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'The Sopranos': Fade to black

Sopranosfinale

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)

 
Comments () | Archives (126)

I liked it. It's why the series was great in the first place: it played by its own rules.
Plus, I wanted Tony to live.

Frustrating? Yes. A copout? Maybe. But still the perfect ending. What they just did with TV is what the Beatles did w/ music, turned a medium on its head.

The anti-ending as a finale fits for the Sopranos. With Christopher dead, Bobby dead, Silvio in a coma, Paulie refusing a promotion, AJ a wreck, Meadow planning a wedding, Carmela pre-occupied with her real estate projects, Junior rotting away in the psych ward, and without Dr. Melfi as quasi-consigliere, Tony is left alone at the top.

Chase made sure to avoid the stereotypical mob-endings. No prison or violent death for Mr. Soprano. Tony's punishment is his isolation. He is one of the last of a dying breed, always looking over his shoulder, never at peace.

The anti-ending as a finale fits for the Sopranos. With Christopher dead, Bobby dead, Silvio in a coma, Paulie refusing a promotion, AJ a wreck, Meadow planning a wedding, Carmela pre-occupied with her real estate projects, Junior rotting away in the psych ward, and without Dr. Melfi as quasi-consigliere, Tony is left alone at the top.

Chase made sure to avoid the stereotypical mob-endings. No prison or violent death for Mr. Soprano. Tony's punishment is his isolation. He is one of the last of a dying breed, always looking over his shoulder, never at peace.

The message is that life goes on...no matter what catastrophes occur...most Americans forget soon...and eat "onion rings" as if nothing has happened.

Now we have to find something to do on Sunday nights...especially from 9:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Maybe cathing up and viewing old reruns...on A&E.

Hopefully, The Sopranos will gain millions of new fans through A&E. Especially those that were asleep as the wheel and did not order HBO to watch the Sopranos for last eight years. We get a second chance to relive those 8 years through reruns. I am one of those late comer fans...I caught on to it about 1-2 years ago...now I know what people meant when talking about the Sopranos.

Everyone needs therapy to feel normal.

There's an involving novel called _Tigana_ by Guy Gavriel Kay that works through a massive epic-fantasy setting with characters in all kinds of shades of grey rather than the good-v-evil trope. One of the best reads of my life, I think -- and the final short sentence provides a dramatic twist, a last sudden eye-opening moment, and then a blank white page rather than a blank black screen.

I wouldn't change that ending for the world. Sounds like Chase found his equivalent, and personally I salute him for it.

This was no traditional fade-out...I believe the ending of the show reflects the way life ended for Tony - without even hearing the shot that killed him (as he and Bobby discussed in the boat, which was seen in a flashback in last week's episode). The last thing he saw was his daughter coming into the diner - then he was gone. Suddenly, without awareness, satisfaction or "closure." Everything just...stops.

The entire end of the episode takes place inside Tony's head. The threat of sudden death arriving in the midst of pleasant familial humdrum is his punishment, forever and ever amen.

Well again, I COMPLETELY disagree with Goodman on this. The end to the Sopranos was almost EXACTLY what someone would expect. This whole time I have been curious if there would be a true ending. I would have been SURPRISED if Chase had actually decided to tie this up with a clean end. (Something that Six Feet Under was able to adroitly pulled off- and why I would argue, was a more impressive series.)

It seems a lot of writers in television really just have a weakness of knowing how to actually end things. I really find this to be the ultimate cope out of smart television. I really wish the writers of tv series would rise to the challenge of creating a true ending to a show.

Sorry to beat tim down again but seriously the following line made me double take…

“He gave a gift to critics who wished that "The Sopranos" would just end, without melodrama or crisply tied-up storylines, but more like a camera shutting off. And it did.”

Is this what critics wish for? Really? I would argue the majority just decide to shut the camera off. And sadly this is a practice done by the better, more critically acclaimed shows… Seinfield, Cheers, Everyone loves Raymond… sorry I am just blanking on hour dramas that really got any attention for their series finale

And the worst part was that Chase thought it would be cute to go to a GOTCHA type gimmick at the end… that was CHEAP. The whole last scenes motivation seemed to get everyone to jump off the couch to check the tv…. Care to argue with me? Shows have come to a close on a shot to black before… but to wait a FULL 5 SECONDS before your producers credits are up? Bush league Gimmick! LAME… (and this is from a person who works in tv)

Now the question is if Chase comes out with another success… If his new show bombs, expect a Sopranos movie by 2012….

