INTO THE LAST MINUTE: Just another New Jersey couple named Tony and Carmela Soprano (James Gandolfini and Edie Falco) checking out the menu at Holstein's ice cream parlor on Bloomfield Avenue as HBO's historic series comes to an end. It's said that three endings were filmed. If so, this may be a scene from one of the other two because Tony is wearing a different shirt in the version the world saw last Sunday night.
New Jersey should find a way to honor The Sopranos now that the HBO series has ended its run. A tickertape parade for cast and crew and a trip to the governor’s mansion might do it. If there’s a parade, it should follow Tony’s route in the opening credits, beginning in Manhattan and proceeding through the Lincoln Tunnel and the New Jersey Turnpike tolls to Kearny, Satriale’s Pork Store and Pizzaland; but instead of heading up to the Soprano residence, the celebration should end on Bloomfield Avenue in front of Holstein’s, where the show went dark a little after 10 p.m. Sunday.
All America should celebrate this series, for that matter. On various wildly busy Soprano blogs this is already happening. Whether people are whining about the tricky, slap-in-the-face ending or praising it or shedding a tear for the show, the messages are pouring in from all over the land. When you think of the misery and mayhem we’ve been through since January 1999, at least we’ve had those 86 Sunday nights (even if some weren’t up to standard) shedding their weird grace on a benighted nation. The final episode, “Made in America,” put a fitting end to the chronicle of murder and betrayal, love and lust and family, that has become nothing less than the Great American Program.
Thanks to The Sopranos, the state of New Jersey, particularly the portion of it across the Hudson from Manhattan, has acquired charisma. What other state can make that claim? California? Please! Florida? Surely you jest. Admitted, it’s a dark, grungy sort of charisma, even Dantesque, but it’s for real. We’re on the map, we’re a significant locale, we’ve got an aesthetic identity. We’re no longer a joke.
Here’s the real joke. Fox once had its talons around The Sopranos. Series creator David Chase tells the story during an interview that is included among the Special Features in the DVD set of the first season. Fox paid for the pilot (for which we should thank them) and then rejected the series (thanks again), thereby making possible HBO’s uncut, uncensored masterpiece of television art. And as Chase tells it, one of the deciding factors was his insistence that all the filming be done in New Jersey. Icky New Jersey? That sitcom laugh track of a state? That loony loser? As far as Fox was concerned it had to be filmed in California or not at all. In delivering the edict, the Fox execs gave Chase pitying, patronizing looks. New Jersey spelled doom. Commercial disaster. When the poor deluded native of the hold-your-nose state shopped the show to the networks, they turned it down, too.
Think about it. Here’s a series whose protagonist is a beefy, seriously depressed slob who also happens to be a bully, a killer, a racist, a womanizer, a liar, and a thief, as well as a loving family man with a fondness for ducks in his swimming pool and beautiful horses. And thanks in great part to James Gandolfini’s performance, this all too human mobster, Tony Soprano, now has a place in American mythology.
Whatever message you want to read into the black-out at the end of the final episode, Tony has moved beyond life and death now; he’s a figure for the ages.
Juke Box Diner
Last week I was worried that David Chase might decide to destroy his monster. After going back to the concluding episode of the first season, however, I knew Tony had to survive. The last five minutes of Episode 13 is a microcosm of the series. Everything that has made the show an international phenomenon is there. It’s a stormy night, and after another traumatic encounter with the mother from hell, Tony is in need of his therapist but when he gets to the office she’s gone; he’d forgotten that he himself had told her to leave town for her own safety while events played out. Suddenly the storm kills the power in the building and he’s left standing, miserable, in darkness. The first season could have ended with that image of depressed frustration. But it goes on. Next we see him driving through a heavy rain with Carmela in the front seat, and the kids, A.J. and Meadow, in back. They end up at their old friend Artie’s restaurant, a calm, civilized, candlelit refuge from the storm. Artie cooks dinner for them, wine is poured, and Tony offers a moving toast to his family. “If you’re lucky, you’ll have families of your own one day,” he says, feeling each word, “and you’ll remember the little moments like this, that were good.” After an episode teeming with passion and violence, death and desperation, wordplay and wild humor, the heart of the show shines through the eyes of an inspired actor speaking those simple, beautifully felt words.
