James Gandolfini in The Sopranos by Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
Go away to the Midwest for a family wedding and look what happens. My fave sci-fi drama Battlestar Galactica goes all Lost on me and announces a closing date (I'm OK with it; at least this isn't another Farscape debacle), and then The Sopranos! Which, by the way, I was unable to watch live, because no one in my family has HBO! (Ironic, right? I thanked the TV gods Monday afternoon for HBO on Demand.) TV's landmark family crime drama went on a bloody rampage this week, just as we expected might happen in the next-to-last episode. A Sopranos tradition, upheld to the end. (Everyone from Adriana to Big Pus-y to Richie Aprile could have sounded the alarm when Bobby Bacala went into the train store.)

It was a sensational way to get us primed for Sunday's series finale, even if I couldn't help thinking that a mob war between Phil's New York gang and the "pygmy thing over in Jersey" could have been the driving force for the entire final season, instead of getting escalated into a turbocharged climax for these last precious hours. But still... all those people clamoring for something to actually happen on this show? I hope they were satisfied.

How delicious was it for Phil's crew to plot the hits on the Soprano gang (three pops in 24 hours, management only, thus sparing the hapless Paulie) in the Flatbush Bikini Waxing and Beauty Shoppe? Even at its most intense, The Sopranos can be hilarious in its banal detail.

Death is rarely glamorized on this show: Witness Silvio's excruciating garroting of whoever that turncoat was in the opening scene. The fact that so many of these players are relatively anonymous speaks volumes about the state of the syndicate in these tacky times. The Sopranos may be legendary, but most of these characters are anything but to the world around them. And when Silvio got his, landing him in a coma, the gunfight in the Bada Bing parking lot couldn't have been more squalid, sordid and pathetic. The cutaway shot to the Bing regulars, including the topless dancers, added a queasy touch of dark-comedy realism to the whole thing.

Tony and his gang were reduced in this episode to an object of ridicule, dissed by Phil as "nothing more than a glorified crew," who went on to say about the Jersey flouting of tradition: "Either it has meaning or no meaning." Meaning what? "There's no scraps in my scrapbook." Even Phil's deputies wiggled their eyebrows over that howler. When the imported Italian "cousins" botched the hit on Phil, this really was a case of the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. What a mess.

Even worse, though, was the patronizing attitude of Dr. Melfi's dinner-party companions, who talked of "rescue fantasies" and "Leadbelly," until Peter Bodganovich went right ahead and outed Jennifer's most notorious client. She was furious until she actually went and read the study on "criminal personality," with every word underlined a little too obviously for my taste. (In fact, much of this episode was surprisingly heavy-handed, considering that David Chase himself was a cowriter.)

Our love affair with The Sopranos has always been underscored with deep ambivalence for the monstrous acts committed by these fully drawn and wonderfully realized characters. That never felt more true than in the poignance of Bobby Bacala's final moments, indulging his childlike love for toy trains, fatefully leaving his cell phone behind. The editing of this sequence was unusually operatic, some might say overdone. (When they cut to one of the toy bystanders before the ultimate derailment, I could almost hear Mr. Bill crying, "Oh Nooooo!") But the sadness in the aftermath was palpable.

Death is one thing, but divorce quite another. Perhaps the most intense encounter of this very eventful episode was Melfi showing Tony the door, in no uncertain terms. "As a doctor, I think what you're doing is immoral," grumbles Tony the Pot to Dr. Kettle, as Tony goes back in the lobby to return the steak recipe to the pages of Departures magazine (symbolic much?). Academic papers will be written on how this professional relationship turned out. Melfi's coldness in the face of Tony's authentic crisis with A.J. makes you wonder if she has given up on her science altogether. Log another victim in the Soprano ledgers.

As the episode ended - with Tony in a safe house (I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered if they'd retreated to Livia's or Uncle Junior's old digs, although how safe would that be?), curled up alone in a dark empty bedroom with only the gun poor dead Bobby gave him for his birthday (remember that crazy game of Monopoly?) as comfort - the bleakness was overwhelming.

Tony's family has scattered for safety, while his other "family" is in tatters. How will it all end?

Not nicely, I imagine.