"The Sopranos" heads for highly anticipated climax

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - His pompadoured henchman, Silvio Dante, is barely breathing and full of holes; his brother-in-law Bobby is dead and Tony Soprano himself is left in a darkened bedroom, clutching a machine-gun -- like a frightened child holding a teddy bear.

He is so abandoned that even his long-conflicted therapist has dropped him as a patient after being convinced by colleagues that “the talking cure” doesn’t work on sociopaths.

In case you haven’t figured it out, the end is near -- on Sunday, to be exact -- for one of television’s most riveting programs and maybe for its chief character, North Jersey mob boss and all around family man, Tony Soprano .

The HBO series concludes after six seasons spanning 8 1/2 years, having broken new ground for television: portraying a hero who is thoroughly evil, a man who corrupts everyone he comes into contact with while appearing perfectly ordinary to his neighbors.

And he suffers from the same worries and fears the rest of us do -- even if he occasionally relieves the tension by killing someone.

Actor James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano has been hailed as a tour de force, as has the acting of other cast members.

Despite the evil, brutality and violence that have become hallmarks of the weekly show, the American public has formed a bond of affection for the Sopranos and made their North Jersey habitat a tourist attraction.

Actor James Gandolfini in a scene from "The Sopranos" in an image courtesy of HBO. In case you haven't figured it out, the end is near -- on Sunday, to be exact -- for one of television's most riveting programs and maybe for its chief character, North Jersey mob boss and all around family man, Tony Soprano . REUTERS/ Barry Wetcher/HBO/Handout

Series creator David Chase has given no public hint of how he plans to bring his masterpiece to a conclusion, but has certainly stacked the deck against’s Tony’s survival, starting with the first show of the last season, when Tony was shot in the gut by his demented Uncle Junior.

Now, the question is whether Tony’s luck has finally run dry.

With New York gang rival Phil Leotardo getting the jump on Tony’s crew as warfare erupts between them in last Sunday’s penultimate episode, Tony sends his family into hiding and huddles with his dwindling cadre of underlings in a New Jersey safe house.

By most reckonings, Tony appears likely to end up either face down in the proverbial plate of spaghetti or in the federal government’s witness protection program.

A seemingly less probable outcome would have him killing Phil first and consolidating power as a mob super boss; Tony has proven very resourceful in tight spots before.

In any case, the show’s conclusion has become one of the most anticipated TV finales in recent memory.

Members of the cast and creative team have remained scrupulously tight-lipped. But Steven Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band before launching his acting career as Silvio on “The Sopranos,” promises the ending will be anything but hum-drum.

“It’s going to be controversial, it’s going to be talked-about,” Van Zandt, whose character ran the notorious Bada Bing strip club, told the Los Angeles Times this week.

Whatever happens, Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, said the show will be “its own toughest act to follow.”

“Everybody’s expecting it to be the greatest ‘Sopranos’ they’ve ever seen, and that’s going to be hard to do,” he said.

HBO is a unit of Time Warner Inc.