The Sopranos, Season Six, Episode 21: "Made in America"
Hello Robbie and cnw,
I’m feeling inclined to cheat and offer this blog post as my contribution to the upcoming Reverse Shot symposium – you know, the one about the power of a single cut to shape and define an entire film. “Made in America” ended The Sopranos in media res with a hard (dare I say Dardenne-ish?) cut to black. Seated at a table in a cozy neighborhood restaurant with Carmela and AJ, Tony looked up to see Meadow coming through the door to complete the family dinner. Or was it to see a gun being pointed in his direction by the two-shifty looking African-American kids who’d come in moments before? Or maybe to anxiously note the return of the leather-jacketed guy who’d walked in just ahead of AJ a few minutes before that and stared at Tony’s table before making a pointed beeline for the men’s room: a location fraught with symbolic peril in this season of Godfather riffs. Yes, it would make sense that the show would come unplugged in the exact split-second that Tony got plugged; like Bobby, with whom he’d previously discussed death’s never-see-it-coming factor, he just never saw it coming. Or maybe our man was just about to order more onion rings.
There’s more to talk about in and around “Made in America” (written and directed with economy and purpose by David Chase) than its endlessly discussable ending. Like the fact that Tony managed to flip the FBI into serving his purposes, or the curious arrival of an adorable orange cat that stayed fixated on the picture of Christopher hanging in the Bing (shades of Ade? Or is that too sentimental?), or its potentially damaging effect on SUV sales after the catalytic converter cataclysm that nearly claimed AJ and his new girlfriend. But I’m going to linger on that final moment, mostly because that’s how Tony would have it. The last significant dialogue of the series was a father-son exchange, with Tony encouraging AJ – now working, at his parents’ nudging, as a “development executive” for a lousy screenplay forwarded to Little Carmine’s production company by Daniel Baldwin – to enjoy the good times. And this is what I thought the non-ending was getting at. Tony may have escaped Phil Leotardo’s endgame maneuvers and this season’s endgame atmosphere but his life has been reframed as one sustained panic attack: somewhere, someone (what rough beast?) is waiting to take him down. Good times, but with an asterisk.
The genius of the episode is that it placed that burden of anxiety onto us. The last five minutes were an exercise in unabashed sweatshop-suspense techniques, with every shot carefully selected for maximum portent. It began with Tony sitting alone in the restaurant, fiddling with the jukebox (before settling on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin”) – finally out in the open after a small eternity of clandestine movements. The (separate) arrivals of Carmela, AJ, and Meadow –the latter after some extended parking difficulties which, as inter-cut with the sanguine scene inside the restaurant, raised the show’s terror alert level to orange – actually made Tony seem more vulnerable. At the end of last week’s episode, alone in a safe-house, lying in the (hard, sheetless) bed that he’d made for himself, Tony looked like a cornered animal ,but he’d made arrangements to keep his family sequestered far away. Is he really more comfortable with them at his side after seven years’ worth of vivid lessons about how quickly and unexpectedly the proverbial sword can drop?
Let’s take stock of Tony’s situation. Phil Leotardo is dead, killed outside a gas station with his infant grandchildren in tow ( how sick was it then when his SUV, left unattended by his understandably hysterical wife, rolled over his face and Chase cut to the babies smiling in the backseat? Grandpa as a speed bump!). Paulie W is newly entrenched as his first lieutenant (not a rat after all). New York seems willing to do business (that Butch…what a softie). And, after all that, Tony’s still likely to be indicted because Carlo (who he berated a few weeks back about poor earnings) has flipped. “Trials are there to be won,” says Tony’s lawyer, Neil Mink but the real focus of their scene (another restaurant sitdown) was the bank of security monitors sitting over Tony’s shoulder. Mink may have been stealing glances to catch the waitresses as they stumbled, in various states of undress, through the restaurant’s back hall, but given the cut-it-with-a-knife tension of the surrounding episode, we looked nervously at the screens to see if Tony’s fate was about to burst through the door, gun in hand.
So somewhere after that final scene – provided it wasn’t the last moment of his life, of course -- Tony will go to trial. Perhaps he will be indicted. Doubtlessly, Meadow will express outrage, having confided in this episode that her decision to go into law (now looking, to Carm’s delight, like a lucrative choice) was forged after years of watching her Dad being dragged away by the Feds. The woman is, finally, insane. AJ may cite it as another cause for his depression, although at this point, he’s looking sated on anti-depressants, easy money and a hot girlfriend. The shot of him and Rhiannon gladly giggling at footage of MC Karl Rove and a clownish G.W. Bush was a portrait of contemporary material medication. (Didn’t AJ start off this episode by righteously citing “The Second Coming” at Bobby Bacala’s funeral to prove that everything is fucked up and gaping in wonderment at the timelessness of a Bob Dylan protest song? There’s more to say about AJ’s eventful hour, but I will leave it to you guys). Carmela will stand by her man and keep looking at spec house plans – she may have thrown Tony’s last gift back in his face, but when the show’s camera was elsewhere, is there any doubt she went and picked it back up?
There were hints of where else things could go further down the line. AJ driving by Rhiannon’s school in his new car recalled Carm’s starry-eyed memories of Tony swinging by her campus in his Camaro; AJ’s short-skirted shrink looked a bit like a younger Melfi. But the final cut rendered them all moot – we’ll never know. There are those who will accuse Chase of churlishness, that his choice to go with an open ending is a kind of cop-out after setting up so many tantalizing narrative dynamos. But I can think of no greater way to pay justice to the compelling lives he’s created – has any show ever had so many intriguingly developed regulars? Not even counting whackees, there are a dozen players whose fate is of great interest to me – than to keep us at a remove. The Sopranos was always defined by its intimacy, accessing the lives (and in Tony’s case, the subconscious) of its characters and sparing no details. Last night, we were, finally, cut off. Yet I have never felt so closely aligned with Tony – during the credit roll (which was, for the first time, silent – as if anything could follow Journey!) I sat, insecure in the knowledge that while I didn’t know what was coming next, on some level I did. And that deeper knowledge that motivated me to look around the living room at the people I loved and resolve to enjoy the good times. It was the banal, evasive Hallmark-card advice of a sociopath, and don’t you know it swelled my heart.
A recap of The Sopranos' final season on Reverse Shot: