June 14th, 2007
“The Sopranos” series finale aired last night, and reaction is decidedly split. Interestingly enough, I’m currently working at HBO, cutting a pilot for a late night series which may eventually see the light of day on sister network Cinemax. (In little more than a half hour, we’re scheduled to screen the work-in-progress for the first time, so it’s an interesting day.) Chatter around the water cooler has varied. My producer enjoyed it, with some reservations, almost talking himself into his positive review. A young guy across the hall was very disappointed and took the episode’s abrupt blackout as definitive evidence that Tony was killed. The woman in the office next door thought the finale was brilliant, but was worried by the negative response across the web. Based on my surfing, it looks mostly like a lot of snarky critics taking the opportunity to illustrate their unbelievable artistic standards. One woman wasn’t quite sure what to make of the episode, her otherwise high opinion derailed by the final moment, and another loved it without reservation.
Now, I’ve had my problems with “The Sopranos” over the years. The first rumblings of discord came with the sudden loss of Nancy Marchand’s Livea Soprano and the computer generated attempt to extend her “life.” I am not convinced that David Chase ever intended, or prepared for, a series without the central Mother/Son conflict. With this loss, the series begins to vamp and improvise as it struggles to find a new focus. This leads us into an unsatisfying extended visit from Ralph Ciffereto, lengthy, detailed portraits of fringe characters (Furio, David Scatino, Tony Blundetto) and eventually to last year’s epic tale of Vito the homosexual gangster. Over the course of the series, I felt real animosity towards the viewers: an almost sadistic refusal to dwell on any of the more “popular” elements and a mocking tone which briefly threatened to turn the whole enterprise into parody. This reached a zenith with season three’s endless fascination with Jackie Junior and kept going strong through the chaotic season four. It seemed to me that we were being punished for liking the show, and why not? Who were we to elevate this criminal scum to pop idol status?
David Chase and company excelled at drawing us in and then pushing us away. The moment we begin to truly feel for these colorful mobsters, the show smacks us in the face with the grim, hateful reality of who they really are. Like Ralph’s pregnant stripper girlfriend getting beat to death in a dingy parking lot or Sil dragging Adriana to her doom or Christopher spilling his guts and then executing his confessor. That balancing act was what made this show so special and in the end this refusal to compromise or pander (please?) stood as its final statement.
The finale was the perfect conclusion to a fine final season, one which represented a real return to form. I know we’ve grown to love these horrible people, but in the end, this was a portrait of mundane evil in triumph and a searing indictment of American society, as represented by us, the viewing public. The entire series is an allegory for our lives, our dysfunctional families and the coping mechanisms we construct to deny our essential flaws. Tony was truly “healed” by therapy (”I’m Free!”), he became a better gangster (sparing Paulie and icing Christopher), learned to express his emotions (hilariously, in front of a mortified Carmella), reconnected with family (sharing an evil laugh with Janice), moved on from his painful childhood (visiting Uncle Junior) and got his kids on the “right” path (Meadow into such a state of denial that she wants to be a lawyer to defend people like him and AJ heading away from the honorable and toward degradation/the movie business.
In the course of the finale, we are shown all the possible futures for Tony and his kind; forgotten like Uncle Junior (”You ran New Jersey”), worked-to-death like Paulie, really dead like Bobby (his funeral just another excuse to chow down) or shot down in the street like Phil Leotardo. We’ve been told time and again that there is no way out of the life. All that remains is now. Tony plays out his final moments in a surreal landscape, clever cutting making it seem as if he catches sight of himself already seated when he enters the diner. Then events unfold in time to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” as oddly familiar faces enter one after another. The feeling of dread mounts as the rest of the Sopranos arrive, and tension continues to build until we feel poised on the very precipice of certain tragedy. Just as we all are every moment of our own lives. And at the center of this final moment, is the fragile family, eating onion rings as AJ reminds his father that he taught him to cherish the good times. What else is there? So, as Journey urges us to “…hold on to that feeling,” and as dark forces swirl, be they a guy going into the john or the threat of terrorism, we are, with the sudden blackout, like Tony, suspended between life and death forever, doing our damnedest as we face an uncertain future.
EPILOGUE: Check out this thoughtful review from New York Times’ critic Matt Zoller Seitz: