Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sopranos Extinction Event

So, the time has come for me to write about the series finale of The Sopranos. After all, I've devoted a number of previous entries to the series:

The Sopranos
Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute
Scenic Routes on The Sopranos
Sopranos Style and Substance
The Passion of Christopher
Sopranos Second Coming

So this makes my seventh sign on the road to the series apocalypse. I had originally hoped to post an entry following the penultimate episode, but it was right before I was leaving for the Media Ecology Association convention in Mexico City and I was too busy, too exhausted, and in all honesty, after seeing that episode, "The Blue Comet," I found that it was too powerful for me to toss off a quick commentary, that I really needed time to think about it. The one thought that came to mind in the immediate aftermath was that the title of the episode, while ostensibly referring to the model train that Bobby was in the process of purchasing when he was whacked, made me think of the comet that supposedly caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, the old school gangsters being the doomed species in the series, hence the title of this entry. And there is a sense in which David Chase, having set up his toy soldiers over the course of the series, was now entitled to knock them all down at the end of the day, which he seemed in the process of doing in this next to last episode.

But it was off to Mexico, knowing that the TiVO would record the series finale. When I got back last Monday night, my wife Barbara asked if I had heard about the last episode, I said no, and she didn't spoil it for me. I read an e-mail from a friend Robyn Merkel, asking what I thought the ending of the episode meant, and knew there was some ambiguity. That night I watched it, and, well, wow! I really had to think about it.

I've since read some of the discussions on Sopranos fan groups on MySpace, along with David Chase's comments in the Newark Star-Ledger, and some other media commentary, nothing definitive. My own response to the series end was first and foremost admiration for Chase as an artist, but along with that a sense of nausea and depression. Maybe exhaustion and let down following the excitement of the MEA convention contributed to my visceral response, but I suspect that my reaction would have been more or less the same under any circumstances.

Of course, like everyone else, my initial reaction was to think something went wrong with the cable box, or the TiVO recording. It was a jarring experience, and once the credits appeared, after what seemed like an eternity but objectively was a very short period of time, came the realization that this was the way that Chase decided to end the series, not with a bang, not with a whimper, not with a slow fade to back, but with an abrupt cut off that gave no sense of resolution or completion. It's as if the camera suddenly ran out of tape, or someone accidentally pulled the plug. That kind of sudden end has been used a number of times in popular music recording, and Chase is certainly influenced by the records, tapes, and CDs that have been so central to the baby boomer lifestyle. But the eye is quite different from the ear, and the effect of sudden cessation is much more drastic on video than via audio alone.

So many of the fans seem to be angry at Chase for going all artsy on his audience, and denying them the satisfaction of a real ending to the story. They sense a certain hostility to the fans, and maybe they're right. As a narrative becomes increasingly more popular, the creator loses control, and it becomes more and more the property of the fans. Chase no doubt felt this way to an extent, that many of the fans who unconditionally idolized Tony Soprano just didn't get what he was trying to express as an artist. Of course, he was also pressured by Italian-American groups who found the entire series offensive, and pressured by social conservatives to make Tony and his crew less sympathetic than they appeared to be in the early episodes. He may also have been affected by criticisms coming from fans and reviewers that the later episodes had lost their edge and that the series had gone downhill in recent years. So, maybe he was thumbing his nose at everyone. Maybe.

Or, maybe this was his way of saying, hey people, it's just a show, it's just a videotape recording, we can pull the plug anytime we want to. Maybe he was trying to shock the audience back to reality, break the frame of the program, make viewers pay attention to the medium of television, that's what happened when we all thought that the cable went out you know. So, in this sense, the comparisons to Orson Welles are apt. As Paul Heyer put it about Welles, he had media sense, meaning a media ecological sensibility (see The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years, 1934-1952), and David Chase does as well (as evidenced by his gratuitous mention of Marshall McLuhan in one of the earlier seasons).

And some fans after seeing this ending that is not an ending interpreted it to mean that the series is over, but life goes on for these characters, Tony, Carmela, AJ, and Meadow. That's the ending that they wanted, having formed a relationship with the characters, feeling affection for them, maybe even coming to identify with them, and Tony especially. And for his part, Chase has certainly kept his options open by not closing off this interpretation of the ending. You never know, inspiration might strike, or necessity (financially speaking) may intervene, someone may make him an offer he can't refuse, and the next thing you know, we'll have a Sopranos major motion picture.

So, Chase has not closed off the possibility, but neither has he encouraged it by this ending. There are a million and one ways that he might have brought the series to a conclusion with all of the major characters essentially unchanged and set up for further development within a feature film. Nothing about this ending points in that direction, all that we're left with is a trapdoor should Chase change his mind someday.

So, it's possible to argue that Chase is an artistic genius, and it's possible to argue that he's just engaged in audience abuse, but a further possibility is that he genuinely did not know how to end the series. After all, the whole point of most television series is to establish a scenario that would allow for the generation of one episode after another, indefinitely. We can see in The Sopranos the basic situation of mobsters dealing with contemporary middle class life, balancing the family at home and the family at the workplace, and the use of psychotherapy as a means to get at the underlying issues involved. This provided wonderful grist for the mill, in the hands of the talented crew of writers, directors, and actors that Chase had assembled. But it does not necessarily follow that Chase had an ending in mind when he began the series (I am told he did not), nor does it follow that Chase was able to come up with a satisfying finale when he finally sat down and thought it over.

