Tony Soprano probably longs for the days when all he had to worry about was his mother and uncle conspiring to have him whacked.
Now, life as a New Jersey mob boss is much more complicated, and getting more so with each passing corpse. On Sunday night, Tony sent Christopher to meet Adriana.
Chris and Tony were driving alone together at night along a two-lane road. Chris was behind the wheel, and he kept fiddling with the stereo. Oh, and he was high.
They skidded and crashed. When Chris told Tony that he wouldn’t be able to pass a drug test and was worried about having his license taken away, Tony looked in the backseat and saw a child’s car seat, which in this case served as a symbol for a lot of things: family, love, security, the future — all of which were in jeopardy if Christopher lived, according to Tony’s way of thinking.
So he held his nephew’s nose and made sure he suffocated and died.
As the final three episodes of “The Sopranos” approach, it feels as though the walls are closing in on Tony, which figures to create quite a denouement involving Tony and Phil Leotardo — if David Chase and his writers are good sports.
In this final mini-season, one constant seems to be Tony’s rising sense of agitation and insecurity. In a recent episode, he became obsessed with gambling, and thus became mired in losing. At one point, he even tried to coax Carmela into taking some of her profits from the sale of her spec house and putting it on the Jets.
Cash-flow issuesThat was the result of a reminder that Vito, one of his top earners, was gone for good, and money would be an issue.
There was also the episode in which Tony took Paulie on a little boat ride, reminiscent of the one Big Pussy went on and never came back from. Tony was worried that Paulie was shooting off his mouth too much, and that as much as he was a trusted member of the crew he might become a liability. Tony thought about fitting Paulie for cement shoes, but ultimately opted not to do so.
The brief storyline with Hesh and the money Tony owes him also illustrates the pressure on T. He would not have been so inordinately cruel with his wisecracks toward Hesh — a man he displayed genuine affection for in previous seasons — if there wasn’t a cash flow problem.
And now Christopher.
Tony’s rage tends to rise up at times without warning. This time it happened when he looked at the doped-up and bloody Chris behind the wheel, then saw the baby seat, then heard Chris confess he was on drugs, and a maelstrom of emotions hit him.
He was sick and tired of coddling Christopher, of tolerating his weakness. He was also deeply concerned that the FBI might find it even easier to make inroads with the unstable Chris than it was with the high-strung Adriana.
Even though clipping his nephew was something he’d surely thought about from time to time — being the efficient mob businessman that he is — this wasn’t premeditated murder. It was anger bubbling over, but channeled in a rational course of action. In the Mafia, this is how they fire employees, even when nepotism is involved.
The walls are closing in.
After Christopher’s wake, Tony went solo to Las Vegas and hooked up with one of his nephew’s party girls. It was a selfish move, but that’s Tony. He let the rest of the family grieve the loss of Christopher. He needed recreation on an unprecedented level, which in this case included peyote.
All of this sets up the final three episodes beautifully.
It's all about businessWhile Tony is dealing with a variety of issues — including the fact that his own son A.J. is suffering from depression, a family curse handed down from his parents through Tony — and trying to maintain his sanity, it all comes back to business.
Money and power are the drugs that sate the ambitious mobster. In Tony’s case, he is as addicted as Chris was to cocaine, heroin and alcohol. He can never get enough.
The man standing in his way is Phil. When Johnny Sack was in control of the New York family, there was at least a civility that existed between Johnny and Tony. The façade of such a relationship existed between Tony and Phil for a short time, especially after Phil suffered his heart attack. But that’s gone now.
Doc Santoro, who replaced Johnny Sack as boss, was eliminated as a candidate in a hail of bullets. Phil took over. Besides being vicious and ruthless, he has an excellent memory. He still blames Tony for the actions of his late cousin Tony B., who killed Phil’s beloved brother. Phil wants Tony dead as sure as he wants parmesan cheese on his linguini Bolognese.
But he’s smart. He’s waiting until Tony is pushed to the breaking point. That way no one can say Tony didn’t deserve it.
The way “The Sopranos” have built up to this point, Tony and Phil are just about ready for a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, only in the streets of Jersey.
Tony has been a shrewd boss. He is prone to outbursts of fury on occasion, but he also makes clear-headed decisions, even if it means he has to give ground to a rival. Yet the recent business with Phil, who is demanding 25 percent in the asbestos-dumping caper, is the type of thing that might prod Tony into war.
Before the crash, Christopher had urged Tony to accept Phil’s terms. If it had been Silvio offering the same opinion, Tony might have listened. But it was Chris, for whom Tony had lost more and more respect. It was not Chris the hothead, but Chris the pothead. It was a junkie giving Tony business advice. Because of that, Tony not only is likely to resist. In fact, he’ll probably do just the opposite, an inkling of which was offered in a cell phone conversation later in Sunday’s episode.
The murder of Christopher might provide Tony with some relief from the burden that an unreliable family member represented. But it’s only temporary. When the peyote haze lifts and Tony is back in New Jersey, the pressure will mount, and Tony just might find himself headed for a real crash.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.