Upon its original airing, the fourth season of The Sopranos provoked a vocal and hostile response from the show's fans. Nothing happens, they would complain. The episodes wander aimlessly from one to the next. Plot lines are brought up and then dropped. Nobody gets whacked.
Viewers watching during its original airing can be excused for so thinking. Viewed one episode at a time, one week at a time, it was easy to feel dragged along. It is no secret that The Sopranos wasn't built to last and was never really intended to go on past three seasons; once its original conceit was used up, David Chase and the writers needed to find a new direction.
As a result, Season Four has no overarching plot lines, such as Tony's rivalries with Junior or Ritchie, or clearly delineated character arcs like the downfall of Jackie Jr. or Tony's doomed relationship with Gloria. Instead, much of the "mafia" story was dedicated to getting us better acquainted with the Soprano family's relationship with Johnny Sack, Carmine, and New York (storylines that pay off dividends in Season Five). Moreover, from the very first episode, "For All Debts Public and Private," Season Four has a sense of impending, post-9/11 dread; every week gave viewers the sense that something "big" was about to happen -- that Tony would discover Paulie "talking out of school," that the Feds would put the screws into Adrianna, that Carmela would consummate her flirtations with Furio -- but it never did. And when a major character did meet his untimely end, it came as an inevitability rather than a release. The buildup of tension that was never released undoubtedly led to the frustration of many viewers.
Still, on a second viewing, with Season Five behind us and without the suspense of waiting to find out what happens next, Season Four plays remarkably well. On DVD, unbound from the constraints serial-viewing and the weekly suspense of waiting for a new episode, the pace of the season improves dramatically, and the richness of each episode becomes apparent. "No Show" contrasts Meadow's post-adolescent ennui with Christopher's "learning curve" as acting capo. "Everybody Hurts" and "Watching Too Much Television" are two of the best self-contained episodes of the series. In addition to genuine suspense, "The Weight" shows us Johnny Sack's genuine affection for his overweight wife, foreshadowing events between Tony and Carmela. "Eloise" puts the finishing touches on the portrait of Carmela's bourgeois hell-of-her-own-creation touched on in "Second Opinion" and "Amour Fou" (both Season Three). The finale, "Whitecaps," plays out like a 75-minute version of Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage; it's the most brutal episode of the series (despite the fact that no regular character is expended), with Gandolfini and Falco giving two of the most devastating performances on television. Even the season's one true clunker "Christopher" -- a misguided course in Identity Politics 101 -- plays much better when you're not expecting anything more.
In Season Four, we were still learning how to watch The Sopranos and learning the demands it places on the viewer. Like life, it's messy. Entropy and inertia triumph over the artifice of resolution and the fiction of "closure." Conflicts are not resolved; they fester. What seemed desperately important one day is crowded out by new pressures and priorities. But this direction should be reason for celebration, not criticism. If the series doesn't conform to audience expectations, aren't we the better for it? In the 70s, they had a term for movies that didn't adopt standard notions of narrative form: they called them "Art Films."
In the final analysis, if Season Four does not live up to prior seasons, it is only because Seasons One, Two, and Three set the bar so high. (Compare Season 4 and the comparable season of, say, ER and then get back to me.) Rather than trying to carry on as a pale imitation of its predecessors, in Season Four the series evolves in a new direction, demanding more of the viewer, but proving why The Sopranos is the best show in the history of television.