I am coming out of nine months of unintended blog retirement because I just can't stop thinking about the finale of David Chase's masterwork, The Sopranos.
And apparently, neither can anybody else because that's all I've been reading about for days. Was it genius? Was it a rip-off? What was it?
I must admit I felt bored during much of the episode, and that's not an unfamiliar experience for me while watching the show. After September 11, 2001, I lost any desire to suspend disbelief and empathize with Tony and his gang of thugs. I know Gandolfini's nuanced portrayal of a sympathetic sociopath was part of the show's genius, but after he personally shot cousin Tony Blundetto's (Steve Buscemi) head off and bludgeoned the completely unlikeable Ralph Cifaretto (masterfully played by Joe Pantaliano in the role of his lifetime) to death, it just got hard to feel concerned about Tony's fate. Would Carmela finally leave him? Would he go to jail? Would he get popped himself? Would he consolidate power and become the mafia lord of the East Coast? At some point it became clear that no matter what happened in the series, Tony's end, like his life in general, wasn't going to be that great.
Still, we all kept watching.
For me, that was mostly because The Sopranos is so critically acclaimed, so beloved, that I couldn't ignore it. I make my living writing about TV and pop culture and The Sopranos has firmly secured itself a place atop both those heaps.
Having said all that, I found the show's finale fascinating and fitting. I don't know about perfect or genius or even satisfying, but appropriate and true to Chase's vision.
In my view, the show's final scene – which has members of Tony's family gathering at a diner for dinner – was Chase giving us insight into Tony's inner life. Every heightened moment in that diner was infused with tension, even though Tony was doing nothing more than sitting in a booth, ordering onion rings and greeting his wife and son. Was the mysterious guy at the counter finally going to whack Tony? Would Tony's entire family go down with him? Was something going to happen to Meadow as she had trouble parallel parking her Lexus? A regular Joe wouldn't even notice that these things were happening. For Tony Soprano, head of the New Jersey mob, any moment could be his last. While that's true for all of us, most of us aren't marked, and didn't just leave our mafia safe house where we were hiding out with an automatic for a few days waiting to die. No wonder the guy had panic attacks.
The show's final moment – when Meadow finally walked in the door and a quick shot of Tony's face abruptly cut to black and silence – was clearly left open to interpretation. Part of me believes that Tony met his maker (and that guy could not have been that happy with Tony) right then, and that was the end of his perspective and the end of him. That would jive with what seems to be Chase's view of death – final and empty when it comes. The series never gave us much warning when someone was going to meet his untimely end – Tony's hot-tempered nephew Christopher Motisanti (Michael Imperioli, who also wrote five of the show's episodes) didn't die in an exciting and bloody shoot-out, but quietly, at his uncle's hand. Bobby Bacala (Steven Schirripa) was taken down quickly in a toy store, a fitting location for the man-child he was, while Tony's adversary, Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), was shot point-blank in the head in front of his wife and grand-babies while he was just gassing up his car. Tony Soprano's life was constantly full of deaths like those – he knew his own death wouldn't be much different. In the meantime, he just lived to survive and enjoy his family, his gluttony, his gambling and his carnal pleasures.
The other way to look at it is that The Sopranos' lives went on, just without us there to watch. Chase leaves that to us to decide, which is in keeping with the show's existential framework. Jean-Paul Sartre would be pleased. And while the first view is appealing, the second probably makes more sense. Chase showed us the deaths of everyone else; maybe he just couldn't bear to finally take Tony out.
One of the reasons The Sopranos was considered TV genius was because it was true to life. It never became cliché or predictable or pandering, like much of TV (take that Grey's Anatomy). In both Chase's world and our own, life is unpredictable and doesn't offer closure. That was true of the entire series and especially true of the finale. Fans may have wanted more, but would we rather have show creators write shows that satisfy us or satisfy them? Ultimately, shows are better when the creator gets to be true to him or herself without interference from meddling networks or whining fans (and you take that, Lost). Would The Sopranos have been as good if David Chase allowed others to interfere with his vision? I'm sure it would not, which is why the show's finale was exactly right.