Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Sopranos cuts to black

by Liz (writer), Braes Bayou, June 18, 2007


On the evening of Sunday, June 10, as the screen abruptly went black on the last episode of “The Sopranos”, I felt an eerie confusion, but after a few tense moments, I stopped gripping the couch with my fingernails, turned off the television, and attempted to move on. The David Chase mob drama, which had become priority viewing in my home, was suddenly over with a sloppy resolution to major and minor issues facing the hefty protagonist, Tony Soprano.

I felt, like most fans, a bit confounded, as if I was on the wrong end of an inside joke. Watching Tony wait for his family in their uncharacteristic meeting place, anticipating tragedy as Meadow Soprano’s face twisted in agitation as she attempted to parallel park, and listening to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” swell, I was expecting the worse. As the door to the diner swung open for Meadow and the screen cut to black, the music stopped, and it all went silent. Bloggers and internet gossipers instantly hit the message boards to complain about what was described by the New York Times as a non-ending. In her review on June 11, Alessandra Stanley of the Times begins, “there was no good ending, so “The Sopranos” left off without one.”

However, after reading much of the vituperative slams of the finale and of David Chase online, in which the general consensus was that the ending failed to live up to the much hailed series, a light bulb went off for me. The Sopranos, which weaves a complex cast of characters around an essentially existential reading of post-modern America, never bowed to fans. When the popular Adriana was gunned down by the somewhat sympathetic Silvio, The Sopranos shocked and awed viewers with its willingness to cut down a major character. I have felt a nervous anticipation from my viewing of even the very first episodes. It seemed undeniable that eventually the fragile world of Tony Soprano would come crashing down, taking him out with a quick and brutal certainty. I repeatedly told friends and colleagues that there was only one way for the series to end, and that was with Tony’s demise.

As I rethought the finale, and began to read the early reviews promoting an ambivalent conclusion, I realized that we viewers had been had. The rushed finale was not the quickie resolution to the Soprano saga, rather it was the last consciousness of a dying Tony. Tony died sometime in the night at the safe-house, his huge gun lying across his chest. The gunning down of Tony happens before the finale even begins. In the opening shots of the last episode, we see Tony’s face motionless and vacant. Tony has died. We are witnessing a last gasp of his dying consciousness as he attempts to resolve the lingering drama. The clues are evident in every scene of the final episode. Something is just wrong in each setting, and with the actions of every character. What we see in the finale is a closing sigh of Tony, a Soprano style sequence of wish fulfillments. Tony’s brain is unraveling as his body dies. We witness the world as a dying Tony hopes it might be. No character in the final episode stands independently of Tony, and we see each figure only through Tony’s eyes. The characters lose their autonomous vigor and each individual falls flat, ultimately reflecting only the hopes of Tony. This deflation and subsequent wish fulfillment is most evident in the many sequences with his family, and becomes critically poignant in the final seasons in Holsten’s diner.

When Tony wakes up in the final episode, he drags his lumbering body down to see his fellow mobsters waiting at the safe-house. They have a brief conversation, in which one suggests that he is going to visit the gun downed Silvio at the hospital, and asks Tony to accompany him. The decision to go to the hospital, as well as the request for Tony to accompany him is odd and uncharacteristic. Aren’t these gangsters supposed to be in deep hiding? In the next scene, we see Tony, in his rather conspicuous SUV waiting in a snowy field for his ‘friend’ in the FBI. Planes fly closely overhead. Paulie complains. Finally, the agent arrives and Tony gives the man some potentially useless information about Muslim acquaintances while pumping him for the location of his nemesis Phil.

