I just got done watching the entire Sopranos series for the first time and I feel compelled to talk about the ending. I know...2007 called and it wants its topic back. But I don't have time (nor did I in the mid-2000's) to watch series as they unfold. Instead I cherry pick the best ones once they come out on DVD and then watch episodes as I work out. The Sopranos was reputed to be good so I gave it a try. It took my breath away already, but that ended was so unexpected--magnificent once you think about it--that I had to get some thoughts down. I was spurred further when I realized the amount of chatter it gave rise to at the time and how people still talk about it today...one of the more famous moments in TV history.
If you haven't seen the series EVERYTHING gets spoiled in this post. If you intend to watch it someday, turn around now. For those who haven't seen it for years, here's the video of the final scene in question:
Like everyone else...EVER...I was shocked and confused when the screen went black. I thought my DVD was defective at the most important moment of the series. When I realized it wasn't, that the cut to black was intentional, I got frustrated, felt empty, wanted a better resolution. Then I processed a little bit and thought, "Well, that's just David Chase trying to be artsy and different. Fine. Didn't like it, but fine." But the ending kept eating at me. I started putting it into context with the rest of the series and the rest of the finale story. Then all of a sudden (to me, anyway) things became clear. Not only did I love what Chase did with the ending, I realized it couldn't have happened any other way.
Consider the resolution for every other character in the show. Nobody--not one stinkin' character--ended up getting what they wanted. In fact they all got the opposite. The writers and producers spent the last few shows detailing this in the end of each character's story arc.
Christopher Moltisanti asked early on in the show's history what his (presumably grand) story arc would be. He wanted to be a writer, a creator. He fought to beat his substance abuse problem. He was slated to become the organization's #2 man, a huge mover in the business. He wanted to do right by his daughter. Most of all he wanted the love and respect of Tony. He ended up getting run off the road by two teenage girls named Heidi and Kennedy--a completely unmanly cause of death--and confessing to Tony that he'd fail a blood test if the authorities came. Tony, the man Chris wanted to love and accept him, euthanized him....holding his nose as he choked on his own blood. The final straw for Tony: seeing a tree limb sticking through the car seat where Chris' daughter would have been sitting and realizing that Chris had failed everybody in every way possible. Chris's grand story arc ended up being, "You're too pathetic to live."
Bobby Baccalieri was the family man. He loved his wife (Karen) and wanted to raise his children well. He never got respected in the organization and in the latter seasons wanted to be taken more seriously. He confessed to Tony that he'd never killed a man. He also confessed his hope that if he ever got whacked he would never see it coming. His wife Karen died. He married Tony's sister Janice who ended up being a rotten mom. The family connections didn't get him any more respect. Every victory he won in the family (like beating up Tony) ended up making the situation worse. He was forced to kill his first victim, ending his "innocence". In the end he got shot, taking him away from his family. He got whacked in a train store while buying a toy train for his own pleasure...hardly a respect-worthy final act. Worst of all, his end was brutal and sustained. Not only did he see it coming, it took a dozen shots to take him down.
Janice Soprano wanted to get ahead in the world, for the universe to pay her back for the suffering she'd endured, and most of all to escape the shadow of her mother. She ended up with a dead husband, no visible means of support, and an unwitting confession that not only had she failed to escape mom, she was exactly like her. In her last conversation with Tony she admitted that she had shipped off Bobby's son (her stepson) but that Bobby's daughter would never escape because Janice's own (biological) daughter looked up to her older sister and needed her. Janice lamented that her own oldest son had abandoned her, changing his name from Harpo to Hal. This is exactly how Janice's mother had reacted to her own name change. Tony's final words to Janice were, "If you need anything, I'm only a couple minutes away." Five seasons ago this was exactly what he was saying to their mother.
Silvio Dante had been Tony's consigliere, the man in charge of the Bada Bing, shepherd over the ladies and the books, a sharp dresser, a connoisseur of the finer things. We last saw him paralyzed in a hospital bed, his toenails being clipped by his wife because he couldn't even do that himself, an infomercial for a pureed food chopped playing in the background indicating he'd probably need to be spoon fed bland ingredients if he survived.
