Spoilers ahoy for the last episode of The Sopranos.
When the last shot of the final episode of The Sopranos, Made in America, suddenly went to black, I thought my cable or my TiVo had just shit the bed. I sat in disbelief for a number of moments as the screen stayed black, and then the silent credits ran. And then I smiled – there was no better way to end The Sopranos than that.
Over the last few years people have complained about the shambolic way The Sopranos tells stories. Folks looking for a very traditional narrative find themselves endlessly frustrated by perceived loose ends like the Russian from the excellent episode The Pine Barrens, but the truth has always been that creator and show runner David Chase has been approaching storytelling from a very different, very organic perspective – life leaves loose ends. Things are set up in life that never quite seem to pay off, that just fizzle out. And as people we don’t really have arcs, things just happen to and around us.
The moment in Made in America that encapsulates what I think The Sopranos is really about, in the long run, is the snippet of tour bus chatter overheard in Little Italy, explaining how the neighborhood had once covered 40 blocks but was now reduced to a couple of streets. Little Italy in New York is a theme park, not a neighborhood, and The Sopranos have always been interested in seeing how changes like that affect people and institutions. Chase couldn’t have known that 9/11 would happen when he began this show in 1999, but the sudden federal interest in counter-terrorism allowed him to illustrate the way the changing world affected the institution of the FBI, as clearly shown in this last season, and the show has explored change in other institutions, ranging from the Mafia to schools to even psychotherapy. The characters in The Sopranos play out their little dramas, but the show keeps reality close, on TV screens and in their dialogue, simply because that’s what everything is really about – how the forces and trends around us shape us. Or, in the case of the great Paulie Walnuts, leave us strangely untouched and unchanged. The other great long-running, culturally important TV show of my lifetime, Seinfeld, was about nothing. The Sopranos was, in a lot of ways, about everything.
The final scene of Made in America echoes previous season finales, with the family together for a meal, but this time Chase is playing with us.* He instills the scene with a deep dread – the man at the counter who keeps looking at Tony, the two black youths who come into the diner, Meadow trying to park her car is shot as if the moments she spends makes a difference – and then she runs across the street, with the menacing sound of an oncoming vehicle making us all wonder if she’s about to get hit. The last shot, though – with Journey singing the words ‘Don’t stop’ and Tony looking up at the jingling bell on the door and then – BANG! – cutting to instant black and silence, is meant to send us into a tizzy. Maybe what Chase is saying is that there’s danger all around us, and that maybe AJ wasn’t overreacting to the screwed up world around him (at least until he began losing interest in that point of view at the end of the episode), and that you just have to pay attention what’s good – hell, that’s even said out loud by AJ. But I like to think that this was Chase doing to us in a couple of minutes what his show has been doing for the last decade, teasing us, tantalizing us, getting us to the edge of our seat and then not quite paying it off. Because life’s not about the payoff. It’s about the good moments along the way.
* Props to my father for saying this first and convincing me. There are other potential ‘explanations’ for the end of the episode, and I bet the one that we will most hear is that the guy who went to the bathroom did a Michael Corleone and got a gun, or that maybe the shows’ title refers to the man sitting in a booth with the USA hat, and that one of them shoots Tony. The show, being about him, ceases to exist the second he does. That’s an ‘explanation’ that feels incredibly non-Sopranos to me.