We next see one of Tony’s New York rivals walking through a bitter Little Italy, talking to his boss Phil on a cell phone and revealing rifts and ineptitude in their plans to kill Tony. After an easy and brutal killing of Bobby and attempted murder of Silvio, the New York family has suddenly gone flaccid. They just can’t find Tony. As Phil’s soldier ends his phone call, he is suddenly jostled by a crowd of Asian people, as he wanders out of Little Italy and into a bustling China town. The episode progresses with a trip by Tony out to see his family at their newly acquired beach house. Far from luxurious, the house looks like the homes of his childhood era. He enters the home without much aplomb or interest from either Meadow or AJ. In fact, instead of offering her father the relief and affection expected after an assassination attempt, Meadow leaves the house with a quick and casual hug. Carmela embraces Tony with an uncharacteristic affection, however, her first words detail the banal concern of a lingering smell of urine in the house. AJ emerges from an upstairs room to bid his “girl” friend, a teenage model from the psychiatric hospital, goodbye. He brushes by Tony without so much as a hello. Even for AJ, this is too much of a snub to his nearly assassinated father. If you recall, the last time we saw AJ, he was weeping in his bed, needy and distraught.

Tony makes plans with his family to attend Bobby’s funeral. AJ questions the decision to show themselves at the funeral in the midst of a lockdown, but Carmela quickly assuages the concern with a nod to the inevitable FBI presence. After the funeral, we see all the major Soprano players in full view at Vesuvio for a post-funeral lunch. Oddly enough, security seems to no longer be a concern. We see a brief and odd shot of Tony and Carmela eating lunch alone in a hallway, with Carmela seated and holding a plate, and Tony standing and staring off a the painted fresco of an Italian bay. Next Tony visits his newly widowed sister, where they share an inside joke and tenderness uncharacteristic of their caustic relationship. Tony also manages to broker a meeting with the two New York representatives of Phil. Carmine Jr. has emerged to attend the sit down. With ease, and within moments, Tony has sealed a deal with New York in which he has the upper hand. New York will bow to Tony, offering their excuse that Phil has changed. The visiting mobsters even agree to secure a financial ‘settlement’ for Tony’s sister Janice. Despite the obvious incompetence the Sopranos displayed in their failed assassination of Phil and inability to defend against the murder of Bobby and assault on Silvio, Tony is back in the power seat.

With speedy haste, Tony is back to business as usual, and with help from the crooked FBI agent, Phil is tracked to a gas station and gunned down in broad daylight in front of his family and many witnesses. With dark humor, Phil’s SUV crushes his fallen head and the reign of New York is over. Tony seems to have consolidated loyalty, business contracts and Brooklyn authority. The financial woes that have plagued him for the entire season are over. The unease between New York and the Soprano family is miraculously settled. In a hasty resolution to the perhaps the season’s most shocking moment, Christopher is reincarnated as a stray cat who has wandered into Tony’s life. Tony is able to shelter and caress his young protégé, assuaging the guilt Tony must feel over suffocating his heir apparent.

In a brief scene with his attorney, the distracted counselor talks to Tony about an impending indictment but then mentions that “trials are there to be won”. Tony is more or less back on track, and is back in front of Satrialle’s Pork Store, seated next to Paulie at a table full of empty chairs, a memento to fallen comrades. Tony offered Paulie a job described as “an ATM machine”, which Paulie has rejected on the grounds that it is too dangerous. In doing so, Paulie reminds us of the wrath of destruction that Tony has laid on his own captains from Pussy to Ralphie to Richie to Vito. Tony allows Paulie to reject his fruitful offer, and they discuss visions of ghost and saints. As Tony walks away from Satrialle’s for the last time, Paulie raises his reflective tanning cutout, and we see Paulie for who Tony truly hopes he is – not a devious threat, but rather a nervous, fatalistic, and goofy old man.