The easiest thing to do would be to say goodbye with the kind of life goes on ending that would make the fans happy. After all, I would venture to say that anyone who watched the program and did not like Tony Soprano on some level, who felt hate, disgust, or even antipathy towards the character, would probably not be a regular viewer of the show. Chase's challenge all along has been the need to remind viewers that Tony really is a monster, a sociopath. James Gandolfini is too appealing, too cute, too ordinary in many ways, too set upon by family and family, too aware of his own shortcomings, and too reasonable to make the audience turn against him. And he is typically surrounded by others who are more brutal, more angry, more vindictive, more selfish and greedy, more stupid and shortsighted, than he is, so however horrendous his actions, he comes across looking relatively good in contrast to many of the other characters. And most of the rest have their own moral failings, and their own kinds of mafia, and therefore if not worse than Tony certainly do not seem morally superior in kind to him.

Tony Soprano is a survivor in the comic mode, which is not to say that he is a humorous character, although the series certainly has its funny moments, but rather that it follows the classic sense of comedy, a story with a happy ending, that goes together with an episodic format. Tony does not try to overpower his environment, he's not a control freak, he does not follow the tragic mode of being so full of himself, so powerful an ego that he brings about his own doom. Instead, he is a trickster who accommodates himself to a hostile environment, and just gets by. This was brought home perfectly in the final episode of last season, season 5, "All Due Respect," which ends with Tony and Brooklyn mob boss Johnny Sack together as the FBI descends and arrests Sack, while Tony sneaks away, calling his lawyer and learning that the warrant was only for Johnny and not for him. Tony walks home, surviving for another day. This would have worked quite well as a series finale. That is, if Chase were willing to go gentle into that good night.

But the temptation must have been there to end with a bang, give us a dramatic ending with Tony going down fighting, saying "say hello to my little friend" (the little friend in this case would be the AR-10 automatic machine gun that Bobby gave him for his birthday in the episode that started the final countdown, "Soprano Home Movies") or "top of the world, ma" (Livia Soprano being the kind of ma who would demand such a sacrifice) or some such--for David Chase to knock all the toy soldiers down and come in for dinner. But that's the trajectory of the tragic hero in a linear narrative, and Chase did not set Tony up for that kind of ending. Neither has the series emphasized action or melodrama, the violence being infrequent and not in any way romanticized. Killing Tony outright might be satisfying from a moral standpoint, but the series was all about moral ambiguity. Chase also may have been reluctant to definitively eliminate a character that he had invested so much effort and emotion into, not to mention the concern about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. On the other hand, after all these years, he must have been tempted to make a clean break of it, achieve compete separation so that he could move on.

But the bottom line is that the heroes of episodic narratives are notoriously hard to kill. After a long series of ongoing adventures, it goes against the grain for them to suddenly die, no death seems fitting enough, and if they are sent to the grave, it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of writing them back into existence, their death being only "apparent." Perhaps the archetypal example of this was Arthur Conan Doyle's attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes, only to have him return from the dead in a new series of adventures, interestingly paralleled by Doyle's own obsession with life after death, spiritualism, and mediums communicating with the departed (much like Tony's tough guy, Paulie). The death of Tony Soprano would likewise haunt David Chase, and I think he understood no end would ever be satisfying, so he gave us no ending.

During this final season, Chase had in fact made reference to the possible ways that things might end. Tony might be arrested, indicted, tried, convicted, go to jail. But all that would be anticlimactic, and out of sync with the series. Having Tony "flip," testify against his fellow mobsters and go into witness protection would be too out of character as well as unsatisfying and inartistic. No Goodfellas for The Sopranos, anyway, as that kind of resolution needs to be set-up early in the story, I would think. Other characters have died from accidents (notably automotive) and illness (especially cancer), but that would also go against the grain for the main character of The Sopranos. And the big shoot out, whether with the authorities or with other criminals would not fit in with the soap opera style of the show.

This leaves the possibility of Tony simply getting whacked, executed, perhaps not even knowing what was happening. "You probably don't even hear it when it happens," Bobby says to Tony on the lake in the first episode of this final arc, "Soprano Home Movies," a scene that's replayed at the end of "The Blue Comet," at the point where it all seems to be closing in on Tony. This was the ending that viewers were anticipating, dreading in large part, as Tony would without a doubt have it coming, there would be no denying the justice of it. Such as ending could be followed by a funeral (although that might be too maudlin or melodramatic), and ending with a new boss and/or heir apparent, maybe even Tony's son AJ finally embracing the family business. Except that this sort of scenario is too much like the Godfather and its sequels, and while Francis Ford Coppola embraces the tragic and takes it all very seriously, the Sopranos mob jokes around imitating scenes from Coppola's movies, and is much more informal and casual about "this thing of ours."

