Comedy: On the Ending of The Sopranos
by Wayne Studer
So The Sopranos, one of the finest dramatic television series ever, has come to an end. And a lot of people are rather unhappy about how it ended. I have to confess I was one of thembut only for less than 24 hours. Then I had an epiphany. Now I'm not upset about it at all. Allow me to explain, first providing my initial reaction and then my subsequent realization that, in effect, "saved" The Sopranos for me.
Part 1: My Initial Reaction
The last five minutes or so of The Sopranos were nothing short of brilliant. Insidiously so. Tony Soprano, recently and still quite possibly a marked man, sits alone in a booth at a diner, waiting for his wife and children to join him. He's surrounded by strangers, many of whom the camera briefly focuses on, glancing at them in the same way that the understandably nervous mob boss is himself glancing at them. He picks a song from the booth jukebox: Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." It starts to play, thereby becoming the soundtrack for the final moments of the series.
More strangers enter, some of whom look decidedly suspicious. Tony continues to glance around nervously. The tension mounts. Tony's wife, Carmela, enters and joins him, sitting across from him in the booth. They engage in small talk. Again the camera shifts to quick glimpses of others around them, some of whom exchange furtive glances back at the camera. Their son A.J. enters and sits down with them.
The tension continues to mount, heightened further by what's going on outside. Tony and Carmela's daughter, Meadow, is having trouble parallel parking her car. She tries repeatedly without success. Again and again she attempts to park to her satisfaction, but again and again fails. We feel her frustration at her inability to do this relatively simple thing.
"What's going on?" we ask ourselves. Is she in immediate danger? Is this parking delay increasing the risk to her? Or are her family members inside the ones in greater danger? Will her parking problems prove her salvation?
Finally Meadow gets her car parked. She jumps quickly from her car and hurries toward the diner. The tension is unbearable. Tony glances up. Meadow bolts through the door. Then, just as the Journey song hits the words "Don't stop "it stops. The screen suddenly goes black.
The Sopranos has ended.
It was all a tease, those last few minutes. We were blatantly, cleverly manipulated into feeling tremendous tensionover nothing. And, just then, I felt much the same way about the entire series. It was all a tease.
Now, a number of people have speculated that the reason for the abrupt ending and the screen going black is because Tonyperhaps along with his entire family, Meadow the possible exceptionwas suddenly killed. After all, several episodes earlier, Tony and his brother-in-law Bobby were out on a boat wondering aloud what it must be like to die suddenly. They figure that in many cases it happens so suddenly that you don't even hear the gunshot (or explosion, as it were) that kills you. So, from Tony's perspective, if he were to die suddenly from a gunshot to the head or an explosion in the diner, the screen would indeed instantly go silent and black.
It's of course a matter of interpretation. Ultimately, as another commentator has already put it, "The ending is what you want it to be." Fair enough. I'll resist the temptationonly a temptationto call such an ending evidence of intellectual laziness and/or unwillingness to artistically commit. Let's set matters of interpretation aside. What do we know? What is indisputable?
Years before, Tony's monstrously self-pitying, manipulative mother Livia lay ill in her hospital bed. She was telling her grandson A.J. that "life is a big nothing"words that would later haunt him to the point of near-suicide. It had long seemed that those words merely expressed the toxic philosophy of a patholgically cynical old woman. But it would now seem that the same philosophy pervaded The Sopranos overall. It was all a big nothing.
Ultimately, as far as we can tell for sure, nothing really happened, at least not from the perspective of the central character, Tony Soprano. In the end he doesn't seem substantially different from how he was the first time, at the start of the series, that he set foot in his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi's office. He doesn't appear to have grown or even significantly changed one iota. If anything, he's worse, having caused, either directly or indirectly, countless deaths around him, including the deaths of some of those closest to him, his biological nuclear family excepted.
I had expected Tony either to change or, that failing, to meet his just comeuppance, either through death or the American legal system. And, to be sure, there's a possiblemind you, only possibleindictment hanging over his head at the end. But that's not enough. When you get right down to it, Tony endures. That's all we know. Everything else is speculation.
