For a show about murderers, The Sopranos can sure bungle death. In this Sunday’s season premiere, Livia Soprano, the bilious matriarch played by Nancy Marchand, finally draws her last breath. The character had originally been slated for an earlier passing, but the show’s creators were reportedly so enchanted by Marchand’s performance that they kept Livia alive and muttering. Sadly, Marchand, who suffered from cancer, passed away last June, leaving The Sopranos to begin its third season with a live character but a dead actor.
TV protocol dictates that when an actor dies mid-plot-line, his or her character should suffer an untimely, offscreen death (see Hill Street Blues, Cheers, even Suddenly Susan). But before laying Livia to rest, The Sopranos performs a bizarre Frankensteinian experiment, using technological gimmicks to resurrect Nancy Marchand for one final confrontation between Livia and Tony.
Avert your eyes; the scene is excruciating to watch. The camerawork is convoluted, the rhythm jerky, and the intonations all wrong. James Gandolfini delivers his lines to Marchand’s inert body double, whose hair and contours we see from behind. These shots alternate with lightning-quick snatches from Marchand’s previous performances (reportedly drawn from 18 separate scenes). Livia’s lines consist almost solely of her signature phrases: “Now look here, I don’t like that kind of talk,” “I wish the Lord would take me now,” “I suppose I should just keep my mouth shut, like a mute,” and so on. The show’s writers were already abusing these refrains last season, but now Livia sounds like one of those dolls that repeats one of several alternating phrases each time you pull the cord in her back. Tony’s lines are laboriously written around the slight non sequiturs that result. Worst of all, Marchand’s head has been digitally grafted onto her body double’s. Her head is cocked at an odd angle, and it’s too small for the body to which it was attached.
David Chase, the series’ creator, believes this ventriloquism was necessary. “Some people have never seen the show before,” he told the Associated Press. “And for those people, they would say, ‘what’s this guy’s problem with his mother?’ ” But Chase could have briefed the newcomers with a flashback; instead, he’s created a scene that’s a confusing letdown for his dedicated fan base. Tony has come to Livia to demand that she lie to the feds about a stolen airline ticket he’d given her and that she’d been arrested for using. The ticket is essential to the FBI’s case against him, but the hasty encounter allows Tony only a token attempt at shutting his mother up. “What did you tell them when you were in the lockup?” he asks. Marchand doesn’t have an answer—presumably there was nothing appropriate in the old footage—and Tony drops the question. “Fuck it, do what you want,” he grumbles and strides away. Is the master of coercion giving up so soon? And come to think of it, why is Tony, who’s hypervigilant about wiretaps, admitting at full volume that the tickets were stolen?
Soon afterward, Livia dies in her sleep, saving Tony from immediate prosecution and viewers from any more creepy cut-and-paste jobs. But the damage has been done. Replacing Nancy Marchand with a bunch of recycled, patched-together images is a ghastly anti-tribute to the great, lately departed actress. And Tony’s final encounter with his mother, to which the series has been building since its start, is its sloppiest and least emotionally acute moment to date.