So, that leaves us with Tony getting whacked, end of story, which is of course another way to interpret Chase's ending. The crisis is over, Tony's guard is down, he's having dinner out with his family, the camera shows us a variety of different people also present in the restaurant, including one potentially threatening lone man wearing a Members Only jacket, who gets up and goes to the restroom. The camera spends enough time on him to suggest that he is in some way significant, but typically for Chase throughout this series, we are given no hint of what his significance may be, if any, by way of close-up, zoom, or other kind of shot. So, we are left not knowing what if anything this guy meant, but one interpretation is that he came out of the restroom with a gun (an allusion to the The Godfather I suppose), whacked Tony from behind, so the fade to black signified his death, which he never heard, never saw coming, never experienced except as the shift from being to nothingness. Taken aesthetically as a presentational symbol, the abrupt cut to black certainly felt like Tony's death to me, as a viewer, and I was filled with existential dread, nausea, depression--could it be a coincidence that while the series finale was broadcast, Chase was hiding out with his own family in Jean Paul Sartre's homeland? And after all, how else to really symbolize death on television, except, from the first person point of view, it's like the cable going out.

I've made reference to the movie Fail-Safe (1964) in a couple of previous posts (Jericho Fit, God and the Machines), in particular about the ending which shows several different scenes of ordinary life in Manhattan, each ending in a freeze frame and then the screen going to black. The depiction is of ground zero as The Bomb is dropped, of course, and as I've mentioned, seeing this on TV as a kid left me terrified for years. And this is the scene that I find closest to David Chase's ending of The Sopranos, which is why, as well, I see it as representing an extinction event. Given the ambiguity, and the numerous references to the possibility of terrorism in the series of late, Chase actually did not eliminate the possibility that it was not just Tony who got whacked at the end, it was the entire NY/NJ area. It would be as if 24 and Jericho invaded The Sopranos. But as you might gather, I don't see this as a serious possibility, and the threat of terrorism was never taken seriously in the series, except in the vaguest of terms, and in the sense of insecurity that Carmella in particular felt following 9/11.

Anyway, there is no question that the ending conveyed a sense of finality, and symbolized death, however you interpret the narrative. It could be the death of Tony Soprano, or the death of the viewer (as one fan on MySpace suggested), or the death of David Chase for that matter. But it is that flip into nothingness that I found ultimately disturbing. The series in its entirety really revolved around the fear of death, and the denial of death, so this seemed an altogether appropriate ending, one that let viewers pick their own ending after a fashion, but also one that did give us the death of Tony Soprano for all intents and purposes, and I suspect that Tony's demise was indeed David Chase's intent and purpose--an extinction event.

But wait, there's more. I really didn't fully grasp the significance of all this until I watched these last two episodes again. And again, reading the fan boards, it seems that beyond the two basic interpretations of the final scene, there's much that's confusing about the final two episodes. For a series built on an enhanced sense of realism, there are numerous logical gaps in the finale.

But first, let's go to the interview Chase granted to the Newark Star-Ledger, published June 12 (two days after the finale aired):

'Sopranos' creator's last word: End speaks for itself
Posted by Alan Sepinwall, TV Columnist June 12, 2007 11:18AM
Categories: Interview
What do you do when your TV world ends? You go to dinner, then keep quiet.

"Sopranos" creator David Chase took his wife out for dinner Sunday night in France, where he fled to avoid "all the Monday morning quarterbacking" about the show's finale. After this exclusive interview (agreed to before the season began), he intends to let the work -- especially the controversial final scene -- speak for itself.

"I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there," he says of the final scene.

"No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God," he adds. "We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds or thinking, 'Wow, this'll (tick) them off.'

"People get the impression that you're trying to (mess) with them, and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them."

In that final scene, mob boss Tony Soprano waited at a Bloomfield ice cream parlor for his family to arrive, one by one. What was a seemingly benign family outing was shot and cut as the preamble to a tragedy, with Tony suspiciously eyeing one patron after another, the camera dwelling a little too long on Meadow's parallel parking and a walk by a man in a Members Only jacket to the men's room. Just as the tension ratcheted up to unbearable levels, the series cut to black in mid-scene (and mid-song), with no resolution.

"Anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there," says Chase, 61, who based the series in general (and Tony's relationship with mother Livia specifically) on his North Caldwell childhood.
Based on that comment, it does sound like Chase has a particular interpretation in mind, and that would suggest Tony getting whacked, because the alternative would not be so cryptic. But again, Chase leaves things open, as the article goes on to indicate:

Some fans have assumed the ambiguous ending was Chase setting up the oft-rumored "Sopranos" movie.

"I don't think about (a movie) much," he says. "I never say never. An idea could pop into my head where I would go, 'Wow, that would make a great movie,' but I doubt it.

"I'm not being coy," he adds. "If something appeared that really made a good 'Sopranos' movie and you could invest in it and everybody else wanted to do it, I would do it. But I think we've kind of said it and done it."

Another problem: Over the last season, Chase killed so many key characters. He's toyed with the idea of "going back to a day in 2006 that you didn't see, but then (Tony's children) would be older than they were then and you would know that Tony doesn't get killed. It's got problems."

(Earlier in the interview, Chase noted that often his favorite part of the show was the characters telling stories about the good ol' days of Tony's parents. Just a guess, but if Chase ever does a movie spinoff, it'll be set in Newark in the '60s.)

