21 July 2007

Woke Up This Morning

Monday, June 11, 2007

Last night's brilliant installment of The Sopranos, the series' last episode and one of its best, has stirred up a bit of controversy this morning. At issue is the final scene, which played against viewer expectations, not only avoiding the expected melodramatic spectacle but ultimately cutting out in abrupt fashion (anyone who doesn't want to know what happened should check out here).

Going in to last night's finale, I was afraid we might be in for a slow and ponderous affair, particularly given the dire events of the previous week's episode—one of the most brutal and death-haunted of the entire series, which ended with Tony going to sleep in a safe house, holding a shotgun across his chest. The finale opens with the same image, but despite some dark moments, stays light on its feet—indeed, what with A.J. accidentally blowing up his car, some business involving Paulie Walnuts and a stray cat, and a memorable scene in which the villainous Phil Leotardo is dispatched in signature macabre fashion, this was one of the funnier episodes of the final season.

By the final scene, Tony's crew has reached a truce with the New York mob but he's learned that one of his associates is testifying before a federal grand jury, raising the specter of a likely criminal indictment. He arrives at the quaint-looking diner where he's meeting his family for dinner. Soon Carmela and then A.J. join him. The camera keeps cutting away to suspicious-looking strangers all over the diner, including a shady-looking character who walks into a men's room, unmistakably echoing the oft-alluded-to shooting scene from the first Godfather. There is also some crosscutting between the restaurant and the street outside, where a frustrated Meadow is making repeated attempts to parallel park. The editing is nervous and it's clear that we, the viewers, are running out of time. Will she make it in time? In time for what? Finally she gets the car parked and heads for the restaurant. Back inside we hear the front door's chime, prompting Tony to raise his gaze toward the doorway . . . and then nothing. A blank screen for several seconds. What happened? But then the credits roll, and the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television has come to an end with an unanswered look—in cinematic terms, a shot without a reverse shot. Does Tony see something horrible? Or is it finally the hit, the one you never see coming? Maybe, but there's no reason to think so. Most likely it's just Meadow coming through the door, better late than never.

Some commentators are bemoaning the lack of either narrative resolution or crowd-pleasing spectacle (an argument that takes its most venal form in the suggestion that David Chase somehow "owed" a big finish to HBO subscribers—the popular arts apparently being, like pretty much everything else in America, first and foremost a consumer product). Some are even likening the ending to the almost universally despised Seinfeld finale from nine years ago, which likewise played against audience expectations. But the comparison doesn't fly. The Seinfeld ending felt empty and forced because its tone was completely different from that of any other scene in the history of the show. The opposite is the case here—Chase may be needling the viewer a bit with all the red herrings in the final scene, but he's doing so precisely by appealing to the cinematic codes he's created over the past eight years—the same nervous cuts, looks, and gestures that might have preceded a whacking in a previous episode are here absorbed into an atmosphere of more generalized paranoia. As ever on this most Freudian of dramas, no anxiety is ultimately resolved, only repressed for future recycling. The show doesn't even really end; it just stops.

It's an ending far truer to the spirit of the series than some nihilistic (or moralistic) spectacle would have been. The last nine episodes have made it clear—if indeed it wasn't before—that The Sopranos is less a mob drama than a dissection of the contemporary upper-middle-class American family. The scathing critique of American moral blindness manifests itself not only in Tony's sociopathic acquisitiveness, but also Carmela's self-serving rationalizing, the forcible suprression of any occasional qualms about where her lifestyle comes from—a quality apparently inherited by Meadow, who gives an eyebrow-raising speech in the finale about how seeing her father's supposedly unfair treatment by the authorities, which she frames as a mere consequence of his being "Italian," inspired her to study law. Clearly, it's time to close ranks. Only A.J. is able to see beyond the horrible moral logic of The Family, albeit in halting and callow fashion—his recent suicide attempt and newfound obsession with Islamist terrorism represent a sort of return of the repressed—but he too is finally bought off; Tony and Carmela dissuade him from enlisting in the army to fight terrorists in Afghanistan by getting him a job on a movie set.

Despite lives scarred by violence and horror, the Sopranos continue to float through reality on a tide of affluence, paying no heed to the forces that may be closing in. In a minor stroke of genius, the final scene is set to the Journey anthem "Don't Stop Believing" (which Tony plays on the diner's jukebox), recontextualized here as an ironic commentary on dunderheaded American optimism. Friends and relatives are dead and Tony may soon be headed for trial, but the family endures, suspended in time, waiting for the other shoe to drop, the reverse shot. As Sydney Pollock put it in Eyes Wide Shut, "Life goes on. It always does. Until it doesn't."

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