Review: The 'Sopranos' finale

June 12, 2007

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The family awaits Meadow for a routine meal in a casual diner in the final scene of The Sopranos. (HBO)

Warning: Spoilers follow for the series finale of The Sopranos (and other episodes).

I see what David Chase was going for here, but I've got to go with my gut here: "Made in America," the Sopranos series finale, is not satisfying to a television audience. Because The Sopranos is on television, it follows that "Made in America" did not do what it was supposed to do. It broke the rules. It certainly did what David Chase wanted it to do (and for seeing his vision through on his terms, he should be commended on the level of Artistic Integrity), but as a series finale to one of the most celebrated TV series in history, I don't know. Many people are rightly furious. And I can see their point. I suppose I can also see Chase's.

The Sopranos has been in a gradual decline of sorts for the past two seasons (actually one if you buy into the notion that 2006 was "part one" of season six and 2007 was "part two"). Nonetheless, I'm going to defend The Sopranos even though the past two seasons have occasionally been tedious and uneventful by the standards of this series.

The reason is that I still like the writing, even though I might not always like the stories. This show explores its characters and their psychology in a way that few do. I think the problem with season six (parts one and two) is that the creators simply dragged the show out too long considering how much material they had. If you look at what we had the past 21 episodes, there was a lot of filler material and needless protraction of story arcs. It was usually well-written filler material and arc-protraction, I will grant you. The series, even when "nothing" was happening, was filled with the appearance of significance and of characters trying to deal with the mystery of their (often unmanageable) lives.

I think perhaps the episode that sums up my overall feelings of the last 21 episodes of The Sopranos is "Kennedy and Heidi," in which Christopher (high on drugs) was severely injured in a car crash while driving with Tony as his passenger. Tony finished him off by suffocating him. It happened in the first five minutes of the episode, and the scene itself was deliberately drained of all tension — like much of the season has been. In a way, it was a totally appropriate death for Christopher — whose drug addiction had caught up with him yet again — and for Tony, it was a choice about seizing an opportunity to squelch a frequent pain in his ass.

But there was something less than satisfying about it, and in a way I think that's the point. It's not about giving us dramatic payoffs that satisfy; it's about showing us life that ends because of circumstances both telegraphed and unforeseen. This series has become an intensely introspective affair. It's not about what happens, but about what Tony feels about what happens. After Christopher's death, Tony flies to Vegas and has a drug-induced epiphany. What does it mean? It's not explicit, but it does express Tony attempting to deal with the emotional fallout of a messy situation.

And really, that's what this series has always been about, so I find myself wondering what everyone's complaining about. (Then I recall how prolonged the show has become; perhaps that's the real problem here.)

In "Made in America," various arcs are tied up like they would be in any Sopranos season finale. The war between Phil and Tony — which climaxed last week with Bobby's murder and Silvio's hospitalization in a coma — ends here in deadpan Sopranos humor-violence style (Phil is tracked down based on information supplied to Tony by Agent Harris; Phil is shot, and then an SUV runs over his head). Meanwhile, legal problems continue for Tony. It appears Carlo has flipped and it seems likely that Tony will be indicted.

A.J.'s emotional crisis is resolved — or at least once again put on hold. Really, a lot of this season has been about A.J. and his utter aimlessness. Depressed for weeks (culminating in a botched suicide attempt), his latest turning point comes here when his SUV comically blows up. It makes him somehow feel "cleansed." Does this represent the breaking of the cycle of materialism that has gone from end-to-end of this series concerning Tony and his family? A.J. turns a corner and announces his intention to join the Army. The Army could maybe straighten him out and supply him with a work ethic — but there's a war in Iraq, and few parents currently relish the thought of their kid joining the military. Tony offers A.J. a job with his connections in the Little Carmine's "movie" business. It's the easy way out, but it's safer than going to Iraq. Has the road that leads A.J. inevitably down the path to becoming his father's son finally been irreversibly paved? Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe it's just another aimless chapter in A.J.'s existence.

