Twelve hours later I’m still trying to figure out exactly what David Chase was getting at in the series finale of The Sopranos. Twelve days from now, I’ll still be working on it.
My own real time response to the episode was one of irritation for the first forty five minutes or so, not because of the narrative content, which seemed right in line with the show’s signature mix of murder, madness, and the mundane, but because it felt rushed. Perhaps my unease wasn’t so much an issue of writing, directing, or editing as my own mounting curiosity (and, briefly, frustration) as the hour progressed. Like millions of fans I was anxiously waiting for a super-deluxe final gift to loyal viewers in the form of a shocking scene of unforgettable emotional or physical violence (the kind consistently delivered throughout this series’ six-season, nine-year run)—always with one eye on the clock. (Thirty minutes to go. How the hell is Chase going to wrap all this up in thirty minutes? Twenty minutes to go. Fifteen. Ten. Nine. Eight.)
But during the last few minutes my increasing agitation turned to renewed admiration: More on that in a moment.
The super-deluxe set piece we were waiting for never came. Instead we got a goofy Phil Leotardo whack, original and shocking and funny and silly all at once. With only minutes to spare Chase gave us one of the series’ most powerful and revolting deaths yet, but unlike so many previous slaughters we didn’t see it. I think the SUV wheel rolling over Phil’s head (mostly off camera) and the sickening crunchy-squishy sound effect that accompanied it and the quick cut to that vomiting bystander was Chase’s way of saying to his audience, “What is it with your insatiable thirst for bloody ultra-violence? Why aren’t you repulsed?”
Of course, that wouldn’t be the only sequence in which Chase played with us. The final scene—one that will be talked about for decades to come—was a masterstroke of merry manipulation or an unforgivable cheat, depending on whom you ask. After months (perhaps years) of feverish anticipation, how dare he deliver an ending that didn’t actually end anything? How dare he leave us thinking about what was to come and would never be seen, rather than what we just saw and would never forget?
Once again, we experienced a genius was at work. Right up until the last seconds, Chase proved a devilish provocateur, refusing to neatly wrap up his timeless novel of a television series, ensuring that it would remain forever on our minds, not simply because it changed television by defying all preconceived notions about what the medium could be and challenging broadcast and cable networks alike to grow up, but because it told a damned good story. The man is so smart it’s scary.
Angry viewers today are fuming that it simply stopped, when the screen abruptly went black just as Meadow Soprano dashed into that diner full of menacing strangers (or regular folks?) to meet Tony, Carmela and A.J. for just another family dinner (or their last supper?). But this was a profoundly perfect ending that summed everything up. Denial queen Carmela chatted away about the menu (“What looks good tonight?”) and other matters, knowing full well that her family will never be normal or safe, shielding herself from her own messy reality behind a wall of everyday ordinary details. A.J. and Meadow remained wrapped up in their young selves, seemingly undaunted by the huge traumas of recent days. (Given the possible portent of it all, the simple inclusion of Meadow’s prolonged parallel parking problem was utterly nerve frying.)
And then there was Tony, a mountain of strength on the inside and a sorrowful, nervous wreck within, eyes darting at every move by every patron (or killer) in the diner and every tinkle of the bell above the door, unable to let his guard down even for a second, helpless to prevent whatever horrors may come.
This scene was a masterpiece of escalating tension for viewers and characters alike, and that’s the point. Our stress and paranoia was Tony’s stress and paranoia, brought on because his life had so spectacularly spiraled out of his control, as life has a habit of doing. Bobby, Christopher and Silvio were gone. Loose-cannon Paulie, Tony’s only remaining associate of note, was fretting over a stray cat and revealing that he had once seen the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing. A.J. was an emotional basket case. The balance of power between the New York and New Jersey families was in perilous play. The feds were closing in.
There were other marvelous moments in the finale: Tony’s horrid, freshly widowed sister Janice quietly reverting to her old tricks, preparing herself to find another husband and trying to get money from Uncle Junior; Tony and Carmela visiting with Meadow, her boyfriend and his parents (those relationships could have powered an additional season of the show); and best of all Tony trying to get through to Uncle Junior and briefly talking about his mother. (We forget, all these years later, that the relationship between Tony and Livia was the central dynamic in The Sopranos back at its bombastic beginning. How would this show have been different had Nancy Marchand, the actress who portrayed Livia, not passed away after the second season?)
Following the many recent upheavals and losses in his life, Tony’s exchange with Junior made clear that his past wasn’t simply past—it was gone, as lost to him as it is to his uncle. There is nowhere to go but forward, without the support of his most trusted friends or the once insurmountable power of his reputation. It’s over, except for the danger and the disappointments. For Tony and television fans alike, there is nothing left but marvelous memories and the uneasy feeling that the best is now behind us.
By Ed Martin, Watercooler TV
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