Sopranos stays fresh in sixth season with gay Mobster, brushes with death

By Oliver Mosier

New Jersey is a state that takes pride in the musical landscapes of Bruce Springsteen and the literary pastiche of Newark native Philip Roth. The Garden State has evolved over the years, distancing itself from its revolutionary past. Its favorite son is not Sinatra, Piscopo, or even Jason Biggs. Today, Jersey has exchanged its real heroes for fictitious characters, and in that group, Tony Soprano rises easily to the top.

After an extended but routine hiatus from television, The Sopranos returned in March with unbelievable anticipation and left with expected acclaim following the first episode. This season will be the show’s last with 10 episodes in 2006 and 8 more in 2007. The season premiere ended with Tony, the boss of the family, shot in the chest by his elderly and demented Uncle Junior. This marked the second time that Tony has been shot. Last time, his mother and a perfectly lucid Uncle Junior planned the hit. How’s that for family ties?

The second episode focused first on the power struggle of budding Mafiosi and the torment of Tony’s family as they sat waiting in the hospital in virtual limbo. Written by the creator of the show, David Chase, the other half of the show creatively documented the alternate comatose reality of Tony in his quest for identity. Dreams are difficult to pull off on screen, but they are not foreign to this series. The dreams of Tony have separated the show from just an ordinary mob series. At the end of the third episode, Tony miraculously wakes up from the coma. The relief was seen on screen by Carmela, Meadow, AJ, and his family and felt by the extended family of viewers.

As he slowly returns to the game of Don, in the subsequent shows, The Sopranos toyed with its audience’s expectations once again. Most avid fans expected Tony to either die or go to jail in order to give the show a semblance of closure. However, nearly killing him in the first episode and incapacitating him for two more shows have briefly suspended the predictability of the series. Such a development is refreshing in a television world that is knee deep in the rubbish of cliche.

Tony Soprano has undergone therapy for much of the series and lets the audience inside his head. The acting is superb, and it begins at the top. James Gandolfini, Tony, and his wife Carmela, played by Edie Falco, bring different dimensions to a typical gangster family. Gandolfini provides the viewer with a complex protagonist who garners both sympathy and hatred. There is the father, the boss, the husband, the adulterer, the killer, and the man.

The genius of The Sopranos has always been its ability to humanize sociopaths. While brutal murders are commonplace in the world of Tony Soprano, he is still on the most fundamental level a man with a wife and kids. Now, his family may have two meanings, and his kids may have more than just a few uncles. Even in the mob, there are gradations of psychosis. For instance, Paulie Walnuts, arguably the scariest person in the series, still undergoes character development. In one episode this season, he discovers his nun aunt is actually his mother and his mother is his aunt. Paulie, unable to feel and express his emotions, decides the best decision is to cut his mother out of his life. The show ends with Paulie beating up the character Michael Barone. Ostensibly, Paulie does this due to a business deal, but it’s really because Barone’s mother went to bat for her son and expressed her maternal love to Tony. Separating himself from Tony, Paulie can only deal with his problems through the use of violence. It was Paulie who disapproved of Tony’s therapy since the beginning. Paulie’s only therapy is ferocity. Finding depth in murderers is difficult, and creating sympathy for them is something that takes true craftsmanship.

One episode this season was directed by the Coen brothers’ favorite—Steve Buscemi. Buscemi, who played Tony Blundetto last season, always generates a new perspective for The Sopranos when he puts on his director hat. He has directed Emmy-nominated episodes in the past and knows how to bind a narrative together. The episode concerned the second-guessing of Tony ever since his return. His underlings are questioning him in ways that would have been previously unimaginable. The New York Boss, Johnny Sack, is allowed to leave prison for a day to attend his daughter’s wedding. Finally, the mobster Vito struggles and ultimately fails at hiding his homosexuality. Buscemi crafts his shots perfectly and provides the viewer with a level of intrigue that will spill over into the next shows.

The tenor of The Sopranos often changes drastically from week to week. However, the willingness to take risks is its one true connecting piece. Whether it is the directing, acting, or writing, the series continues to push the limits of television. The last season of The Sopranos makes a case for the show as art and worthy of New Jersey’s pride. It depicts power, depression, and death in ways that harken back to great artists of the past. The New Jersey rendered by David Chase and crew is not identical to Philip Roth’s or Bruce Springsteen’s, but it is part of that same tradition. The world of The Sopranos is a bullet-ridden Italian-American pastoral.