Monday, June 11, 2007

For the record, I loved it.

Much of the debate you'll hear today will revolve around the ending to one of TV's all time best series, The Sopranos. You'll probably fall into one of two camps: those who loved the ambiguous and thought-provoking nature of the ending, and those who hated it because they wanted definitive closure on the saga of Tony Soprano and family.

When the credits rolled in silence suddenly, unexpectedly, after an interminably long black, blank screen, I immediately thought of the ending to another of my favorite shows, Angel. Both ended the same way: our "protagonist," bad news and portends swirling ominously around and seemingly facing "the end," and......The End. Who lives and who dies left up to the viewer for their own interpretation.

(This, of course, was after wondering if a storm took out the satellite dish, if the cat stepped on the remote, or some other bizarre circumstance created the blackout, rather than the storytelling and stylistic choice of a true auteur).

While some in the audience may claim "cop out" and "cheat," I think it was a daring and brilliant way to go out. No matter what happened, is there any way that David Chase could have definitively "closed" the saga? Tony getting whacked by Phil's troops? Tony getting whacked by one of his own? Tony turning to the feds and going into witness protection? Tony ascending to power over both families? Tony witnessing the death of Carm, AJ and/or Meadow? A pull back in that same diner showing the biological family happily eating? Sure, these would have put a bold period at the end of the story, but after the initial shock of no tidy resolution, I think that would have been the easy way out for a show that rarely took that path and more often, mirrored life with its series of crushing heartbreaks, occasional joys and myriad unanswered questions.

Still, despite not knowing Tone's "ultimate" fate, we did see some things in the immediate family:
  • Phil is dead, and in a spectacularly brutal fashion. (say "bye bye" indeed).
  • Carmela continues to stay afloat in her self delusion, self preservation and state of partial denial, all the while initialing the covenants on her deal with the devil.
  • Meadow completes her evolution from spoiled princess to spoiled queen, asserting her egocentric delusion (becoming a lawyer because the authorities mistreated Italian Americans like her dad, at which even T rolled his eyes) over time to essentially become her mother.
  • AJ suffers through his existential crisis and depression to become the same privileged douchebag he always was. Rotten, putrid fucking genes indeed. (And how funny was it for him to lament gas guzzling SUVs and the war, only to wind up driving a BMW M3 and being the gopher for a mob backed "porn studio?")
  • Janice remains the self-absorbed bitch, just as scarred by the ghost of Livia as Tony.

Of course, we also reached definitive conclusion on a few other items:
  • Meadow absolutely cannot parallel park.
  • Pauly hates cats.
  • Mythical holy figures would have pulled in a lot of money. "One time, at the Bing ... I saw the Virgin Mary," Pauly confides in Tony. "Why didn't you say anything," Tony replies. "Fuck strippers, we coulda had a shrine, sold holy water in gallon jugs, coulda made millions." (Assuming of course, Ralphie didn't object to the virgin birth and beat her to death in the parking lot).

The tension in this episode was palpable and untenable. The multiple shadowy figures in the diner, some of whom could possibly be related to past wrongs commited by members of the "family." Who would have thought that one of the most nerve racking periods in modern television would be comprised of an inept attempt to parallel park and noshing on onion rings? But even those seemingly mundane tasks are loaded with potential metaphor. Was Mead's attempt to park symbolic of her attempt to make peace with and "fit into" the lifestyle championed by Carmela and provided by her father and her soon to be husband's family, so soon after the consequences became alarmingly real with Bobby's death, Sil's coma and hiding in safe houses? Were the onion rings, which we've rarely (if ever) seen on the show, indicative of an "ouroboros?" Does this suggest a return to the nuclear family unit after 8 years of death and mayhem? The children's return to the "nest?" The cycle of life and death? The children becoming their parents? The story, and the family (in both sense of the word) closing in on itself?

With regard to the cycles and the ouroboros, just think about the lyrics to what I'm sure is today's most googled song: Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." There's the "on and on and on and on" part of the lyrics certainly, but click the link and go read them. See if that doesn't ring any bells, particularly the passage beginning with "working hard to get my fill." Also of note: the "b-side" of the Journey song Tony chose in the jukebox was "any way you want it." Is this another directive from Chase leave the ending open to the viewer's interpretation? Some music snobs and faux hipsters may have complained about the choice of song, hoping instead for some bleak Springsteen meditation or obscure critical darling with more elitist cache, but they would have missed the point. The Sopranos would not go out with Arctic Monkey or Coldplay or the White Stripes. Journey, and that song, were a perfect choice for the moment and the absolute best use of an 80s chestnut since "Sister Christian" took on a whole new meaning with Alfred Molina, Mark Wahlberg and the guys in Boogie Nights.

As "open" as the ending was, it resembles Angel in another way, in that there's a strong case to be made that death did come, just moments after the final reel has unspooled. After all, the beginning of the season had a moment with Tony and Bobby on the lake in the boat, on Tony's birthday, meditating on what happens in death. You never hear it coming, they said. Nothing happens, they said. It just goes black, they said. If that's the case, doesn't the abrupt ending breathe life into that theory? Or does it indicate a more "meta" meaning, symbolizing the "death" of the show and the story of The Sopranos, the show? It started small, with a man, his family and some ducks. It then opened up into an epic, operatic tale, reaching backward and forward through generations; commenting on life and death; examining politics, racism, sexism and power -- all filtered through the prism of "family." And then the conclusion slowly closed around the core "family," paralleled ever so brilliantly by the comments of Phil's capo on how Little Italy is now only two blocks and a tourist attraction. Fitting that we end with only Tony and his immediate family, seemingly happy again despite the constricting pressures of their choice and lifestyle, which was truly "Made In America."

However you interpret the finale, one thing is certain. The Sopranos was a grand tale, well told.

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