SPOILER ALERT: Story reveals death of a major character. 'The Sopranos' races toward its own elimination as HBO mob drama nears series finale.

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NEW YORK — The body count for “The Sopranos” had a major bump Sunday as this HBO mob drama races toward its own termination. (Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch the episode later and don’t want to learn the newest casualty, stop reading now.)

With the series’ conclusion just three episodes away (on June 10), this week’s victim was Christopher Moltisanti, nephew of New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano and, until lately, Tony’s presumed successor. Death resulted from a car crash with Christopher at the wheel, but Tony, by then fed up with his destructive behavior, made sure the accident was decisive.

It was early in the episode that Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and Tony (James Gandolfini) were returning from Manhattan, where they had a contentious meeting with New York boss Phil Leotardo.

Barreling along a deserted New Jersey highway, the two of them groused about the deal going sour. Meanwhile, Christopher kept taking his eyes off the road to fine-tune his sound system (which notably was playing “Comfortably Numb” from the soundtrack for the recent film “The Departed”).

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Then his sport utility vehicle abruptly crossed the centerline. Christopher veered off the road to miss an oncoming car and crashed down a hill.

Tony was banged up, but Christopher was in far more serious condition. Having suffered internal injuries, he was spitting up blood and gasping for breath.

He pleaded for help. But before Tony could dial 911, the dazed Christopher added, as if about to face a DUI charge, “I’ll never pass the drug test. Call me a taxi.”

Feeling betrayed yet again by Christopher (who had routinely vowed that he was drug-free), Tony made a fateful decision: It was time to solve this personnel problem. Tony pinched Christopher’s nose, guaranteeing he would smother, and, looking comfortably numb, Christopher faded away.

This short interlude led an hour that predominantly addressed the effect of Christopher’s death on his family, the crew and Tony in particular.

Played by Imperioli since “The Sopranos” premiered in 1999, Christopher was headstrong and homicidal, self-involved and erratic, all faults that were enhanced by his alcohol and drug addictions.

Having collected many dangerous enemies (including Leotardo), Christopher was widely expected by “Sopranos” fans to meet a violent demise by the series’ end. The circumstances and timing, however, were a surprise — as well as Tony’s mixed reaction.

Despite suffering pain, loss and guilt from Christopher’s death, Tony also felt grateful relief from a burden he accurately described to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, as “a weak, lying drug addict who fantasized about my downfall.”

At the end of the hour, Tony, who by then had bolted for a private getaway to Las Vegas, was watching the sun come up across the desert while, in a peyote haze, he bellowed out, “I get it!”

Viewers were left to ponder just what it was he got.

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AP-WS-05-14-07 1343EDT