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His hand on the sword

Times Staff Writer

Where would Tony Soprano be without the History Channel?

At the start of Sunday’s season finale, he was bogged down in what Little Carmine Lupertazzi, New York’s exiled, onetime would-be boss, would have called a “stagmire.” By the end, a cable-TV refresher on Rommel and a brief communion with his ridiculous portrait as an early American general remind Tony -- however convolutedly -- of his position in the world.

Tony always has had a sentimental streak, but rarely has it led him as far astray as it did this season. Led by guilt into an unnecessary war with a longtime ally that almost incited a full-blown mutiny within his own ranks, Tony’s world was on the brink of chaos when his tactical mind took over. What looked, two weeks ago, like the beginning of the end for Tony Soprano now smacks of a new beginning.

There’s something familiar about this leader’s willingness to put personal feelings before his responsibility to his army’s well-being. During a rank-and-file birthday dinner for an as-yet undiscovered pigeon, Tony’s officers openly express their discontent at having been made vulnerable. As one of them says, “I’m willing to die for this family,” but not for nothing. Tony’s decision to admit “This is my mess” and clean it up remains, unfortunately, a fiction.

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But it was remarkable fiction, particularly the scene in which the embattled boss, now ankle-deep in garbage, stares down at the painting he’s ripped from above Paulie’s mantel and tossed in a dumpster. As Tony stares at his likeness in full George Washington drag smiling back at him, a soft hand on his sash and his weapon hanging at his side, his path suddenly becomes clear to him: It’s time to put his hand on the sword.

Once again, on the brink of chaos, Tony pulls it all back. And once again, on the verge of viewer revolt, HBO’s “Sopranos” writers remind us of why everybody loves Tony. He chooses Christopher over Tony B., and by taking care of Tony B. himself he earns the respect and affection of his soldiers. He accepts -- as Alzheimer’s annihilates his Uncle Junior’s mind -- that he is no longer the student, but the teacher. He ends the standoff with his New York rival to his own advantage by making Johnny Sack see how he’s let an inferior determine his course in the war. After what seemed like the imminent collapse of his family, Tony is back on top.

He even saw the feds coming in time and headed for the woods. And while there’s a lot lurking in there -- the bear, the Russian, the ghost of Adriana -- we’re reminded again that, no matter what happens, Tony is one lucky Don. And a smart one.

It’s like he said earlier to Johnny (who at the moment, unfortunately, found himself with his pants down and his hand protectively cupped over his manhood), “I’ve got a 136 IQ. It’s been tested.”

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It most certainly has.


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