Since Chase is declining to offer his interpretation of the final scene, let me present two more of my own, which came to me with a good night's sleep and a lot of helpful reader e-mails:

* Theory No. 1 (and the one I prefer): Chase is using the final scene to place the viewer into Tony's mind-set. This is how he sees the world: Every open door, every person walking past him could be coming to kill him or arrest him or otherwise harm him or his family. This is his life, even though the paranoia's rarely justified. We end without knowing what Tony's looking at because he never knows what's coming next.

* Theory No. 2: In the scene on the boat in "Soprano Home Movies," repeated again last week, Bobby Bacala suggested that when you get killed, you don't see it coming. Certainly, our man in the Members Only jacket could have gone to the men's room to prepare for killing Tony (shades of the first "Godfather"), and the picture and sound cut out because Tony's life just did. (Or because we viewers got whacked from our life with the show.)

Meanwhile, remember that 21-month hiatus between Seasons Five and Six? That was Chase thinking up the ending. HBO's then-chairman Chris Albrecht came to him after Season Five and suggested thinking up a conclusion to the series; Chase agreed, on the condition he get "a long break" to decide an ending.

Originally, that ending was supposed to occur last year, but midway through production, the number of episodes was increased, and Chase stretched out certain plot elements while saving the major climaxes for this final batch of nine.

"If this had been one season, the Vito storyline would not have been so important," he says.

Much of this final season featured Tony bullying, killing or otherwise alienating the members of his inner circle. After all those years of viewing him as "the sympathetic mob boss," were we, like his therapist Dr. Melfi, supposed to finally wake up and smell the sociopath?

"From my perspective, there's nothing different about Tony in this season than there ever was," Chase says. "To me, that's Tony."

Chase has had an ambivalent relationship with his fans, particularly the bloodthirsty whacking crowd who seemed to tune in only for the chance to see someone's head get blown off (or run over by an SUV). So was he reluctant to fill last week's penultimate episode, "The Blue Comet," with so many vivid death scenes?

"I'm the number one fan of gangster movies," he says. "Martin Scorsese has no greater devotee than me. Like everyone else, I get off partly on the betrayals, the retributions, the swift justice. But what you come to realize when you do a series is, you could be killing straw men all day long. Those murders only have any meaning when you've invested story in them. Otherwise, you might as well watch 'Cleaver.'"

One detail about the final scene he'll discuss, however tentatively: the selection of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" as the song on the jukebox.

"It didn't take much time at all to pick it, but there was a lot of conversation after the fact. I did something I'd never done before: In the location van, with the crew, I was saying, 'What do you think?' When I said, 'Don't Stop Believin',' people went, 'What? Oh my God!'

"I said, 'I know, I know, just give a listen,' and little by little, people started coming around."

Whether viewers will have a similar time-delayed reaction to the finale as a whole, Chase doesn't know. ("I hear some people were very angry and others were not, which is what I expected.") He's relaxing in France, then he'll try to make movies.

"It's been the greatest career experience of my life," he says. "There's nothing more in TV that I could say or would want to say."

Here's Chase on some other points about the finale and the season:

* After all the speculation Agent Harris might turn Tony, instead we saw Harris had turned, passing along info on Phil's whereabouts and cheering, "We're going to win this thing!" when learning of Phil's demise.

"This is based on an actual case of an FBI agent who got a little bit too partisan and excited during the Colombo wars of the '70s," Chase says of the story of Lindley DeVecchio, who supplied Harris' line.

* Speaking of Harris, Chase had no problem with never revealing what -- if anything -- terror suspects Muhammed and Ahmed were up to.

"This, to me, feels very real," he says. "For the majority of these suspects, it's very hard for anybody to know what these people are doing. I don't even think Harris might know where they are. That was sort of the point of it: Who knows if they are terrorists or if they're innocent pistachio salesmen? That's the fear that we are living with now."

Also, the story -- repeated by me, unfortunately -- that Fox, when "The Sopranos" was in development there, wanted Chase to have Tony help the FBI catch terrorists isn't true.

"What I said was, if I had done it at Fox, Tony would have been a gangster by day and helping the FBI by night, but we weren't there long enough for anyone to make that suggestion."

* I spent the last couple of weeks wrapping my brain around a theory supplied by reader Sam Lorber (and his daughter, Emily) that the nine episodes of this season were each supposed to represent one of the nine circles of Hell from Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

Told of the theory, Chase laughed and said, "No."

* Since Butchie was introduced as a guy who was pushing Phil to take out Tony, why did he turn on Phil and negotiate peace with Tony?

"I think Butch was an intelligent guy; he began to see that there was no need for it, that Phil's feelings were all caught up in what was esentially a convoluted personal grudge."

* Not from Chase, but I feel the need to debunk the e-mail that's making the rounds about all the Holsten's patrons being characters from earlier in the series. The actor playing Members Only guy had never been on the show; Tony killed at least one, if not both, of his carjackers; and there are about 17 other things wrong with this popular but incorrect theory.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com, or by writing him at 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200.

