role in Tony’s life, which includes being willing to be bought off. After Tony gave her a new Porsche Cayenne, she squealed, “I still wish you’d talked to the guy at the building department but — oh my God! What a car!”

The only thing that was missing from this episode was Paulie Walnuts; perhaps he was away getting his hair colored. All in all, though, it was what viewers expect from a typical, well-acted, smartly written, moderately complicated episode of “The Sopranos.”

Say ‘Uncle’Then came the final scene.

Barry Wetcher

Uncle Junior, literally toothless and lost in a sea of delusion, paranoia, and Alzheimer’s, shot Tony Soprano in the chest. Then he ran to his bedroom, hid the gun, and cowered in his closet behind slatted doors. A cliffhanger closed the episode: a shot of Tony’s face on the floor of Uncle Junior’s kitchen, where he’d been making dinner moments earlier. From a dangling, blood-smeared phone, the voice of a 911 operator called out but was not answered.

The series’ other murders and whackings generally make sense inside the logic of Tony’s business; even the death of beloved Adriana, who was killed by Silvio toward the end of last season for being a rat, was justified, at least to the other characters. The same would have pretty much been true had the assassination of Tony, orchestrated by his mother and Uncle Junior, succeeded.

But this shooting, whether it leaves Tony Soprano dead (unlikely) or just thankful to be alive, was completely random and unexpected. It was the perfect way to begin this sixth season because it is an ideal illustration of what’s always really plagued Tony. His business relationships may continually place his life at risk, but the weight of the series has always come from those closest to him, those connected by blood or marriage. They’re the ones who truly affect him.

It was Tony’s blind, unwavering commitment to his family that made the shooting possible. While his sister Janice wanted to place the increasingly burdensome Junior into an assisted living facility, Tony refused, almost violent in his insistence.

In a therapy session, Dr. Melfi reminded Tony that, even after years of counseling, he was still unable to admit that his mother didn’t love him. Instead, he continued to justify her behavior, transferring his desire for her acceptance to his uncle. Melfi’s words were not well received.

Perhaps — and this is all mere speculation — the remaining episodes will play out post-Tony, as “Six Feet Under” did after one of its lead characters died. Or maybe viewers just watched the very end of “The Sopranos,” and remaining episodes will flash back to the year’s worth of stories that lead up to his death at the hands of Uncle Junior.

More likely, Tony will emerge from this a changed man, and those changes will affect the way his life plays out over the rest of the series’ life. Or perhaps he’ll survive and things will remain the same, just as they always have.

The first few moments of the show, which at first seemed disjointed, may offer some clues. It opened with an FBI agent reciting one of HL Mencken’s more famous lines — “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public” — and another throwing up immediately afterwards. Point taken.

William Burroughs performing an excerpt of his “The Western Lands” then provided the soundtrack as many of the characters were reintroduced, Burroughs’ text serving as both narration and perhaps a prescient guide. He began by saying, “the ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls” that begin to “leave [the body] at the moment of death.” Those seven souls were described as characters appeared.

The most surprising appearance was by Adriana, who is still very dead but showed up in Carmela’s dream. Adriana was on screen while viewers learned about “the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives.” Adriana’s shadow definitely weighs heavily on this season; she paid the ultimate price for her entanglement with this family. Her death may have foreshadowed Tony’s shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior: Adriana did not expect what was coming until the very last moments, and she was shot by someone she trusted.

“The Guardian Angel” was described as Meadow danced seductively in her underwear for fiancé Finn; Carmela was dreaming about Adriana as Burroughs described “The Double ... the only reliable guide through the land of the dead”; and Janice and her new baby daughter were on screen as the narrator described “the Secret Name” who “directs the film of your life from conception to death.”

What exactly all these mean may not become evident until the season unfolds, or until the first episode receives a few more close viewings. But what was clearly evident, however, was that the one person we didn’t see during this narration was Tony.

That’s because those seven souls inhabit him; his family is his very being. The irony is, he was shot by part of himself.

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