I took notice that there have been three episodes and three violent deaths so far as well, though I don't know how 'gratuitous' the violence in these situations has been; in every instance, the death has served a purpose in the major plotlines.
The hit in episode one, while the result of which remains to be seen, will undoubtedly prove significant later, as a possible turning point for Bobby’s character. If any of the other already-hardened killers in Tony’s crew has committed that murder, it would have seemed entirely inconsequential and beside the point. Because it was a member who had never committed murder before, however, and it was the person Tony is training to be his heir, the killing itself serves as a major plot point, even though the person he kills is of almost no significance at all.
The other two are the direct result of the power struggle in New York, as the in-fighting over who will take the boss’s seat continues. The affairs in New York have become increasingly important to Tony’s crew, as tensions between the two families have increased dramatically in recent years, thus making the conflict in NY another major plot point. And of course, we all probably knew Phil would take the reins over New York again before the series ended, and there would be only one way for him to do that – to kill his opposition.
As for how the violence has been depicted in recent episodes, I agree it’s been pretty “in your face”, the most graphic being the one on Doc. I’m not sure why this is, but perhaps after years of being desensitized to the violence on this show (Seriously, it takes a lot to stun us anymore, doesn’t it?), Chase has just felt the need to go one extra step to try to shock the audience – even if it’s just mildly more explicit, and without going to over-the-top.
Yes, the three deaths in the last three episodes have begun a trend of violence that we haven’t seen from this show in a long time, certainly as the series has slowed down the past few years. However, I don’t see this as Chase “surrendering to the masses and critics that demand blood and guts with their weekly "Sopranos" viewing”. As this brutality and bloodshed continues (which seems very likely, the way this story is going), I see this as visible evidence of the growing turmoil and dissension within La Cosa Nostra, as the lifestyle continues in its decline – its downward spiral into self destruction.