It's these moments that the show is more interested in. Perhaps my favorite little moment in the show is when Hunter comes over to visit Meadow, and Carmela greets her with a friendly (on its face) hello, and asks what she's up to. Hunter had years ago been kicked out of college for drunk driving, but she has since gotten her act together, and now she's in her second year of medical school. The way the conversation unfolds makes a mockery of Carmela's would-be superiority. It's such a true moment. After all, what Carmela really wanted was for her daughter to have continued into medical school.

And then there's that final scene. Some people love it, some hate it, and there's allegedly very little in between. Well, consider me in between, because I can see both sides of the argument. The final scene is a calculated, deliberate attempt for Chase to ditch a payoff. It might be a smart move, because the expectations are so high that no payoff could possibly be satisfactory. So Chase goes out on a complete and total non-ending.

Is it a betrayal of the audience? It might be. There's a certain amount of closure that the audience demands in a series finale, and, yes, I know, Chase is not committed to "closure," but we're talking about storytelling here, not real life. Sure, Tony's life doesn't have to end just because we're no longer watching it, but I would argue that the story should. But the story here doesn't end; it merely stops, literally in mid-scene.

In concluding The Sopranos, What David Chase has actually done here is expressed his conscious decision to make no final decisions. It is perhaps a statement on Tony himself, who year after year has refused to take responsibility for his actions; he blames everything on everyone else.

Is it also a cop-out? I think so. Not just because it's a non-ending, but because it's so in our faces about being an anticlimax. My own problem with the final scene of "Made in America" is that in announcing its decision to do nothing, it has supplied us a gimmicky device that feels heavy-handed, as if the whole point of the scene is to stick it to us for having expectations at all.

The final scene is shot and edited with escalating suspense, as if Something Awful Is About To Happen. There's even a nod to The Godfather as a would-be hitman (although I don't think he is) gets up to go to the restroom. Journey's "Don't Stop Believin" plays on the soundtrack — obviously intended as a cosmically significant choice when you consider that one of Chase's foremost missions from day one on this series has been his commitment to the careful selection of the songs. And then the scene just goes black, as the lyrics significantly say, "Don't stop..."

Jim Emerson has written a brilliant deconstruction of the scene, which takes the position that Chase upends the notion of the TV series finale to great effect. I can concede the brilliance here if the point of a series finale is to buck the system and defy audience expectations and ride the pithy introspection to a bitter, anticlimactic end. But is that why we watch The Sopranos? Doesn't Chase have an obligation to satisfy the audience with something that comments on Tony's life, beyond a cosmic joke about unending cycles?

I could probably respect the final scene of "Made in America" more if it had simply been a straightforward scene. But by building, via pure technique, to a climax that never happens (and based on what the scene was on its face, nothing is exactly what should've happened), Chase has toyed with us. As a critic I admire his creative temerity. As a viewer I feel cheated.

Jammer's rating: 2.5 stars. (out of 4)

