Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Sopranos Final Episode
Fade to Hack

The Last Supper
June 11, 2007

By Brian Bentley

Tony Soprano and his family sit down for dinner in the final scene of The Sopranos

The Sopranos final episode, “Made in America,” has come and gone, and it left millions of viewers in the dark. Of course, I’m talking about the last ten seconds of the show, where the screen went silent and black. There was nothing wrong with your TV. After six and half seasons of the best television show in history, the producers decided to wind it up a few heartbeats short of completion.

Showrunner David Chase has continually demonstrated a sadistic streak toward his audience. Cast favorites are butchered without the slightest regard to humanity (witness the manipulative and gruesome execution of sweet Adriana La Cerva). So, if twelve million loyal viewers crave something epic to close out a series that has built HBO into a powerhouse (giving the network the means to foist up mean-spirited, forgettable shit like John from Cincinnati), then Chase is going to confound expectation, be an asshole and disappoint.

Close monitoring of previous seasons demonstrates that Chase and co-producer Terence Winter usually pack the next-to-last episode with the best material. Season six and a half was no different. The action-packed hour that preceded the show’s finale was called “The Blue Comet” and it finds Tony and the remainder of his decimated crew in ruins. The man of a thousand appetites has descended from the opulence of a Las Vegas penthouse to the coffin of a safe house in just three viewing weeks. The New Jersey and New York families are at war. As the credits roll, Tony lays down on a bare mattress to sleep the fitful sleep of the doomed, holding not his faithful wife Carmela, or the hooker du jour, but an automatic weapon he may soon put to his head.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Tri-State area, Tony’s mob-boss rival and nemesis Phil Leotardo, he of the simian hairline and withering quips, is in hiding after the Sopranos tried to kill him and settled instead for the look-alike father of his mistress. Bobby Bacala, Tony’s brother-in-law, the sweet man-boy who never really fit in, is gunned down in a hobby store while shopping for a vintage train set. Silvio Dante, the consigliere in Tony’s outfit, eternally damned for his cold-blooded execution of poor Adriana, lies in a coma after a shooting in the Bada Bing nightclub parking lot.

Everything in Tony’s world is falling down. After numerous threats to quit therapy, he has the shoe jammed up his own ass when he’s suddenly fired by his lady shrink. It’s an ignoble and personal betrayal. His interplay with Dr. Melfi is a window into the Tony Soprano we can connect with – an anxiety-wracked human filled with doubt, concerned about playing fair with his own family and his crew, agonizing about the same decisions all business managers worry about.

But where Tony’s going, he’ll need more than psychiatric help. He currently has, as Phil would say, “a couple of three options.” He could be killed, go to jail, pull a Ray Liotta from Goodfellas and turn state’s evidence, or commit suicide. Option five might feature Tony leaving town to create a new posse in another state. But that would lie in the realm of impossible-to-process, about the same odds of Edie Falco ringing my doorbell tonight with a steaming plate of her baked zitti.

Tony Soprano is the best gangster character since Al Pacino in Scarface
James Gandolfini plays New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano

With a build-up like that, the final episode, “Made in America,” had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, The Sopranos season-ending shows are often a disappointing and confusing post-script. So why change things up? With 60 minutes left in the lives of America’s first Family, Chase opted to spend his time meandering back and forth between the same redundant, flat subplots that have prompted bathroom breaks for years.

Will it be law or medicine for Meadow (which makes more dough)? Terminally out-of-step A.J. is determined to enlist in the Army and head for Afghanistan. Displaced housewife/whore Carmela wrings her hands in typical babbling denial, complaining about unsanitary conditions in the new safe house. Senile old fart Uncle Junior burns up five precious screen minutes trying to remember who his nephew Tony is, and why we should care. TIME TIME TIME, that the final episode didn’t have, is wasted.

Paulie Gualtieri, as usual, gets the best material. When a stray cat spends hours staring at the wall photo of dead Christopher Moltisanti, it drives the superstitious Paulie nuts, so he picks up a broom to swat the kitty. Tony walks into the room and Paulie pretends to be sweeping up. Priceless moments like these are proof that in between the mob hits and tiring, New Age psychological meanderings, The Sopranos was a hell of a funny show.

Phil Leotardo finally does get whacked and has his head run over by an SUV, which I guess is payback for the disfigurements of Vito, the gay guy, and Bobby. But the too-easy tip from Tony’s federal agent/snitch on Phil’s location that prompted the hit? I bet that suspense-cheating concept took hours to figure out in story meetings. The other holes in logic are simply mind-numbing. With Phil dead and the New York crew possibly seeking revenge, Tony visits his sister Janice, Bobby’s widow, in the last place anyone would think to stake out – her house.

As the body count rises in the midst of a major mob war, there’s no sign of the Feds. It has always seemed like the Soprano gang exists in an alternate universe where murder and mayhem prompt none of the crushing real-world responses from the authorities or the media. Major figures are killed off and the following week it’s like nothing happened. Is Chase saying that life moves in unexpected ways, or is he telling us his fantasies are everyone else’s incomprehensible bullshit? Maybe it was all just a dream and Tony really is a traveling salesman who sees lights at the end of the world outside his hotel room window.

I’ll spare you the rest of the forgettable details of final episode #86, since all anybody talks about is the ending. With time about up, Tony, A.J. and Carmela sit down for their last supper at Holsten’s restaurant. The eatery is the kind of drab dump that precious Carm wouldn’t usually be caught dead in. Meadow is clumsily trying to parallel park her car and arrives late, or maybe just in time, to be riddled with bullets. A predatory thug in a Members Only jacket is lurking inside the joint. The thug passes the Soprano table and goes into the bathroom, presumably to retrieve a handgun taped to the toilet a la Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” is on the jukebox. Tony looks up one more time from his onion rings and just as Steve Perry sings the words ‘Don’t Stop,’ the screen smash-cuts to black, like someone shot your TV through the head. Three million viewers check to see if they paid their cable bill.

