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One last shot: The Sopranos lets us off its hook

Tony and family in Season 1; Tony and Dr. Melfi near the end.

It all began on Jan. 10, 1999, with Tony Soprano ogling a nude woman sculpture in Dr. Melfi's waiting room.

Last seen he was shacked up in a hideaway, taking a King Cobra-sized automatic weapon to bed with him in preparation for a long night's insomnia. And was that in fact his despised mother's house where Tony took his remaining boys? Sure looked like it. Backing back into the womb would be the ultimate U-turn for him.

Another question: Can you believe it? Sunday night's 86th episode of The Sopranos will be its very last. After six seasons spread over eight-and-a-half years, it's goodbye and farewell to the single greatest drama series in television's 60 years on this earth.

Boiled down to the very basics, it's now a question of whether Tony will live or die after directly or indirectly burying so many foes, friends and blood relatives. Does he have it coming? Would the show's afterlife be as vivid if we knew he'd not only been measured for a coffin but finally came to rest in one?

Several years back, creator David Chase openly aspired to make a Sopranos feature film. So at that time at least, he clearly had no intention of offing his meal ticket.

Now those plans are off -- for now at least. Still, would Chase firmly close the door by taking Tony out? There's no Sopranos movie without him, and actor James Gandolfini just wouldn't be believable in any sort of prequel.

Tony's fate is the overriding betting interest on the minds of many as The Sopranos prepares to meet its maker. But it's obviously bigger than that. Here's a show that soared as no other. HBO and The Sopranos are inseparable in that respect.

The network made a no-holds-barred home for Chase, who earlier tried to sell the show to CBS. And The Sopranos in turn elevated HBO in the public's and creative community's mind as the go-to venue for programming of a higher calling.

Over the years, The Sopranos in fact became bigger than HBO, with Chase telling the network how many episodes he'd do, when he'd do them and when he needed to quit. He's made a few false starts in that last respect. But now the deed is done, and suddenly it seems like a screeching halt.

The Sopranos wedded family and "family" better than any previous mob opus. That includes Goodfellas and The Godfather movies, none of which had all this time and space to stretch out.

Tony's hot-and-cold relationship with wife Carmela and their unruly children, A.J. and Meadow, drove The Sopranos as effectively as who'd be the next in line on the show's hit parade. In the first episode, Meadow was the provocateur, with A.J. the relatively docile fat kid who'd just turned 13.

Later it became A.J.'s turn to boil his parents' innards. Now he's suicidally depressed about both the world at large and his bad seed inclinations to be a Big Man cloaked by his father's bigger shadow.

Meanwhile, Tony continued to see Melfi until she brusquely cut him off in last Sunday's next-to-last episode. She finally had judged herself an enabler after a bit too conveniently reading an academic study that said "the criminal uses insight to justify heinous acts."

Chase has brilliantly staged conflict and killing while sprinkling in malaprops that serve to take a bit of the edge off. Tony dropped the first one in Episode 1 after telling Carmela that he'd sought to curb his panic attacks by seeing a therapist and taking Prozac.

Her giddy reaction didn't set too well. "You'd think I was Hannibal 'Lecture' before or somethin'," Tony barked.

If Chase has a weakness -- and likely it's by design -- it's his tendency to bait hooks and then reel them in without any payoffs.

Season 3's "Pine Barrens" episode, considered a classic, has left the "The Russian in the Woods" at large ever since.

Tony's near-fatal shooting at the hands of Uncle Junior made him ripe for a spiritual awakening. Characters were introduced in that vein, but then Chase dropped it all like a hot potato.

Also, will Carmela ever learn that Tony ordered the execution of her best friend, Adriana? And what if she did? Don't hold your breath. With just one episode remaining, that would be a lot of ground to cover.

As we prepare for final burial, it's instructive to look back at those very first sessions between Tony and Melfi. Quite a lot was said.

Tony on what his mother, Livia, did to his dad, who had been a strong man until eventually knuckling under: "My mother wore him down to a little nub. He was a squeakin' little gerbil when he died."

Tony on life as a "waste management consultant": "I find that I have to be the sad clown, laughin' on the outside, cryin' on the inside . . . I feel exhausted just talkin' about it."

Tony on life its ownself: "Lately I'm gettin' the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over."

It was a long time ago. There was even a reference to the Sally Jessy Raphael Show. But the closing music for that first episode couldn't have been better chosen. It was Nick Lowe's rendition of "Beast in Me," and here's how it went down:

"The beast in me
Is caged by frail and fragile bonds.
Restless by day
And by night, rants and rages at the stars.
God help, the beast in me.
The beast in me."

No matter how it all ends, play it again on Sunday night.