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7 comments on this post

    "Doesn’t Chase have an obligation to satisfy the audience with something that comments on Tony’s life?" you write. "Beyond a cosmic joke about unending cycles?" Your question assumes that the last scene was in fact a cosmic joke about unending cycles. The last episode of the Sopranos, and in particular the last three to four minutes of it, plays out like a Roscharch test in a way that no popular entertainment has since "The Passion of the Christ." That film, if you will recall, was the subject of intense controversy and sharply varied critical and public opinion. While I was reading the reviews I felt as if some reviews were talking about a film that the others were not referring to. The majority of the critics, somewhere in their reviews, noted (perhaps subtly, perhaps intentionally) their own opinions regarding Mel Gibson, his religiosity (or lack of same), the Catholic Church, the issue of the Bible as the unaltered word of God, and so forth. What individuals thought of the film, as an artistic mattter, was colored by people's opinions with respect to these issues. David Ansen of Newsweek declared that Gibson, in making this film, was "punishing the audience for some unknown sins." Roger Ebert declared the film to be an honest, honestly felt story about how one might dramatically imagine the final hours of Jesus' life. Reactions differed - based upon the reactors' own morals, based on the sum of their life experiences - which dictated the tint of the glasses which they wore while viewing the film. This film was one of the few where, for various reasons, people did NOT already come in with a pre-conceived opinion as to what the film WAS about and as to what it should BE about. Those who appreciate would-be historical accuracy (i.e. those who believe it is a virtue, rather than a characteristic) were pleased with the film. Those who thought the film would be strident were unsurprised to find a strident filmgoing experience. The point is that none of the reactions to the film were per se invalid - all were valid because criticism is not only subjective, but it is at the most fundamental level a skill that people come by in different ways. No two critics ever start from a blank slate when reviewing a film, and even if they did, the color of the slates would be different. Likewise, in The Sopranos, a show which has been faux-psychoanalyzed to death, theories abound as to what the show "means," what it is trying to "say," and as to whether it goes about saying it in a manner that makes us take the show to our hearts as well as our heads. There is no one "meaning" of the show because there is no agreed-upon meaning of life, and therefore, to insist, as some have done, that the ending was unquestionably a dramatization of a specific event (such as Tony dying) is to deny the validity of the existence, in a sense, of our fellow man. The final minutes can best be explained not by clues from episodes past, but by what the show means to the individual viewer, and by the implications of that meaning as applied to a particular sequence of footage. Those who believed that this show was a tragic hero/Michael Corleone dramatization streched out over seven years got what they wanted; to them, the fade-to-black was Tony's death. Those who are wounded by the show's demise have interpreted the fade-to-black as a "whacking" - not of Tony, but of us - we have been "rubbed out" of watching the show as no new episodes are left. Those who believe the show is by nature ambiguous about life themes, about the manner in which Tony processes and analyzes information, have stated that the ending does not represent anything in particular; some of these fans no doubt note that the seemingly melodramatic events leading up to the fade to black constituted Mr. Chase's perhaps even unconscious inability to refrain, despite all efforts, from delivering even the semblance of a conventional ending. That we can argue about the ending of this show, I think, is a sign that whatever it was Chase set out to achieve, he has achieved it to some degree. The show, as many have argued, is (at least to this viewer) about television in as much as it is television in that we are constantly aware of dramatic conventions popular in television programming being played out, sideswiped or trashed. Given this view, what better way to end the show than by saying that there can be no definitive ending because such a concept does not exist in television history? (Come on - think about it - how many shows have had a final episode that provided a sense of complete and utter closure? The few that seemed to found themselves the subject of spin-offs in short order; so much for closure). I will miss this show. It made us think about how and why we react to events as much as it made us react to them.

    Hey Jammer - I've seen the ending twice...the first time jarred me; but it grew on me. The final scene certainly got my adrenaline rushing, and on reflection there's no other way it could have ended. Two words for you: "Schrödinger's cat."

    What would have been really great was David Chase saying "computer end program" right before cutting to black.

    I've only seen the first season of the show. I've seen people spit with hate at the last episode and others absolutely love it. It seems to me (from the outside) that they're going to make a big time movie to really end the show.

    This's been linked to death, I know, but I agree more with this analysis - There *is* a definitive ending; it's just not given in a open-face way.

    ^ My thinking is that if you dissect something long enough you end up finding what you want to see. While I don't discount the possibilities described in that blog, I find it to be kind of conspiracy theory-like in its detail. Even if Chase meant by all these visual/filmmaking clues that Tony does in fact die, all it means is that he died in total subtext and in a vacuum. He did not die in narrative, and there's no road to or from that event, if it indeed was intended. And it doesn't change the fact that his death is meaningless and without context in terms of the story at hand. So Tony dies? Is that it? Is that the point? Again, this has more to do with Chase eschewing convention than telling a story. Not that he's wrong in eschewing, per se.

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