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Tony Soprano Meets Howlin' Wolf... and Maybe God, Too

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Here's the question of the day, plot spoilers and all: What's happening to Tony Soprano? Everybody is tracing his downward arc, and it's being laid out pretty plainly. But he also encountered something when he took that peyote in the desert. What, exactly -- God? The Matrix? His own reflection? The experience made him feel there must be more to existence than just "this reality," or so he told his psychiatrist. But as soon as he got home his violent rages were back. So is he headed for Heaven, Hell, or Hackensack? (There's a wrap-up of last night's episode here.)

Nature experiences can trigger religious ecstasy even without psychedelics, as it apparently did when country singer Leon Payne wrote The Selfishness in Man. "I saw a silver beam of sunlight steal across the purple sky," he sang, "then bend down to kiss a rosebud/it made me want to cry." Tony's "I get it!" moment was like that, and he had a hard time explaining it to the guys at the Bing afterward. "Yeah, whatever," he said to their blank looks.

Soon his old rages were taking over again, and he was crushing the skull of one of Phil Leotardo's guys over a drunken insult to his daughter. Had he forgotten his moment of insight -- or was he following the path of mystics everywhere who, having attained enlightenment, decide that participation in daily human life is part of their path?

After all, that's what the Bhagavad Gita teaches. "There never was a time when you or I or any of these kings did not exist," Krishna tells his devotee Arjuna, explaining why he shouldn't hesitate to kill. "And all of us shall exist in the future, too." Like Tony, Arjuna isn't let off the hook by a spiritual experience. "You are a warrior," he's told, "and your duty is to fight."

But Tony's attack on Coco last night was the result of blind rage, not conscious choice. Like the scorpion in the old parable, it's his nature. In any case, we in our culture have it wrong when we assume mystic experiences inevitably lead to pacifism. The Bhagavad Gita is a beautiful work of spiritual writing, but in its present form it's actually a brief for war. And as Brian Victoria has shown, Zen insights didn't prevent Japanese Buddhist leaders from rallying their followers behind Hirohito's war of aggression.

Tony Soprano's two sides are moving closer to the surface. Like Catholic kids everywhere, you can imagine him having imaginary dialogues with an angel on his right shoulder and a devil on his left. The power of his character has always been the childlike spontaneity that drives both his sweetness and his violence.

"Little fingers painting pictures of the birds and apple trees," sang Leon Payne, "why can't the grown-up people have the faith of such as these?" Then, in a line that could have been written for The Sopranos, he adds the twist:

"... and to think those tiny fingers might become a killer's hand ..."

What better synopsis of Tony's backstory could you want?

It's easy to assume that Tony Soprano's headed for a violent downfall. Some websites are even betting he'll kill himself, but I doubt that. Astute listeners will have recognized the voice of bluesman Howlin' Wolf in last week's (was it last week?) episode. "I've had my fun," growls the former Chester Burnett, "if I never get well no more." That seems like a pretty clear signal from Chase about where Tony's headed, especially since the name of the song is Goin' Down Slow. But isn't that too obvious? If I had to bet on it, I'd say bad things will happen to him. But if I wanted to go for longer odds I'd say Tony will be the lone survivor, the last man standing in a battle of his own making.

What's your best guess?

AJ is paralyzed by depression now, like his Dad and his grandmother and that ancestor in the old country who ran his donkey cart off a bridge. All life is suffering, the show seems to be saying. And no matter how hard he tries to control himself, Tony can't seem to stop doing harm. "That is nature," said Howlin' Wolf. "It won't let me treat you right."

And the Wolf should know.

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RJ Eskow at the Huffington Post