Paulie Gualtieri once had designs on being boss of the family, often found himself in conflict with Tony, and prided himself on being a tough guy. In the end he proved that he had no actual balls, refusing a promotion from Tony because he was superstitious, a hypochondriac, and scared of dying. Then he acquiesced when Tony pushed. His final frame saw the shop's new cat--which Paulie hated because he considered it bad luck--settling in next to him as if to stay forever.
FBI Agent Dwight Harris wanted to get the goods on Tony or at least turn him informant but ended up being an informant himself, tipping off Tony to the whereabouts of nemesis Phil Leotardo and exclaiming upon hearing of Phil's subsequent murder, "We're gonna win this thing!"
Junior Soprano wanted respect, to be the family boss, to finally hold the reins of power. He ended up succumbing to dementia, unable to discern reality, powerless. Ironically he wanted to get out of prison by faking a mental illness and ended up being cast into confinement as he developed a real one.
Dr. Melfi wanted to believe that her work with Tony made a difference and to be respected among her peers as a counter-cultural leader. Spurred by a new study she concluded that Tony had been manipulating her all along and that therapy was his way of gaming the system. She was subject to the ridicule of her peers when her own therapist betrayed her confidence in front of them at a dinner, calling into question the sanctity of her entire profession. We, the audience, got strong hints that therapy was doing Tony some good and that Melfi's conclusion was in error, meaning she abandoned her patient for no reason....her self-confessed greatest fear.
Carmela Soprano just wanted her family and life intact plus some security for the future. She never got the latter and only got glimpses of the former. We discover that her son, A.J., is really the one gaming the psychotherapy process, his depression becoming the latest excuse to keep screwing up. Yet neither she nor Tony can find the guts to rein him in. They just keep enabling, down to the very end, even when they know that's what they're doing. Meadow appears to be doing better with her burgeoning law career but Tony and Carmela really wanted her to become a doctor instead. In the final episode Carmela discovers that Hunter, Meadow's good-for-nothing friend back for a visit, is in her second year of Med School while Meadow has dropped out. Meadow is also dating Patrick Parisi, the son of a mobster in Tony's family. Patrick's father is an underling. Patrick's mother is a social bore. Neither is good company yet both will become part of the family if Patrick and Meadow marry. On top of that, Patick works at a law firm where Meadow is receiving interest. He describes their latest case in excited terms involving "whores and bag men"...as if this were the pinnacle of the profession. Carmela looks on horrified as the narrative unfolds. No matter how much they want Meadow out, she's getting sucked right back in. This doesn't even cover Tony being a chronic, self-absorbed philanderer, manipulator, and abuser and what that does to Carmela's identity and marriage.
You can also look back on the desires of temporary characters throughout the series: Furio, Richie Aprile, Ralph Cifaretto, Tony Blundetto, Artie Bucco, Johnny Sack, Vito Spatafore, Angie Bonpensiero, Father Phil, Gloria Trillo, Feech La Manna, Hesh. Every one of them established motives, expressed desires. Not a one of them ended up satisfied in the end.
If I need to explain to you all the ways Tony's dreams fall short over six seasons then you haven't watched the show very hard. Let's just go with that last scene in the hospital with Sil where Tony is sitting by the bedside and a movie clip comes on the TV with a little girl screaming, "We won! We won!" Tony won the battle with Phil and New York but the reward is his friend in that bed, decimated beyond repair.
Having established that nobody gets what they want, we can now move to the final scene and the reason for the black screen.
Whether Tony actually died when the screen went black seems to be a matter of debate. Maybe I'm dense, but I don't see how you could reach any other conclusion. Chase established Tony's point of view as the key to the scene, broken occasionally by a table shot of Tony with Carmela and A.J. and by the one tracking shot of the probable hit man. You're obviously meant to see the door of the restaurant as Tony sees it. If you see black instantly, Tony saw black instantly. What other cause could there be?
The Sopranos narrative also points towards Tony getting whacked. Earlier in the show Tony confessed to Dr. Melfi that 80% of the time a life like his ends up in one of two ways: dead or in jail. This leaves us three options for the ending: the two he mentioned plus the other 20%. That 20% gives us hope, especially since Tony has beaten the odds so many times before...roulette, horse races, people who were going to turn on him suddenly dying of natural causes. Tony has triumphed against slimmer odds than 20% repeatedly.