Jump from that moment to Sunday and the final moments of the series. Another family dinner is taking place, this time at Holstein’s which must be doing great business these days, an instant tourist landmark. How will the tour guides bill it? “Here is the table where Tony was sitting when he —” What? Played the jukebox and ate fried onion rings with his wife and son? As the world knows by now, the song he chooses is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” an anthem to the sentiment Tony was toasting in the earlier episode, the need to hold on to “the feeling” of the moments that were good; in case we miss this echoing of the Season One finale, A.J. reminds Tony “Didn’t you say that once? Remember the good times.” A more likely but too easy choice for an episode called “Made in America” would have been something by Bruce Springsteen, whose song, “State Trooper,” accompanies the closing credits for that Season One finale. But Journey’s lyrics indicate what Chase is up to: “The movie never ends/It goes on and on and on and on.” At the same time, the chorus permits Chase to cut everything short just as the singer is singing “Don’t stop.”
People are also complaining about the lack of closure. What would closure involve? Tony being blown away while his family watched? Or being hauled off by the feds? Or proposing a sadder, more cynical reprise of the earlier toast? For me, it’s enough when he walks into the place alone, sits down, flips through the retro tabletop select- o-matic in the booth, puts some money in the slot, and punches the buttons that deliver the music for the finale. That moment alone is enough to redeem some of the disappointments of the later seasons. It gets even better as each member of the family makes a separate entrance and sits down with a menu. After Tony comes Carmela. Then A.J. Then — oh-oh. What’s keeping Meadow? She can’t parallel park her car. It takes her three tries. She’s running in, late. A car speeds by as she hurries across the street, Tony looks up, the music stops, the screen goes black, and David Chase becomes David Lynch, the master of sinister innuendo and surreal dread. (A cat right out of Twin Peaks also turns up earlier in the episode.) We’re down to the last seconds, the gun’s loaded, the trigger’s about to be pulled, the onion ring is about to be eaten, and nothing happens. Or does it? We’ll never know. Regardless (or as the inimitable Paulie Walnuts would say, “Irregardless”) of the bloggers who insist that Chase is signifying Tony’s imminent demise here, we don’t see it, and the expression on Tony’s face is no different than it was when he looked up to see Carmela or when he looked up to see A.J.
At last count, bloggers who think the ambiguous ending is brilliant outnumber those who feel it was a cop-out or, worse, a deliberate insult to the fans expecting a bravura finale. Some viewers feel that The Sopranos is not merely sticking it to the audience but symbolically shooting it between the eyes. You’re watching and, bam, suddenly everything goes black. People reportedly clogged the phone lines of cable and satellite companies in a panic, thinking the service had gone south at the climactic moment.
According to a Fairleigh Dickinson survey conducted before the fact, people voted 2 to 1 that Tony should survive. Why do we care whether he lives or dies? Because throughout the series every time we’re thinking what a brute he is, he becomes Everyman, or Every Father, as happens when after pulling his suicidal son out of the swimming pool, he holds the sobbing child close and tells him “It’s okay, baby,” just as any loving, helpless, shaken parent would in the same situation.
Another thing that makes us feel for the man is that we see him through the eyes of his family. Last year it was their love that brought him to life after he’d been gutshot by Uncle Junior. He was on his way into the Big Casino when his loving daughter called him back.
Still, it’s hard not to be haunted by Tony’s last look. Is he staring into the face of his killer or his daughter or his future, which will almost certainly include doing some prison time? Is he waiting to die? Or is it just a slice of life moment? Or is it a slice of cake, which the creators of the show manage to “have and eat it too.”
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