Sepinwall's populist sympathies for Tony and company stand in contrast with the more elitist, artsy view of Charles McGrath in the New York Times (how appropriate to invoke a NY/NJ contrast in this context), dated June 17:

Endings Without Endings
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: June 17, 2007

HUH? The black screen at the end of the series-concluding episode of “The Sopranos” last Sunday caused thousands of viewers to leap from the couch and smack the cable box, suspecting a loose connection. So many sent e-mail messages to HBO that the company’s Web site was temporarily jammed, and debate over the meaning and worthiness of this particular ending has continued on the blogs and next to the water cooler.

Depending on whom you listen to, the blackout at the very end of “The Sopranos” was either sublimely appropriate, the perfect summation of the show’s complexity and ambiguity, or else the biggest gimmick since Bob Newhart, at the end of his second TV series, woke up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, the wife on his first series, and announced that it had all been a dream. In an interview with The Star-Ledger of Newark, David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” said that he hadn’t intended the ending to trick viewers or mess with their minds, but he nevertheless disembarked for France before the final episode was shown.

Why do we care so much about how television series — or novels or movies, for that matter — finish up?

In “The Sense of an Ending,” a classic text of literary theory, the critic Frank Kermode says we crave endings for the same reason that some religious sects look forward to the Apocalypse — because it’s the ending that gives shape and meaning to the otherwise random events that precede it.

Hollywood has typically taken this yearning for closure to mean that all resolutions must be happy and no thread can be left loose — unless, of course, there’s a chance for a sequel. But from episode to episode, and season to season, “The Sopranos” defied this convention, as it has so many others, dangling loose ends in a way that put additional pressure on the finale. There were literalists who tuned in Sunday still hoping to learn what had become of that Russian gunman stumbling around in the snow.

Not that all great works obey the rules about ending, however. Haydn loved to toy with expectation. Some of his quartets have false climaxes, the way a lot of Stephen King movies do, and then start up again, while his “Farewell” Symphony famously concludes not with a grand resolution but with a long dying fall.

Equally famously, “Finnegans Wake” ends midsentence, and so does “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century Japanese novel, though scholars are still debating whether that’s intentional or the result of an unfinished manuscript. Deliberate or not, the ending works, in part because “Genji” is among the most “Soprano”-like of texts — an extended family saga, about the son of an imperial father, in which the plot often meanders and people suddenly drop out and then reappear years later, just as they do in life.

To the idea of irresolution — the idea of life as a plot that goes on and on and then stops, still in medias res — the “Sopranos” ending added ambiguity, another time-honored convention. It’s the principle behind the ending of Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette,” to take one of many examples, which she rewrote at the urging of her father so that it’s left for the reader to decide whether or not the heroine’s true love, M. Paul, dies in a shipwreck.

To judge from the blogs, viewers are about equally divided as to whether that blackout represents the end of consciousness and the darkness of the grave — meaning that Tony does indeed get whacked in the end — or is simply a dramatic fade-out on a diminished but ongoing family situation, with Carmela as morally compromised as ever, Meadow as clueless, and A. J. no closer to growing up than when the series began. In this reading there is closure of at least one sort, though: Tony is at last finished with analysis.

If you were fashionably inclined, you could also give the ending a meta-reading. What is that dark screen but an image of the darkness that was there before you turned your TV on in the first place?

In this interpretation we are reminded, the way we are reminded, say, by all the textual gimmicks in “Tristram Shandy,” that what we have been attending to is a construct — a show, in this case. Not only that, but we also realize that Tony never lived in West Caldwell, N.J., at all, but inside our sets, where he resides still, granted a gift that is about the last that we would ever have expected for him: immortality.

And this article also included the following image which ya gotta love:





But neither McGrath nor Sepinwall have the whole story, in my opinion. After all, the answer lies neither in New York nor New Jersey, but in the resonant interval between the two. So let me first return to the theme of the North Jersey sense of place. After all, the final conflict of the series is between Tony and Phil Leotardo, the Brooklyn-based head of one of New York City's Five Families.

This particular conflict has been brewing since the previous season, although from the very beginning of the series an uneasy and unequal relationship between NY and NJ has been part of the background scenario. Phil announces his decision to take out the North Jersey "management," specifically Tony, Silvio, and Bobby, at the beginning of the "Blue Comet," and he justifies this move by saying that Tony has no respect for "this thing of ours," does not honor the traditions, a complaint that Tony has made about others, ironically enough. But Phil also says that the Sopranos are not a real family like New York's five families, just a glorified crew, and in that we can hear the echoes of the more generalized disrespect and disdain that New Yorkers often express towards their neighbors west of the Hudson River.

Perhaps this is why FBI Agent Harris suddenly seems to be especially sympathetic to Tony, although he has warned him in the past of possibly being the target of the NYC mob, and has otherwise shown some grudging respect for a worthy opponent, and following 9/11 and his reassignment to anti-terrorism duty, has looked to Tony for help in identifying potential Arab terrorists. In "The Blue Comet," Harris seems momentarily conflicted, but then runs after Tony to warn him of the contract taken out on him. At this point, a loyalty that is both personal and geographical overcomes one that is professional, as Harris divulges confidential information obtained from his "friend" in the Brooklyn office.