But the final episode doesn't leave you any outs. The jail thing gets taken care of first. Tony has lunch with his lawyer. The lawyer informs him that, sadly, the government is about to move forward with an indictment.. This announcement disturbs Tony greatly even though the lawyer assures him that they've prepared and trials are there to be won. During this whole scene, though, the attorney is slapping the bottom of a ketchup bottle, trying like heck to get some condiment on his burger. After watching the guy beat on the bottle for an eternity, an exasperated Tony grabs it away from him and starts slapping it himself. He can't get the ketchup out either. Frustrated, he throws it down on the table. You may ask why they didn't try a simple trick like sticking a knife in the bottle to free up the ketchup. That's the point. There's no trick to get them out of this. Both Tony and his attorney are powerless with the ketchup and in the face of the inevitable court proceedings.
But let's say you didn't buy that...that ketchup is just ketchup. There's still that 20% hope if they get out of the trial, right? That hope exists up until the penultimate scene of the finale when Tony visits Uncle Junior. They talk for a while with Junior moving in and out of lucidity. Then Tony, somewhat frustrated again, asks Junior if he remembers Tony's dad...Junior's brother. He reminds Junior that Johnny Boy and Junior had been bosses of North Jersey, the ultimate honor and title. Junior smiles vaguely and says, "We were? That's nice." Then he stares vacantly out a window. He doesn't get it. The honor and power he used to have--things he strove for his whole life--have no meaning. They aren't even a pleasant memory. And this is where the narrative gives one of its greatest moments. That 20% out you were hoping for? This was it. This is what it looks like. There's no happy ending, no retirement party and celebration. You just rot away in a wheelchair, staring out the window while some younger guy does things you used to do but can't remember anymore. Junior is the 20% option...the only one we ever see.
When Tony walks into the diner for the final scene you're supposed to ask what you want to happen. Your heart and mind are tossing over several outcomes, but do you really want to see a powerless and bound Tony go to jail to die of cancer like Johnny Sack did? Do you want to see him escape only to rot away into insignificance like Junior?
We've just described 2 of the 3 options available. There's only one we haven't seen yet.
There are other clues: the people around, the ironic choice of "Don't Stop Believing" as the musical backdrop amid 102 stories of people not getting what they hoped for, the lack of music over the final credits. The Sopranos always used that ending music to wrap up the old story and to propel you to the next, asking what's comes next and how the family will deal with it. Dead silence at the end means there was no "next".
A subtle thing that most people wouldn't notice I think: Tony, A.J., and Carmela gathered over onion rings which Tony declared "the best in the state". In that moment and context this was the ultimate expression of the culture, the holy grail. Or, more precisely, the holy communion. Tony declared them as "for the table", "table" being the word used for the altar when communion is served upon it. Having watched thousands of people commune over the years, I can tell you that (coincidentally or not) all three characters--especially Carmela, who would not normally be expected to down an onion ring in one bite--ate those rings with the same mannerisms as people eat the wafer or bread at communion. Grasped in the fingers just so, consumed in one bite, tongue slightly extended, as it enters the mouth not a hint of the mouth open when chewing. This looked different than all of the other eating in a series where people did nothing but. It seemed an awful lot like last rites, Jersey style.
But even in death Tony wasn't satisfied. His family wasn't complete. Meadow was outside, struggling to parallel park. One remembers a whole host of meetings in series history where, no doubt true to cultural form, Tony sits waiting upon an arrival that's heralded by, "Sorry I'm late, traffic at the bridge was terrible." You knew it was ridiculous. Someone was just always late no matter what. Parallel parking would become the latest, and among the more truthful, of a long line of comical excuses.
But seeing Meadow on her way made you anticipate. When the family was whole again all would be right, as in the end of the first season, the "good times" at Artie Bucco's restaurant. As long as they're together everything else gets forgotten. Meadow became the metaphorical angel, both in terms of her completing the foursome and because in many ways she was Tony's angel...the family member who understood him best and with whom he had gotten along most frequently. She was redemption, slightly delayed but rushing across the street to meet him.
Ding! The front bell rings, Tony looks up and a stranger comes in.
Ding! The front bell rings, Tony looks up and sees a couple more.
It's Meadow's turn next. We see her coming. He'll see her in a second. All will be well.
Ding! Screen turns black and never returns.
Even in his final moment, Tony never gets that completion, the resolution that would have justified his choices and way of life.
