The animals in Tony Soprano's backyard have always had much to teach us. So, naturally, as "The Sopranos" enters its fifth and next-to-last season following a 15-month hiatus, more fauna emerges from the woods to foreshadow the themes of Tony Soprano's life. This time -- with the ducks, the squirrels and Tony himself gone -- a big black bear lumbers in to try out the lawn furniture and terrorize the remaining residents of casa Soprano.
This particular beast brings more to mind than the ursine quality of Tony's current troubles. An emblem of power and protection (not to mention a dead ringer for James Gandolfini in all his menacing cuddliness) the bear steps into the power vacuum created after Tony's apocalyptic split from Carmela at the conclusion of Season 4, attracted by the sacks of duck food in which Tony stashes his cash.
With Tony gone, Carmela (Edie Falco) is having trouble managing an increasingly sullen and angry A.J. (Robert Iler), who is courting trouble like a gentleman caller at Tara plantation. She's also finding it hard to keep the bear off the property. It ambles back in broad daylight, prompting Tony to station an armed guard by the pool. Even Tony's newspaper is vulnerable -- unless the thing Meadow (Jamie-Lynn DiScala) blithely crushes under the tires of her car is intended to represent its subscriber.
Creator David Chase has a knack for setting the mood for the season in one sequence flat, and this one, which kicks off with a series of mug-shot-like angles on the house as Emmylou Harris' desperately up-tempo "Heaven Only Knows" plays in the background, is no exception. Dried-up leaves are falling. Lonesome winds are blowing. Colleagues are flipping. Tony's life has turned into a country song.
Increasingly, it's the tone that sets the seasons of "The Sopranos" apart from each another, and the pokey listlessness of the first few episodes seems fitting. Everything seems cast in sepia, but the mood feels less nostalgic than it does just drained. Tony's panic of early seasons has mellowed into a sort of weary disenchantment and battle fatigue. Now living alone in his dead mother's house, handing out pricey love tokens all over town (but taking them away from Carmela) and trading fear for the toadying of his crew, it's only just starting to dawn on him how alone he really is.
All Tony's attempts -- and there are many -- to reach out and connect to somebody on a human level fail, or worse. His friends laugh too loudly and too long at his jokes. His son's love is becoming increasingly expensive. Uncle Junior suffers a minor stroke and starts repeating an old insult like a broken record. A business associate compliments Tony on his appearance, and Tony knows he's a pigeon. ("Can't a person be nice anymore?" Tony wails, before ordering the guy's execution.)
Subtract three-odd decades and the thuggish resume and Tony is still a kid on the first day of school, besieged on all sides by bullies, inflexible authorities and terrifying girls. A new crop of mobsters Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) dubs the "class of '04" gets released from prison, among them Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi) and onetime big cheese Feech LaManna (Robert Loggia), and once again, Tony finds himself in the cross-hairs of everybody's simmering resentment. Feech can't adjust to the idea of the kid he used to know being the boss of the family. Tony B. has trouble with the notion that it could have been Tony, not him, who wound up serving 15 years. (Tony should have been with Tony B. on the night he was arrested but was saved by a well-timed blow to the head.)"I'm not running a popularity contest," he says several times in the first few episodes, but he doesn't quite get why everybody hates him, either.
Weakness has always been "The Sopranos' " stock-in-trade, which is why even the most vicious lowlife on the show has always been a symphony of complexity, poignancy and depth compared to just about any other character on planet network cop drama. As always, variations on the big themes of trust, betrayal, strength and vulnerability are as abundant on "The Sopranos" as dead guys stuffed in trunks. But it's the perspicaciously observed soft spots that are the source of all of its humor and pathos. (In a surreally hilarious scene, a feeble, disoriented Uncle Junior turns the TV to HBO and mistakes "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" Larry David and Jeff Garlin for Bobby and himself.) As Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) tells her therapist, Elliott (Peter Bogdanovich), "There's a mutual sympathy there." To which the supercilious, cold-fish Elliott shrugs, "Maybe it's an Italian thing."
Probably not. Even though the ultra-violence (violence that, mercifully, will never be compared to a ballet) continues unabated, Chase knows that what really keeps pulling us back in is the even more painful stuff: Carmela's heart-rending attempts to cultivate herself and attract weaselly anti-Tonys; Adriana's (Drea de Matteo) desperate attempts to connect with anyone who will have her, even the FBI agent assigned to her case; Tony's impassioned, illiterate attempts to express his emotional depth; a Mafia eminence keeling over dead with a mouthful of egg salad.
What makes "The Sopranos" a singular joy to watch is its perspective. It's like Tony tells Silvio (Steve Van Zandt), describing the newfound joys of bachelorhood. He can stay out late, drink as much as he wants, spend the night with whomever he wants.
"Yeah," Silvio shrugs. "So what's the difference?"
"I don't know," the ever-philosophical Tony replies. "It's a mind-set."
When: Season 5 premieres from 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Rating: The network has rated the program TV-MA (may not be suitable for children younger than 17).
James Gandolfini...Tony Soprano
Edie Falco...Carmela Soprano
Lorraine Bracco...Dr. Jennifer Melfi
Michael Imperioli...Christopher Moltisanti
Dominic Chianese...Uncle Junior
Jamie-Lynn DiScala...Meadow Soprano
Robert Iler...A.J. Soprano
Drea de Matteo...Adriana La Cerva
Executive producers David Chase, Brad Grey, Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess, Ilene S. Landress, Terence Winter. Director (Sunday's episode) Tim Van Patten.