The two episodes that open the final run are, as Sopranos episodes tend to be, masterful examples of the TV art — tense, terrifically acted, carefully observed one-hour plays that delve ever more deeply into the characters while pushing the story slightly forward. They set the concluding mood and the theme, that of family issues coming to a head. But they don't do much to move us toward the conclusion, and that may not sit well with viewers who have clamored, if not for the end, at least for the end to begin.
Still, Tony clearly feels some end approaching, as his oncoming 47th birthday has left him pondering his legacy and his mortality. He has cobbled together a peace agreement with the New York Mob, but it's no more stable than his family — as reflected by a chillingly amusing game of Monopoly that Tony and Carm play with Janice (Aida Turturro) and Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa). These are people, we are continually reminded, who believe in all the rules except the ones that would constrain them.
Looking forward to this almost as much as I am the premeire of the new season of Entourage. More on that:
As it begins the last half of its third season, there's another force to be reckoned with. Amanda, Vince's new agent, plays the Hollywood game as well as any man. She works all hours, knows how to make things happen and takes no guff. She's the type of woman who uses everything at her disposal, including her sexuality.
Carla Gugino plays the part masterfully, as if she knows this person.
Ari knows this person, too, which is why he's as manic as ever but in a way that's spiraling down and out of control. Bottom line: He misses Vince, and he's willing to work at getting him back.
This isn't the Ari with whom we are familiar. Though in charge of his own business now, he's lost his mojo. Worse, he's gone soft. He no longer can take pleasure in firing. He feels the need to protect his gay assistant. He cannot win an argument with his and his wife's marriage counselor.
But if he can win back Vince, he can right his boat. And when even attempting to win him back proves positive, Ari decides to go all-out. Early episodes suggest that will lead to the mother of all smackdowns, with no clear winner.
Piven's performance is a beauty, a step up from his much-heralded, Emmy-winning portrayal of the past. He brings to these episodes a nuanced Ari. He's as conniving and manic as ever, but there's a heightened desperation and a tell-tale sign of heart not often seen in his earlier episodes.
Grenier also steps up his game. In previous years, he played at being cool. In these new episodes, he is cool. Some of E's smartness is rubbing off. Vince still needs E, but you get the impression he might do OK without him.
It's a testament to its makers that the show is growing. As sexy and funny as ever, Entourage is becoming television you don't want to go without.
And I don't.