Glad Tidings

“The Sopranos” Season Five

Even at this late date it looks like David Chase has left himself with one of two choices: unalloyed despair, or a despair that’s tempered by some — and this is crucial — convincing note of redemption. After the six or seven years we’ve spent tracing the wintry fortunes of Anthony Soprano, pure despair would appear to be the logical, uncompromised outcome for “The Sopranos,” but has Chase really drawn his viewers on so long only to leave them with nothing? It seems unlikely, for Chase would seem to be that rare bird, a cynical humanist, who’s tickled and fascinated by human foibles just as he’s certain that they’re only drawing us on to some insupportable outcome. Even if things end up with Tony trundled away to Allenwood or getting plugged while scooping up the morning paper from his driveway, we’ll still take away from the show the exact same things we’ll glean come the end of our own lifetimes: “the little things,” as Tony once described them, all the warm experiences that keep spiking up out of the commonplace happenings that stitch our lives together. That probably doesn’t sound like much, but it has to make do for us secular types, and to an unabashed nostalgic like Chase — whose show wouldn’t be the same without its torrent of references to Virginia Mayo and the Maguire Sisters — memory must be an irresistible comfort. (This season opened with a montage of the Soprano backyard that felt beamed in from some time after the series’ eventual conclusion, as if in remembrance of a bygone life that somehow involved a barbecue pit and a duck feeder.) As Ezra Pound showed with The Pisan Cantos, living memory may not offer the freedom of actual life but it’s still a lot better than no life at all.

Not to make heavy weather but if “The Sopranos” has had a single theme, it’s the self-tyranny that drives its characters to maintain appearances — psychological, social, religious — no matter what the cost to their personal integrity. “There’s plenty I’d like to forget,” Uncle Junior says at one crossroads, offering up a bleak world view that pictures everyone frenziedly waving away unbidden thoughts and desires. Our popular narratives mostly focus on people caught in the process of opening up to the world, but Tony Soprano, who seems more likely to have sprung from the mind of Thomas Hardy than the producer of “The Rockford Files,” has hunkered down in the years that we’ve known him, growing more defensive and violent in direct proportion to the riches he stands to lose. The show has expanded the Faustian bargain that’s driven all of the great gangster epics since Howard Hawks’ Scarface, until its subject has become all those people so pulverized and enslaved by self-interest — disguised as their understanding of “what they’re entitled to” — that they never get to become themselves.

It’s a tragedy that’s endemic in the world. You see it in so many places nowadays, from the posturing, self-justifying tropes people unthinkingly take up in their everyday conversation through Michael Moore and George W. Bush refusing to address questions which, if bluntly answered, would only prove embarrassing to them. We just can’t get enough of our own bullshit, whoever we are. Chase’s savvy shows up in the way he wedges characters we care about into this dilemma, so that the sight of Tony, forced by his intransigence into tramping like a hobo across a snowy New Jersey landscape, becomes painful, even shaming, stuff. (Adriana, of all people, gets the clearest view of things just before her touching little escape fantasy is stamped out by the murderous gaze in Silvio’s eye.) But Chase is as big a jokester as he is a Freudian or cynic, and he caps off Tony’s torments with a superb bit of domestic comedy: Carmela, deliciously clueless as to how narrowly her husband has just escaped arrest or murder, whines at him, “Your shoes are soaking wet!”

Given my druthers, I’d prefer an ending that isn’t completely spelled out, like the one that closed out “Whitecaps” at the end of last year’s season, with Tony still making life hard for Alan Sapinsly and any other unfortunate saps who blunder into his path, but all under a gathering cloud of doom that leaves no mystery about how things will eventually work out for him. However the series ends, this last few months made for one hell of a season, and more than made up for the doldrums the show sometimes fell into last year. Much of its success has always flowed from its psychological consistency (we felt like we’d crawled across every inch of the broken glass in Gloria Trillo’s psyche by the time Patsy Parisi delivered that tender goodbye to her), and as Tony and Carmela’s hand-in-hand trip to oblivion nears its end, their slow unraveling feels ever more inevitable and right. In the meantime, the Gandolfini-Falco-Imperioli tag-team has transformed itself into the gold standard of contemporary acting, and at a point when most series would be repeating themselves, Chase and his writers-directors are working on fully charged batteries, with their energy spilling into every corner of the show, from the darkly evocative episode titles (“Irregular Around the Margins,” “Long Term Parking”) to such small touches as the sound of an unseen children’s choir breaking into “Mr. Tambourine Man” at just the right moment. Amazingly enough and against all odds, it really might’ve been the best season of “The Sopranos” so far.