There's nothing to quash a beef between two real men quite like shooting a waiter who complains about a paltry tip.
Such is the creepy beauty of The Sopranos, which, after 15 long months away, kicked off its fifth season Sunday night. Somehow the show is able to take this terrible deed committed jointly by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and morph it into an almost touching moment. After separately speeding away from the murder scene, the two men, feuding viciously the entire episode, call one another to laugh about the close call and grudgingly say how much they mean to one another.
As if to answer the complaints that season four went a bit too light on the action and suspense in favor of heavy emotional drama, the new season opens up with the announcement that all the old gangsters prosecuted during the big mob busts of the '80s have served their time and are headed back out onto the streets. With all the power struggles already brewing in New Jersey, these jail-hardened wiseguys are a match to the powder keg. In short order things are going to go boom.
TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, Tony Soprano is in an exceedingly foul mood. (Of course, once you own mother plans a hit on you, as Tony's did in season one, it's likely you'll never really be much of an optimist again.) During the first four seasons, Tony sought psychiatric help for his anger management issues. But just at the time when the shrink's couch might be most comforting -- his marriage has disintegrated, he's losing respect, his kids are out of control -- Tony has gone and sworn it off.
Confusing the doctor/patient relationship for love, Tony professes his love to his former shrink, the incomparable Dr. Melfi, and she devastatingly rebuffs him. He reacts by berating her with words that are not even remotely appropriate for this publication. The next scene shows Tony sitting with an AK-47 in hand in his former backyard, waiting for a bear that's been scavenging through the trash at his wife's house. (Not a good omen, by the way: a sure sign the Russian mob will have its revenge on Tony -- and Christopher and Paulie Walnuts -- before this season's through.)
The Sopranos is driven by these manic mood swings, the brooding storms that gather in Tony's conflicted head and break with little warning. James Gandolfini is paid piles of cash for every second he spends on screen, and he earns every penny. He can be a frighteningly realistic menace, and also credibly display believable, reluctant guilt about the hurt he's caused his loved ones.
Surrounded by one of the greatest ensemble casts to ever grace the small screen, nearly every conflicted moment is gold. Last season was all about trying to get back on the nice track. This season, angry Tony will clearly prevail. Expect heads to roll.
THE RED HOT HEART of the mobster genre has always been a tug of war between loyalty and violence. The audience is invited early on to become a part of the family or gang, and then we are quickly willing to accept almost anything they do.
Has anyone ever watched The Godfather hoping Michael Corleone will walk away from the family after his father is shot buying oranges? Hell no. We want to see him take the meeting with the dirty cop and the mob boss, accept his role as the unexpected assassin, the wolf in sheep's clothing, and avenge the violence done to his father.
Sure, he may be throwing away a chance at a normal life. Sure, many, many people will suffer for his conversion to a life of crime. Sure, the father he seeks to avenge may be dirtier than the men he's about to take out. But we want to see him pull the trigger, because it's the stand-up thing to do.
Likewise, in Casino, Miller's Crossing, Donnie Brasco, and countless other gangster flicks, we take a side early on and stick with it. The Sopranos shows quite a bit of chutzpah on the part of its creators. How loyal would an audience be to this brute of a man, as weak emotionally as he is strong physically?
Mob movies follow a two or three hour arc. The Godfather trilogy comes in at around nine hours. We've never spent as much time with a Mafioso as we have with Tony Soprano. But 50 episodes later, despite the deplorable way this gang carries itself, we're still tuning in in droves. And we're still on Tony's side. At least I am.
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