Thursday, June 14, 2007

She took a midnight train going anywhere

No further proof is needed of David Chase's genius than his ability to turn eight seconds of a silent, black screen into the most talked-about scene of the year. One cannot Google "Sopranos final scene" without being inundated with angry, profane message board posts condemning series creator David Chase with a level of vitriol usually reserved for kiddie rapers and George Lucas. Nobody predicted those final moments, but if someone had, I'd have dismissed the notion as pretentious nonsense. Now, I can't imagine The Sopranos ending any other way. What began as a scabrous black comedy sold on its high concept ("If one family doesn't kill him, the other will" - yuk yuk!) expanded in scale and ambition over the years, becoming an uncompromising lesson in darkness worthy of mention alongside its oft-referenced progenitors. Now that the series is over, we've just begun to fully absorb and process its brilliance, up to and including a final cut that quietly redefines what television is capable of.

Early in "Made in America," Agent Harris (Matt Servitto) warns Tony, "you're reaching." This is Chase's advice to us, as well - the air of impending doom hanging over the entire episode, while suggested by the weirdly off-kilter editing rhythms, is completed by our own simultaneous fear and desire to see Tony Soprano violently offed. It doesn't happen, at least not before the credits roll (we're getting there); nor does Tony join the witness protection program or start a full-scale war. And, frankly, that's for the best - do we really want to see these bloated, middle-aged schlubs gasping for breath as they bloody up the streets of New Jersey? Chase has smartly sated our bloodlust in the previous episode, and in the Pythonesque death of New York boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) in this one. The world of The Sopranos is as it has always been; the resolution of the New York/New Jersey conflict plays out quickly, with little pause, in a dingy garage in the middle of nowhere. These guys are dinosaurs, and as Chase repeatedly shows us - with one of Phil's crew accidentally wandering out of a Little Italy growing smaller and smaller, with both Tony and Phil's inability earlier this season to reason with a pouting, indifferent Juggalo - they're on their way out. Say goodbye to Grandpa, indeed.

When AJ lashes out at a table of mourners for their superficial chatter about "jack-off fantasies on television," it's hard not to feel like Chase is chastising us. But the truth is more complicated; as ambivalent as he may be about The Sopranos' popularity among those who get off on the violence and complain about the artsy-fartsy stuff, he isn't out to punish his audience. Agent Harris' exclamation - "We're going to win this one!" - and his investment in Tony's continued survival is meant to mirror our own relationship to the big guy. We care about Tony, his crew and his family for the same reason we care about Tom Powers, Tony Montana and Henry Hill; no matter how many sins they commit, it's encouraging to see the little guy succeed, his problems so managable compared to our world's. Chase goes out of his way to avoid glorifying his characters' actions, but he's not sanctimonious either, allowing each character a fond farewell (Paulie and the cat - perfect). While Dr. Melfi may be able to close the door on Tony, it's hard for us to do the same (this is largely due to James Gandolfini's performance, one for the ages). We may find ourselves wishing, as Steve Perry once did, that the movie will never end.

Which brings us to that final scene. If I had to choose, I think that final cut to black signifies Tony's sudden death at the hands of an unnamed hitman in a Members Only jacket, if for no other reason than last week's flashback to Bobby's line "You never hear it coming." At the same time, there's just as strong an argument to be made that Chase is merely playing with our expectations. I mean, it's not like Bobby Baccalieri is John the Baptist. And Members Only's visit to the bathroom does echo The Godfather, except that there's no reason for him to be hiding his weapon in the john. But this is what the scene is about - Chase gives us a grab bag of signifiers relying not only on our knowledge of The Sopranos but on our collective cultural knowledge (this has always been a big part of the show). Knowing that we're watching the last minutes of the last episode gives every moment mythic significance, with "Don't Stop Believin" elevated to the level of an all-too-ironic Greek chorus. We're conditioned to expect the worst; it's impossible to watch a family, numb but still alive, munch onion rings without anticipating a dramatic twist of fate. And it is here that Chase succeeds in truly putting us inside the mind of his protagonist, who will always be looking over his shoulder.

The question that final cut leaves us to ask is whether things are as bad as we perceive them to be. Are we reaching? It's perhaps the most important question of our age, one that we'll do anything to avoid. So the final scene is radical not just in form but in the questions it leaves us; the rabid discussion isn't just about The Sopranos, it's a confession of our need, more than ever, for resolution. I felt that way too, as every last detail - Carmela's vacant, icy stare (Edie Falco deserves a better award than a frigging Emmy), the small flick of Tony's wrist as he dispatches another onion ring - was invested with unbelievable poignance. The Sopranos is one of the great American stories. I hate to see it end. And then

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