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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Sopranos' returns in sublime, dark style

At this point in the progress of HBO's "The Sopranos," every little chance detail carries enormous weight. Janice's 3-year-old daughter chirping "Five Little Ducks," a Monopoly argument about Community Chest and Free Parking, Tony's morning odyssey down his driveway -- they're all microcosmic bits, each one dense with family history, "Sopranos" metaphor, and character revelation.

Creator David Chase has so thoroughly chargedhis show with inner life that when Carmela drunkenlytosses off "Love Hurts" with a karaoke machine in Sunday night's premiere at 9, the moment is nothing less thantragic; heroic; ironic; true. It's her entire story, her whole character, in a flash:

Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars

Any heart not tough or strong enough

To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain

And later, after Tony accidentally injures her shoulder, and the vanishing of Adriana gnaws further into Carmela's consciousness, the song reverberates as an elegy or, perhaps, a valediction.

That large-writ-small atmosphere is the key to the return of "The Sopranos," as TV's most deservedly beloved drama begins the final nine. Called "Soprano Home Movies," Sunday's sublime episode represents another of Chase's bold moves -- a last return without a big bang. This is an hour that slips slowly into darkness on the kind of domestic melodrama that irks Action Sopranos fans uninterested in psychological abundance. It is a mournful, foreboding episode, and it's expertly fraught with the subtextual family tensions of modern stage drama.

Indeed, the setup for the episode has a loose parallel in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," as Tony and Carmela join Janice and Bobby for a few nights at their lakeside home in upstate New York. It doesn't take long for nerves to fray between the couples; just the presence of Janice can transform a peaceful setting into a minefield. "Look at you and me, Tony," she says, every inch her passive-aggressive mother's daughter. "Who would have thought we'd have the kind of relationship we have now? The credit goes to you. You really changed." With people like Janice, a pat on the back is more like a slap.

As Janice, Aida Turturro is as scary-good as ever, projecting the insidious danger of a person who's both unconscious of her anger and a bottomless pit of need. Like the late Nancy Marchand, who played Livia, Turturro is all raw reflex and delusion. In one scene Sunday night, Turturro exposes how Janice reconstructs and twists her world as she recalls an old boyfriend to Carmela. "In the end, he went his separate way," she says with melancholy. That boyfriend was Richie Aprile, and most of us know "his separate way" as six feet under. Janice is a hard character to watch -- that's how effective Turturro is.

But, of course, the focus of "The Sopranos" is Tony -- "Pork Chop in New Jersey," as one of Phil Leotardo's men labels him. As sprawling and vivid as the cast is, "The Sopranos" will always be the story of one man, his growing self-awareness, and whether he can change. More than ever in the series, Tony feels weak: "I'm old, Carm, and my body has suffered a trauma that it will probably never fully recover from," he says, turning 47. He is still reexamining his life choices, thinking about his forefathers -- Johnny Sack in jail, Uncle Junior in a mental health facility -- and how little their lives have come down to. You can feel his desire for a calmer existence, closer to that of Kevin Finnerty, his coma alter ego.

This season, Tony is gloomily obsessed with the future of his operation, particularly as his surrogate son, Christopher, grows loyal to another mob -- Hollywood -- with the release of his slasher movie "Cleaver." When Tony pushed the sober Christopher to get drunk last season, it was his way of stopping his heir from moving forward, and away. Not surprisingly, he failed. Will A.J. step up to the mat, now that Tony's son takes his construction job and his girlfriend, Blanca, seriously? Surely that's one of the mysteries that Chase will address before the show goes out on June 10.

As the mob men falter and doubt Sunday night, the women continue at full mast, if only in their denial. Meadow remains a student, living out her mother's dream of acquiring the self-sufficiency of women like mob widow Angie Bonpensiero. But Meadow still fights off a full awareness of her father's cold, violent nature, as does Carmela, who is more committed to her husband than ever. Mother and daughter only want to see the good man in Tony.

But, as we know, even with his therapy-born wisdom and his middle-aged weariness, Tony can still cause great harm. He proves his ruthlessness once again on Sunday night, in an act that is a brutish but purely psychological violation of innocence. Like so much of what gives this mob drama a depth and brilliance unequaled on TV, the wounds are completely bloodless.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

'Related'

The Sopranos

Starring: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Steven R. Schirripa, Aida Turturro

On: HBO

Time: Sunday night, 9-10

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