Sporting a new, grown-up hairstyle and clad in yet another gorgeous mortgage payment, a frantic Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) bursts from her front door at the beginning of the sixth and final season of Sex and the City. She's on her way to the New York Stock Exchange, where she is scheduled to ring the opening bell to mark the start of the trading day. Her newspaper, the fictional New York Star, is going public. But the show's devoted followers know that this plot gimmick is incidental. Finance, schminance. The real point of Carrie's mad dash downtown is to allow her to wax poetic about the connections between love and the stock market.
Carrie's fondness for heavy-handed metaphors aside, ''Sex and the City'''s weekly theme-on-a-platter device has served the show well. Way back in the pilot episode, when she described herself as a ''sexual anthropologist,'' she did indeed devote much of her time to the scientific observation and classification of New York singles. (Remember ''modelizers'' and ''toxic bachelors''?) But as the series has aged, Carrie has evolved into something more akin to an emotional Kremlinologist, trying to glean insights into the mysteries of relationships by scrutinizing everything from seating arrangements to spanking etiquette. What's left? Divining her future from the arrangement of a boyfriend's sock drawer?
The stock-market comparison may not be the freshest metaphor in the pantry, but it puts the topic at hand in perspective. Some things, like your portfolio and your love life, are governed by forces that defy analysis. And in that regard, it's a fitting beginning to the beginning of the end.
The season premiere is entitled ''To Market, to Market,'' and sure enough, the girls are back on it. After the brief season 5 downturn that followed the big crash of season 4 (in which Carrie broke off her engagement, Charlotte got divorced, Miranda had a baby, and Samantha fell disastrously in love), the girls were due for a correction.
So Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) reverts to on-again, off-again relationship hell when she discovers, to her horror, that she's still ''invested'' in her relationship with Steve (David Eigenberg). She reacts, as usual, by arming her grenade. (''All of a sudden, I looked over at him and I realized, We belong together,'' she tells Carrie. ''So I picked a huge fight and threw him out of my apartment.'') Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is once again back to flogging the marriage horse. When she and her new soul mate, Harry (Evan Handler), encounter some faith-based issues, she tackles the problem with characteristic Episcopalian pragmatism: She decides to become a Jew. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) bounces back from Richard by focusing on what she does best: trolling for sex in the service sector. (A visit to a trendy raw-food restaurant in the second episode leads to a carnal marathon with a twentysomething waiter.) And Carrie, the ultimate wonderer, hits ambivalent-relationship pay dirt after just two dates with puppyish writer Jack Berger (Ron Livingston), who seemed like a hot commodity when we first met him last season.
Watching all of this unfold, it's hard not to feel as though we've been here before. In fact, if it weren't for certain zeitgeist signposts -- nods to the New York City smoking ban and TiVo addiction -- you'd swear the girls were lapping the block one last time on their way back to square one. When Miranda announces, ''I don't invest anymore; it's too volatile,'' you know just how wiped out she feels.
That said, ''To Market'' provides the first assurance that ''Sex and the City'' won't end next year with a ''Days of Our Lives''-style multiple wedding. (Executive producer Michael Patrick King told EW to expect one nuptial. Maybe more than one. Maybe not.) This comes as no surprise; despite its glittery fantasy element, ''Sex and the City'' has consistently and staunchly resisted indulging in female wish fulfillment. Even with all its giddy departures from reality (how did Carrie afford all those shoes?), the show has always nailed the weird arithmetic of love: Each new relationship adds baggage, subtracts expectations, and recalculates one's outlook. And if ''Sex'' has stuck by one point since it first got down to business in 1998, it's that this love thing is nothing if not cyclical.
Though they don't rank among the series' best, the first pair of episodes rather slyly and elegantly acknowledge that it's time for the show -- and its fans -- to move on. (The TiVo subplot in episode 2, where Miranda becomes overly dependent on her digital recorder after getting addicted to a sexy BBC soap, seems unpromising until it dawns on you that your own TiVo's raison d'etre is to tape ''Sex and the City.'') Having the sense to know when to go is the least one can expect from a smart, canny relationship show. And though there will be a lot of wistful sighs when Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha turn the corner and disappear from view, it sure beats wishing they would just leave already.