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One More Shot

If any television character has a bullet, or meat cleaver, with his name on it, it's Tony Soprano.

As HBO's "The Sopranos" counts down its final nine episodes beginning tonight, the existential question hanging over the series is: Should Tony live or die? Given the show's bleak themes, anything less than killing him could be construed as a miscarriage of justice — and a dramatic sellout.

After six seasons, even Tony doesn't seem to like his chances. In therapy, the married father of two admitted to his psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, that there are two outcomes for "guys like me" — prison or death.

The New Jersey don has meted out death to family (cousin Tony Blundetto), friend (Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero) and foe (witness protection turncoat Fred Peters) alike. He has sanctioned many more cold-blooded hits, of course, as on his daughter's boyfriend Jackie Jr. or on his nephew's fiancee, Adriana.

The crime boss' intuition is dead-on, argues Al Gini, who contributed an essay for the 2004 book "The Sopranos and Philosophy: I Kill Therefore I Am." By summer, says Gini, whose essay was called "Bada-Being and Nothingness: Murderous Melodrama or Morality Play?," Tony will be sleeping with the fishes.

"Tony has got to be killed. It's the only satisfying ending," said Gini, a philosophy professor at Loyola University in Chicago who has incorporated Soprano's leadership traits into a business ethics course. "We're not talking about Robin Hood here, someone that takes from the rich and gives to the poor. We're talking about a hood. If Tony doesn't lose everything, what's the message? The bad guy gets away with it all?"

Gini isn't suggesting a Sgt. Joe Friday "crime doesn't pay" lecture as much as a dramatization of the biblical injunction that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. God's judgment may be evident, but a sudden, violent death for Tony also would have to do with probability. In other words, those who live with mobsters, drug dealers, loan sharks and waste management consultants are probably going to die like them.

But Los Angeles mystery writer Robert Crais still would find such a finale out of sync with the complexity and sophistication that have been earmarks of the show's storytelling. There are things worse than death, after all. Tony should survive some type of mob conflagration, said the former writer for "Hill Street Blues," "Miami Vice" and "Cagney & Lacey," but not without dire consequences.

"I don't think the audience would be happy if Tony gets a bullet to the head," said Crais, who wrote the bestselling fictional thriller "The Watchman." "In the end, he should be promoted, but where the cost far exceeds the triumph."

When it comes to story lines, "The Sopranos" breaks all the rules, but that hasn't stopped oddsmakers from weighing in on how the show will end.

At an online gambling site based in Costa Rica called Bodog.com, the odds are running 1 to 2 against Tony's demise, according to Bodog.com founder Calvin Ayre. However, Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti is a 2-to-1 favorite to be a stiff before the final curtain falls. (Tony's son, A.J., is a 15-to-1 family long shot to die.)

Certainly, there are no shortage of "Sopranos" characters with the opportunity and motive to knock off Tony. Perpetually disgruntled Paulie Walnuts, rival mob boss and recently imprisoned Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni, even nephew Christopher all would be credible assailants. But perhaps there is someone closer still to Tony who would do him in.

"You see echoes of great Greek tragedy in all this," said Glen O. Gabbard, a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston who has written extensively about the show. "I could see Carmela getting so furious that she killed Tony."

Long torn, as she once said, between doing what is right and doing what is easy, Carmela could become the fury behind Tony's death. All the goodwill built between the reunited couple could vanish in a flash if Carmela were to learn the truth behind Adriana's disappearance.

An equally powerful dramatic finish would be if the prone-to-depression mobster took his own life, contends Peter H. Hare, an emeritus philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who also wrote an essay for "The Sopranos and Philosophy."

Tony's suicide should not be a personal moral reaction to his many evil acts but rather stem from a deepening melancholy that overtakes him as he realizes his life is without meaning or purpose. The suicide can't be the result of a pill popping or a gun to the temple. Instead, in what Hare terms an "ambiguous suicide," Tony could deliberately maneuver himself into a heroic battle ostensibly for his Mafia family but actually meant as a way to kill himself.

"I don't want to imply Tony deserves to die," said Hare, whose essay is titled "What Kind of God Does This ... ?" "But the whole 'Sopranos' narrative has a great deal more meaning if it ends with his death."

Not surprisingly, series creator David Chase and his staff are in lockdown mode in their New York studios zealously guarding any hint over Tony's ultimate fate.

Though the show's writers are renowned for their ingenuity and unpredictability, storytelling convention can still offer clues to the final days of Tony Soprano.

"I watch shows like 'The Sopranos' for the unknown — the twists and turns and for the nice ride," said Saul Friedman, a writer for the Web site www.TVgasm.com. "We've all seen the mafia movies, and we know how they end. I want to see something different here."

From a strictly storytelling point of view, killing off Tony now would seem repetitive and anticlimactic. It was only a handful of episodes ago that Tony escaped death after being shot in the belly by a senile Uncle Junior.

Another problem with killing Tony is how likable he is despite his pathologically long list of misdeeds and murder. We like him, that's why we watch the show, and doing him in might be more than the writers and the audience can bear. Indeed, they want to believe he can change.

"Arthur Miller used to say, 'You don't go to the theater unless you see yourself onstage,' " said Gabbard, who wrote "The Psychology of the Sopranos: Love, Death, Desire and Betrayal in America's Favorite Gangster Family." "The audience thinks that maybe, just maybe, this bad man can be transformed into a good man. That's what Melfi thinks, that's what the audience thinks."

And yet, something more powerful than the demands of storytelling might dictate Tony's final fate — Hollywood. Although Chase is ending the series because he's mined the show for all he can on television, rumors persist about a possible "Sopranos" feature film.

A "Sopranos" movie without Tony? As the Bada Bing! boys might say, not going to happen.