“Don’t you love me?” one character asks another in an unexpectedly fragile moment early in the fifth season of The Sopranos. It’s the key question that haunts the first four episodes of the long-awaited return engagement by America’s favorite mob family. In the Sopranos universe, no slight is ever forgotten, no grudge ever dropped. How much stress can a relationship take before the rift becomes irrevocable, and why can’t we help trying to hold it together anyway, no matter how misguided the effort? These are the themes David Chase and his team tackle in the first batch of new episodes, which find The Sopranos back at its creative peak after a long layoff.
The most strained relationship of all is the marriage of Tony and Carmela Soprano, which disintegrated in spectacular fashion in “Whitecaps,” the harrowing fourth season finale and one of the most emotionally pulverizing hours of television ever aired.The fifth season opens as all the previous ones have, with Tony Soprano’s newspaper awaiting him at the end of the driveway.But this time the man of the house doesn’t come shambling out in his bathrobe to pick it up; like his beloved ducks, Tony has flown the coop.
Now lodged at his late mother’s house (although she’s been dead three years, Livia remains, as Tony’s father would put it, an albacore around his neck), Tony faces strife in his other family as well. As a newscaster who might be named Johnny Exposition tells us early in the season premiere, a gaggle of goombas are about to be released from prison, as mobsters rounded up in the Eighties now find themselves eligible for parole.“The Class of 2004” includes the legendary Feech La Manna (Robert Loggia), he of the poker game Tony and his hoodlum friends held up as kids hoping to make their bones, as well as Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi), Tony’s cousin and best friend.
Tony B. has been cooling his heels for fifteen years and is anxious to get back on his feet. But Buscemi’s character is not the second coming of Ralphie Cifaretto, or Richie Aprile III; he’s determined to make it in the straight world, despite Tony’s attempts to draw him back into the inner circle. Feech, on the other hand, is eager to get back in the mix.“As long as you don’t step on anybody’s toes,” Tony warns him. Any guesses on how long that’s going to last?
With the crime pie now divided into increasingly smaller slices, pressure is brought to bear on other relationships as well. The once-tight Paulie and Christopher are at each other’s throats from the get-go, and the New York family is in chaos as Johnny Sack and Little Carmine jockey for position. But despite his domestic turmoil, Tony’s skills as a mob boss continue to sharpen.After the emotion-fueled lapse in judgment last season that ended with his top earner’s head in a bowling bag, he seemed on shaky ground, but the new shows find him coming up with creative solutions to some sticky problems.
Chase and his crew continue to short-circuit expectations in terms of storytelling rhythms and length of plot arcs, and the first four episodes offer something for Sopranos fans of every stripe.The season premiere, “Two Tonys,” eases back into this world with deliberate pacing and a melancholy tone, yet still manages to get a dozen new narrative threads underway. “Rat Pack” is perhaps the funniest hour of The Sopranos since the “Pine Barrens” episode in the third season; Steve Buscemi proves to be a real shot in the arm and the energy level is up and running.“Where’s Johnny?” achieves a genuine poignancy as it showcases the increasingly frail Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) and the increasingly frustrated Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico).“All Happy Families” finds troublesome A.J. Soprano (Robert Iler) causing further discord between his estranged parents.
Through it all, the characters struggle to come to terms with their relationships with each other.Christopher’s fiance Adriana, unable to deal honestly with the family she is selling out, attempts to bond with her blunt FBI handler, Agent Sanseverino. Tony tries to patch up his rocky friendship with chef Artie Bucco, and his solution offers up many comic possibilities for episodes to come.Some characters remain on the periphery, like Tony’s former shrink Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), and his daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala), busy with her own life at Columbia University.Others, like newlyweds Janice and Bobby Bacala, have established new relationships sure to cause more headaches for the boss.
The Sopranos has been a pop culture monolith for long enough now that it has established its own dysfunctional relationship with its audience. The endless gaps between seasons fuel anticipation for new episodes. Excitement greets the return of the Sopranos, but by mid-season, buyer’s remorse starts to set in.Storylines stall out, throwaway episodes defuse the tension and too much precious air time is eaten up by tertiary characters.This was never truer than in the fourth season, at once the weakest and most underrated of the series to date.
There’s no telling where the fifth season will lead after the initial four hours, and that’s the beauty of The Sopranos.With new blood behind the camera as well as in front of it (including new writer Matthew Weiner and guest directors like Rodrigo Garcia and Mike Figgis), the only thing that’s certain is that David Chase and his team will continue to defy expectations. Chase is not above the occasional in-joke or pot shot at his critics; in the season premiere, he gets off a zinger at the expense of those viewers still wondering what happened to the Russian mobster Paulie and Christopher pursued into the Pine Barrens.The fact is, however, that Chase respects his audience too much to give us what we think we want.In a sense, it doesn’t matter where the series goes from here, as long as the creative team continues to fire on all cylinders.From the evidence at hand, they’ve never been more inspired.