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March 8-14, 2006

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'The Sopranos'

Photograph by Craig Blankenhorn
Little moments like this: James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano reflects on a life in the mob.

It's Life and Life Only

The postmodern denouement to 'The Sopranos' is brilliant, if unsatisfying

By Geoffrey Dunn


What are you gonna do? Life goes on.
Paulie Walnuts, "The Sopranos"

IN THE CONCLUDING episode to Season One of HBO's dark and enigmatic series The Sopranos, the show's gravitational center, Tony Soprano, played by the incomparable James Gandolfini, is driving through a torrential New Jersey rainstorm, with his wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), and two children in tow. The electricity out and trees falling across the darkened roadways, they stop at the restaurant of Tony's lifelong friend, Artie Bucco (John Ventimiglia), seeking shelter from the deluge.

In what would become a definitive moment in that inaugural 1999 season, the recently anointed mob capo just discovered that his mother, Livia (the late Nancy Marchand), had provoked a hit on him, leaving her only son with an acute case of agita that would define his persona for the entire series. But as the candles flicker and the wine is poured, Tony's mood takes a marked shift. He lifts his glass and proposes a toast to his nuclear family. "Someday soon, you're gonna have families of your own," he says, with his focus on his children, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), and Anthony Jr. (Robert Iler). "And if you're lucky, you'll remember the little moments like this ...that were good."

There are meaningful glances between Tony and Carmela as the scene cuts to wide angle, then fades to black, with Bruce Springsteen's haunting ballad "Mr. State Trooper" coming up over the closing credits.

It was an uplifting, morally and emotionally satisfying climax. It made for good, if somewhat conventional, television—a happy, rounded-off ending to what had been a disturbing and blood-letting opening act.

Dramatic conclusions can make or break a work of art, and as I was anticipating the grand finale of The Sopranos this past weekend, I feared that the series' creator, David Chase, would resort to a predictable, albeit apocalyptic conclusion to what has been, without question, the most accomplished television program in the history of the medium—and also, I would argue, the defining artistic endeavor in the disintegrating Pax Americana of Bush II. That he did not is quite understating the matter. Chase's atypical, awkwardly abrupt ending to what had been, up until that point, one of the most carefully crafted and nuanced of the series' 86 episodes was both bold and brilliant. But it has left his audience angry and unsatisfied, with many crashing the Sopranos official website and threatening to cancel their subscriptions to HBO.

But the mob has it all wrong.

The sixth and concluding season to The Sopranos actually commenced in March of 2006, with Tony hospitalized in a coma, very near death, having sustained a gunshot wound to the stomach by his demented Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese). There was also a painful and ultimately brutal plotline involving Vito Spatafore, with a Wise Guys–meets–Brokeback Mountain twist.

One of the artistic beauties of The Sopranos has been its postmodern structural narrative mixed in with overtly romantic sensibilities. Characters have come and gone, though in some cases we are not quite sure where or why. Tony's distant cousin Furio Giunta arrived from Italy, fell in love with Carmela, and then left, never to return. Ditto for a Russian hit man from the notorious "Pine Barrens" episode. Other loose ends remained untied. But as this final season commenced, Chase seemed drawn back to a traditional dramatic arc and plot points.

In the penultimate episode, "The Blue Comet," New York City boss Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent) ordered a hit on Tony, along with his beloved consigliore, Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), and his brother-in-law, Bobby Bacala (Steven Schirippa).

"Historically, the Sopranos are nothing more than a glorified crew. We decapitate, and we do business with whatever's left," Leotardo intoned while holed up with his crew in a New York City restaurant. He complained that Tony "has no respect for this thing" and that he has broken with traditions. "Either it has meaning or no meaning," he concluded bitterly. "Five fucking families, and we have this fucking pygmy thing over in Jersey. There's no scraps in my scrapbook."

And then the fireworks commenced. Bobby was slain in a barrage of bullets while buying a train set in a toy store; Silvio was gunned down outside of his strip club, the Bada Bing, while topless dancers gazed inanely from the sidewalk. Tony, his nuclear family and what was left of his crew went into hiding, anticipating yet another hit. Chase orchestrated the tension to a full crescendo. And we anxiously awaited Tony's fate in the grand finale.

Oh, that life were so easy.

The final episode, deftly titled "Made in America," and both written and directed by Chase himself, opens with Tony in short-term exile, an automatic rifle across his chest, waking up to the sounds of a radio and, gradually, as the episode unfolds, working his way back into everyday life.

Chase's one nod to dramatic conventions—the chilling execution of Leotardo in a gas station, with his wife at the wheel and his grandchildren strapped into their car seats—was truly most satisfying, though it went over the top in its gruesomeness. It was as if Chase were saying to his audience, Here's the blood and guts you want at the end—only he didn't allow for a tidy Macy's wrap-job.

But there were all sorts of delightful touches—those "little moments."

Tony visits Uncle Junior in a run-down state facility to reminisce about "this thing of ours"; A.J.'s newest flame, the perfectly named Rhiannon, says of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma," "It's amazing it was written so long ago"; Meadow manifests all the denial of her mother, with an absurd reference to her father's persecution by the feds; in an old episode of The Twilight Zone a character says of the television industry, "The writer is a major commodity"; a mafioso ruminates over the demise of Little Italy; A.J. misquotes Yeats' "The Second Coming" (and mispronounces the poet's name); morally conflicted FBI Agent Harris (Matt Servitto), while in bed with his mistress, provides the tip that, at least momentarily, saves Tony's life. (And there were, admittedly, several false notes as well, most notably in the demeaning portrayal of A.J. and Chase's persistently disturbing metacommentary on Generation Y.)

In the end, however, it is A.J. who introduces the defining postmodern moment of self-reflexivity. As the episode winds down and life seemingly gets back to "normal," the family gathers at a hamburger joint in North Jersey, Tony playing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" on the juke.

"Focus on the good times," A.J. blurts out.

"Don't be sarcastic," the ever-more-vulnerable Tony retorts, in an obvious reference to Chase himself.

"Isn't that what you said one time? Try to remember the times that were good?"

We are back to the tidy conclusion of Season One. Only this time there is no transitional wide-angle shot. No Springsteen over the credits. No wine glasses lifted.

Cut to black. Bada bing.


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Top Films of 2000
The four-volume DVD release of the first season of HBO's 'The Sopranos' counts as an unofficial Best of for 2000. (December 28, 2000)

Next-Generation Gangsters
'The Sopranos' is a continuing moral drama, counterpointed with the evil comedy of decline. (November 15, 2001)

Tony Award
James Gandolfini's complex comic mob boss makes 'The Sopranos' on DVD the best Mafia tale since 'The Godfather.' (November 20, 2003)

The Mr. T Experience
'The Sopranos: The Complete Fifth Season': don't fuggetaboutit (June 29, 2005)

American Metaphor
Bada bing! 'The Sopranos' is back for its sixth and final season. But what does it say about family, about women, about the Italian-American identity? And how did it become the biggest phenomenon on television? (March 8, 2006)