Another glorious season in Tony Soprano's hell ends tonight, and anyone who tells you they know the details is a liar.
HBO, which has been very good about getting critics screening cassettes since Day 1 of the series, said tonight's third-season finale of "The Sopranos" was not available in time to be sent out to the press. That's a lie, of course, but I don't mind.
The real reason is that HBO doesn't want people like me spoiling any of the viewing pleasure for subscribers who build their Sunday nights around each week's episode. They are right not to trust us; we would give too much away, and the kind of adult viewing pleasure this series offers is too rare to be squandered.
Besides, HBO's decision gives me a chance to leave critic-time, which is always a week or two ahead of the viewing audience, and back into the real-time world of TV watching. And that reminded me this week of the ritualistic pleasures of viewing a series you love -- thinking about it during the week as the anticipation of that week's episode builds, budgeting your time so that at 9 p.m. you are in front of the screen when the familiar theme song starts to play, watching and then talking about the episode for the next day or so.
For "The Sopranos," it has been a somewhat uneven season. When I looked back at some of the episodes from the first season, I realized how much of the electricity had gone out of the relationship this year between mob boss Tony (James Gandolfini) and his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
Only one episode this year crackled with the intensity of those during the first two seasons: the one following the rape of Dr. Melfi in which she almost told Tony about the rapist. By the end of their session, I was practically screaming for her to tell so that the rapist would feel the swift sword of retribution Soprano-style.
Also missing this year was all the psychic energy of the blood struggle between Tony, his mother, Livia (Nancy Marchand), and Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), with all its sick, dark, Freudian undercurrents. Livia's death and Junior's stomach cancer made Tony's ancestral relationships feel more like movie-of-the-week material than the stuff of Greek tragedy we saw in seasons one and two.
And yet, "The Sopranos" is still head and shoulders above any other series on television -- the most significant drama since "Hill Street Blues." The primary reason, as I've said before: No series in the history of American television has ever looked as unblinkingly at the underbelly of American capitalism.
Profits in death
This is the gangster as ultimate capitalist -- willing to literally kill to make a buck -- and look at what the system does even to those who, like Tony Soprano, might be seen as winners. He's as anxiety-riddled and broken-down in many ways as Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. And you have to go beyond the realm of television to a work like "Death of Salesman" to find an apt comparison for the genius of "The Sopranos" as it explores the relationship between masculinity and American capitalism.
The series is not, of course, just about capitalism and the middle-aged male. The episode that most impressed me this season was "University" (week six), in which a young dancer at the Bada-Bing club, who had been reaching out to Tony for help, is brutally beaten to death in the parking lot by Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), one of Tony's underbosses. Here, gender and social class are brilliantly critiqued. But still there's a commentary on capitalism: the dancer as sex worker who can not only be replaced at the whim of her bosses, but killed by them. How was Cifaretto punished for killing her? Two weeks later, he was promoted to crew boss.
This assault on capitalism and its handmaiden, our rampant designer-label materialism, is the most stunning accomplishment of "The Sopranos" this year. Episode after episode forced us to face the hypocrisy, debasement and corruption at the heart of some of our most celebrated institutions, from Columbia University and the Ivy League to luxury cars and marriage.
Remember the luncheon Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) had with the dean at Columbia University? It was a shabby little shakedown, with the dean lying about his concern for her daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) as he tried to close the deal on a $40,000 contribution. That's creator David Chase showing us the university not as marketplace of ideas or crucible of learning but as corporation.
What about G-L-O-R-I-A (Annabella Sciorra), the Mercedes Benz saleswoman that Tony had a sorry affair with this year? The designer labels she wore from head to toe all said successful, independent, strong woman -- the "new" woman. But she turned out to give new meaning to the terms desperate and needy. And what about life behind the darkened glass of the sleek Mercedes showroom? According to Gloria, sexual harassment and the fear of being fired for not acquiescing are part of the package.
Even marriage is defined as a bitter economic transaction when a psychiatrist forces Carmela to acknowledge that the money she gets from Tony is "blood money" and that she is a full-fledged accomplice in his evil each time she takes it.
The darker side
Commercial American television almost never questions the System. "The Sopranos" has not only questioned it, but also systematically shredded some of its most fundamental values.
Much of that is due to the vision of Chase, but ultimately it is the performance of Gandolfini that allows the series to pull off the weekly miracle of delighting us even as it holds our hands in the flame of unpleasant truth.
For most of each of the 13 hours this year, Gandolfini played Tony as self-deprecating, funny, even charming. In his frustrations around the house or uncertainty as a parent, he seems like he could be you or me.
Then he commits an act of incredible cruelty, and you are reminded that he's a racist, a thief and a cold-blooded killer.
For an actor, it is called range. For the viewer, having once identified with Gandolfini's Tony, you can't help but acknowledge some of those same horrible impulses in yourself. This is the darkness in the American soul that so much of the rest of our popular culture would rather ignore.