Sunday night's episode of The Sopranos not only gave us a road map to the rest of the series, it also clarified who will be the most bereft person in America when the show concludes next month. Not David Chase, who never wanted to do The Sopranos in the first place; not James Gandolfini, who would probably be delighted if he never had to hear another question from reporters and fans about Tony the rest of his life; not even Tony's oft-featured morning newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, where the marketing department is doubtless pondering how to exploit the paper's demographic bulge in Wiseguys aged 18-to-49.
Nope, the guy who will be wracked with grief is Frankie Valli, who not only appeared in seven episodes as buttonman Rusty Milio before getting whacked in Season 6, but has sold some old 4 Seasons records to Chase for the soundtrack and even managed to have two episodes named for his songs: Big Girls Don't Cry in Season 2, and Sunday night's Walk Like A Man. Hmmm, wonder if there's a clue hidden there? At the end of the final show, Tony, Carmela and Paulie Walnuts break into a chorus of Let's Hang On! as David Chase announces he's doing one more season after all?
(It's moments like this when I realize my mother was right, I did spend too much time listening to rock and roll records.)
Putting aside Frankie Valli's angst, it now seems inescapable that the conclusion of The Sopranos will be based on the collision of four different story lines: Christopher Moltisanti's increasing alienation from Tony and the rest of the family; Tony's possible brush with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism; A.J.'s fledgling ambitions to be a junior wiseguy; and the estrangement between Tony and Phil Leotardo, now boss of the New York family.
The trajectories of all those stories except the last advanced significantly Sunday night. The most dramatic was that of Christopher. Not only did his longtime feud with Paulie Walnuts grow more violent, he fell off the wagon, came close to spilling family secrets to outsiders, and finally committed a senseless murder that will likely be tracked back to him.
The conflict with Paulie Walnuts concerns matters both great (enraged that Paulie's goons are stealing goods from his father-in-law's home improvement store, Christopher throws one of them out a second-story window) and small (Paulie taunts the alcoholic Christopher about refusing to drink or even join him for a prime-rib dinner: "You watching your cholesterol now too?")
Trying to ease the tension, Christopher has a scotch with Paulie, then several, but through a drunken haze the other mobsters look even worse -- like leering gargoyles rather than friends. Christopher lurches over to the apartment of J.T., the screenwriter he befriended in AA and has been abusing and extorting ever since. Christopher, expecting sympathy, starts shouting that he could tell J.T. stories about (Tony's murder victims) Ralph Cifaretto and Adriana La Cerva. But when J.T. tries to hush him instead, Christopher whips out a pistol and shoots him in the head.
If Christopher is thinking about blabbing family business (during his tirade to J.T., he actually mentions the FBI's witness protection program longingly), Tony is actually doing. Spotting the two FBI agents who are eternally dogging him having lunch at Satriale's, Tony finally explains what he was gazing at so intently as he drove through a Middle Eastern neighborhood in the April 29 episode: he spotted Ahmed and Muhammad, a couple of Arabs who bought guns and credit cards from Christopher in Season 6. They used to be regulars at the Bing, drinking and whoring around, Tony says. But "a week or so ago
I see them with these other guys, with the headgear and the beard and the whole fundamentalist bit." The agents accept their names and a cell phone number from Tony with interest.
That's not the only thing Tony's got on his mind. A.J., inconsolable over being dumped by his fiance-for- a-day Blanca, has quit his job and spends most of his time lying on the couch watching TV. (I looked carefully for the obvious HBO cross-promotion, but there was no sign of Rome.) Carmela's attempt to comfort him with mom-phorisms is unsuccessful: Told that "it's better to have loved and lost," A.J screeches "What?!!!'' Too bad she didn't try, "If you love someone, set them free. If they don't come back to you..." which in Sopranos logic would have ended "....hunt them down and kill them."
Tony's only-slightly-more-plausible suggestion to A.J. to engage in a sex act still technically illegal in many states is no more successful. Devastated, Tony rages to Dr. Melfi that all her therapy hasn't prevented her from passing his chronic depression along to A.J. "It's in his blood, this miserable [bleepin'] existence. My rotten [bleepin'] putrid genes have infected my son's soul," he says, uncharacteristically near tears. "That's my gift to my son."
Tony's more right than he can possibly know. A.J., moping around at a party given by the college-kid sons of some other mobsters, is drawn along when they go off to collect from a deadbeat who owes them money from their campus gambling operation. He helps hold down the boy while the others mutilate him. And suddenly A.J., like his old man, has found purpose in life.
Final scorecard: One murder, though in Hollywood screenwriters are generally regarded as something less than fully human. (Old joke: Didja hear about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter?) One broken back. One sulfuric acid pedicure. In other words, for The Sopranos, a peaceful weekend.
The real carnage was emotional. From Christopher's father-in-law, whose innocent purchase of some cut-rate power tools from his son-in-law has inadvertently drawn him into the concentric circles of mob violence and corruption, to the hellbound in a hurry A.J., everybody touched by Tony and his men comes away damaged or dead. Tony's view of his own world has a simple but diamond clarity: "Everything turns to [bleep]."
Sunday night's biggest winner: The landscaper who's going to get the $40,000 job repairing Christopher's front yard, which looked like a moonscape after Paula Walnuts did a few donuts there in retaliation for his guy being tossed out the window.
Sunday night's biggest loser: Law & Order, which will be one episode short this season: J.T. was trying to finish a script for the show when Christopher shot him. You think Dick Wolf will send McCoy and Van Buren after Christoper?
WIN A ZILLION DOLLARS: Well, okay, that's an exaggeration of about $99 gajillion. But honest, we're giving away a set of DVDs of The Sopranos' first six seasons, and we've extended the deadline for the contest to May 18. All you gotta do: Tell me how the show will end. RICO indictments? Shallow graves in the woods? Sexual reassignment surgery for Paulie Walnuts? Email me your idea of how it all will end at ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com.