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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The final scene of the final episode of the long-running HBO hit The Sopranos inspired thousands of fans to go to the Internet's sounding boards to complain about the choice of the series's creator, David Chase, to end it with an inconclusive blackout. For several minutes previously, he had led audience expectations up the garden path to a hecatomb of slaughter in a suburban diner before pulling the plug at what ought to have been the climactic moment. What made it worse was that Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) and his family were left having dinner together, all of them happy--and happy with each other--for perhaps the first time in the eight years and seven seasons of the show's run. This was obviously the perfect dramatic moment for the mass execution that Chase's camera had seemed to be setting us up for.

Yet I think he had several good reasons for depriving us of it. Had, for a start, the complainers forgotten how many times he has similarly teased them before? The Sopranos is nothing if not mock heroic, and the mock heroic's characteristic mode is bathos. We expect high drama, if not heroism, and we get farce. In the final episode, alone, there were several examples. We were invited to revel in the macabre comedy of the death of Tony's gangland rival Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), his head run over by his own SUV and producing a sickening crunch as it disturbed the even ride of his grandchildren, strapped into their car seats above. In another SUV--an inherently comic vehicle--Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler) was seen engaging in sexual activities with a girlfriend while parked on a lonely country road. We could feel the subtextual undertow of the teen slasher movies, in which the couple would be doomed just by being there, as well as the anticipation as smoke begins seeping into the cab of the vehicle through its air vents. Aha! Here must be the answer to the question posed implicitly in the penultimate episode when Tony told his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), "They never touch the family."

Does such gangland chivalry still apply, or are we now living in a more brutal world?

We never find out here any more than we do in the disputed ending. It's all a false alarm. The smoke comes from A.J.'s having parked the SUV on a pile of dead leaves, which its overheated catalytic converter has then set fire to. As the kids scramble out of the car and down the hill, they watch as it catches fire and explodes, the very image of Mafia murders by car bombs in The Godfather and other films. Except that it's not a Mafia murder but a bathetic suburban accident caused by heedless affluence.

"I'm depressed," moans A.J. when his parents scold him for his carelessness. "I'm supposed to worry about catalytic converters?" That's The Sopranos in a nutshell: The heroic turning into a mockery of itself--usually with the help of therapeutic psychobabble--at (almost) every turn, while still attempting to cling to its heroic dignity.

The Sopranos is also soap opera--perhaps the greatest soap opera ever. Way back in season one, in 1999, Chase and his team had penned a hilarious exchange between the gangster and aspiring screenwriter, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), and his fellow gang member, popularly known as Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico), in which Christopher tries to explain to Paulie what a character's "arc" is.

"Like, everybody starts out somewheres, then they do somethin', or somethin' gets done to them that changes their life," he says. "You see the arc? He starts down here," holding his hand in front of his face, "and he ends up here," moving his hand upward. "Where's my arc, Paulie?"

It takes Paulie to point out to him the difference between art--which he calls "make-believe"--and life.

"Hey, I got no arc, either. I was born, grew up, spent a few years in the Army, few more in the can--and here I am, a half a wise guy. So what?"

Of course, what Christopher is looking for is art's meaning in his life. But life is more like soap opera than art. It tends to flatten out those arcs of meaning because its characters have to keep coming back and doing the same things over and over again, week after week, season after season. They start out here and end up--nowhere, just as the series itself does. It was the genius of David Chase from the start to redeem soap opera for serious art, as Hamlet redeemed the popular revenge tragedy of the Elizabethans, and in a similar way. As Journey put it in the song, "Don't Stop Believing," that Tony plays on the diner's jukebox during the final sequence:

Some will win, some will lose

Some were born to sing the blues

Oh, the movie never ends

It goes on and on and on and on