Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos finale: It's all over but the bitching

Episode 86: "Made in America"

"And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, Ill say it clear,
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain."

"I've lived a life that's full.
I've traveled each and every highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way."

--Frank Sinatra

With a heavy emphasis on music in the final episode of this thing we loved called The Sopranos, I'm surprised creator David Chase didn't use those fitting lyrics from one of the greatest entertainment/mob connectors in American history, for the words could have been spoken by Chase himself.

Because if there's one thing you can say following the ultimate episode of the series, it's that he certainly went out on his own terms.

In the hours since the Sopranos signed off last night, a tidal wave of heated opinions has flooded the airwaves & fiber optic cables, crashing websites and rippling office water coolers from Parsippany to Palo Alto. And the range of responses has run the gamut from the ridiculous ("I'm cancelling my subscription to HBO") to the sublime ("that was the greatest ending in television history").

But whether you loved the ending or hated it (much like with Jar Jar Binks, there is no in between) Chase found a way to get the entire nation talking about a show that may never grace our presence again.

At least without being chopped up worse than Ralphie Cifaretto by those friggin' bastards at A&E.

The finale, much like the previous 85 episodes before it, was a polarizing entity, galvanizing armies on both sides of the fence. There are both the staunch supporters of Chase's decision to use an open-ended 'conclusion', and a legion of livid longtime watchers who are disgusted with the great 'cop-out' move to end the show without significant closure.

I, for one, am on the "loved it" side of the fight.

Before I go into detail why, let me try to recap what happened and explain how we got to the point where people are ready to send a lynch mob to Chase's Malibu manse and string him up by his Lincoln Log.


The episode begins the morning after last week's left off, as Tony wakes up in the bed in the safe house with the assault rifle next to him. (note: one of these days I'm going to re-watch this entire season and count how many scenes showed Tony in bed. Plenty of fodder for the "dream" theorists.)

Immediately we cut to Paulie & T. waiting in a van at the edge of an airport runway on a snowy winter night. Turns out Tony has arranged a meeting with Agent Harris, and when he runs to Harris' car through the flurries, Chase had everyone in the "he's gonna flip" camp thinking they had won the office pool.

The snitch that came in out of the cold, if you will.

Well, they were wrong. Yes Tony arranged the confab to exchange information, but not to turn in evidence; he tells Harris that he remembered where the Arabs who frequented the Bing had an offshore bank account, and in exchange for that tidbit he wants Harris to use his Brooklyn FBI connection to help him locate Phil, to "prevent any more members of his family from getting hurt."

When Harris, grumpy from arguing with his wife and exhausted from chasing a terrorist cell lead, balks, Tony suggests the bank account could be used for funding terrorist activities. Unimpressed, Harris responds with a curt "you're reaching", and Tony hastily exits the car, but the agent may have appreciated the info a little more than he let on, as we'll see later.

T. drives to the estate house by the beach that Carm bought where the family is hiding out at, and a soulful rendition of the tune "Keep Me Hanging On" by Vanilla Fudge blares from the van radio, another masterful use of mood-setting music by Chase. There he tries to comfort Carm, who is trying to hold it all together as she pines to return home. "I'm working on it" Tony tells her, and the notion is hatched that they might just live through this mob war.

The Feds watch closely as Bobby's funeral is attended by various members of the families, and at the wake afterwards they do what us Italians do best- eat and bullshit. Paulie, who was fucking priceless in this episode, goes so far as to unzip his pants at the table in front of everyone, including Bobby's pretty young niece, while AJ goes off because everybody is talking about meaningless bullshit like American Idol and the Oscars when their friend had just been killed and our country is at war.

"You people are fucked" he angrily tells them before going on another anti-Bush tirade, but when he's done spilling his guts to the stunned table, the niece replies "you're all over the place, I don't know what you're trying to say." Well put.

At the safe house Tony's captains keep coming back with light envelopes, due to the power struggle, and while watching an episode of the Twilight Zone (another Chase riff-read the episode guide) a mysterious cat appears and takes a shine to the crew, although Paulie is freaked out by it. "Snakes with fur," he calls them. Classic.

The significance of the cat-- was it Christopher or Adrianna re in-cat-nated, or did it constantly stare at Chrissy's picture because it was so adept at spotting rats?-- has been the subject of much heated debate as well, but whatever it represented, it was one freaky feline.

