Fade to Absence: The Sopranos ends
So, several years behind the rest of the so-called civilized world that includes America, I have finally watched the final episode of the Sopranos. Including it’s infamous ending, for which let’s just not bother with spoiler alerts because the show ended like 8 years ago.
In the ending, which has been built up to for years and specifically paved by the prior season, Tony Soprano is sitting in a diner with most of his nuclear family in a rare happy and peaceful moment when all is visibly okay. They are listening to “Don’t Stop Believing” on the table jukebox, a man with ambiguous and possibly ominous importance walks past him at the table, and his daughter Meadow is presumably about to enter the diner when…the screen cuts to black. And that’s it.
Which is kind of funny in it’s own way. A prank, a stunt ending. But as a story ending, it’s not satisfying. David Chase, the writer-director-producer, has said that he didn’t want a more resolved ending for artistic reasons. I’ve previously considered that this might really have been a cop-out, a way of avoiding the pressure to create an ending that would satisfy the viewers of a very beloved show. But I reserved judgement until now.
Death, randomness and the search for meaning has been part of this show from the beginning. And it continued and increased as the show went on. David Chase layers strong hints about the final scene throughout the earlier episodes that season. Characters repeatedly mention how when someone is killed, they might not even hear the shot. In an earlier episode, Tony Soprano’s own lieutenant Silvio only realizes that a shooting is occurring when he discovers the red fluid that’s splashed on his face is not wine, but someone else’s blood. Then in the episode right before the finale, Tony’s brother-in-law is shot *and then*, while dying, flashes back to talking with Tony about not even hearing the death shot. Finally, before the final scene, Tony’s nemesis Phil Leotardo is blindsided and falls dead without even seeing the gun – in front of what passes for Phil’s family, his mistress and her children in the car.
Several times also in the last episode, Tony Soprano does not notice people coming up behind him in public – building up the idea that he is perhaps distracted and unawares.
Also leading up to the finale, several other long-standing story tensions resolve. Soprano’s therapist finally ends her interaction with Tony. His own son AJ appears to finally have found a good course, and a good girl to travel on it with, and is at some peace. Tony Soprano’s frenemesis uncle, at the end of his own days in a state home, doesn’t even remember Tony – or his *own* life as a mob boss. He isn’t even angry.
The message being that all of these things we think are so important in life, both good and bad, are all dross, to be dropped off on our way to whatever else may happen. So why even bother with the ugliness? If none of it lasts anyway, why not live lightly and with love and beauty? A strong view, but one worth considering and with it’s own merits in a very real sense. A 21st century mafia-gilded Buddhist conversation.
So with all this build up towards a powerful ending, both in plot and theme, why end it so ambiguously? There was an ending right there – built up from the straight, conventional, and brilliant storytelling all the way to this point. It’s not like Chase chickened out because he didn’t *have* an ending, as I thought before seeing the last season. He has a *strong* ending there, that he meticulously built up to. Why end up denying the audience that climax?
The best clue I have been pointed to is from an interview with David Chase, where he said:
“There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony facedown in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head…The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been peoples’ alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. […] The pathetic thing—to me—was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”
I think that David Chase was angry at his audience. For many years he gave them a humanized portrait of a sociopath, a man doing awful things to everyone around him, living as king rat among a crew of base parasites with their own deep human issues they compounded through denial. All the while, Tony justified it by being a family man. Many in the audience didn’t take this metaphor as a way to examine the ugliness we all can have in ourselves, that we can let run free by indulging in denial. Instead, they appeared to skip Chase’s intended points to enjoy the vicarious thrills and dreams of being a mob boss. To live the fantasy of being powerful, brutal and unbound by conscience, while able to retain just enough fingernail’s grasp on their conscience to exercise it in ineffective ways. And most of that to obtain an “I’m really a good guy inside” excuse to continue acting like a horrible asshole the rest of the time. The Archie Bunker problem, where people can take a humanized portrait of a person gone wrong and agree with his wrongness rather than go through painful recognition of that wrongness in themselves.
The time-honored way for humans to vicariously enjoy a character doing horrible things and still feel good about themselves and the world, is to ultimately experience and relish the destruction of that character. Internally, they get to binge on those feelings they deny they have, and then purge them so they feel they’ve purged their badness. Externally, they get to feel reassured that the world will by itself bring a justice which even Tony Soprano can’t deny.
And if the ending were to go in the other direction, the audience would see Tony have a relatively smooth ending for all the horrible shit that he put himself, his family, and the innocents around him through, and not get the point either.
So I do think this ending was in a real sense David Chase’s “fuck you” to his audience. “Yes there is an ending to this. And it’s really not that ambiguous. Tony Soprano is probably killed in that diner, in front of his family. But I’m choosing not to make that certain, because so many of you shown you’re not responsible enough to handle that resolution. You deserve to wonder, and not only because that’s how life really is, but because way too many of you enjoyed this show for reasons I don’t like.” And maybe he was even thinking “Hopefully, if I deny you some resolution here then you might not close the book on the ugliness in all of us that I tried to show you with 6 seasons of Tony Soprano and his gang of colorful sociopaths.”
And so, to that point, in a story sense it’s not a good ending. It’s a *deliberately bad* ending.
In which case, because I think I understand where the ending is coming from, I finally do artistically respect it. Because at least, it was not chickening out.
[Originally written on August 25th, 2015]