I am issuing a major SPOILER alert: If you did not see The Sopranos finale, are a Tivo user, a Netflix-er who is behind on the series or simply do not want to know what happened, please stop reading now. It's only going to be problematic from here...
In an episode that is sure to live in television infamy, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos delivered tonight what I consider to be one of the great endings of a television series ever, with the series finale Made In America. It is the perfect title; America is going to HATE this ending, I can feel it in my bones. I don't want to go into too much detail about the machinations of the plot, as I think the story lines all paid off, but more into the wonderfully cynical and deeply personal meaning of the episode's final moments. Coming into the finale, and after eating a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs with friends in Brooklyn, everyone's biggest question was, as it was in every episode prior, 'Who is going to get whacked?' Over the course of its many seasons, the murderous machinations of the New Jersey mafia allowed the fans of the show to take delight and voyeuristic pleasure in the assassinations, murder, beatings, etc. In the final moments of Made In America, Chase delivers on the perversity of that voyeurism with a bold, wondrous sequence. Here are the echoes of a dozen other murders, moments for which we have been so deeply conditioned by this series that the pay-off, when it finally arrives, feels both earned and unprecedented; A profound intimacy, as close to Tony Soprano's emotional point of view as anything in series has ever delivered before.
It takes us a moment to get there; Paulie, seemingly the only member of Tony's crew, is once again coerced by Tony into taking a job as a front man on the construction job, a role that has seen its share of deaths. Ever the politically savvy guy (and not without his characteristic protestations),yet unable to imagine himself without the context of his mob work, Paulie slides back into his role only after objecting in principle to it. Things stay the same, things remain. The war with New York resolved (brilliantly), Carmella and the family move back into the Soprano home. AJ, after a great season of angst-ridden protest against everything his upbringing stands for, gets funded to work on a film project and immediately abandons his 'principles'; A perfect encapsulation of the national malaise. Keep your ideals, but always compromise to benefit yourself. Carmela tells Tony to meet the family at a small Italian restaurant, and Tony agrees. But first, a stop; Junior Soprano. Tony's senile uncle is shown in the squalor of a state-run institution, bereft of the memory of his hidden stash of money or his once-dominant role in organized crime. Nothing is left. Things change. We all fade away.
A Little Nod To A Prairie Home Companion?: David Chase's The Sopranos Comes To An End
Tony is the first to arrive at dinner, and he browses the tableside juke box in the booth; He scrolls to find Don't Stop Belivin' by Journey*. Tony pops in a quarter and the song begins. Let me say that this choice in songs was brilliant; an upbeat classic with double meanings galore when heightened by the mounting tension in this scene. 5 minutes left in the show, America's clock is ticking. A man in a black 'USA' baseball cap (of course) scrolls the large juke box near the door. The frame gets tighter, Tony only in close-up now. What will happen? Carmella arrives and slides in the booth across from Tony. Didn't Bobby's killers wear black baseball hats? Uh-oh. AJ arrives at the exact moment another man walks in. The man looks threatening. He sits at the counter and drinks coffee. AJ slides into the booth. Earlier, another shot of the man in the black hat, stirring his coffee; Everyone paralleled by juke boxes and coffee cups. Tony takes notice of the room. Meadow struggles to parallel park. Will her delay spare her? Is Tony going to get it? The second man with the coffee heads to the bathroom as the camera tracks him. Michael Corleone in The Godfather! Is the whole family done for? Meadow approaches from outside. Two African American men at the juke box now. Meadow crosses the street, heads to the door, we cut to Tony's face. The bell on the door rings. Tony looks up.
In my opinion, this scene, which is constructed on the remains of season after season's worth of dread and conditioning, is absolute perfection and the complete illustration of how Tony Soprano will spend the rest of his life (no matter how long it is); pure anxiety, absolute tension and fear made manifest. Everything Tony has pushed down inside himself, every deep and dangerous exhale through his nostrils, it's here. This is what it's like to be Tony Soprano, but this is also us. His family, his love for them pressed tightly against the reality that every single anonymous person that walks through the door may bring The End. A stranger drinking coffee. The man at the juke box. You'll never know. This is purgatory, the place without resolution, the in-between place where Tony will always reside. Where he has always lived. This is the American condition like it has never been illustrated before. It is an unfinished life, rife with the sense that at any moment, the chickens will either come home to roost or things will simply continue on without a single whiff of equilibrium. What was delivered? What justice was served? What closure did we earn? Step on the subway in a post-9/11 world and it's in the back of your mind. The bell rings. We step through airport security and it's there. Everything is danger, everything is benign. Life goes on. Things remain. Things fade away. It's all pressed inside. No answer. Danger lurks; everything is terror, everything is the end. Nothing is happening. Everything is happening around us. What can we do? Join the Army? Become a lawyer for the poor? Steal and kill? Make shallow entertainment and drive flashy cars? We're helpless. We push it down. Who can we trust? The family is in jeopardy. How will it end? There is no divine justice. Life carries on. How can I sleep at night? Life ends. We love our family. Life is mundane. There is happiness. The bell rings. Life continues.
America wants closure! David Chase gave us a mirror. Bravo.
*Fact: As a child, I always played Lovin' Touchin' Squeezin' by Journey at the tableside juke box at the old Ruggeros Italian restaurant in Flint, MI (what can I say? I liked the Na-Na Na Na Na Na's). This was an eerie moment for me!