Even as "The Sopranos" returns Sunday night with its first new episode since June 6, 2004, long-deprived fans can be pardoned for wondering: What took David Chase so long?

Clearing his head? Racking his brain?

Of course, fans are full of end-is-near talk concerning the show. Somewhat premature? A dozen episodes are ready to go, then another eight air early next year. That means almost one-fourth of the ultimate 85-episode "Sopranos" canon is yet to be seen.

Cold comfort for insatiable "Sopranos" fans. And in direct proportion to our growing dismay that the series must, indeed, eventually conclude is our gnawing curiosity: How will it all end?

Years ago, Tony Soprano imagined his options during a gloomy psychiatric session: "dead, or in the can."

But it will be Chase — who has a writing or co-writing credit on some 20 episodes and supervises all the rest, along with every other detail of the series — who will make that final call.

He is the supreme being who concocts The Chart, from which all narratives and scripts emanate. The Chart, whose episode-by-episode and character-by-character coordinates pin down "The Sopranos'" destiny. The Chart is finished, Chase says.

Granted, it's subject to revision.

"Usually I try to stick to my first impulse," he explains. "But it could be that we get close to what I thought was gonna be the ending we planned, and something better will come along into our heads."

He notes that shooting will continue through December. Post-production won't wrap until next March.

So maybe the end ISN'T closer than we think.

Elsewhere in the Silvercup complex in Queens, N.Y. — Studio X — it appears to be business as usual. In the Soprano living room the latest family crisis is erupting. Teenage son A.J. (played by Robert Iler) has screwed up again.

"So," rails his mom, Carmela (Edie Falco), "every time I said to you, 'How's work?' and you said, 'Fine,' you were having your own private little joke on me?"

"What's going on?" says Tony, entering through the front door.

"I went to Blockbuster today to rent 'Cinderella Man,'" Carmela fumes, "and guess what?"

"It still sucks."

"I found out that our son, the liar, had been fired three weeks ago!"

"From Blockbuster!" Tony is a mix of rage and bewilderment. "How the f--- do you do THAT? They got rhesus monkeys as managers there!"

Chase Calls the Shots

The 60-year-old Chase was the only child in a New Jersey Italian-American family whose difficult mother famously inspired Tony's hateful mother, Livia.

"I have Tony's background in my head very clearly," says Chase. "I keep creating his back story as we go along, and it seems like I'm the only one who can do that, or should."

Chase would have been happy to keep "The Sopranos" a series of freestanding hours.

"HBO was more enamored of a serial structure than I was," he says, "but the first season I tried to keep the serial element to a minimum. My goal was to do a little movie every week about a different subject. That's always been what we tried to do. But over time, as the universe expanded, the serial elements have grown larger.

"I still hanker to do more stand-alone episodes," he says.

Indeed, this season's second episode, "Join the Club," which Chase wrote, sets in motion an underlying story of mistaken identity that could stand on its own as a modern "Twilight Zone" yarn.

Like most, that episode is sparked with dialogue where characters reveal themselves (to the audience, at least) as either clueless, or lying, or hiding from the truth.

In a tender moment, Carmela tells Tony, "You're a good father. You care about your friends."

Say what?!

Chase chuckles. "The best part of writing the show is that whatever the person is saying is not the real world. Everything is a lie, or at least 80 percent of it. 'I love you, T!' The character is habitually saying that which isn't. And that's fun."

So perhaps the viewer has been put on notice: Look for no grand lessons here from Chase, other than the human penchant for commingling untruths with the real thing.

And don't try to second-guess him on how the series will end. Not when Chase, who oversees perhaps the most meticulously executed show in TV history, can say, "Control is an illusion."

But even so ... er ... how about a few tea leaves for fans to read?

"I guess," Chase offers, "the question is: 'Do we really believe that crime does not pay?'" He shrugs. "That's what we're told. That's what most gangster films have told us. Is there justice in the world?"

So, whatever it is that Chase happens to believe, that might have some bearing on the series' grand conclusion?

"Yeah, I think so," he says, mulling it over. "I think so."