Series creator David Chase could easily have ended The Sopranos last year, in the fifth season. In a variation on the season opener, where bears lurked in the woods threatening the Sopranos’ suburban New Jersey home, now it was Tony rumbling through the underbrush, on the run, emerging bruised and exhausted, but with his chief rival vanquished and the long-suffering Carmela welcoming him home.
Now here we are again, with a sixth season about to begin (HBO, Sunday at 9 pm), 12 episodes to be followed by the final eight in January 2007. The series, though consistently excellent, has had its languors. Here — in the first four episodes made available to reviewers — The Sopranos propels itself into overdrive, becoming both brutally violent and emotionally wrenching. I’ll try not to give everything away, but consider this a spoiler alert.
As the first episode begins, life appears to be good, with Carmela (Edie Falco) and Tony (James Gandolfini) reconciled, despite their previous nasty break-up and Tony’s sleazy maneuvering to quash Carmela’s attempts to divorce him. But by the end of the episode, Tony has had a near-death experience. Over most of the next three episodes, hospitalized, in a coma, he lives a dream existence, the life he might have had as a straight businessman — even his Joisey accent disappears. In his recurring dream, he’s just a regular guy lost on the road, trying to get home. It’s as if he were living some perverse melding of Jesus’s dream on the cross in The Last Temptation of Christ with The Wizard of Oz. In one scene, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” even gets piped in.
But it’s William S. Burroughs intoning what sounds like the seven paths of Tao enlightenment over a dub-rock bed and a montage of scenes from each character’s life that opens the first episode and reminds you why this isn’t any ordinary soap. The new season pushes the show’s multi-leveled theme of “family” into areas of mortality, identity, and, yes, enlightenment with no loss of poise; it even reaches new dramatic highs. There’s the expected squabbling and jockeying for position by Tony’s mobster cronies as his fate remains uncertain. There’s a heist that goes viciously wrong and a graphic suicide scene, and more innocent “civilians” get pulled into the vortex of the Soprano family’s sub rosa scheming.
And always there are those quiet beats, the details of characterization that have earned The Sopranos its reputation. On a simple level, there’s the tragicomic stress experienced by Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) as he becomes interim boss and suffers increasingly severe asthma attacks. There’s Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) having new revelations about his own identity and becoming at once more tragic and more reprehensible. There are stunningly written and directed ensemble scenes; in one, Hal Holbrook, as a cancer patient in Tony’s ward, muses offhandedly on the nature of existence while Tony, his buddies, and a shot-up rap star watch a boxing match fizzle in and out of digital satellite service. And there’s Carmela’s expressions of grief and recognition of her own complicity, pulling you into scenes even as you marvel as Edie Falco’s skill.