Mob Psychology

"Everything comes to an end," says Carmela Soprano to her beleaguered Mafia husband Tony. That line comes early in the season premiere of The Sopranos, but it manages to conjure up a sulfurous cloud of impending apocalypse that hangs over the rest of the episode. For a season opening, there is a lot of ominous talk about the end -- not a good sign for what lies ahead for Tony and his two families. We've had three years with this lumbering angel of death, watching him dole it out and escape its clutches many times. But things are different now, as this episode reminds us -- no one seems invincible any more, not even Enron. It's the end of the world as he knows it, but Tony Soprano definitely does not feel fine.

We know this from watching him plod down his driveway to get the paper. Tony ambles in his bathrobe, undershirt, boxers and slippers -- he looks as if the world has beaten him with a crowbar. Tony's always carried himself like a hugely powerful man who enjoys earthly pleasures too much. Despite the doughy face, thin lips and adenoidal voice, not to mention the criminal tendencies and psychological hangups, he was hot. But now his massive body is hunched over, more ruled by gravity than forward motion, and his expression is one of shellshock. He's become that middle-aged guy who sits on the edge of his bed for just that extra moment in the morning, to prepare himself to face the rest of his shitty life.

Tony does have a lot to deal with, though he doesn't even know it yet. Tony's henchman Paulie Walnuts is in the slammer, making furtive collect calls to a rival boss. Nephew Christopher is especially volatile these days, crankily shooting heroin between his toes. The murderous Ralphie is snorting up in the bathroom with Tony's sister, who continues her own addiction to dangerous men by hooking up with him. Tony, meanwhile, eats an enormous sundae to cope with all the stress.

But it's his small-f family that's causing him the most open grief in this episode. Uncle Junior is facing trial and pleading with Tony to cover legal expenses, and Carmela is having money anxieties. Everyone's looking out for No. 1, and they're all expecting Tony to help.

Tony responds by hiding money in the sacks of feed he's ostensibly bought for his beloved ducks -- the birds who made an appearance in the very first episode of The Sopranos and came to signify the familial love that Tony was seeking. Here in the fourth season, there's no sign of the birds, none of their happy quacking and cooperative V-formation flight. Instead, Tony finds the money he's squirreled away raided by real squirrels -- pesky, parasitic and furtive, they exhibit none of the team and familial values that Tony finds reassuring.

Last season, when Tony was eager to push son A.J. into military school to teach him the value of the corps, Sopranos creator David Chase hinted at how unchecked individualism would corrode Tony's life. The elder Soprano didn't much like that the new Army slogan was "An Army of One"; what happens, he asked the military school's head honcho, when some army of one goes apeshit and starts shooting everybody? What happens, he really seemed to be asking, when everything that you've barely held together starts falling apart?

Perhaps only Nostradamus -- the prophet of gloom whom the characters reference in trademark idiot-savant style -- could tell him. Of the current state of world affairs, says one mobster, "Quasimodo predicted all this," meaning Nostradamus. It's a hilarious scene, perhaps the only light moment in the whole episode, which is saddled with a thick, mean, gloomy feel. Gone are the quips that lighten the characters' behavior, the kinetic, explosive rage that we first saw between Tony and his poisonous old bat of a mother, between Tony and his unstable lover Gloria. Now people seem too worthless too hate.

In keeping with that pessimism, Chase frames this episode with a nihilistic beauty of a song, Johnny Rotten's "Speaking of Destruction". "The human race is becoming a disgrace,"; screams Rotten -- and no one is exempt from that judgment, including the Sopranos. With this, Chase goes a long way toward righting the balance between his urge to universalize the Sopranos' dilemmas and to estrange us from them. At the end of last season, he made a rare misstep. As Uncle Junior sang about ungrateful hearts, Chase faded in other voices singing the same song, but in different languages. See, Chase seemed to say, we all feel the Sopranos' pain.

Not quite -- or at least, one would hope not. When Tony talks about the end of his career, he thinks he'll likely wind up dead or in jail, not retired like most people. At least he's talking about it at all -- much to his psychologist's amazement. She makes the mistake of hoping that, confronted by such ugly possibilities and shocked by the stink of mortality everywhere around him, he will leave the life. But this episode seems to indicate that Tony's caught in a clinch with his fate -- as he said at the beginning of The Sopranos' run, "things are trending downwards." We're just along to see the bloody end of it.

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