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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Is it the end for Tony Soprano?
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published June 8, 2007
The end begins Sunday with our man alone, stripped of all those who cared about him, lying on a bare mattress, a rifle given him by a dead man for company.
Still, as The Sopranos prepares to conclude its historic run with a climactic, hourlong finale whose end game no one can predict, I can make this admission.
Until now, I didn't get it.
I couldn't understand why so many of the last nine episodes in this epic Mob series moved so slowly. I grew impatient with creator David Chase forcing us to sit through long hunks of time before something happened - like, say, a fistfight between Tony Soprano James Gandolfini and lieutenant Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri (Steven R. Schirripa) at the end of a long, tense birthday celebration.
I began to wonder if there were two kinds of Sopranos fans: those who were satisfied with the tiny, internal changes that made up so much of these episodes, and those of us who feared all the little moments wouldn't amount to much.
Like a kid gathering bread crumbs on a strange path, I wanted it all to add up to something. Quickly.
So I turned to Dennis Lehane, author of the blockbuster novel Mystic River, writer for another crime-centered HBO show, The Wire, and an occasional teacher at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
Lehane summed it up in a single word: denial.
"This is about the human addiction to denial and rationalizations in life - not just (wife) Carmela Soprano, but Tony, Meadow, A.J., everyone, " he said, noting how Chase has systematically exposed mafioso Tony Soprano as a sophisticated sociopath whose charm and introspective quality fooled his friends, his wife, his therapist, and maybe even himself.
Particularly over the past eight episodes, Chase has guided his lead character through events chipping away at the notion that Tony Soprano is any kind of hero.
He considers killing longtime soldier Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico). He does kill the nephew who had been like a son to him, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He finds it impossible to sympathize with his suicidal son and indulges small cruelties, like forcing Baccalieri to commit his first murder simply because he knows the big guy still has a conscience.
By the time therapist Jennifer Melfi (an underused Lorraine Bracco) pulled out research in Sunday's episode suggesting that Soprano is a sociopath who has been using his therapy sessions to enable his pathologies, we realize that he's been playing us too - and Chase has decided it's time to end the pretense.
What lies beneath
"We were all the therapist being sucked in by the psychopath, " said Allen Rucker, author of three officially sanctioned books about the show. "One part of Tony has the sensibility of a poet and another part is the predator - which is why we love him."
Rucker compared the audience to Soprano's wife Carmela (Edie Falco) who "loved the good Tony and just ignored the fact that he (seduced) anything with a pulse and killed people for a living. We understood him; we identified with him. But we are not him."
Lehane noted that the show's last nine episodes, held over to air this year in a mini-season of sorts, have laid Soprano bare as a self-centered, numbed-out shark, plying himself with drugs and gambling just to feel anything.
"So much of (these last episodes) have been about reminding us, 'Let us not forget that this guy has no soul, ' " Lehane said. "Even if (Soprano) ends up winning, what is he winning? His soul is long gone."
Put simply, it's crunch time for Tony Soprano and his band of New Jersey mobsters.
Last Sunday, we saw Brooklyn Mob boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) move to take out the Sopranos as the New Jersey crew made a similar decision. But the Sopranos' attempt to whack Leotardo only took out his mistress, while the New York crew nailed Baccalieri and trusted New Jersey consiglieri Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt).
At the episode's end, Soprano was holed up in a home that looked like the house of his dead mother, Livia. Viewers were left to wonder how the chips might fall.
Will he or won't he?
One reason it is so hard to imagine how this series will end is that all the great Mafia endings have already been taken.
We've seen the mobster in witness protection in Goodfellas. We've seen the boss arrested in The Untouchables. We've seen the boss who dies in a hail of bullets in Public Enemy and Scarface. And we've seen the boss who dies a solitary, damaged survivor in the Godfather films and Casino.
So, given Chase's reputation for avoiding typical gangster mythology, does he have any options left? Can the guy who created the most compelling Mafia character ever also pull off the coolest ending?
"That's like saying you can't write a great love story because they always get married, break up, have a series of misadventures or kill each other at the end, " said Mark Winegardner, the Florida State University professor who wrote two sequels to Mario Puzo's Godfather novels. "Somehow, all these stories are endlessly renewable."
Like Lehane, Winegardner refused to say how he would end the series. (Lehane's quote: "They're not my children. . . . I'm not going to tell somebody else how to handle their children.") But he wondered if suspect soldier Paulie Walnuts won't wind up whacking his boss to work under Leotardo.
"The decision (by Leotardo) to whack Bobby and not Paulie sets up the endgame, " said Winegardner. "It's what seems grimly inevitable. Did we spend eight weeks watching this for it all to come down to Frank Vincent's Leotardo and his magnificent hair?"
Not for this Sopranos fan. I'm still convinced Chase won't kill off his most magnificent character. Everyone expects it, and Soprano has never lost to an adversary before. (That's also an argument for a shocking ending; darn you, David Chase!)
For a long while, I was convinced that Melfi was the wild card: Perhaps she would turn in Soprano for any number of crimes he has confessed or nearly admitted in their therapy sessions.
But considering the flak Melfi is now taking from real-life therapists for her decision to abruptly end her sessions with Soprano (and for discussing his identity during a dinner party), perhaps she's not as professional as we think.
Winegardner suggested a different source.
"If I were writing this, I'd do what I guarantee they have done: go back to the beginning of the first season, look at all the plotlines there and make them come out in full bloom, " he said. "I always like it when series go out the way they came in."
Consider Soprano's words to Melfi in the debut episode's first scene: "Lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over. . . . I think about my father . . . he had his people. They had standards. They had pride. Whadda we got?"
Aside from living up to the expected melodrama of Mafia movie endings, the bloodbath now closing the series achieves one more likely goal for Chase.
It keeps anyone from bugging him to do it again.
"How far can you go with a group of sociopaths, anyway?" said Lehane, shrugging off the idea of a Sopranos movie or series revival. "And now, there's no way back in. Who's going to be left alive?"