At the beginning of "Made in America," Tony meets secretly at Teterboro Airport (a small airport for private jets not far outside of NYC and not far from Lodi, home of the Bada Bing!) with Harris to try to get information about Phil Leotardo's location from him. Interrupting to take a cell phone call from, presumably, his wife, we get the impression that Harris is having some problems at home. Later, we see him in bed, naked, and an attractive young FBI agent emerges from the bathroom, getting dressed. Before she comes out, Harris calls Tony on his cell, whispering, going behind her back to give him the information about where Phil is hiding. The implication is that the female agent is his friend in the Brooklyn office, and Harris is having an affair, making him not all that different from Tony. She asks him what he was doing, and he doesn't let on that he's passed any information on to their adversaries. She then tucks a gun into her skirt, an interesting use of a phallic symbol that contrasts with Harris appearing vulnerable as he is naked in bed. But the sense of an overriding loyalty to New Jersey in the face of the threat to New York is complemented by the implied male-bonding that leads Harris to betray his lover in favor of Tony. Still later, when Harris is in his office and told that Phil has been killed, he cheers and says, "we're going to win this thing," indicating that this was a contest between the New Jersey team and its New York counterpart.

The truth of the matter, though, is that it is the New York Giants even if they play their games in the New Jersey Meadowlands, that NYC is the center of gravity around which North Jersey orbits, that the skyscrapered urban core overshadows and eclipses the outskirts of town, that The City sees the suburbs as bedroom communities, and we all know what happens to people in the bedroom. Tony is at an immediate disadvantage in his war against Phil, and his effort to launch a preemptive strike fails miserably when the hitmen imported from Italy kill an innocent Ukranian man and his daughter in a case of mistaken identity. That gangsters are often stupid and inept is a long running theme in The Sopranos, but it is also a case of the North Jersey mob being especially impotent when operating on foreign soil, namely Brooklyn (and it turns out that Phil has gone into hiding and no one knows where he is, anyway). By way of contrast, Phil's assassins are a bit more effective in going to New Jersey and murdering Bobby, and putting Silvio into a coma that he is not expected to come out of. They fall short, however, in not being able to get to Tony, but by the end of "The Blue Comet," it only seems like a matter of time.

But then we get a reversal of fortune in "Made in America," when Harris informs Tony that Phil is hiding in Oyster Bay, Long Island. This is especially significant. Had the head of this New York family remained on his own turf, he would have been all but invincible. Instead, he fled (prudent, but cowardly) and left his power base, running away from his enemies in New York's western suburbs by running to New York's eastern suburbs on Long Island. This served to equalize their status as suburbanites (Long Island enjoying a slight edge as still being part of New York State, but hardly significant in this context). Oyster Bay is also associated with Long Island icon Billy Joel, whose song, "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" ends with:

From a town known as Oyster Bay Long Island
Rode a boy with a six pack in his hand
and his daring life of crime
made him a legend in his time
east and west of the Rio Grande
So, qui es muy macho? Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen? In this instance, Bruce beats Billy, as Tony's men locate Phil and take him out, and in the ensuing chaos, Phil's lifeless head is accidentally crushed under the wheels of an SUV, the ultimate insult for this culture of theirs that places such a premium on open casket funerals (back in season 2, when Tony had to whack his close friend, "Big Pussy," because he had become an informant, the turncoat accepts his doom but begging says, "just not in the face").

With New Jersey triumphant, and having already made peace with the other leaders of the New York mob, everything is back to normal, better than normal, and the final episode ends with a trip to a traditional New Jersey eatery, Holsten's Brookdale Confectionery, a Bloomfield ice cream shop/diner that boasts the best onion rings in the state. On a blog about food, Off the Broiler, there's an entry on NJ Dining: Holsten’s that includes numerous photographs and the following review:
There was a time back in the not so distant past where the typical activity for dating teenagers on a Friday or Saturday night was to head down to the local Ice Cream Parlor or Malt Shop, sit down at the counter, share an Ice Cream Soda or a malted with a hamburger and fries, and then go out and see a B picture at the drive-in. As my grandparents and my parents used to tell me, there once were many such malt and ice cream soda shops, but few of these American originals survive today.

One such place that seems to have resisted the destruction of these quaint landmarks of the 1950’s is Holsten’s, in Bloomfield. Opened in 1939, going there is literally like being sent back in a time machine to observe the social habits of pre-WWII and 1950’s American youth. The menu of ice cream treats and food items it serves are totally retro. This is not by design like one of the newer established 50’s chains like Johnny Rockets or Cheeburger Cheeburger, but because it has ALWAYS been that way — it is the Real Deal in every respect. The prices are also remarkably cheap, and while there only are about a dozen or so varieties of ice cream, all of them are made in-house and are very fresh.
So, New Jersey and nostalgia, perfect together. And all in all, a very happy ending, at least until it all stops short.

But was it really a happy ending? Here's another way of looking at it.