If Tony did get wacked it was a total copout. We are not watching this from Tony's eyes... but from the eyes of the viewer. I think it was a "life goes on even with it's problems" ending and a very bad one at that. We were set up in a "Psycho Thriller" kind of way... the suspense was building and then just blah.... nothing... stupid... badly done...not wanting to commit to certainty in character or morality. I don't think it could have been worse then it was.

If Tony did get wacked it was a total copout. We are not watching this from Tony's eyes... but from the eyes of the viewer. I think it was a "life goes on even with it's problems" ending and a very bad one at that. We were set up in a "Psycho Thriller" kind of way... the suspense was building and then just blah.... nothing... stupid... badly done...not wanting to commit to certainty in character or morality. I don't think it could have been worse then it was.

I was more then disappointed at this ending. I haven't been this pissed of at a TV show in a while!!!.

i liked it, left it up to the viewer with endless possibilities. i would love a movie.

Unless my DirecTV™ gliched, a dialog between Tony and Pauly forshadowed the sudden black screen ending, provoking in me a genuine apprension that my Italian Dinner/Sopranos party was imperiled. Had my reception failed, it would have been like a broadcast of the World Cup suddenly going black during penalty shots, and in Brazil... For a moment, I thought 'Am I paid up?'. ...a perfect viewer emotion for this Mob, Mob World.

I thought the ending was fine, and was right in line with Chase's thesis for the entire series, which was to refuse to give easy answers and pander to the lowest common denominator. I'm actually lauging at the blogger's passive-aggressive anger: "I'm not saying David Chase owes us something, but he owes us something." Had he ended the show with Tony getting whacked, or turning to the feds, or being brought in by the feds, or some other tragedy regarding the Soprano family, then there would have been complaints about that being "too predictable." There's no way Chase could have won with any ending he chose to go with. And I'm not sure what the blogger means by "emotional experience." Was she not happy that a truce was brokered and that Phil met his end? Apparently, that was not enough of an "emotional experience" that most likely would have been felt by a Tony whacking or some other "fitting" tragic ending, which, again, Chase has stated he was not interested in doing. And let's face it, the expectations and hype for this episode were so high that there was virtually no ending that would have satisfied the bloodthirsty junkies/action fiends/"closure-loose ends" hounds. Kudos to Chase for sticking to his guns and ending his creation on his own terms.

The ending was terrible.. I've never been a big fan of the show, but this just seals it: This has been one of the most overrated series in the history of television. The angle has always been "mafia family deals with regular domestic issues in their unique way," which was interesting for about 2 episodes.

it was cowardly. chase didn't end it on his own terms...he didn't end it. there was no ending. he cheaply set us all up with those last minutes. he built up incredible tension, made millions of people feel knots in their guts, and then laughed at them. that's not brilliant, that's not cinema verite, it's lame. playing a trick on people is no way to conclude a series of this magnitude. they should have done that with "joey", not "the sopranos".
the sad part is he shot 3 different endings. i'm sure the other two were conclusive.
what a great dissapointment.
wow. we can make up our own minds. maybe tony did die. we'll never know. brilliant chase...just brilliant. ug.

Lame.

Mary McNamara totally gets it -- thank you, Mary -- and I'm surprised that many of the folks commenting above didn't seem to read Ms. McNamara's analysis. The ending is a joke, compliments of Mr. Chase. At the very moment that we are about to see the conclusion of the story, the cable goes out, and the screen goes blank and the sound goes off for aboput 5 or 6 seconds. That's the joke. We were all waiting to see the big final moment, and when it comes, the cable goes out. It's a self-conscious joke about cable -- how cable, over the past 8 years with "The Sopranos," has grown into a very big thing. And when the cable goes out -- just like when "The Sopranos" goes off the air -- there's a dark void in our viewing lives.

I'm sure Chase wanted people to be sitting up all night debating the end of the show (just like I'm doing now), but there's no question in my mind that the ending is -- simply -- Tony alive one second, dead the next, doomed to the same fate he meted out to so many. Dead without knowing who's killing him, or what will happen to his family. Just -- dead, with a bullet in his head. It leaves you thinking (appropriately) about all his victims, as well as the meaninglessness of his life, and how all his familial concerns and psychological struggles can be wiped out in a moment of retribution. I don't even think it's *that* oblique -- I thought it was incredibly powerful. Brilliant really.

 
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