I admit it—I'm the one who called Ron a Sopranos declinist, and I stand by my charge. Except for the defensive Columbus Day episode, I loved every second of this season, and I still have a somewhat irrational, almost religious faith in the cunning, wit, and judgment of Sopranos writers. (Even when I don't get one of their choices, I convince myself that they are serving a higher narrative purpose that I am too small-minded to divine). Yes, the show is repetitive, but with subtle and rewarding variations. Yes, the body count has gotten awfully high, but that's the logical result of both the show's mafia setting and its tragic structure. No one should be surprised if the series ends with the blood of half the family members seeping over the palace floors.
Peggy's onto something with her remark about watching character be revealed. That's what the fourth season was about—pinning the players down, diagnosing their true natures. We now know that Paulie is not only a potential traitor, but also a kind of comic double for Tony. A lot of what the big guy did this season—strangling someone in sudden fury, consorting with the Carmine/Johnny Sack crew, commissioning a portrait of Tony and Pie-O-My—Paulie repeated as farce. Janice is, as Ron says, a monster, and one who's weaponized the tools of therapy. Adriana is a lost little girl, so lonely that she pours her heart out to the FBI agent who's trying to flip her. The Soprano kids—inestimably important to the show, despite their relatively short screen time—are growing up: Meadow, who flirted with brattiness, is now as smart and perceptive as her mother had hoped. (A.J. is younger and still more of a cipher, but the permanently skeptical look on his face says a lot.) Tony's other "son," Christopher, gets stuck with the wrong side of Tony's split nature—while Meadow and A.J. are insulated from mob doings, Chris ends up in bloody bathrooms, severing limbs. And last night we finally made the most important and decisive character diagnosis of all: Carmela is not the doormat that some of us (including Tony) took her for. She has reached her limit, and this marriage is truly over.
A few questions about Tony and Carmela's separation, though. What should we make of Carmela's threat to Irina? ("We have guns here.") In fact, what exactly put Carmela over the edge—if the fingernail and the other evidence didn't do it, why did Irina's call? And what finally made Tony leave the house—his castle—after digging in to stay? Did he experience some sort of revelation, or is this a tactic? And what sorts of terrible things will happen to Tony once he is free of Carmela's stabilizing force?
Finally, a word in appreciation of last night's excellent visual jokes. Tony and Johnny planned Carmine's murder in the aisles of Staples (or was it OfficeMax?), a temple to the bland infrastructure of the kind of workplace in which neither men has ever toiled. These guys wouldn't know a hanging file or a whiteboard if it bit them. And even better: As Tony handed A.J. money and instructed him to buy Carmela flowers, I was wondering why Tony was being so gentle to his soon-to-be ex-wife. But I had my answer when I saw what Tony was shoveling into his mouth: Guiltless Gourmet salsa, straight from the jar.