So what can we presume really “happened” in this monumental cop-out to cinematic closure? Let’s toss out some theories and see what sticks to the wall besides Tony’s brains. If the entire clan was to be killed, it runs contrary to previous hits where bystanders and wives are spared. In a past episode, Tony assured Carmela, “Don’t worry, they never hit the family.” Sure, Tony had Phil whacked, but the lizard-like istigatore was getting on everyone’s nerves anyway.

Tony is about to be indicted by a grand jury. Prison would remove him from substantial leadership and leave the territory wide open. With Phil gone, there wasn’t a single hood with the clout to order a contract. Why bother? Phil’s weasel lieutenant, Butch, has the grudge, but hardly the balls. Maybe the guy in the Members Only jacket is a Fed on stakeout, reminding Tony that either the net of justice is going to drop, or he'll be looking over his shoulder the rest of his life. Since when do shooters openly eyeball the mark for five minutes before taking care of business? For a guy of Tony’s stature, it would likely be several gunmen on the job, and the less face-time the better.

But it would be wise to remember, that in the world of David Chase, metaphor and not conventional logic, often prevails. Under those criteria, Tony really was killed in the diner by a gunshot to the back of the head when the stalker guy came out of the bathroom. As Chase said in a recent interview regarding clues to Tony’s fate, “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.” Remember the conversation when Bobby tells the Boss, “You probably won’t even hear it when it happens, right?” Then there was the rotten karma left over from the suicide of tossed-aside Soprano henchman Eugene Pontecorvo. To free himself from the grip of The Family, Eugene’s wife implores him to “put a bullet in (Tony’s) fucking head.” Can anyone forget that the first episode of The Sopranos sixth season, where Tony is shot by Uncle Junior, was titled “Members Only?”

Adriana and Tony Soprano in a lighter moment before he had her killed for cooperating with the Feds

Way back in the second season finale, “Funhouse,” Tony has a dream where he has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and decides to kill himself. He pours gasoline over his head and lights a match. At the exact moment he explodes, and presumably dies, he wakes up crying and says “Everything’s black!” Speaking of black, more than a few websites have had great fun with the POV shots inside Holsten’s. Each begins with a close-up of Tony as he eyes every person entering the restaurant. The viewer sees what he is seeing. On the final POV shot, he looks up and we see nothing. I guess that means what Tony sees is also nothing – his death, the big blank TV screen in the sky.

You have to hand it to David Chase. The guy knew how to go out with a bang. To ensure secrecy, he removed the last pages of the script for “Made in America” before he gave it to his crew, and the very last scene shot was inside Holsten’s. So while the final episode was generally superfluous, the ending is a nifty bit of filmmaking – even though the audience was gypped out of seeing T get the payback he deserved for all the lives he ruined.

Chase had reasons for leaving the ending ambiguous. He has complained that fans demanded to see Tony’s blood, and he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. It’s safe to say that the moral awakening which followed Tony’s shooting and near-death experience had run its course, and he was worse than ever, becoming a compulsive gambler and treating those closest to him like captured prisoners. His gift for blankness when he kills Christopher is not unlike the bloodless gaze of Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather Part II, when he orders his own brother executed for weakness in the line of fire. Tony’s once big heart for others in need had shrunk to the size of a .45 caliber slug. In the end, there were a thousand people/victims with the desire to see him dead and any one of them could have figuratively pulled the trigger. Prison would have perverted Tony’s enormous appetitive for wringing every dime out of life, so maybe someone was doing him a favor.

If the show had a unifying theme, it was that you reap the seeds you sow. Not just society’s judgment, but the brutal discipline of organized crime. Every character in The Sopranos is given a chance to measure up. Those who don’t, pay the price – not just the wrath of The Family, but the damnation of karma. Tony murders Christopher, his own “nephew,” because the drugged loser is a liability who has run out of chances to fuck up. Gay Vito flees from an old-world culture that kills independents who disgrace it. He should have stayed “living free” with his boyfriend, the fry cook. Vito returns home because he can’t survive outside The Life, and that decision brings the end of his. Bobby’s spirit was clean until Tony pushed him into his first murder – where Bobby lost his soul. Tony Blundetto is headed for a straight career and a real life, until his uncontrollable self-destructive urges lead him to shoot Phil's brother and seal his own oblivion.

Any ending of a series like The Sopranos could never expect to satisfy more than 51 percent of the viewers anyway. One thing is certain. A show with its infinite attention to plot detail will not pass our way again. Like innocence, we have lost something that cannot be restored. The communal experience of sitting down at a designated hour, with millions of other viewers, to share the expectations and joys of something new, dark and revelatory is over. The actors who became extended family to us must now suffer diminished expectations for the rest of their careers. In our minds, they will always be Tony, Carmela, A.J., Meadow, Christopher and Paulie. If half the soil in New Jersey was turned over, you couldn’t dig up characters like these again and I’m not sure anyone would want to.

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1 comment:

  1. Even though "Chase had reasons for leaving the ending ambiguous", this final episode was as self-indulgent as anything Milch ever did (John from Cincinnati), treating his loyal audience like a one night stand dropped at the curb without so much as taxi fare. Speaking of Milch, reading your thoughts about the excellent "Deadwood" would be nice.