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Will the guy catch a bullet or a break?

April 01, 2007|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

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 next Sunday, the existential question hanging over the series is: Should Tony live or die? Given the show's bleak themes, anything less than killing him off 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. He once even tried to snuff out his smothering mother, Livia, with, appropriately enough, a hospital pillow.

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 would also 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 popular L.A. mystery writer Robert Crais still would find such a finale overly simplistic, 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. The line seems to recommend not betting against the man with a back office at the Bada Bing! 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 to perform the foul deed. 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 true 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.

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