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'"The Sopranos,'' Baseball

By RD Heldenfels Published: June 5, 2006

The semi-season finale of ''The Sopranos'' on Sunday was a frustrating hour. As much as I understood what the show was doing, I wasn't crazy about the way it went about its business.

To be sure, I came to it with an increased longing for satisfaction. I watched it at about 11:30 Sunday night because the bride and I had spent the earlier part of the evening at a Cleveland Indians game. A very bad Indians game. It's a good thing we filled out our All-Star ballots before the game was under way. But I'll come back to that.

Once we got home, I had the DVR playing back ''The Sopranos.'' This was the last new episode for a bit. HBO has shown 13 in this cycle, with eight remaining for telecast in 2007. That in theory creates an extended final season, but Sunday's telecast felt like a season finale. The Soprano clan had gathered the way it tends to for season finales. And most of the big drama had happened in the episodes leading up to this one.

As I said, I know what the show was trying to do. These episodes have come back repeatedly to the issue of whether people can change or not, especially Tony, whose shooting earlier this season should have been a life-changing experience. In some ways, the show has demonstrated, Tony cannot change. He has tried to stop his infidelity, but just can't do it. He is drawn to women for mere lust (as was the case with his brief encounter with a Bing dancer) and for more complicated reasons (most recently embodied by the real-estate agent played by Julianna Margulies). But, in his meeting with a hospitalized Phil, Tony did indicate that he has changed, that he has no stomach for pointless feuds and macho posturing. There was a further indication of it when he took no action against Christopher upon learning that the real-estate agent and Christopher were canoodling; the old Tony considered women his possessions even if he was no longer involved with them, and he was still in pursuit of Julianna.

Change was also a factor in the different view we got of A.J., whose surliness at last diminished when he met a woman who gave him a comfort zone, an older woman who was domestic in a way that he had not seen with his club-hopping contemporaries. To see A.J. bond with her son was to remember that somewhere inside the younger Soprano was a sweet kid who had gotten lost in poses and attitude.

But as much as we saw those characters change, they were counterposed against the ghost of Vito (whose inability to change ended up killing him) and Christopher's dark shadow. As much as any character on ''The Sopranos,'' Christopher has wanted to believe in change -- to believe that he can change from a thug into a writer, or a producer, or a decent married man. But as much as he dreams of change, he cannot change his most basic self -- an addict.

Not just a drug addict, either. Christopher seems addicted to self-destruction; he knows his drug habit risks his future with Tony, and that taking up with one of Tony's women has, in the past, been as great a risk. At the end of Sunday's episode, it's not clear if Christopher has once again given up his habits. (We know he has gone to an NA meeting, but we don't know if it's a stopgap or a real step back to recovery.) But even if he has done that for the moment, odds are that Christopher will lapse into drugs once again, because that's what he does. And sooner or later, it's going to kill him.

And in between, we have Tony's rival Phil, put in a place where he needs to change, but still full of rage over past grievances. (And I loved the way Little Carmine unknowingly pushed exactly the wrong button with Phil -- proving Carmine's inability to change into the wise leader he wishes to be.) Tony has brought him the message of change. Now we'll have to wait to see if Phil learns from it.

So there was a lot of thematic business in the episode. But it didn't play out well dramatically. For most of the hour, we were offered a mood of dread and danger -- that Phil's guys were going to take out one of Tony's, that Christopher was going to make a fatal error, that Tony was going to revert, that Phil's illness might pass power into the hands of guys trigger-happy enough to firebomb Tony's home during the holidays. (At least, after all those threats, I wondered if that would be the episode's end.) And then? No power, no force, no shock. Just ideas, and a long wait to see where the story goes.

Unfortunately, I knew where the Indians had gone.C.C. Sabathia gave up two home runs in the first inning, the Angels were leading 7-0 by the end of the third. When we left, midway through the seventh, the score had ballooned to 11-0 and the lackluster Indians gave no hint they would mount a memorable rally. In fact, they let the score go to 14-0 before they scored a couple of meaningless runs, and we were home in time to see the final out on TV.

We still had fun at the ballpark, and the rain that threatened early in the game never became more than a few drops. Good seats. Good junk food. But the Indians disappointed, not so much because they lost, or because the pitching staff was way off, but because some of the players seemed to decide the game was over long before it really was.

When Jhonny Peralta declined to give maximum effort to prevent a base hit, an angry fan a few rows above us yelled, ''Omar would have dived for it!'' Not only that, Omar probably would have stopped the ball. As I said, we left early. But a lot of fans were gone before we were; it was a work night, after all, and the Indians weren't giving fans anything to chat about happily on the job the next day.

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