So Long, Tony Phony Baloney
"The Sopranos"' finale could have been a brilliant synthesis of character study and spiritual questioning. Instead, it was one big fat cop-out.
By Mary Beth Crain
Sunday’s final episode of "The Sopranos" was one of those most anticipated events in television history. All week, fans couldn’t stop speculating. What would the windup be? Would Tony bite it? Would his family get it instead? Would the hit on Phil finally materialize? Would Adriana come back from the grave to get her final justice? Ooh—the possibilities were delicious and endless.
The previous week’s episode had everybody primed. It was great. Bobby got whacked. Syl’s in the hospital in a coma. Dumb and Dumber, the two Sicilian deweys who were hired as Phil’s hitmen, popped the wrong guy instead. Tony’s gone to the mattresses. The End is Near, fer sure.
The week crawled. Millions of people, including myself, were counting the days and hours. Would Sunday, June 10, 2007, 9 p.m. ever arrive?
Finally, the Last Judgment was at hand. HBO set the stage with a fun panoply of clips from all their other shows, with characters looking like they were talking about "The Sopranos." There were some flashbacks to previous episodes. And then, the familiar theme song, “Woke Up This Morning…”, the opening credits, the seedy Jersey City terrain, everything that had become part of our lives and would, after tonight, be gone forever…Nostalgia gripped the nation.
I was glued to my chair. I’d turned the phone ringer off, made sure the cats were outside, drugged my dog. Nothing and nobody were going to interrupt this sacred moment. The episode unfolded. Slowly. Nothing was really happening, but that was OK, a brilliant device to pump up the tension. Every time a character walked into a place, or out of it, my stomach was churning. Where would the hit come from?
The clock ticked on. It was 9:30 and still, nothing was happening. There were odd, rambling conversations, and some weird shit about a stray cat that kept staring at Christopher’s picture and meowing. The entire episode seemed to center around the most boring and expendable character in the whole series, A.J.—the embodiment of spoiled teenage narcissism. Now Tony’s visiting Janice. They have a perfectly unmemorable conversation. Now he’s visiting Uncle Junior. They have a perfectly unmemorable conversation. Now he’s having a tete a tete with Paulie, who declines his offer to become “The Skipper” of a big operation. Tony’s pissed. He leaves. Paulie watches his departure with a cryptic look. The cat wanders over. Long shot. New scene. Huh? Did I miss something?
I looked at the time. 9:40. I began to squirm. There’s only 20 minutes left, guys. Move it into fifth gear!
Aha! Here’s Phil Leotardo, possibly the most vicious bastard in the whole show, which is saying a lot. All season we’ve been waiting for him to get it. He’s at the gas station. Gets out of the car, waves to his two grandbabies in the back seat, tells his wife he’ll be right back, he’s gotta make a phone call…Oh oh. You just know his number’s up. Yup, a guy comes right up to him and shoots him in the head. Phil crumples to the ground. His wife starts screaming and somehow puts the car into neutral. It starts rolling…right over Phil’s head. Crunch! An onlooker leans over and pukes. At last—a little action!
More A.J. Ugh. Tony and Carmella have a nice little chat with Meadow, Patrick, and Patrick’s parents. Meadow’s gonna get a job in Patrick’s firm. Starting salary, $170,000. Tony and Carmella are grinning like they’re crapping gold bricks. Tony visits Syl, who’s still in a coma. Squeezes his hand. Leaves.
By 9:58 I was going crazy. What the hell was going on? 10 p.m. Tony, A.J. and Carmella meet at a diner for dinner. Meadow’s outside, trying to park her big ass car. A shifty looking character comes in and sits down. Tony notices him and turns back to the menu. Everybody starts eating onion rings. The shifty looking character goes to the men’s room. Meadow runs into the restaurant. The screen goes black.
50 million people let out a mass cry of anguish. Damn! The cable’s gone out!
And then…the end credits roll. In silence.
In total shock, I dialed my cousin in Raleigh.
“Did you watch it?” I asked.
“What the HELL?” she replied. “What the HELL was THAT? They call that an ENDING?”
“Those bastards!” I screamed. “They screwed us over! Like, oh, we’re going to go real artsy fartsy here and let the audience make up their own ending! What a friggin’ cop out!”
“I can’t believe it,” my cousin moaned. “I waited so long for…THIS?”
