The genius of David Chase, the originator of The Sopranos, was never more evident than in the last episode of the series. I viewed it with an earnest and cosmopolitan young man and his lady, and we wondered, as we waited for the show to start, what would the final act do to Tony Soprano. Speculation in the press had offered three alternative endings: (1) Tony is killed; (2) Tony survives and kills the leader of the other gang; (3) Tony makes a deal with the FBI.
None of these happened. What happened in the final scene was — nothing.
The “nothing” was brilliantly set up. Tony is sitting in a booth in a restaurant. At some point, two burly men made to order for killing fields come into the restaurant and sit down at another table.
Soon Tony’s wife arrives and sits down next to him. Then their son arrives and takes a seat. The only family member missing is the daughter. You are looking at your watch and there are only two minutes left in the hour. Where is the wretched Meadow? Well, we see her. She’s outside, having a hard time parking her car. She doesn’t quite make it into the space on the first attempt, so she has to try again. Backing a car up when there are only nine seconds to go before Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, or Hiroshima, can make for the slowest parking backup in history, which Meadow’s was. But she succeeds, finally, and walks toward the restaurant.
The camera idles toward the entrance, and you rap your watch because it is showing only 15 seconds to go! Then suddenly you are looking at an entirely black screen. The Sopranos is over. And nothing has changed.
That was the genius, the parable, of the most successful television drama in history, giving the viewer hour after hour, year after year, exploitation of sex, exhibitionism, murder, sadism, cynicism and hypocrisy. And, according to David Chase, we are to remember that such is as it is. There was no pictorial, no dramatic end to The Sopranos because its point was to depict life (a) as practiced by the Mafia, and (b) as tolerated, and in fact swooned over, by the viewing public.
What theatrical obligation is there to call an end to it? To do that courts censoriousness, self-doubt.
Commenting on an episode in Year Three (there were eight years total), I wrote of a scene involving a younger member of the gang conspicuous mostly for his fearless swagger. He is enraged when a girl utters an obscenity at his expense. In some detail, we are shown how he hits and clubs her — to death, we discover moments later when Tony comes on the scene.
Tony is angered by his lieutenant’s loss of control and hits him hard enough to cause Tony’s wrist to swell. Moments later, Tony wearily laments the transgression of his junior killer, who in beating the girl mortally committed an offense against the Soprano protocols. The reproach brings instant surrogate action, and we have the pleasure of viewing the quick execution of retributory justice, though for some reason, the viewers were deprived by Mr. Chase of a nice visual of the execution.
The sophistication of the Mephistophelian creator of The Sopranos was never underrated. The language is purely instrumental, even when the dialogue is between Tony and his resourceful shrink. What the language itself doesn’t communicate, facial muscles eloquently tell us. There is no face in Madame Tussaud’s that combines better than Tony Soprano’s the acceptance of irony, the grit of resolution, the trivialization of theft and murder. There is true underworld humor, and you are free to liberate yourself from the drag of orthodoxy as one more pistol shot explodes into the face of a character whose time is up, and who falls under the wheels of a car on the move.
If one of the burly men had opened up in the restaurant with an Uzi, ending the lives of all four of the Sopranos, you’d have felt a quiver of moral relief. Instead, you were reminded by that blank screen that that kind of thing goes on and on, and reminded, also, of its bewitching power to entertain a spellbound, onanistic audience.