There were all kinds of subtle signs in Sunday night's episode that The Sopranos is down to its final episode. One was the girls at the Bada Bing dancing to the funereal strains of The Doors' When The Music's Over, not exactly your typical stripper bump and grind. Another was the derailment of a model train at Bobby Bacala's favorite hobby store, a hint that everything's gone of the tracks. Oh yeah, and the brutal murder of practically everybody Tony knows at the hands of Phil Leotardo's henchmen.
That's an exaggeration, but only a slight one. Leotardo's crew killed Bobby Bacala and shot up Silvio Dante so badly that he was left in a coma. With most of his other senior lieutenants dead by his own hands -- Big Pussy, Ralphie Cifaretto, Christopher Moltisanti, his cousin Tony Blundetto -- Tony's fate may now rest in the dubious hands of Paulie Walnuts. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, no small achievement when writing about an episode that roared along like a freight train.
It opened with Sil's surprise strangulation of one of Tony's men, Burt Gervasi. Seems Burt had warned Sil that he had "misgivings" about Tony's leadership, fostered by rabble-rousing from Leotardo's family. "Measures were taken," Sil assures Tony, but adds: "Burt wasn't speaking for just himself." For Tony, it's just confirmation of a tip he's already gotten from the FBI agent who's always hanging around Satriale's: Leotardo's family is about to launch a sneak attack.
"We gotta move first," Tony decides. Bobby, nodding gravely like he's Winston Churchill delivering history's verdict on Neville Chamberlain, agrees: "With a [bleep] like Phil, appeasement don't work." They decide to bring in buttonmen from Sicily to shoot Leotardo during his regular Friday visit to his Ukrainian mistress. The Sicilians, unfortunately (unless you're some kind of misfit who roots for Leotardo), mistake the mistress' father for Leotardo and wind up killing the wrong guy.
But Leotardo's crew has better luck, They gun down Bobby Bacala while he's buying a new car for his model trains, then hit Sil in the parking lot of the strip club. By nightfall, Tony is lying on a mattress in a safehouse, a rifle clutched to his chest, while Paulie Walnuts and a couple of other members of the crew are downstairs ordering in; no crisis on The Sopranos is ever so severe that it can't be eased by a couple of slices of pizza.
Perhaps because everything moved so quickly, Tony doesn't seem to be wondering how his plan for a first strike went so disastrously wrong. One obvious answer, at least to paranoids and TV critics: Leotardo has a mole in Tony's crew. My nominee is Paulie Walnuts, who in seasons past has made overtures to the New York family now controlled by Leotardo. (It was Paulie who blabbed to New York's then-boss John Sack that the Soprano crew was making wisecracks about his wife's weight.)
Sunday night's show dangled some tantalizing hints about Paulie. He was obviously angered that he hadn't been included in the war council where Tony and the others decide to attack Leotardo; he demanded to know for sure that Tony had ordered the hit; and he was in charge of setting up the abortive ambush of Leotardo. One other clue: When Leotardo announced the Soprano family targets he wanted to strike -- Bobby, Sil and Tony -- one of his men asked if Paulie shouldn't be included on the list. Leotardo brusquely dismissed the idea. Hmmm. I guess I could be mistaken; maybe Phil was just having one of those humanitarian impulses which have struck him so frequently over the years.
In between all the gunplay Sunday, some loose threads were snipped but a couple of others continued to dangle. Uncle Junior's money finally ran out and he got word he'll be kicked out of his expensive nursing home; Tony declined to help. And Dr. Melfi, increasingly convinced that her therapy has simply made Tony a more effectively manipulative sociopath, fired him as a patient. Tony was unconvinced. "I'm chalking this all up to female menopausal situations," he said, injured, then added a line that doubtless made Bob Dylan either beam with pride or blanch in horror: "You don't need a gynecologist to know which way the wind blows."
Speaking of ineffectual shrinks, A.J. was released from the mental hospital where he was committed after a suicide attempt. While there he ran into a friend from his brief college sojourn, a willowy blond named Rhiannon. (You know The Sopranos is winding down when the allusions turn from the 4 Seasons to Fleetwood Mac.) Back at home, the two of them consult websites about suicide bombers, a subject that also fascinates A.J. every time it comes on television. If Paulie Walnuts doesn't do Tony in next week, A.J. might.
Final scorecard: Three bloody gunshot murders -- Leotardo's Russian mistress, her father and Bobby Bacala -- and a near-miss on Sil. And Tony administered a long overdue smacking to A.J. when he greeted the news that his Uncle Bobby was dead and the family would have to go into hiding by whining: "This is really depressing to me."
Sunday night's biggest winner: The arguments for an immigration crackdown. That cheap immigrant labor Tony employed for his attempted hit on Leotardo muffed the job, while Phil's Buy American! tactics paid off.
Honorable mention winner: The conservative Jamestown Foundation. A.J. and Rhiannon were reading up on suicide bombers on its website, and when I checked the site after the show, sure enough there was an article entitled A Report From The Field: Gaging The Impact of Taliban Suicide Bombing.
Sunday night's biggest loser: Ultimately, I'm betting it's going to be Phil Leotardo. The last guy to kill somebody in the Bada Bing parking lot was Ralphie Cifaretto, who beat a stripped to death a couple of seasons ago ("Disrespecting the Bing!" as the scandalized Tony put it) and he wound up losing his head. Nobody disses the Bing.
Honorable mention loser: The ducks, whose flight from Tony's swimming pool eight years triggered his anxiety attack and started us down this long, loopy path. After Melfi kicked him out of her office Sunday, Tony was seen draining and covering the pool. Take that, Freud.
Update: Talk about ripped from the headlines! That Jamestown Foundation web page that A.J. and Rhiannon were reading in Sunday night's episode was a report on suspected al Qaeda nuclear terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah. Though the episode was shot weeks ago, Shukrijumah has emerged as a leading suspect in the plot to attack JFK International. He's all over the front page of Monday's New York Post.