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'The Sopranos': Fade to black

June 10, 2007 | 10:00 pm


It was an ending that, if nothing else, had millions on their feet. In what may be the first case of finalus interruptus, David Chase, faced with deciding between a bang and a whimper, chose neither. Instead the creator of “The Sopranos” decided to fool millions of Americans into believing their cable had gone out for possibly the most important moment in the history of televised drama.

The final scene of the final episode of “The Sopranos” had all the elements of traditional climax down to the benign plate of onion rings Tony “ordered for the table.” As the Soprano family gathered in a diner, the light was mellow, the talk was mundane and Tony (James Gandolfini) kept one eye on the door, watching any number of possible assassins or smug federal agents as they poured sugar in their coffee or visited the men’s room (possibly to retrieve, à la “The Godfather,” their weapons cache). Then, just as Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) joined the group, and the tension became virtually unbearable — szzzz. Blank screen.

For several agonizing moments, America was united ... in uttering every profanity known to man as millions of hands reached for millions of remotes, while partners and friends yelled, “No, no, don’t touch it!”

Then, silently, the credits began to roll and somewhere Chase was, no doubt, having a pretty good laugh.

Not a predictable way to end what is now constantly referred to as the most significant television show ever, but then Chase has reveled in his unpredictability from the start. Certainly the show’s setup — a depressed mob boss seeks solace in psychotherapy — was a bit off-template. And through the eight years the show has ruled cable, Chase has consistently refused to bend for dramatic convention; the creation of characters and situations that rose to shuddering heights only to disappear two beats before climax has become one of his hallmarks. The Russian mobster simply disappeared into the snow; this season Little Vito seemed primed to “go Columbine” only to vanish from the scene. In the previous episode, Chase summarily dispensed with the beloved Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) through a rat-a-tat series of ridiculous events that had the psychiatric community in an uproar last week  — no self-respecting shrink would allow herself to be conned, at a stupid dinner party, into believing that all those years were worthless. And fans wondered  whether Chase and his writers had forgotten what it was they had loved about the show in the first place.

So after the initial heart palpitations have slowed, the surprise ending does not seem quite so surprising. The episode that led up to it, that alleged final episode ever, was workaday “Sopranos.” Or as workaday as it could be with Bobby dead, Sil almost dead, and the Feds apparently working a turncoat. and Rapt viewers analyzed every detail, from the look on Paulie’s (Tony Sirico) face after Tony asked him to take over Carlo’s operation, to the songs on the jukebox in the final scene.

Chase wrote the episode alone, and he was clearly enjoying himself, playing on the fact that people had their own expectations — odds were Tony would get whacked — and would bring to these details what they wanted to bring. He even managed to insert a little lecture about the downtrodden scriptwriter through an old “Twilight Zone” episode playing in the background of one scene.

Much of the narrative dealt with the state of that interminable whiner A.J. (Robert Iler). As he prepared to commit statutory rape (his girlfriend is a junior in high school), his car caught fire and he experienced, he told his therapist, the thrill of destruction. Tony, of course, was furious because he had already told A.J. the danger of parking the SUV in leaves — “you could grill a steak on that convertor.” The things that haunted Tony for the last eight episodes were suddenly nonexistent. Christopher’s death had improved his gambling luck (though he had picked up a stray cat that did nothing but stare at Chris’ picture). He even came to some sort of terms with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), a man bitter even without his memories. “The two of you ran north Jersey,” Tony told Junior. “Did we? That’s nice,” Junior answered before gazing blankly out the window.

With the exception of that scene, and the fact that Tony’s operatives were finally able to locate and whack Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), it was as if none of these people realized this was the final episode of “The Sopranos.” (Except the cat. The cat seems to realize.) In one scene, as Tony managed to turn a conversation with A.J.’s therapist into a conversation about him — “My mother was a very difficult woman. I didn’t have a very happy family life” — the look on Carmela’s (Edie Falco) face was priceless. And for a moment it was as if Tony’s years in therapy, his entire character arc, the entire show for that matter, had never happened. People were trying to kill him, his son had just attempted suicide and was now joining the Army, and again it was all about him and his mother. All that hard work for nothing.

Which may be exactly what many people were feeling as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’.” while the Sopranos sat in a diner, and it was then that the television went dead.

Chase is possibly the only man in America who could get away with such a thing, and maybe he shouldn’t. While it is one thing to flout the conventions of television, it’s another to flip dramatic tradition, not to mention your audience, the bird. No, he didn’t owe us any neat endings, nor some sort of final word on the nature of good and evil. But after eight years, he did owe us catharsis, some sort of emotional experience that would, if not sum up the entire eight years, leave us with something more meaningful than instant panic and lingering irritation. In the end, the art of writing is the art of making choices. Ending a series with the social weight of “The Sopranos” is not an enviable task, but end it must, and not with the sophomoric gesture of a blank screen.

Yes, people will be talking about the show tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, but they probably won’t be talking about Tony Soprano or any of the work the very fine cast of actors and writers has done over the years. They’ll be talking about how frustrating the blank screen was. In fear of tainting the legacy of “The Sopranos” — if Tony really was just one more truly bad man, some viewers would feel betrayed; if he went from antihero to hero, others would feel the same — Chase has offered us instead an epic novel with a do-it-yourself ending.

And, of course, the distinct possibility of "The Sopranos: The Movie."

-- Mary McNamara

Update from Mary:

The blank screen.

In less than 24 hours, it has become the obelisk from “2001,” the Rorschach blot, Stonehenge and “Ulysses” all rolled into one. The sudden blank screen that marked the final moments of the final episode of “The Sopranos” is the new dark mirror in which viewers see the reflections of their own dreams and desires. In hundreds of responses, to my personal mailbox and in the comment area here, readers have deconstructed that image with the passion and alacrity of literary theory post-grads on an espresso bender.

The blank screen signified Tony’s death (exactly as he described it to Bobby on their fateful fishing trip), it was David Chase literally “pulling the plug” on his creation. It represented the paranoia in which Tony lived his life, Uncle Junior’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the repressed panic of the female characters. The sudden darkness symbolized the demise of the Italian community, the corruption of the American soul, of American television or (my personal favorite) Chase’s commentary on the country’s dependence on cable TV.

The theories are bountiful and boundless and reveal a level of sophistication that, while not surprising among fans of such a multi-layered and literate show, seems to contradict the conventional wisdom that television kills creative thought, if not actual brain cells, among viewers.

Nobody would call these “Sopranos” fans couch potatoes.

Obsessive, perhaps—here’s to the one reader who looked up the entire “Twilight Zone” episode and the other who matched the songs Tony passed over on the jukebox to the stages of his life—but then isn’t obsession one requirement of intelligent analysis?

But there is an overall awareness of how television, and the writing process, works, of what the show stood for, both philosophically and within the entertainment industry.

It all goes to prove one point: that it didn’t really matter how Chase chose to end his legendary series. Whacked or not, arrested or not, somehow suddenly heroic or not, some people would have loved it, some people would have hated it. In today’s world, it turns out, one does not go out with either a bang or a whimper, but with a thousand e-mails.

-- M.M.

(Photo courtesy HBO)