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Tony bags Christopher -- and then beds a onetime Dallas Cowboys cheerleader

Former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Sarah Shahi loomed large after a stunning Sopranos episode snuffed out Christopher Moltisanti.

Many Sopranos prognosticators measured Christopher Moltisanti for a coffin this season, with some also envisioning his death at the hands of uncle Tony.

They were right, although no one could have seen it going down this way. Series creator David Chase again has zagged the zig, and brilliantly, too.

Christopher (Michael Imperioli), who lapsed back into hard drugs in the previous episode, drove to his own dead end via a crunching car wreck and a fatal admission. Fittingly, he'd popped the soundtrack for The Departed into the player while talking to passenger Tony (James Gandolfini) about smelling the roses, easing up on the throttle.

Tony gave him the ol' "Every day's a gift" dodge before lost-cause Christopher swerved to avoid an oncoming car. They careened off the road and tumbled in tandem, leaving Christopher gravely injured and Tony pretty banged up.

Wheezing and bleeding from the mouth, Christopher then signed his death warrant by telling Tony, "You've gotta help me. I'll never pass a drug test."

The bossman started to call 911 and then thought better of it. He squeezed the remaining life out of Christopher by pinching his nose tight. In a way it was a mercy killing, but only in a small way. Christopher had made himself an expendable liability. He'd also made Cleaver, which Tony grew to loathe as the work of a "weak, lying drug addict who fantasized about my downfall."

This had to be The Sopranos' most shocking death, with Tony then play-acting to the hilt. He asked about his "friend" from a hospital bed, knowing what he'd hear but needing to hear it: "Your friend is dead."

Chase kept throwing in those little Chase touches.

Christopher's wife, Kelli (Cara Buono), got the news over the phone, in sync with a patented Paul Shaffer cackle on Late Show With David Letterman.

Tony awoke from a dream in which he confessed his real sins to Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Braco). This time an old Kate Hepburn interview with Dick Cavett played on the TV screen. She would have been 100 on Saturday (May 12), which Chase clearly knew in plotting out this little salute to her.

Tony later professed being "prostate (sic) with grief" over the earlier death of his cousin, Tony Blundetto (Steve Buscemi). Or so he told the real-world Melfi, neglecting to mention that he had been the triggerman.

The Sopranos' grand maestro -- Chase, not Tony -- then threw in another new, out-of-the-blue character. Vegas stripper Sonya Aragon, who used to party very hard with Christopher, was played by former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Sarah Shahi, covergirl for the 2000 swimsuit calendar.

The 27-year-old Euless native, born Aahoo Jahansouzshahi, helped turn Tony into Hunter S. Thompson after his get-away-from-it-all touchdown in a posh private plane. Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, with pot, peyote, vigorous sex, deep stupors and big, cathartic wins at the Caesar's Palace roulette wheel.

It ended in the desert, with Tony and Sonya havin' a heat wave.

"I get it!" he finally shouted, his voice echoing into the final credits.

But does he really? And have we all finally gotten the fact that Tony Soprano at base level is a dirty, rotten thug?

All of this made for the finest hour yet in this concluding nine-episode arc.

Now it's just three more to go, with HBO's promos proclaiming, "Everybody Has Their Breaking Point."

As David Chase has proven time and again, that could mean just about anything.