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'Sopranos' gets back to basics

The Sopranos is back in touch with its inner, primitive self. That means blood, rage and war -- and great television drama as Season 5 comes to an end.

In the previous episode -- the best hour of prime-time television this year -- Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo) is murdered. The show, which aired two weeks ago, works wonderfully because in it, the acclaimed HBO drama about a family of New Jersey mobsters returns to the roots of its appeal: tribalism accompanied by whatever violence is necessary to preserve the "family." Fortunately, it looks as if tonight's finale delves even deeper into that satisfyingly rich and dark psychic terrain.

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For the past five seasons, critics have discussed The Sopranos as a sociological exploration of contemporary family life in America, of capitalism, even of masculine mid-life crisis. But the program's appeal is much more visceral than that.

As David Chase, creator of the series, explained in 1999: "A mob show is very tribal. Mob stories get back to the elemental tribal, clan thing, and that's the appeal. It's our tribe against that tribe."

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Though the finale wasn't made available for review, HBO's on-air promotional campaign seems to promise that the season's final episode will continue in this vein.

In one scene, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) stands at the head of a restaurant table speaking to his New Jersey crew: "This is the course that I have chosen. So we're going to deal with this as a family. And those of you that are not with me on it will be dealt with in time."

And in the next, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), a member of the rival New York mob, whose brother was killed by a Soprano cousin, demands revenge: "How long I gotta wait? An eye for an eye."

Declaration of war

Faithful viewers will know that in the previous episode, Tony, during a late night meeting with New York mob boss Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vince Curatola), considers turning over his cousin in hopes of averting war. But when his plea for a compromise is rejected (with Johnny adding insult to injury by characterizing the meeting itself as "undignified"), Tony decides not to surrender his cousin.

"You know what, John? I'll give you undignified. Go [expletive] yourself -- you and Phil and whoever. He's my [expletive] cousin."

Tony's declaration of war comes in the middle of the episode's most powerful sequence -- Adriana's confession to her fiance, Christopher Moltansanti (Michael Imperioli), that she has been helping FBI agents investigate Tony's crew.

"We're dead! Do you know that?" Christopher screams as he begins to strangle Adriana after punching her in the face. "How could you [expletive] do this to us? I have loved you."

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It's Othello and Desdemona, except in this scene, Christopher stops short of killing Adriana. (Nonetheless, both Imperioli and de Matteo deliver performances worthy of Shakespeare.)

As graphic as the scene is, what lingers is the question as to what Christopher meant when he said "us." It initially seems as if he is speaking of himself and Adriana, the woman with whom he was planning a wedding.

Later, though, it becomes clear that Christopher defines himself as a member of the Soprano tribe, a group that no longer includes Adriana. He helps Tony set up Adriana's murder at the hands of Silvio Dante (Steve Van Zandt). Her actions threatened the group, so she had to go. No matter that the woman he claimed to love died like a terrified animal scuttling on all fours as Silvio trained his gun sight on her.

Tribal relationship

The tribal relationship between chieftain and warrior is re-established at the end of the episode when Tony discovers Christopher high on heroin. Christopher's excuse is the "pain" he feels over Adriana's death. Tony responds by punching him in the face and kicking him repeatedly as he lies on the floor.

"Your [expletive] pain? You think you're alone in this?" Tony screams.

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An argument can be made that a tribe is little different from a family, particularly in the Mafia. Either way, what matters is understanding that when Tony says "family," he is not referring to a traditional television relationship like that shared by Ray Romano and his father in Everybody Loves Raymond.

Most of the time, Tony seems to live in the contemporary world -- filled with money problems, health worries, marital difficulties and a growing sense that the world is becoming increasingly complicated and dangerous.

The Sopranos, despite its brutality, offers us as viewers a sort of clarity in a way that no other series on television does. With Tony's family, you're either in, or you're out. And we respond from some deep, dark place in our psyche. We need to acknowledge that about our favorite show -- and ourselves.

Season finale

What: The Sopranos

When: Tonight at 9

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Where: HBO

In brief: A series gets in touch with its primitive roots.


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