Michael Imperioli and James Gandolfini star in HBO mob hit The Sopranos.


BEGINNING OF THE END: “The therapist and the gangster, I got a kick out of that,” said Bill Handleman’s buddy, a retired New Jersey police detective, when he admitted to watching a few episodes of The Sopranos. “The stuff about those guys that's fun is, they're idiots, and they say stupid (things)."

I’m assuming (things) is a polite euphemism for (fecal matter), because I’ve never known a police detective who spoke in ellipses, but I think that just about sums up the appeal of the Sopranos, the hit HBO series that begins its final run of nine episodes next week. Even after the Godfather and Goodfellas and every superb depiction of mob life old school style, there was something about David Chase’s show that we all got a kick out of, from the relationship between Tony and Dr. Melfi, to Carmela’s fitful resignation to her role as mob wife, to the lazy malevolence of Tony’s crew, to the fact that it featured a guy called Big Pussy.

Bill Handleman, in case you were wondering, is a columnist for the Asbury Park Press, one of many writers given the task of contributing Sopranos coverage for their employers in the weeks leading up to the premiers of the short but – we all assume – intense season seven. Writing about the show in New Jersey, its home state, probably makes his job a lot easier for Handleman, who can rely on local colour to tell his story: “These characters are practically family, after all. We've known Meadow and A.J. since they were little kids. Carmela shops at the supermarket down the street. Tony stops by the hardware store sometimes.”

According to Handleman, the front runner to get whacked this season is Christopher, Michael Imperioli’s character, with solid 2-1 odds on the BetUS.com online wagering website. It’s a no-brainer – the fact that Christopher’s survived this long is a miracle, though there’s no reason why Chase couldn’t be perverse enough to leave him standing at the end of the bloodbath, surviving not only Tony but characters more worthy of our sympathy and/or pity, including Carmela, Meadow, A.J., Melfi and Artie.

In a recent New York magazine, six writers were asked to imagine how they’d like season 7 to end, and Tony dies in three of them – killed once by Carm and twice by Christopher. Meadow dies in another – the only thing that could really hurt Tony – and Carm informs on Tony in the last one, after Adriana’s body is found. The least likely is the funniest – Tony wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, realizing that it’s all been a dream, and that he’s really just a mildly repressed psychiatrist in Chicago; pan down to a shot of Bob Newhart’s lifeless body beneath the bed. Ba-da-boom.