Tuned In

Sopranos Watch: Don't Stop

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SPOILER ALERT: Do I really have to warn you?

HBO photo: Craig Blankenhorn

So let’s cut to the (David) chase. I thought the ending was beautiful. Judging from the comments already pouring into the Television Without Pity forums (and my neighbors screaming curses into their Brooklyn backyards at 10:01 last night), you didn’t. Consider this a public service. You can’t walk up to David Chase and tell him what a self-indulgent, pretentious jerk you think he is, so you can post here and do it to me. You’re welcome.

But hear me out first.

I’m sure we’ll talk about the other 59 minutes of the finale (which to me were fine but not stellar) at some point. But the ultimate moment was, as they say about democracy, the worst possible choice except for all the other choices that could have been made. People have debated for months how the series would end, but anything other than some form of a life-goes-on ending would have been counter to the history and the spirit of the show.

This is life and The Sopranos’ view of it: no dramatic final poppings, no big finishes and curtain calls, no operatic closing arias, no mind-bending twists (like the ever-popular “Meadow takes over the family business”), no karmic justice, just ignominy, never-ending dread and onion rings. Life slouches on, a rough beast never getting to Bethlehem. If we had gotten any kind of more conventionally satisfying closure–an epilogue, Tony getting locked up, the Russian coming back and whacking everyone–we would have loved it initially and regretted it later.

If you take that as a given, the challenge was to devise an ending that stayed true to that spirit but still managed to surprise, engage and stir discussion in the audience without tying on an uncharacteristic bow. The sudden cut-out focused you on that last glimpse of James Gandolfini’s expressive face, idly indulging in a deep-fried treat, looking ever slightly up to catch a glimpse of his only daughter. The Journey song cut in mid-exhilarating rush. The silent rectangle of nothing that, I admit, suckered me in and had me on my feet hoping that my backup DVR was still working upstairs.

In other words, Chase (who wrote and directed the finale) ended Tony’s story pretty much exactly the way he was expected to and needed to, and yet he had me literally on my feet, engaged, a little pissed, laughing at my surprise and immediately playing the last scene over and over, figuratively in my head and literally on my TiVo. TV critics probably like that sort of thing more than non-professional viewers. If an ending works better the more you think about it, that’s another way of saying that it worked on “an intellectual level,” which is not the level people generally want to watch TV on. (Though I actually though the piecemeal reuniting of the family, echoing the first-season finale, was moving and full of heart). I’ve already heard the complaint that Six Feet Under’s finale (which gave closure for every character by fast-forwarding and showing their deaths) was right in all the ways that this one was wrong. But Six Feet Under was a show that was, literally, about the fact that everything ends. The Sopranos is a show about the fact that nothing does–until you die, you just repeat the same patterns over and over.

Was it a tease, a cheat? Sure. In a way. Chase played the last scene following family members into the restaurant, lingering on various vaguely menacing diners around them, telegraphing all the usual signs of menace… then it started cutting to random diners, showing that the next threat to Tony could come from anywhere. Or nowhere. He could be capped two minutes after the camera cut. He could go to jail. Or he could just live on until he dies, adding an extra coat of saturated fat to the inside of his arteries every now and then, surrounded by his disappointed wife and disappointing children.

Of course, that’s if you read the ending that way. There’s a credible argument to be made that Tony actually dies in the final moment–that a bullet (probably from the nervous diner who got up to go to the can) had just entered his brain and ended him.

Did David Chase kill Tony off? I doubt it. But whether or not he did, he did something that to my knowledge no TV finale has: he killed the viewer off. You and I, watching Tony and sharing his universe one instant, our consciousness of him snuffed out entirely the next. Ended. Whacked. They say you never hear it coming.

But enough from me. Go to the comments and let me know what you