The sloppy and uncharacteristic behavior of the New York gangsters, the FBI agent and Paulie pales in comparison to the change in Tony’s family. After declaring that he will never visit Junior, we see Tony at the bleak state mental facility where Junior is spending his final years. Junior is fragile and himself declares “I am confused”. The audience along with Tony is convinced that Junior is in fact, insane, and perhaps always was, and Tony’s behavior towards Junior offers a token of forgiveness to the old man who shot him.
In Tony’s immediate family, more drastic changes are afoot. When we last see AJ, he is severely depressed, recently released from suicide watch, obsessed with terrorism, and inept at bedding his adorable young girlfriend. We see him next in the yellow SUV that Tony liberated from a layman who owed him gambling debts. AJ is smoking and contemplating Bob Dylan lyrics with his girlfriend. The two are now ready to make a move and begin to make out just as the car ignites in flames. In a dramatic turn, the car catches fire, melting the seats as the CD winds to a halt. This explosion relieves both Tony and AJ of the guilt inherent in the possession of the vehicle. The car not only represents AJs delayed adolescence, but embodies the criminal acquisition of goods that supports the Soprano lifestyles. We next see a smiling AJ talking to his own Dr. Melfi-esque therapist and jovially describing about the demise of his vehicle. Next, the perpetually sluggish AJ is shown running along a hilly road, as a noticeably proud Tony approaches and picks his son up. In the car ride home and with shocking clarity, AJ informs his father off his plan to join the army. The characteristically directionless AJ is now ready to ship off to war. In an attempt to redirect their son, Carmela and Tony meet with AJ at their breakfast table. The freshly woken son emerges in a Tony-style bathrobe, wifebeater and gold chain. The parents offer their son a sudden and fabulous movie deal with Carmine Jr. and a career as a development executive. During the relatively tension free conversation, AJ mimics the mannerisms of his father, from Tony’s slump to his begrudging quip “always with the drama”. This boy is clearly not the lifeless AJ. This is a mini-Tony, or perhaps who Tony hopes his son might be.

Meadow too is uncharacteristically agreeable. She and her sudden fiancé sit in the Soprano formal room, with Tony brokering an awkward wedding discussion between the young couple and their respective parents. Meadow smiles daftly, her autonomous zeal gone, and replaced by a polite sunniness. Meadow is marrying a mobster’s son turned criminal defense attorney. He is defending a city official for tax evasion. Meadow plans to follow him into civil rights law, no longer focusing on Muslims or impoverished immigrants, but rather, as she boldly declares, the plight of Italian-Americans. Meadow is no dummy, and her advocation of the rights of Italian-Americans against a purportedly crushing state system struck me as funny and naïve. In a later dinner with Tony, Meadow describes her career motivation as stemming from the supposed unjust treatment of her father, more than once handcuffed and being taken away by federal agents. Tony’s eyes shine with a somewhat sheepish pride. His daughter will use her talents to defend people like him, and use her training in civil rights as the justification for supporting mobsters. At the parental caucus, Meadow’s fiancé mentions a perspective job offer from his law firm at the starting salary of $170,000. This takes place before Meadow has even been accepted to law school. Carmela and Tony brighten with pleasure. Meadow is to be married off to a fellow Italian-American, and channeled into the world of white collar law. We later learn that Meadow is changing her birth control, perhaps implying an impending pregnancy. While Tony once complained to Dr. Melfi that Meadow would most likely just get married and “push out a couple kids”, he now happily anticipates that fate for his daughter. Tony unconscious figures a traditional life for his accomplished daughter.

As the episode winds down, we see AJ hopping into his new BMW, which he proudly declares has the (abysmal) highway mileage of 23 miles per gallon. AJ is now a budding movie executive. He speeds off the high school to pick up his young girlfriend, in a display of boyish cockiness. It is something that would make Tony proud. Throughout the series, the show lines up Hollywood and film production as a parallel industry to the mob, especially highlighted by Christopher’s trip to Los Angeles. Instead of plundering in the criminal world, the mobster’s son will make his fortune in the world of film. The show flashes to a happy scene at home, with Carmela preparing for meetings with the architects of her growing construction business, and AJ actually laughing on the couch with his girlfriend. The family agrees to meet at Holstein’s diner, and we see one last clip of Tony in his yard, ducks calling overhead.

