Metaphysical Mobsters

The new, ruminative season of The Sopranos.

Steven Van Zandt and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos

I mean, did you see it coming? No one could have guessed any better than Tony did that he would get plugged by a doddering and paranoid Uncle Junior last night at the end of the return episode of The Sopranos (HBO). But the art of the show is such that the shot to the gut felt inevitable and right. Throughout the first episode of this valedictory season, David Chase and company had contrived to keep the mobster’s mortality on his mind and ours.

Our first glimpse of the guy came as he was taking a shovel to Junior’s yard. Though he was on the hunt for a decades-old stash of cash that Junior could have sworn he’d buried there—or, in the cover story he shouted at a nosy neighbor, out to whack a mole—you could not help but entertain the idea that he was digging his own grave. What else were you to think after that entrancing prologue, its strange voice-over concerning an old view of the big sleep? I believe that the words were from William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands, that they matched up what Burroughs had read in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings with his own mythology, that the voice was the writer’s own oracular croak:

The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls. Top soul, and the first to leave at the moment of death, is Ren, the Secret Name. This corresponds to my Director. He directs the film of your life from conception to death. The Secret Name is the title of your film. When you die, that’s where Ren came in.

And so forth, through Sekem, Khu, Ba, Ka, Khaibit, and Sekhu, “the Remains.” Very cool, not quite comprehensible.

Perhaps the particulars of this view of the afterlife were less important than the timbre of Burroughs’ voice, a noise at once world-weary and otherworldly. Maybe this was meant as a lens for viewing the signs that followed in the episode—people wondering what would be possible if the underboss passed on; Tony’s telling his shrink that, were he losing his mind like Uncle Junior, he would hope for his family to euthanize him. Was this just a tip-off that the coming season—which makes room for Jesus, Buddha, theories of universal oneness, and meditations on Indian proverbs—will up the metaphysical ante?

In any case, this chunk of hip theosophical arcana rubbed up nicely against the season’s other epigraph. It was, of course, H.L. Mencken, whom that new Fed quoted to Agent Harris on the subject of your powers of discernment: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” That his interlocutor promptly barfed is a signal of something like irony, or the show’s disgust with show business as usual. Or something, I guess. What I’m certain of, after last night’s episode, is that The Sopranos is richer than ever and bounding with fresh ambitions.