Monday, June 11, 2007

The 'Sopranos' finale and our collective desire for unified closure

Thanks to Nikki Finke, the New York Daily News and literally dozens of other bloggers and disgruntled "Sopranos" viewers, I have a new favorite moronic way of approaching TV.

The headline of Finke's finale blog post: "THAAT'S What We Were All Waiting For?"

The headline of the Daily News story about unhappy fans: "We waited eight years for this?"

I could offer several other headlines from the "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children!" Ending Police, but I have a simple answer, from my point of view:

When I was watching "The Sopranos" for 86 episodes, I wasn't *waiting* for a damn thing.

Continue reading after the bump for spoilers and the rest of my rambling... Click Through...

For some reason the expectation that resolution was inevitable never played into the pleasure I took in the show's finest moments. Nor did the desire for resolution have anything to do with why I came back to the show after the lackluster fourth season or after the disappointing first half of the drawn-out sixth season. While plenty of people have certainly done so, I never spent a single solitary second deciding how I needed the series to end to justify the three-plus days of my life I spent watching the show. Would Tony Soprano die? And if so, who would kill him? If not Tony, would somebody else close to Tony die? If so, who? Would Tony end up in Witness Protection? Funny. It never struck me as being so important to get so wrapped up in any of those possibilities that the absence of such an ending could leave me disappointed. And yet others? They needed more.

In yet another sad plea to be mollycoddled, Verne Gay of Newsday writes, "Funny thing about endings - they almost always come at the end, of books, movies, poems, symphonies, you-name-it. At their best, they are cathartic. They're also a final bow to meaning, but also to the audience's participation. A recapitulation, of themes, ideas, meaning."

First, I'd introduce Verne to Beckett. It's my contention that "Waiting for Godot" has one of the five greatest endings in all of literature ("Well? Shall we go?" "Yes, let's go." [They do not move]) and that Beckett's slightly less famous "Endgame" (Last line: "You... remain") isn't bad either.

But that's not the point. In what way was the Sunday night's "Sopranos" finale *not* a "recapitulation, of themes, ideas, meanings" for the series as a whole? Was the series not always about the ongoing imprint of family in Tony's life? About the uncertainty that he faced at every second? Wasn't it always about the fear or hope of becoming as great or unstable as our parents and the fear or hope that our children would become as flawed or as confident as we are? I reckoned that's what Sunday's episode was about -- Tony and Carmella's pride at the possibility Meadow might make $170 as a lawyer, their terror at A.J. going into the military, Tony's conversations first with Janice (where she said that she'd escaped from Livia's shadow) and then with Junior (where he had no memories of anything he'd done). I actually thought that the finale was a darned solid recapitulation for a series about insecure mobsters.

And weren't certain things resolved? Blood-thirsty fans love whacking, so between Bobby dying and Silvio being shot last week and Phil getting shot and then run over this week, that ought to have been sufficient. And Tony made at deal, at least in theory, to go back into public, to escape the threat from the New York family.

And yet, as with everything in "The Sopranos," any security Tony may have felt at the end, eating the best onion rings in New Jersey with his family, was always illusory anyway. The last scene, set to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," was a masterpiece of thriller editing that verged on parody in the way "The Sopranos" always verged on parody, but generally pulled back. David Chase framed every shot to be pregnant with the possibility of tragedy -- every person in the restaurant could be the one to whack Tony, every bump in Meadow's parallel parking could be the bump that left her open to be collateral damage.

I don't buy for a second the popular online theory that Tony died at the end, that the person walking into the restaurant whacked him, but I guess that stems from that horrible need to be placated and coddled and resolved. Why would it be more satisfying for somebody -- anybody -- to kill Tony Soprano than to know that today, tomorrow, forever he'll watch every stranger and know that that unfamiliar face could be the person who ends his life?

Yes, there was something pretty darned nefarious about the way Chase wrote and directed the finale. While Finke claims that "instead of looking carefully crafted, the finale looked like it had been concocted in a day or two," I felt as if no framing or cut had been left to chance, that Chase knew that there are certain expectations for a finale and wanted to honor some -- at least a half-dozen characters and events that hadn't been mentioned in years got shout-outs -- and thwarting others. The episode's tension came from viewers assuming, hoping, dreading what might occur. "A.J.'s out in the wilderness in his SUV... Something awful's gonna happen!" "Well yeah, he didn't get laid and the SUV blew up in a fireball."

But what did Finke and Gay and all of those other people WANT (Finke's complaint that "'The Sopranos' was not a show that went on inside your head" is particularly absurd given Chase's regular reliance on dream sequences and hallucinations and philosophizing)? They wanted whatever ending they wanted and wouldn't have been satisfied with anything else anyway. And damn David Chase for his refusal to attempt to give absolutely everybody what they say this morning that they wanted all along, whatever thousand things that might mean. If Janice had killed Tony, lots of fans would have been happy, but just as many would have been annoyed. If Carmella had finally stabbed Tony, lots of fans would have yelled "I told you so!" and everybody else would have been annoyed. If Tony had gone into Witness protection, a few people would have gone "Well that was the right way for it to end," but others would have yelled, "I can't believe Paulie survived!" So rather than ending the show the way the fanboys and fangirls wanted to end it, Chase just chose to end it the way he wanted.

I haven't always loved the series, but the way it ended was just right for me.


  1. Anonymous1:26 PM

    I liked the quote from the guy in the Daily News:

    "It was the cruelest thing I've seen in my life. I'm totally disappointed,"

    All I could think was, wow, he's led a charmed life.

  2. Anonymous2:02 PM

    sorry to say, i've never watched a single episode of _the sopranos_ (maybe when *i* get *my* wasting disease), but i do like me some beckett.

    people are stupid when it comes to great art. if that's what this show was, i don't know -- but maybe it was aiming for that over the years.

    you're a stoical man, dan fienberg.

    -c., epicure.

  3. Anonymous9:33 AM

    I've only ever watched two episodes of this show (the first and the last)*, but I'm told that in the second to last episode, there's a flashback to a conversation from an earlier season where someone, basically, that when you die it's just a sudden fade to black. Assuming that's accurate, I think the ending is pretty concrete.

    Obviously, we still wouldn't know if the entire family got whacked, or if the daughter saved her self through her poor double parking, etc. but at least it's not the cliche "Lady and the Tiger" punt.

    *Yes, I understand that my opinion doesn't really matter.

  4. Devin -- the cruelest thing I've seen in my life was Aaron Boone hitting that home run off Wakefield in 2003, so my life may have been charmed as well...

    Christina -- Stoical isn't my middle name. It's actually my first. Actually Cynical is my first name. Perhaps Stoical (or "Stoic"?) is my middle name. Dan's just a nickname.

    Andrew -- There's a lot of nonsense going around the internet including that misquoting of the scene with Tony and Bobby that you mentioned along with B.S. about how the people in the restaurant were all from previous episodes. *Nothing* in the ending is concrete. It's open to interpretation and to my mind, any interpretation of Tony's whacking is just plain reductive...


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