Fortunate Son

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If there is one question that defines The Sopranos, it is, "Why do good things happen to bad people?" As the HBO show returns from a nearly two-year hiatus (Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T., starting March 12), Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) continues to live his charmed life. The mafia business is booming. He is a free man, escaping the Feds through one lucky turn after another, while his ally/rival, New York boss Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) is locked up. He's fat and happy—as happy as Tony gets, anyway—in the prime of his career, shoveling $40-a-piece sushi down his gullet at dinner with his often-cheated-upon but newly reconciled wife, Carmela (Edie Falco).

Of course, Tony is not so flush that he can't walk into an eyeglass store owned by a civilian connected to his business, impose on him for a huge favor, then pick out a pair of Armani shades and say, "You know what? I left my wallet in the car." For Tony, the money is not the point. The point is not having to pay.

Every time The Sopranos returns, the first thing many fans ask is, "Who gets whacked?" While I won't tell who sheds whose blood—save that there's a doozy in the first episode—suffice it to say that there's Mafia red sauce in the first four episodes to satisfy the most bloodthirsty.

But what makes The Sopranos a great, not just entertaining, show is that the most disturbing stories are about Tony's casual, selfish, bloodless cruelties. The ruin of another person is better than a slight inconvenience to him, and no matter how many promises he breaks or lives he destroys, he always believes himself more sinned against than sinning. He has toddled through the series like an overindulged two-year-old, protected from the consequences of his actions by perverse fate, and protected from their moral consequences by his power of rationalization. After he shafts a helpless civilian in a business deal by making a greedy and unnecessary demand, he gets righteously angry when the man squeaks that he's being unfair. "Talk to the Katrina victims about fair!" he yells.

How well Tony has done for himself in his ruthless unexamined life—and whether or how he might pay for it—is shaping up to be the theme of what creator David Chase says will be its last season. (HBO will run 12 episodes this spring; then the show returns for a promised final 8 in January.) Previous seasons have introduced new characters and rivals to the mix—Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto, Tony Blundetto—but the four episodes of season 6 screened for critics focus tight on the existing circle of characters. (Though they do, in a twist I can't possibly spoil, find an ingenious, poignant way to turn a major character into an entirely different person.)

The show picks up with the characters somewhat over a year after we left them. Erstwhile hippie Janice (Aida Turturro) is settling into domestic life as a Mafia wife. Daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) is still with boyfriend Finn (Will Janowitz) and looking ahead to life after college, while nihilist son A.J. (Robert Iler) is taking cellphone pictures of himself instead of studying in class. Carmela has settled into a melancholy peace with having chosen the good (but bad) life with Tony over being a poor-but-noble divorcee. Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) are still the mafia princes of comic relief. ("It was f___in' mayham!" Paulie blusters after a holdup gone awry.) Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) is slipping deeper into senility, believing that he's being harassed by a long-dead enemy. ("We'll get J. Edgar Hoover right on it," says Tony.) Fans of psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) will be disappointed by her small early role, though she has key, dryly funny scenes with both Tony and Carm.

The first episode opens with an eerie reading, set to music, of a William S. Burroughs prose fragment about the Egyptian belief that we have seven souls: "Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives." The shadows and memories of the dead hover close over the show, as the rubout fallout from the whackings of Adriana (Drea de Matteo) and Tony B. (Steve Buscemi) continues, not to mention Tony's continuing baggage inherited from his late mother Livia. There's a general sense, in this last season, of a deathbed taking-stock, even a few self-referential scenes in which the series' history flashes before our eyes. Silvio, for instance, reveals that he was once considered to take over the family instead of Tony, an allusion to the fact that Van Zandt was originally asked to read for the role of Tony.

The new episodes reprise the show's minor weaknesses as well as its major strengths. There's another inside-Hollywood detour about the movie ambitions of Christopher (Michael Imperioli). (Though it does deliver funny lines: Chris describes his screenplay idea as "Saw meets Godfather II.") And subplots involving fundamentalist Christians and a superstar rapper are tendentious and cardboard. (The latter recalls a season-one story about how hip-hop culture fetishes mafiosi.)

But overall, the episodes are as acute and thrilling as the past five seasons. Chase continues to resist the TV standards of closure and lessons learned. Instead of epiphany and reconciliation, he gives us self-deception and bitter, hilarious irony. More than once, Tony says out loud how fortunate he is. The realization is not nearly as profound as he thinks it is—it doesn't lead him to be any more humble or generous or less self-pitying than ever. But as a simple statement it is probably the most honest insight about himself he's ever had: "I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world." Maybe the scariest thing about The Sopranos is that you realize that he just may be right.