Monday, May 21, 2007

Sopranos Countdown: Will Tony Pay?

I avoided “The Sopranos” season after season for the simple reason that I co-authored a book with a Mafia guy once, and it wasn't a happy experience --- he threatened to kill me, and I actively plotted to kill him.

His threat was empty. He just wanted to get the damn book published, and he was disappointed that his shot at “Godfather”-level fame was going to stall at the level of an original paperback.

My plot was real. I had lived with this guy, boxed with him, watched him zoom from zero to sixty on the rage meter over matters so trivial as his wife's failure to heat the meatballs properly. For an ambivalent Jew, I was clear on this --- the guys needed to be put to sleep. So I scouted his property to find the right angle to blow him away with the hunting rifle I would somehow acquire and master.

This creep --- his name was Luigi DiFonzo, and his claim to fame was his unaccountable acquittal as the mastermind of Chicago's $4.3 million Purolator burglary, then the largest cash heist in American history --- eventually did die, and by his own hand. He'd run out of scams and the Feds were closing in, so he swallowed a meatball-sized mound of pills.

Good riddance.

Which is why I didn't tune in to “The Sopranos” until this season --- I'm not interested in seeing the humanization of gangsters. But in the final season, I figured, at last we'd see justice done. Or, at least, a lot of the principals whacked.

Alas, I quickly discovered something that viewers-turned-addicts have known for years: The real trick of the series is that it really does make you care for these loathsome people. Like Christopher. Two episodes ago, he backslid and spent a night drinking and doing coke. He knew he did wrong, so he went to see a guy who had achieved sobriety --- and who was, irony of ironies, a writer just finishing a script for “Law & Order.” The guy said the wrong thing; Christopher pulled a gun and killed him.

I can understand mobsters killing mobsters; by some demented logic, that's “business.” But this was a civilian; he never expected that death was the price for a wrong opinion.

I was appalled, disgusted, troubled for days by this murder --- I believed Christopher was in mortal forfeit. That he deserved to die. And yet, after the auto wreck in the following episode, I was stunned when Tony stumbled out of the car, saw an opportunity to make his life easier --- and closed his fingers over Christopher's nostrils until he died.

Damn that David Chase! Now I was mourning Christopher and --- like many others, I'd bet --- seeing Tony for what he is when the thin veneer of charm is stripped away: a killer, thug and sociopath.

And his wife, Carmela? Like you, perhaps, I had pegged her as Tony's victim, or maybe his enabler; I'd almost admired her efforts to make legit money by building a spec house. But when she confided that some of the materials she used were sub-standard, I got it --- they were all despicable, right down to their spineless son AJ, who stood and watched as his college friends beat a black kid.

I've just finished watching the next-to-last episode. AJ, who never cracked a book, is mesmerized by the much-quoted lines of William Butler Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

But it's the less-quoted following line that resonates:

Surely some revelation is at hand.

The Second Coming? Hardly. AJ suddenly sees through the low-hanging fruit of deceit --- George Bush, federal meat inspectors --- and seems to be on the verge of seeing through the fraud at home. Instead, he internalizes his rage and tries to kill himself in the family's swimming pool. It's quite the brilliant plot turn. In one episode, Tony kills Christopher, his strong surrogate son; in the next, he dives in to save his own weakling child. And then nearly kills a hood who mouthed off to his daughter.

“I'm a good guy,” Tony tells his shrink. “I love my family.” Maybe that frames his troubles for him. I --- and I think many viewers --- see the end of this series through a different frame: Is there justice? Karmic justice, that is. In the final episode, will Tony “pay” for the life he's led? Or will he have to go on living it? And would that be a harsher punishment than death?

And that's my sole interest in this series. Not in what came before --- all I care about is the end. How David Chase decides to leave it. What message he ultimately chooses to send --- if, of course, he chooses to send one at all.

Next Sunday night? I haven't a clue. In his great poem, Yeats writes:

somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs...

His “rough beast” is slouching to Bethlehem to be born. David Chase's beast is going to die. Or so I like to think I hope.

--- Jesse Kornbluth is editor of
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