Which then brings us to the ultimate question. We, as viewers, were shocked and upset with this ending. What did we want to see happen...not just what happened to Tony, but how did we want it presented to us on screen? How did we expect to be satisfied?
This entire series was a tricky balancing act, allowing you to step into Tony's shoes while keeping Tony integral to himself and the life the series portrayed. It was a constant war between you wanting to live in the shoes of the Tony you wanted and the writers/producers trying to make you live in the shoes of the actual Tony. The weakest moments of the series came when it seemed that Tony and crew really were living for something noble, becoming heroes to us...potentially taking revenge for a coach's abuse or fighting grandly for Italian-American dignity. Had we been given a Tony we could accept and root for unconditionally the tension and energy would have fled. This is why every seeming action of nobility or confession of vulnerability was followed by an act of selfishness, brutality, things nobody could get on board with like shoving your wife, cheating on her with every half-available woman that walked by, or murdering your friend. Every attempt to uphold the family code of honor led to disaster. You never got the tidy resolution, the place where you could say, "I'm OK being Tony right now. I want to empathize with him fully, without reserve." That would have made you a monster. You had to love him from a distance, keeping in mind what he really was and where this was all headed.
So how would you, as a viewer, prefer the show to end? Had you seen him murdered in front of his wife and kids would you not have mourned deeply, forgetting everything that led up to that point? Would there be room for any other emotion save, "I'm sad for Tony and I wish it wasn't over"? In the show's last step you would have plunged into the pit they had spent 6 seasons keeping you out of. It also would have colored every re-watching you attempted as you glossed over everything bad about Tony and remembered only good of the dead.
Even more meta...had the final scene been the most glorious portrayal of Tony's death, you would have left saying, "That was the greatest series ever!" Plenty of people said that anyway, but it would have been a different kind of utterance. You would have meant, "That whole experience was amazing! I loved it! They wrapped it up so well and allowed me to process everything and put it away!" But when you think about it you would have been saying that about murder, torture, horrible parenting, crushing infidelity, people getting lost with no way out, Carmela's spirit getting slowly crushed and her surrendering to it for convenience, A.J. and Meadow spraying off in horrible directions with no recourse, and a billion other things that went wrong. "Wow! That was GREAT!" in no way summarizes the heart of the series. And yet that's the feeling you wanted coming out of its last show.
By clipping that scene, making the screen go black suddenly and never explaining, making you think there was something wrong with your damn television set and maybe your damn life, David Chase and company did something amazing. They kept you in the actual Tony's shoes, as opposed to giving you the Tony (and the ending) you wanted, right through the last second of the story and beyond. They made you feel Tony again, they made you...the viewer...into Tony as you said, "Wait! What happened? That wasn't supposed to happen! This is wrong! This isn't what I wanted! It didn't go as planned after I invested all that time and energy. Where's my angel scene? Where's my happy afterlife? This is broken and there's no way to fix it! I can't mourn fully. I can't celebrate fully. I feel all these conflicting things but mostly frustrated. And every time I watch this show again I'm going to be half sad, half enjoying it, and half having to put up with dissatisfaction about the way this is going (which is exactly what Tony does with the people and situations around him)."
Oh...my...God. How the hell did they make us feel that? How transcendent of a work of genius was it to not just show us their central thesis, but to let us live out their central thesis through the viewing experience? How do you make that happen on screen?
What greater tribute to Tony could there have been than to have made you realize, like Carmela and his kids and everyone else around him, that you would never get the Tony you wanted, that you had to take the Tony that actually existed on that page? Suddenly not only are you identifying with Tony, but with everyone who came into contact with him and wanted something more...wanted something to turn out differently. You are Carmela, Dr. Melfi, Junior, Johnny Sack, Janice, Gloria, and everyone who came across that screen when you say, "I cared about this guy and his story, so why didn't things turn out the way I wanted, or at least in a way I could accept? Why didn't I get to be satisfied?"
Well, who in the Sopranos was satisfied in the end? You wanted to be part of the show, to understand these people and this life better? Well, there you go. And boom...it's over.
The reason I just spent 3000 words on this is because I've never seen this done in this way before and never seen it done nearly so well. I hated that ending at first. It was also one of the most significant and creative achievements in all of televised storytelling.
So anyway, just had to get that off my chest. Back to your regularly-scheduled Trail Blazer posts.