There are those who would chide me for expecting a conventional moralistic conclusion. "Life's not really like that," they would say. "Justice isn't always meted out to villains or anti-heroes. Life's not wrapped up like that with neat little ribbons of morality."
No, it's not. But The Sopranos wasn't life. It was art, or at least it aspired to be. And I would argue that, in the end, it essentially failed as great art. It failed as great art because it was a tease. It was all a tease.
Or maybe you would disagree with my valuation of The Sopranos as art. OK. Let's just call it a story. Good stories have good endings. The Sopranos didn't.
Antigone walks out of her cave. Hamlet survives his duel with Laertes. Ahab lives to slaughter more whales. Gatsby gets out of his swimming pool and goes on to throw more and bigger parties.
No? OK, so they all died. At least Tony Soprano is sitting in the diner with his family, getting ready to enjoy a pleasant if unspectacular meal. That's all we know. Everything else is speculation.
And what about that Journey song? Just what is it that were supposed to not stop believing in? Tony Soprano?
At least when Macbeth says in his famous soliloquy that life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," we have the sense that he has perceived his folly. He knows that all he has done, all he has achieved, all the lives he has destroyed, was all for naught. Macbeth is forced to confront the big nothing of his existence. But, conversely, what Shakespeare does with that artistic existence is anything but nothing. We, the audience, learn and are enobled by vicariously experiencing Macbeth's tragic rise and fall.
What have we learned from Tony Soprano? Nothing. Have we been enobled by him? Not one bit. Livia was victorious in the end. Life really is a big nothing.
Part 2: My Epiphany
But then, while showering the next morningideas so often come to me in the shower, Lord only knows whyit suddenly hit me. I was still viewing The Sopranos as I had all along. I was judging it as a tragedy, which is what I had always expected it to be. A tragedy with comic elements, to be sureTony and his crew could be every bit as comic as they were evil, and Livia Soprano, for all of her monstrous pathology, was a brilliantly comic creation that could at times be downright hilariousbut a tragedy nonetheless.
As tragedy, The Sopranos had failed.
But what if it weren't a tragedy? What if it were actually a comedy? A very, very, very dark comedy?
And suddenly the ending all made sense. In comedies the central characters emerge triumphant. And Tony triumphs. The New York mob boss, Phil Leotardo (a very comic name*), who had put the hit out on him has himself been shot and killed. In a truly warped coup de grace, he even has his head crushed under the wheels of his SUV.
Now that's some darkly funny shit.
Better yet, Tony's kids look as though they're going to turn out OK after all. Meadowalways the most decent major character on the showis poised to marry a fellow mobster scion who has every indication of being a genuinely nice, successful, and, most importantly, law-abiding guy. She, like him, is lined up for a career in law. (The irony of it!) Meanwhile, things are even looking up for Tony's ne'er-do-well son A.J. Thanks to Dad's connections, he's got himself a film-industry job that seems right for him. He's somewhat happy for the first time in who knows how long. And, finally, Tony and Carmela's marriage, never exactly on bedrock, appears at least as solid as it has ever been.
Thus The Sopranos fadesor, more accurately, cuts abruptlyto black.
Things are looking pretty good for our favorite Mafia family. And for those of
us who want a little more justice in our art, there's that indictment hanging
over Tony's head. But for now, at least, it's Sopranos triumphant. Our
Yes, it's only as a comedy that The Sopranos succeeds artistically. In fact, it's only as a comedy that it seems to make much sense.
I'm still not sure what it is that I'm supposed to not stop believing in. Maybe just in humanity's endless, darkly comic capacity to mold beauty and delight out of even the foulest of substances. Or out of nothing at all.
*The Sopranos often featured character names with comic connotations of varying degrees of subtlety. The choice of the name "Soprano" itself for the central character and his family was intensely ironic. Dr. Melfi's surname echoed the obscene acronym MILF, and Tony indeed repeatedly expressed his desire to have his sexual way with her, though he never did.
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