The Magazine

So Long, Tony

Even 'the greatest soap opera ever' must come to an end.

Jul 9, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 40 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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Actually, the movie does end, as Christopher was aware. It's life--and soap opera--that goes on and on and on and on, which is why we love it. Now it can go on and on even when it's off. What more perfect ending than to leave them all in the diner, their mouths stuffed with the best onion rings in the state of New Jersey, with such an obvious artifice that we can't help being reassured? As always, the danger and the drama dissolve into bathos and absurdity before they can produce anything so uncongenial to our post-heroic world as meaning.

And yet I think there was a resolution, or arc, though perhaps an inadvertent one, that was no less emphatically inscribed for being (so far) unnoticed. It came with A.J.'s announcement that he intended to join the Army. This was a stunning reversal of form for that whiny youth, who had spent the last several weeks battling depression after a break-up with a fiancée, attempting suicide (not very persuasively), and moaning about all the suffering in the world. Now his decision presented his parents with the choice they had been avoiding for eight years. Are they still part of the old honor culture of their Sicilian forebears, or have they definitively entered the contemporary world of consumerist America, a world of feelings, individualism, and therapy?

Faced with the unavoidable choice at last, they did not hesitate. Rather than allow A.J. to become "cannon fodder" in Iraq, as Tony puts it, they are prepared to bribe him with a new BMW and a busy-work job on a trashy movie even worse than Cleaver, the sole creative product of the long search for an "arc" of his now-deceased cousin, Christopher--a movie that Tony so hated that he ultimately killed Christopher. A.J. happily takes the bribe.

Tony has, of course, been ambivalent about the mob's honor culture from the beginning. That's the point of his visits to his shrink, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco). His killing of Phil also removed what the series has presented to us as the only unambiguous representative of the old, unforgiving macho standards left in gangland: The man who had ordered the torture and murder of Vito Spatafore (Joseph Gannascoli) out of disgust for his homosexuality, and who had lost all respect for his former boss, Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni (Vincent Curatola), because he wept as the feds dragged him away from his daughter's wedding. The only reason that peace is restored and Tony prevails is that Phil's own men have come to see him as dangerously extreme--a throwback. The real farewell to the old world comes with Tony's visit to his senile uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) in the nursing home: "You and my dad, you two used to run North Jersey," says Tony with a tear in his eye.

"We did?" says the uncomprehending capo. "That's nice."

But it's all over now. Tony's was the only ending possible for an American hero for more than half-a-century. Like the last of the cowboys riding into the sunset, he must not die but just fade away. And for the same reason: His world is past. There were heroes in it, we admit; men who were larger than life. We can't let them go without a pang of regret. But we want them gone. Them and all they stood for.

Tony Soprano was such a hero. He wasn't a good man, but he was a free man--free not by constitutional arrangement but as the heroes of old were free: because they had mastered other men by the strength of their arms and the keenness of their wit. Blowing him away would, paradoxically, have brought him and that world back. It would have acknowledged that the heroic lives on at a time when so many of us--like Tony and Carmela contemplating A.J. in uniform--want it and its terrifying demands on us gone more than ever.

So let him disappear while he's happy in his choice of the comfortable, unheroic age that has made his heritage--and, to a disturbing extent, that of his country and his country's wars--obsolete.

James Bowman is the author, most recently, of Honor: A History.