Meanwhile Phil places a call to his man Butch and tells him he's irked that Tony has escaped their assassin's wrath. "He shoulda been hit first" is Phil's response to Butch's excuses, and when the little bug eyed dude has the nerve to suggest that they might should reach out to make a truce, Phil barks "we can't go back now, are you fucking crazy?", and in his smug & heartless way, hangs up on him.

Okay, I'm starting to ramble, so I'll speed this up a bit.

While visiting his sister Janice, who's in semi-mourning ("Gotta watch my weight if I'm gonna snag me a new husband"), Tony gets the call from Harris that Phil is using a pay phone in the seaside town of Oyster Bay. Ironically, Harris had to sleep with his "source" to get the info, and as he secretly called Tony after the tryst, Chase continued to show that everyone in this show, even the FBI agents, aren't beyond resorting to illicit or immoral acts to get what they want.

As all this is happening, everybody's least favorite depressed teenager is about to consummate his relationship with the teenage 'sorta model' Rhiannon, parked in his SUV and listening to Bob Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)". Except he parked his X-Terra in some dry leaves, and the catalytic converter caused a fire which resulted in the truck being blown sky high.

The near-catastrophic event conveniently shocked the perpetually depressed teen out of his funk and back to "reality", and when a brief flirtation with enlisting in the Army is met with furious disapproval from the parentals, Tony gets him a job as a development executive on a Daniel Baldwin slasher flick, buys him a new Beamer M3 and promises to fund his future nightclub venture, and suddenly the kid is riding high in the saddle with a hot car, a hot (underage) girlfriend, and not a care in the world.

See, Chase knows how to wrap things up neatly.

By now Tony has decided to reach out to George, boss of one of the NY families, to broker a deal with Phil's boys. He agrees to end everything, blaming Johnny Sack for turning Phil into the prick that he is, and when Little Carmine and Butchie both sign off on the truce, all that's left is to whack Phil.

After Paulie's nephew Little Paulie (a.k.a the one who Christopher threw out the window---boy did I miss Chris these past few weeks...) gets a bead on Phil, the Jersey boys conduct the hit in broad daylight as he's leaving his wife & grand kids to make his calls. One shot to the back of the skull, then another in the heart for good measure, and Tony's last obstacle is eliminated.

As they say, he never saw it coming.

The next part everyone saw coming, because Chase set it up for all the carnage-thirsty viewers who were tuning in tonight hoping to see an all-out bloodbath.

As the car rolls out of control with Phil's head lined up with the tire, a crowd of onlookers curiously gathers to watch the inevitable act painfully unfold as if in slow motion. When the wheel rolls over Phil's silver-cropped skull, the sickening noise and (implied) violence causes some of the gawkers to ohh & oahh with approval and others to get sick on the spot.

The implication is Chase saying, "okay, you all wanted blood & guts, well look closely cause here it is", except he didn't even give it to us then, it was off screen, a clear sign of the giant tease that was yet to come.

Now I really gotta wrap this up.

The Sopranos return home and all is right with the world again. Meadow is going to marry Pat and might already have a high-paying job at a prestigious law firm waiting for her, AJ is miraculously healed, with help from a Melfi-esque shrink, right down to the gams, and even Paulie is seeing his life improve when Tony offers him the job of running the Cifaretto crew.

Sure there are a couple of nagging issues for the boss, like the fact that his boy Carlo probably flipped on him; his lawyer Mink informs him he's probably going to be indicted on the old weapons charge, but, after all, "trials are there to be won"; and his Uncle Junior, whom he wants to hate but can't when after a visit to the hospital Tony realizes that he's just a demented old man.

But all in all life is good for the formerly fractured family, and when they all agree to meet for dinner at local hangout Holsten's , it seems, incredibly, as if a happy ending is possible after all...

...or is it?


The final five minutes of the show is the part that has caused the most ruckus among irate & elated viewers, and the scene will be replayed, dissected and discussed for years to come. It is a tense, gut-wrenching and brilliant exercise in what it must be like to walk in Tony's shoes, to live with the constant fear that it could all end at any time, with no warning, without a chance to say goodbye.

Tony arrives first and he surveys the joint, locates a center booth and takes his seat, facing the door of course. Soon various people walk through the door, and the jingling bell and causes Tony to look up nervously each time.