The next to last episode was all about the decline and fall of Tony Soprano. While the unexpected sympathy of Agent Harris was helpful, everything else was falling apart. Perhaps most drastic of all was the rejection of Tony by his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. It is possible to interpret this as Melfi finally wising up to the wise guy's ways, but I think not. First, she is outed by her analyst, Dr. Kupferberg, at a dinner party attended by her colleagues. Kupferberg justifies this betrayal of confidence by saying that they're all professionals, and like him, the others express a lurid, prurient interest in her famous subject, which makes Melfi uncomfortably self-conscious. Especially as a well-educated, upwardly mobile Italian-American, she is suddenly insecure about being associated with this low class (socially, albeit nouveau riche) Italian stereotype. And she feels the peer pressure from her profession as her fellow therapists cite the published research that therapy helps make con men become better criminals. But it is not an act of conscience that moves her to cut Tony loose, it is an emotional decision, and she expresses anger in her last session with him, truly sounding in many ways like a lover scorned. Before Phil had the chance, Tony has been whacked by the psychiatric mafia, and in the end Melfi's loyalties are to her own mob. She too is characterized by moral ambiguity, all too human in this respect. If she is not quite the Judas figure of the story, she has certainly betrayed her Hippocratic oath as well as her patient.

So, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Tony loses his therapist, and Bobby and Silvio are taken out. On the home front, Tony and Carmella are disappointed that their daughter Meadow has quit medical school and now wants to be a lawyer (presumably for legal aid for the poor), and not all that thrilled about her dating Patrick Parisi, the son of one of Tony's lower level henchmen. And their son, AJ, home after being institutionalized after his suicide attempt, is a total mess. When Tony informs them that Bobby's dead and they have to leave their home and hide, AJ breaks down crying--what could be more humiliating and infuriating for Tony than to be confronted with the fact that his son, Anthony Jr., is not only useless in a crisis, but a complete wimp. In anger, he drags AJ out of bed, wrecking his stereo system in the process.

So, everything is closing in on Tony. He retreats to his safe house with Paulie, the last of the original crew still standing, and a couple of other guys, and he heads upstairs to the bedroom and lies down on the bare mattress, clutching the AR-10 Bobby had given him for his birthday in the first episode of this last arc, "Soprano Home Movies," and the episode ends with us looking at the closed door to the room from Tony's point of view. A rectangle of light, coming through the window, illuminates the area surrounding the door knob, suggesting that this is it, Tony is painted into a corner room, this is his last stand, he's just waiting for the enemy to inevitably come through that door, and he'll go down fighting but he most certainly will go down.

This is how the episode ends, but is it how the world ends? Well, the final episode begins with a clock radio going off, and Tony waking up in the same room. But where it ended with ominous, shadowy lighting, it is now daytime and things look relatively bright and cheery. Tony went to bed in the last episode in dark clothing, now he's wearing light gray (sweats?). And the bed has a sheet on it!

So, time has elapsed, this is not the next morning, but another, later day, maybe? We can't be sure, but what's the alternative? Only, consider that the entire episode has an odd sense of time. We move from scene to scene with no clear sense of how much time has elapsed. For example, in the next scene it's night again, and there are snow flurries, and Tony is meeting with Agent Harris at Teterboro airport. Is it the same day, or a different day? It's true that often at the end of a series, there's a tendency to try to pack way too much stuff into the final episodes, making them very condensed. But this doesn't seem to be the case here, and it would be inconsistent with David Chase's careful approach to the entire series to suddenly panic and start squeezing scenes in at the expense of the aesthetics.

No, this has more of a hallucinogenic feel to it, but very very subtly so. Other episodes have incorporated dream imagery, but typically included some surreal elements that make it obvious that it's a dream. And then there was Tony's other life as an ordinary guy that he experienced while in a coma. But this is different. This seems very real, except for the temporal discontinuity. Tony then visits Carmella, AJ, and Meadow at the estate house where they're hiding, and again it is impossible to determine whether this is the first time he's gone there, and therefore possibly the next day after the end of "The Blue Comet," or whether more time has elapsed and he's visited their hideaway before.

From there, we move to Bobby's funeral, and at the reception that follows, all the young adults are sitting together, Meadow invites Paulie to join them, and Patrick Parisi says, "We were discussing Dreamgirls. See it?" AJ becomes agitated, and interrupts with, "You people are fucked! You're living in a dream! You still sit here talking about the fucking Oscars? What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." A hint, perhaps, a message from the unconscious that this is a dream, that a rough beast approaches, waiting to come through that door that the camera focused on at the end of the last episode?

There's a scene back in the safe house where the TV is on, and a Twilight Zone episode about Shakespeare as TV writer, "The Bard," is playing. Is this episode of The Sopranos taking place in its own twilight zone, then?

What follows then is an amazing reversal of fortune, a series of events that, while not completely fantastic, seem to represent the kind of wish fulfillment associated with happy endings.

Tony visits his sister Janice, and they have a heart-to-heart, exhibiting a closeness that we have never witnessed before.

Agent Harris informs Tony of Phil's whereabouts.

AJ suddenly seems to gain some masculinity as he is about to make love to his girlfriend (lose his virginity?), although they are interrupted when his SUV catches fire and they are forced to flee (but fire symbolizing passion nonetheless).

