On ''The Sopranos,'' Tony finishes off Christopher, who had been his likely successor; meanwhile, AJ gets in deeper

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 14, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Sopranos

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”The Sopranos”: Dueling wakes

O Chrissie! A moment of silence, please, for the tragedy of a lousy screenwriter who struggled his whole short, damned, doomed life to find his character arc. And failed.

O Christuhfuh! After Chris’ defeated tumble back down the rabbit hole of addiction last week, an astute EW colleague predicted a scenario for the series’ final episodes that even I, who believe a watched plot never boils, had to admit sounded plausible: AJ would go into the family business; Christopher would kill Paulie; and Tony would have no choice but to kill Chris.

Well, not quite, but that was indeed Tony pinching shut Chrissie’s nostrils and snuffing out any last gasp of hope as the presumed successor (and drug-impaired driver of a car that swerved and skidded and tumbled in the New Jersey nighttime) lay bleeding to death in a desolate ravine. In the time it took him not to complete punching in 911 on his cell phone, the evolutionary survival instincts of the cold-blooded Anthony Soprano — Tony the dinosaur still roaming the earth — had taken over. And Tony the tender lug who over the years has enjoyed sharing cozy car talk with intimates simply vanished, replaced by a practical, emotionally shuttered monster (courtesy of the phenomenal James Gandolfini) with impenetrable dead eyes.

O Mr. Moltisanti! There have been times over the years when something shocking has happened on The Sopranos — I’m sure you’ve experienced this — and the action takes place with such a whiplash swerve that it’s hard to comprehend what we’ve just seen. Tony’s dispatch of the dying Christopher was one of those moments. Is this the whimper and bloody little gurgle with which such a familiar presence departs such a big saga? Such a dumb, sad, f—ed up demise, just a stoned loser at the wheel with a mangled baby carrier in the back seat?

Only then, of course, does the real Sopranos work begin — the work that a few cranky action junkies like to say is boring and that a whole lot of Freud junkies know is exhilarating. This latest landscape-altering episode was only briefly about one major character’s death (or, for that matter, about how, even in death, Chrissie managed to push Paulie’s buttons as the Gualtieri goon went about mourning a death in his own family). Mostly, it was about how Tony processes his own psychological reality. With each variation of the story he invented, in dreams, peyote hallucinations, therapy sessions, or recitations to anyone who’d listen, he — and we — had an opportunity to understand what he’s been through: Christopher ”wore no seatbelt,” ”died almost instantly,” ”practically in my arms.” ”I’m f—in’ relieved.” ”He was a horrendous drag on my emotions” and ”a weak, lying drug addict.”

”I get it!” Tony finally announced to the Las Vegas heavens and desert, a statement that was open to interpretation: Had he achieved some insight, or was he simply relieved that he’s finally freed himself (and gotten lucky at the gaming table again) because ”the biggest blunder of my career is now gone”? (Heaving a Cleaver coffee mug into the leaf-littered tangle behind his tarp-covered New Jersey swimming pool was a nice touch, too; the only restorative body of water he got to gaze at was enclosed at a glitzy Las Vegas hotel.)

Well, while Tony wasn’t telling the whole truth to Dr. Melfi — and for the record, he still hasn’t told the whole truth about Adriana to Carmela the master compartmentalizer (although it looked for moment as if he were finally going to relieve her of her willful innocence) — AJ wasn’t telling the whole truth to his mediocre, Lexapro-prescribing shrink, Dr. Vogel, either. The creeping emptiness within the junior Soprano is sometimes glazed over by antidepressants and other times offset by increasing sprees of two-bit torture and bullying with his new bad-element buddies. Was his can’t-we-all-get-along plea to Dr. Vogel and the tears that broke free a last grasp at humanity before going under for good? Is my learned EW pal correct in predicting that AJ will join Tony in the family business?

Especially when it concerned Tony, a lot of the scenes and scenery in this fate-changing episode, written by Matthew Weiner and David Chase and directed by Alan Taylor, hinted at, echoed, or otherwise evoked memories of places we — and Tony — have been before. That’s because not too long ago, Tony really was in a hospital, comatose after a gunshot wound. (How’s it hangin’, Uncle June?) And, I don’t know, maybe because there I see great similarities between the numbing ”excitement” of Las Vegas gaming and the experience of being in a coma.

But this episode also displayed a virtuoso sense of exactly the right pop-culture reference dropped in at the right time. High and twitching behind the wheel, Christopher twiddled the music dials, jonesing to listen to the soundtrack for Scorsese’s movie The Departed. Tony’s got the soundtrack too — really, he’s a voracious consumer of everything EW covers — but T is also old-school enough to reference the old radio show Make Believe Ballroom. And to relate the wails of Christopher’s boozed-up mother to James Brown, or the dark-sunglasses glamour of Christopher’s widow, Kelly, to Jackie Kennedy. Paulie’s mother-like aunt, Nucci Gualtieri, wasn’t returning from just any Broadway show when she died — she had ”gone to see Jersey Boys.” When Kelly got the news of her husband’s death, the big flat-screen TV behind her was filled with the blurry image of Paul Shaffer. And what’s Carmela watching? Why, Dick Cavett’s archival interview with Katharine Hepburn, that’s what.

If you’re not too f—in’ prostate with grief, let me know what other cultural details caught your eye.

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