I could only guess how many people were saying the exact same thing. How many people were ready to hire a hit man to blow off David Chase. Unfortunately, he hadn’t done anything illegal. He’d just done something downright mean. Like getting us right to the brink of the orgasm and then rolling over and falling asleep. We had no recourse. We were doomed to eternal frustration. That’s what you get for becoming hooked on a TV series.
The trouble is, "The Sopranos" wasn’t just any old TV series. It was one of the most brilliant character studies ever to grace the old tube. It was complex, edgy, hilarious, terrifying. There seemed no territory it was afraid to explore. With all the power and creativity it had exhibited for six glorious seasons, it could have left us with a finale that would have raised the bar to new heights.
Instead, it turned its back on its loyal audience, bent over, and ended its nine-year reign with one big fart in our faces.
What had I hoped for? Well, my favorite episodes were when Tony was fighting for life after Junior shot him. While his comatose body’s in the hospital bed, his spirit is in all sorts of strange, wonderful places. He loses his identity at a conference in a hotel. He’s mistaken for a shyster by a couple of Tibetan monks, who punch him out and then make him appear at their monastery for a dressing down. He encounters the psycho cousin he killed, who’s now the doorman at a strange house where a funeral is going on, and tries to take Tony’s briefcase. Tony is about to enter the house. At that moment, he hears his daughter’s voice. “Daddy! Daddy! Come back! Don’t die!” He realizes that this is his own funeral and fights to get his briefcase back. He comes to in the hospital, and has an epiphany about life.
The experience stays with him. He ponders the meaning of life, and the necessity for gratitude. “Every day is a gift,” becomes his new mantra. From this point the series got really fascinating, because Tony was now a man torn between two worlds—the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit. The world of violence and the world of compassion.
The only way a series like "The Sopranos" could have held sway over us for so many years was by creating an endlessly complex main character with warring personas, whose eyes were opened to spiritual mysteries that he could never quite solve. Remember that episode a few weeks back, when Tony gets high on Peyote in Vegas with a hooker, and they both end up watching the sunrise in a landfill? He contemplates the beautiful colors of the slowly awakening sky and then, standing up, he yells something like, “I get it! I understand!”
Yet this understanding, this epiphany, will leave him. He will return to his brutal, amoral life because it is the chain he has forged with his own hands, the chain that binds him to evil. He is like Moses, given a glimpse of the Promised Land but doomed by one great flaw never to be able to enter it. In this final, crushingly unfulfilling episode, A.J. reminds him that he used to say, “Life is a gift.” “Did I?” Tony mutters. “Oh well. I suppose it’s true.”
Obviously, the show’s creators thought they were being smart by leaving us with an ambiguous denouement. Isn’t that the role of art, after all? To make the viewer draw his or her own conclusions? In reality, however, art that leaves one unfulfilled is called laziness. It’s the difference between a Kandinsky and a big blob of paint on a canvas. Both can be called modern art. Both are abstract. But one is full of thought-provoking complexity, while the other is nothing parading as something, a naked Emperor whose subjects have been conned into believing he’s wearing the most magnificent of robes.
"The Sopranos" was a series that made us think in new ways. In contrast to so much of television, where one-dimensional characters are the rule, we were constantly being forced to view Tony as a multi-faceted human being, someone with virtues and flaws all of us possess. As such, we weren’t allowed to pass judgment on him, to take the easy way out. When the show ventured into spiritual realms, we were surprised to see that Tony wasn’t judged there either. That if he were to die, there was no assurance that he’d burn in the fires of hell. That, in fact, there might not even be a hell, but merely a place where one keeps on exploring, discovering, learning. How one wishes that in this final episode, David Chase and Co. had had the courage to venture one last time into that spiritual dimension they once touched upon so enticingly. Or at the very least to give us a real resolution, be it in the form of annihilation, epiphany, or both.
The buzz was that they’d actually shot three different endings to "The Sopranos," and that even the cast was in the dark as to which one they were going to use. It’s hard to believe that the other two could have been any more disappointing than this one. But as Tony would have said, with all of his Sicilian profundity, “So what are you gonna do?” Which just might be the most appropriate observation of all, the existential ending they were aiming for. It’s over. Time to move on. A drifting cloud, nothing more. Pass the manicotti.
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was Dead Reckoning.
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