On ''The Sopranos,'' Christopher realizes he can't handle both sobriety and his job and then kills an AA friend; plus, Tony helps AJ get over Blanca

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 07, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

”The Sopranos”: Christopher gets thirsty

Although only one took a bullet, make no mistake: Three men surely died in what has got to be one of the bleakest and most breathtaking yowls of pain this magnificently hard-assed drama has ever offered.

Meanwhile, one man too tough to die — Tony Soprano himself — must resign himself to living as a boss in hell. It’s a damnation, Tony realizes in moments of insight, that he has inherited from a previous generation of monstrous men, and in other blinks of fleeting enlightenment, he further realizes that he’s passing that monstrosity along to the next. ”I’ve infected my kid’s soul! That’s my gift to my son!” he cries in momentary horror to Dr. Melfi as T the father worries about the suicidal depression of AJ the son. ”It is in his blood — this miserable f—in’ existence!” But such illumination is fleeting.

Tim Daly’s J.T. Dolan, meanwhile, is really, most sincerely dead; he was shot in cold blood by a drink-ravaged Christopher Moltisanti on a raw bender. (Alas, J.T., the industry’s unluckiest screenwriter, will never complete his Law & Order script, chung-chung.) J.T.’s crime? Being 12-step tough on his AA buddy when Moltisanti couldn’t take it. ”You’re in the Mafia,” J.T. said, refusing to hear any of Chris’s self-justifying off-the-wagon confessions. (We know that when Chrissy said he knows stuff about Adriana and Ralphie, he really knows stuff.) And then — boom. Custom and the code of conduct for family business might have prevented Chris from killing that dumb, destructive ox Paulie, not to mention Chrissy’s maddeningly inconsistent mentor, Tony. (Me, I think the wiseguy who offs the insufferable Paulie would not be convicted by a jury of his peers.) But J.T. was a sitting duck.

Anyhow, it’s Christopher who’s dead inside, even if he’s still upright (and more to the point, at the end of this typically brilliant episode, written and directed by Terence Winter, staggering drunk). His fragile sobriety selfishly undervalued by the people to whom he has sworn a blood oath of loyalty, his wife, adored baby daughter, and father-in-law threatened by those same family goons, his AA sponsor unreachable, and his last best hope for understanding (that’s J.T.) distracted and dismissive, Chrissy didn’t so much explode as resort to self-immolation. Embittered despair flowed through him like gasoline and alcohol, igniting the fire. When he laid it out for Tony that ”Dickie Moltisanti wasn’t much more than a f—in’ junkie,” T’s eyelids flickered briefly in that way that signifies a reality he refuses to hear. And then the truth was wiped away, erased clean. Such denial is enough to drive a man to drink.

And AJ is dead inside as well. I didn’t spend enough time after last week’s episode thinking about Anthony Jr.’s breakup with Blanca, but now I see that the swell of emotion this man-child felt for his restless older girlfriend was his last best hope for redemption, too. Breaking into tears right and left in the days after Blanca dumped him (and curling up in ”a fetus position when he should be out bangin’ coeds,” according to his dear old dad) wasn’t an expression of immaturity; it was a rare, brave, direct, fully felt expression of emotion and need. And when that, too, was trampled on by Tony’s cloddishness — his own father threw him to the wolves, or at least to junior-league Mob punks who enjoy ”majoring in cash, minoring in a–” — then what was left for the boy? What did anything matter? (I’ll tell you what mattered: Robert Iler has grown into a finely chiseled young man and a fine, soulful adult actor. What a beautiful performance!)

Tony, a man raised to be a monster, now is a monster, even — or maybe especially — to those he loves. Therapy can only do so much. ”Is this all there is?” he’s been asking over and over, in one way or another, throughout these last episodes. And the answer is, yes. This is all there is: the stripper he propositions at the bar of the Bing and the wife he goes home to; his disappointing business associates and his disappointing betting losses; the heaviness of sleep in his faux-Renaissance bedroom and the narcotic of TV in the den. He’s a fat, middle-aged boss in a bathrobe now afraid to step outside and pick up his own newspaper. Is this, too, death?

Do you really think Tony will sing to the feds about the ”fundamental” Middle Eastern men he used to see at the Bing? Do you think Meadow will do anything we care about between now and the end of the series? Did you not love AJ’s shrink session, with its pint-size replication of the vibe in Dr. Melfi’s office? Did you not love the design of this outstanding episode, with its slightly bleached-out, flat, forlorn look, as if the show itself had dark circles of tense worry under its eyes? In all, was this not a killer episode? I’m still stunned by its crushing, nerve-racking hopelessness. You?