The fifth season of The Sopranos ended with an ominous image: The hulking bear that had menaced the Soprano household emerges into the backyard and is revealed to be Tony (James Gandolfini) himself. That 2004 season (one of the series' best) was all about the ruin Tony inflicted on others. This sixth and final season (the first of 12 episodes premieres March 12, then eight ''bonus'' episodes air in early 2007) hints at the possibilities of redemption. Tony, flush with money, peacefully back with Carmela (Edie Falco), finds himself as a result of one hell of a first-episode shocker plopped into another symbol-filled dream sequence: Buddhist monks, a beacon of light, and questions about Tony's true identity all swirl about. Back in the real world, Catholic priests, evangelical ministers, quantum theorists, and Jewish housewives all offer theories accidental, faint, or aggressive to salvation.
Of course, this being The Sopranos, deliverance is no sure thing: Tony learns an Ojibwe proverb about self-pity, and then proves he doesn't get it at all when a tiny detail gets screwed up, prompting him to sigh, ''It's always something.'' But among all the banalities, prayers, and maxims flying about the first few episodes, it's Tony, discussing business, who offers the most concrete thought: ''There's enough garbage for everybody.''
The miseries of duty and pecking order are in fact downright pungent. When several members of Tony's crew expect to rise in rank, only to remain firmly in place, tensions are ratcheted up in an environment already edgy from the continued discord with New York boss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola). Creator David Chase has always made clever use of the flickering images on Tony's TV, and the first movie we see this season is Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, a film in which the ideas of loyalty, honor, and obedience are all painfully probed. Chase's continuing theme of macho guys and their manly movies gets even more sly when Christopher (Michael Imperioli) returns to the film business by coercing his old AA buddy J.T. (Tim Daly) to whip up a script Christopher describes as ''Saw meets Godfather II.'' The scene in which J.T. balances his tiny laptop on his knees as he tries to pitch his story to the Mob crew is nearly as pathetic an image of male flaccidity as Fredo's ''I was stepped over'' speech from the latter film.
It's tough to jump-start a season when two of the first four episodes wander largely through Tony's slow-moving subconsciousness (these scenes aren't as unsettling as last season's perfect 20-minute dream sequence), but the more leisurely pace allows for some singular moments. Much has been made of The Sopranos' out-of-nowhere flashes of violence that, six seasons in, have lost their original shock value. No, it's the quick glimpses of unease and loneliness that the show nails so artfully, as when a weary Carmela, wandering in her half-built model home, confesses to the ghost of Adriana that she's never not worried. In the Sopranos' lives of not-so-quiet desperation, these subtle moments are the most devastating.