Tony meets with the other leaders of the New York mob (minus Phil) and they agree to cease hostilities, to compensate Tony's sister Janice for the loss of her husband Bobby (monetarily), and that Tony should do what he has to do regarding Phil (that is, whack him).

The Soprano family returns home. At their mob hangout, Satriale's Pork Store, a cat that they brought with them from the safe house spends all his time staring at a picture of Christopher hanging on the wall. This unnerves the superstitious Paulie, but Tony protects the cat from him. The cat's fixation comes up a couple more times during the episode. The sight of the cat staring at the photo is funny, as is Paulie's reaction, but underlying this, could there be an unconscious message, one rooted in Tony's guilt for having assisted Christopher is his demise following their automobile accident in the "Kennedy and Heidi" episode?

Having the Parisis over for dinner, Tony and Carmella are told by Patrick that the high-powered law firm that he works for is interested in hiring Meadow as soon as she is done with law school, and that she will be getting an enormous six figure salary. Tony and Carm are glowing.

Pop goes the weasel (Phil is whacked). Both the death and the disfigurement would certainly represent great wish fulfillment for Tony.

Tony sees AJ jogging, which he finds very encouraging (muy macho, and Tony hums the theme from Rocky in approval), and later he and Carmella offer AJ a job as development executive on a screenplay Tony was given by Danny Baldwin (following the release of Christopher's film Cleaver), to be produced by Little Carmine's company, and they also dangle the possibility that he could manage a night club later on, all to keep him out of the army (which he was talking about joining to go fight terrorists). AJ accepts and from this point on seems to get his act together miraculously. But interestingly, the two roles that Tony and Carm offer AJ are not really related, except that in getting into movies, AJ would be doing exactly what Christopher did (and recall all the times that Tony said that Christopher was like a son to him), and in managing a night club, he'd be following in the footsteps of Christopher's old finance, Adriana (who they had to whack because she had "flipped" after being arrested for cocaine possession). So, this all has an air of too much coincidence, and a kind of wish fulfillment in response to a sense of guilt over the murder of both Christopher and Adrianna.

One small sour note is that a minor mobster, Carlo, has "flipped," and Tony will probably be indicted, but his lawyer Mink tells him confidently, "trials are there to be won." What would life be without challenges to overcome, how else to prove one's masculinity?

Faced with Paulie's strong reluctance to take over Carlo's crew, he's able to bend Paulie to his will by way of persuasion. Another wish fulfillment, dealing with a difficult member of his crew.

Tony visits his Uncle Junior, who he has not seen since Junior shot him, realizes that Junior's dementia is not an act, and makes his peace with him.

All four family members are to meet at Holsten's separately. Tony arrives first, and the song that's playing in the background is "All That You Dream" by Little Feat. Again, another indication that this has been a dream sequence. This scene is the most hallucinogenic, although not at all surreal, in that it moves back and forth from Tony to various individuals and groups in the restaurant, as noted above. There's a bell that rings each time someone enters through the door, so we're back to a door, a different one from the door to Tony's room in the safe house that was the last image in the next to last episode, but a door nonetheless. Tony, puts "Don't Stop Believin'" in the jukebox, Carmella comes in, then AJ, and there's some small talk about AJ's job, and AJ recalls Tony's words, "Try to remember the times that were good." What is left unsaid is that this quote is associated with death, as Tony said it after Livia passed away.

A curious element that Chase adds to this mix is Meadow arriving late and having trouble with parallel parking. Of course, suburban New Jerseyans often don't develop very keen parallel parking skills (unless they commute), but most viewers found this puzzling, a seemingly meaningless series of shots. But, there's something dreamlike in that sequence, you know, when you're dreaming that you are trying to do something and you try over and over again and just can't complete a simple action?

So, all these signs point to the last episode being a dream that Tony is having in that room in the safe house on that first night, with the last scene being the bell ringing which is associated both with the door opening in the restaurant (but maybe also the door to his room in the safe house?), and with the alarm by which the clock tells you that your time is up. Then, Tony looks up, and we go to black. Is this the point where he woke up out of the dream? Or maybe he didn't wake up at all, was in the middle of the dream when he was whacked.

Chase said that, "anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there," but I make no claim here about having solved the puzzle. He gave the loyal fans of the series something approaching a Hollywood-style happy ending, and that would have been just fine for much of the audience. But he tossed in a zinger, left open the possibility that Tony got his just desserts just when everything was going his way, for all those who favor law and order in their entertainment. And maybe, just maybe, this last episode was all a dream, as those hints I've mentioned seem to indicate, and he never woke up after the end of "The Blue Comet" in the first place. But maybe the dream has been going on for much longer, maybe he's still in a coma from when Junior shot him, as some fans on the MySpace discussion groups seem to think.

Or maybe, maybe, it was all a dream? Early on in the history of film theory, the idea surfaced that watching a movie is like having a dream. Maybe this film of ours, this television series of ours, was all just a dream that we shared with David Chase and his crew. And by going to black, all he meant to say was, the dream is over now, the alarm is about to go off, it's time to wake up. Or time to go to sleep.

1 comment:

Glenn said...

Interesting take. The "it was all a dream" aspect is a bit hackneyed, maybe due to Dallas, so I don't think Chase would go there.