As faces both familiar (Carm & AJ ) and foreboding (a shady looking Italian guy, a couple of black youths, a scruffy-looking trucker) enter the diner, the viewer is slowly filled with a sense of dread, that feeling of, as Carm so aptly described it, waiting for the piano to drop on Tony's head. I for one was ready to get sick just from the swelling of emotions, and the heart rate was in overdrive.

So when Tony peruses the jukebox and looks through the selections ("This Magic Moment", "Magic Man", "Only the Strong Survive" and "I've Gotta Be Me" are just a few of the titles high on the irony meter) and he chooses Journey's sappy feel-good anthem "Don't Stop Believein'", the whole things starts to take on the feeling of a surreal dream.

"...for a smile they can share the night, it goes on and on and on and on..."

As the Italian gets up to use the john (yet another Godfather reference), the three Sopranos eat onion rings (representing the family has come full circle anyone?), and wait for Meadow to arrive.

...don't stop, believin', hold on to that feeellllling.."

As Meadow tries three times to parallel park her Lexus it's like a moment in suspended forever in time, and when she finally gets it parked she runs across the street, and heads into the restaurant to find...

"...don't stop."


As you know by now, the cable did not cut out and the final shoe did not drop. The open ending was at once confusing, irritating, shocking and aggravating, and left millions of viewers around the country either cursing, scratching their heads, checking their cable connection, or, like me, sitting back smiling and thinking:

"Chase you're a fucking genius. An asshole to millions, but a genius to be sure."

Because the ending is never spelled out, it leaves the whole thing open to interpretation.

Was Tony capped by the Italian dude, as many have argued, because of the conversation with Bobby about how it all goes black when you get whacked?

Was the whole thing a dream, as the many bed sequences, dream-related music and surreal quality would suggest?

Or was the family actually dead, and just floating through some netherworld never land, resigned to a life of dining out and going through the motions as a family, a theory that has been making the rounds on the message boards?

That's where the brilliance comes in. Chase was once quoted as saying "I don't think art should give answers. I think art should only pose questions....that create tension inside of you."

He even left a final clue as to how we should think it should end, on the "B" side of the Journey song Tony played:

Mission accomplished, David.
Thanks for the memories.


Anonymous said...

I have heard the same mention from a few sources about the reference to Tony's prior comment. Bobby asked him what it must feel like to get whacked and Tony responded that he imagines that it all goes black. Yes, indeed, it sounds like an excellent reference to this final episode. You mentioned that here, too. But what I cannot find, from your notes or from anyone else, is when/where did Tony say this? When did Bobby ask him about being whacked and when did Tony respond "it all goes black"??? What episode? Do you know? Can you find it?

J Rose said...

The scene we all have been referring to was from the first episode (#78) of this final mini-season, entitled "Soprano Home Movies"

In the scene where Bobby & Tony are fishing and discussing what it's like to kill & be killed, Bobby says to him "You probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?", meaning to get whacked, to which Tony responds "ask your friend in there on the wall", in referrence to the stuffed moosehead in the cabin.

Last week, in the second-to-last episode (#85,"Blue Comet"), at the end as Tony is getting ready to lay in bed and wait for his killers, he flashes back to that snippet of dialogue between the two.

This has led many to think that was a precursor to what happened in the finale, as in Tony was killed at the end, but we (nor he) never heard a thing, hence the abrupt cut of the music and picture from the screen.

After further review, contrary to what everyone has been saying, neither man made a remark about everything going dark, at least not in that conversation.

Anonymous said...

Good response.

Ya know, I watched Episode 78 last night to see if that comment was in there. Watched parts of it a couple of times even. Sure enough, there was no remark about it going black. But the innuendo (or suggestion) is certainly there. Still, I believe that Chase meant for us to go there, or at least to be able to go to that conclusion, if we wanted.

PS: My take ... excellent ending!

J Rose said...

I agree with you 100%, the ending, was phenomenal, even more so in retrospect.

Just the mere fact that so many people are responding so passionately on both sides speaks to what a brilliant piece of art the finale actually was.

One more note on the "all goes black" phrase; I did read somewhere that particular line was actually from a conversation that Tony was having with someone over the phone at one point this season.

I think people might be combining that line with the boat scene and coming up with "you don't hear a thing, it all goes black".

I plan on re-watching the entire season in the near future, and if I discover that quote I will pass it along.