Mother of mercy, is this the end of Tony? Or Christopher? Or Bobby ”Bacala” or Phil Leotardo or — shocking thought — Carmela? Dunno. What we do know is that this is the end of The Sopranos. So somebody’s end is probably near (I’m guessing more than one somebody) in the next nine weeks of the final season of one of modern television’s greatest achievements in dramatic storytelling. And yet for now, of course…we wait. Show creator David Chase wouldn’t have it any other way. Convulsions of exhilarating, violent, plot-powering action — otherwise known as whackings — have been the moments that have made headlines over the years. But really, at its sad, wise heart, The Sopranos illuminates the millions of moments of no action that make up the kind of life millions more of us know. It’s Tony’s dreams, free associations, and gut-gnawing existential agita that give the series its emotional greatness, while Adriana or Big Pussy gets the buzz. And it’s because we can feel the weight of Tony’s unwhackable anxieties, even when he’s just slumped in a lawn chair staring at water as ducks go by (ducks! Like doves of peace, they quack in the end as they did in the beginning!), that we’re so enthralled when something less regularly suburban does go down.
There’s a fair amount of sitting around in the first episode — and yet every minute is alive, loaded with middle-aged melancholy (Tony’s) and dread (ours). Offering a tableau of almost hilarious mellowness and serenity — Tony and Carmela, Janice and Bobby, sharing a pastoral family weekend of food, drink, and rule-bending Monopoly-playing at a woodsy, lakeside vacation house to celebrate T’s 47th birthday — Chase and his writers turn the fantasy of country living on its head. They manage to hint at enough distrust, disappointments, and simmering resentments for a reasonable viewer to break out in a sweat of worry about the fate of everyone at the table. And even those not present. Just a word, a phrase, vibrates with import: ”I’m old, Carm,” from Tony, or ”What did I say?” from Janice to her annoyed sister-in-law, spoken in the exact same tones of sadistic innocence once heard from her mother.
In an opening scene, the early-morning sound of someone — feds? cops? disgruntled business associates? — pounding at the front door awakens Carmela, who bolts up in the Soprano marriage bed and asks her sleeping husband, ”Is this it?” She means the punishment, the endgame, the losing roll of the dice she always knew came with Mr. S. This is not it, yet, but it’s coming. The wait is agonizing, and worth it. A