The final sequence opens with Tony entering the diner. In a blink, the camera cuts to an already seated Tony at a booth in the distance. Tony sees himself. The seated Tony flips through an on table jukebox, focusing on song titles that seem to capture the essence of the series finale. He selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and just as Steve Perry sings “She was a small town girl…,” Carmela swings into the diner. An affection passes between the trouble couple. The tension is almost palpable, as every viewer must have been waiting for the dramatic conclusion. The diner is one of those nostalgic places that represents the ‘good-old’ times which Tony often laments for throughout the series. AJ enters with a sexy saunter we have never seen from him, wearing a leather jacket and slumps down in the booth with a smile. He complains about his job, only to be reminded by his parents about his golden opportunity, and he smiles declaring, “Focus on the good Times, Isn’t that what you said once?”. Tony shakes his head, asking, “Did I say that?” This fond recollection of a dad dolling out positive advice is exactly what Tony wishes his son would remember him for. Their rocky relationship is summed up in a optimistic quip. Tony can’t help but looking around the diner at the motley collection of patrons, the air laden with suspicion. At this point, I could not help but revel in the awkwardness of the location. The Soprano family has never been seen eating dinner out together at any location except Artie Bucco’s Vesuvio, a restaurant so fatefully manipulated by the mob. This is also a family rarely seen together, even in their own home. Suddenly each of the ambivalent and self-interested children have time to meet with their parent’s for a casual dinner. The last time we saw the family together as a cohesive unit, AJ was in a wheelchair begin checked into the mental hospital.

As Journey cries, “paying anything to roll the dice one more time”, echoing the deepest desires of the protagonist, outside the diner, Meadow struggles to parallel park her Lexus. Her face is twisted in a rarely seen agitation uncalled for by the circumstances. What is Meadow so upset about? Her anxiety about parking her car seems to embody the tension of the situation. Far from the seeming resolve of the finale, Meadow’s gestures betray the intense discomfort of a narrative on the brink of unraveling. She finally squeezes her vehicle into position, and jumps from her car, nearly hit by a passing SUV. Inside the diner, our eyes follow a suspicious figure as he leaves the counter and finds his way to the bathroom. Tony, Carmela and AJ each pop an onion ring into their mouths in exactly the same fashion. The family is together, unified in their purpose and affectionate. The lingering indictment of Tony for gun possession, as detailed for us by his lawyer hangs over the scene, but does not dampen the overall mood. Even in the deepest fantasy of Tony Soprano nothing is perfect. As the door jingles open for an entering Meadow, the screen cuts to black. The shocking silence was a jolt, and many viewers blamed the sharp cut to black on failing cable providers. After a long and awkward moment, the credits roll silently, and “The Sopranos” saga closes.

The black out of the finale echoes a discussion Tony and Bobby had while floating on a lake during their family weekend. Bobby described death as a silent blackness. The silent screen is the death of Tony’s consciousness. His mind has finally devolved, and the last gasp of his fantasies are over. The family he imagines together at the diner, are just that, a fantasy. The entirety of “The Sopranos” series foreshadows the eventual demise of the Tony. As is made so evident in the dumping of Tony by Dr. Melfi, he is a sociopath whose world was collapsing in a pile of debt, family disappointment and incompotent business decisions. If the writers of the series have manipulated us viewers in any manner, we willingly went along with it, ignoring inconstancies in the eloquently acted characters in liu of the continued reign of Tony. The series is entirely based on a exploitation of our compassion. As much as we know Tony is a murderous criminal, we still want him to succeed. For Tony to die in front of our eyes would just be too painful to watch, and we are not used to television that does not ultimately give us what we want. Even as we anticipated it, we rejected it. The final episode is not just Tony’s ultimate wish, it is ours as well. However, in a most Shakespearean fashion, “The Sopranos” is a tragedy. The protagonist is destroyed, and the finale shows us the fantasies of a dying or dead Tony. It is only we the viewers who won’t and Don’t Stop Believing.

About the Writer

Liz is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on The Sopranos cuts to black

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By Geddy on June 28, 2007 at 10:42 am
I never watched one minute of this show but I felt that I must leave a comment. What the hell does vituperative mean!??!? :-D
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