Note: if you’ve never watched through The Sopranos, I’m gonna be majorly spoiling the ending here, as per the title of the article. So go do that then come back.
There were two creators who essentially put HBO on the map as a place to get things besides boxing matches, second run movies and softcore porn. They’re Garry Shandling and David Chase. Both brought wholly new things to the TV medium but couldn’t have come from more different perspectives on it. Shandling took TV seriously as a place to create deep intricate work long before anybody else did and he did so out of a reverence for the medium, even if that reverence seemed to curdle over time.
Chase created great TV in order to spite the medium. Chase was getting even for not being afforded the opportunity to work in film. Ironically, in doing so he set the stage for TV to rise in social prominence beyond the feature film. He showed where TV was actually a more dynamic medium that had distinct formal strengths feature film didn’t. And in the time since The Sopranos aired, I can’t think of a year where more interesting things were going on in the feature film world than on TV.
The Sopranos, for being the supposed original epicenter of “binge TV”, isn’t actually that bingeable. This is one of its strengths. It meanders. It’s savoring the freedom afforded by premium cable because that freedom wasn’t a given at the time. Even though there’s a decent amount of “action”, it moves more slowly than any major show in the US TV canon besides maybe the original run of Star Trek. The “grand themes” that arise feel natural because they arose, like the “grand themes” in any work, as a continuity in the preoccupations of its creator.
I don’t envy him and his writer’s room however when it came time to wrap things up.
There’s a certain joy that comes in seeing a grand plan executed with intent and intricacy. But at the same time, this can lead to a show that feels like examining the insides of a watch-you’re impressed by how many purposeful little things can harmoniously share a small space, but whatever emotional impact is going to be blunted by the image of the perfect distancing you from the impacts of the real. A loose end makes a world seem larger and more mysterious, a Chekhov’s gun reminds me I’m in a theater.
The Sopranos is not an intricately designed show, just an emotionally honest one. Like a therapy session, it confronts things because they’re unresolved. It doesn’t force resolution as an orgasm substitute. If something doesn’t seem to want to resolve, they just…don’t resolve it. Where’s the Czech guy in the woods at the end of the episode “Pine Barrens”? Who knows. Who cares.
This comfort with a lack of resolution led to what I’m here to talk about today-the finale. It’s probably the most iconic TV finale ever aired. But it’s confusing. It doesn’t give you what you’ve been trained to want from an ending, and seems ambivalent about the idea of endings in general.
I’ll try to summarize it here. After a bloody turf war that seems poised to bring down the Soprano crime organization, we cut ahead to some unspecified time in the future. We watch the Soprano family members gather to meet in a cheesy diner. This takes quite a while. We’re watching Meadow attempt to park her car for longer than I’ve seen anyone park a car on TV without it crashing into something or exploding. Once they’re in the restaurant, an interior set we’ve never seen before, Tony tells us the onion rings there are great. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey comes on. In perhaps the single most Godardian moment ever shown on US TV, Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop–” and the show stops. Literally. There’s just black leader and silence.
Many people watching at home reported thinking their TV had died. Most presumed the ending was a bluff or a petering out-an admission that tying the whole thing up in a neat little bow was in fact impossible. Maybe it was.
I don’t think it was though. I think if we analyze the Sopranos ending the way we’d analyze a European art movie from the 70s, it all comes together pretty neatly for something as sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies as The Sopranos.
As Stan mentioned in his piece on the show, the primary conflict/theme is inter-generational differences. Tony can’t escape the overbearing shadow of his mother and father, his children can’t escape the fact their prosperous childhood was built on blood money. The thing that allows them all to continue on as they have forever is simultaneously what keeps them from breaking through to some sort of happiness.
In the final season we are repeatedly faced with changes of the guard; things moving forward regardless of characters’ wishes. In some sense, overcoming trauma is an act of positive forgetting. You don’t have memories, you clutch them. At a certain point that little voice in your head that sounds like Marie Kondo is telling you to let them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem; your identity is often tied up in your resentments. Sometimes you need a push.
In the case of Tony Soprano, the memory of his trauma is one and the same as his identity and personal code; in spite of his performances of power, he is entirely a product of his environment. As it is for many of us, his “big other” in Lacanian terms, the invisible imagined voice pestering him about what is and isn’t acceptable, are his dead father and mother. They’re the memory of the old country, heritage, the extent to which we are disallowed from self-invention from the outset.
Artie the chef, Tony’s comic foil, is allowed to come to actual peace with this-the last time we see him, even with his bandaged hand, he seems fine and is perusing the book of recipes he inherited. He’s allowed to take from the old world while living in the new one.
When Tony’s mother dies, Tony’s resentment is passed to his sister and Uncle Junior. When times get lean, Tony realizes on some level his commitment to the old ways is holding him back. When Tony sees Uncle Junior has lost all his memories and doesn’t remember who Tony even is, Tony suddenly feels fine selling the old egg store to Jambha Juice. Seeing Uncle Junior has gone completely senile is Tony cutting his ties to the past, killing Christopher is him cutting ties to its continuance-the past’s future if you will. And the meetings with Jambha Juice underscore just how little relevance the way of life we’ve followed throughout the entire series had. A new set of kingpins, with vastly more money and the power to just take more money legally, will make the Italian mob irrelevant. The new lieutenants and capos are lawyers and executives. The new world will reign regardless of what Tony does. The criminal syndicates to beat now aren’t a bunch of elderly Italian guys in New Jersey, but the politicians waging an illegal war in Iraq-the irony of AJ being gung ho to join the military. He’d still be killing people so crooks could collect money, he’d just be doing it outside the family, for an organization that values snitches.
Throughout the show, we see all the horrific ways the sausage gets made so that this family can sit in average-ness at a generic diner. The mob family is no longer around, only the immediate nuclear family. The cycle of horror will continue, but the way of life of the old country is dead.
Maybe on some level Tony even realizes that if his kids succeed in the way he wants them to, the old country will be lost anyway. Meadow’s taking about as whitebread a third generation immigrant path as you can take in the finale. They were Italians but they’re Italian-Americans now.
Might as well enjoy some onion rings…