|"So," Tony Soprano asks analyst Dr. Melfi in the wake of not-so-dearly-departed Livia's death, "we're probably done here, right?" Sorry, Tone, not by a long shot. Unresolved mother issues are the least of the Family man's troubles in the brutal and controversial third season of The Sopranos. Ranked by TV Guide among the top five greatest series ever, The Sopranos justified its eleven-month hiatus with some of its best, and most hotly debated, episodes that continue the saga of the New Jersey mob boss juggling the pressures of his often intersecting personal and professional lives. The third season garnered 22 Emmy nominations, earning Lead Actor and Actress honors for James Gandolfini and Edie Falco for their now-signature roles as Tony and his increasingly conflicted wife, Carmela.
The Sopranos continued to upend convention and defy audience expectations with a deliberately paced, calm-before-the-storm season opener that revolves around the FBI's attempts to bug the Soprano household, and a season finale that (for some) frustratingly leaves several plot lines unresolved. The second episode, "Proshai, Livushka," confronts the death of the venerable Nancy Marchand, who capped her career with perhaps her greatest role as malignant matriarch Livia. A jarring scene between Tony and Livia that uses pre-existing footage is a distraction, but Carmela's unsparing smackdown of Livia at the wake redeems the episode. "Employee of the Month," in which Dr. Melfi is raped and considers whether to exact revenge by telling Tony of her attack, earned Emmys for its writers, and is perhaps Emmy nominee Lorraine Bracco's finest hour. The darkly comic "Pine Barrens"--another memorable episode, directed by Steve Buscemi--strands Paulie (Tony Sirico) and Christopher (Michael Imperioli) in the forest with a runaway corpse. Other story arcs concern the rise of the seriously unstable Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) and Tony's affair with "full-blown loop-de-loo" Gloria (Emmy nominee Annabella Sciorra). Plus, there is Tony's estrangement from daughter Meadow (Jamie Lynn Sigler), his wayward delinquent son Anthony, Jr. (Robert Iler), Carmela's crisis of conscience, bad seed Jackie Jr., and the FBI--which, as the season ends, assigns an undercover agent to befriend an unwitting figure in the Soprano family's orbit. Stay tuned for season four. --Donald Liebenson