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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

don't stop

Warning: this entry contains spoilers about the Sopranos finale.

I was surprised to read in Monday's New York Times that Tony Soprano was alive and well after Sunday's series finale—surprised because I saw his consciousness flick off as the assassin's bullet entered his brain.

What's that, reader? You missed it when you briefly lost your cable signal? Even after Bobby Bacala's warning that you 'probably don't even hear it when it happens' from episode 78 was repeated in flashback in episode 85? Don't worry. I will fill you in on what you missed.

In an ending out of Six Feet Under—it even featured a driver-less car running over the head of its owner, as in SFU episode 53—Tony died surrounded by a vision of the people he loved most in the world, listening to his favourite song in a family diner, and sharing a plate of onion rings. The bells rings, he looks up, sees Meadow, and his consciousness ends. I'd call it the ultimate POV shot except that the final shot is not a POV but a close-up of Tony. That makes what happens next something like an internal diegetic cut to black, if that makes any sense.

Can we say of a novel or a television programme that something undepicted did indeed happen? I would never allow my literature students to get away with that. Be that as it may, until I see Tony Soprano again, I can only consider him dead, for what else could he be if he never lives again?

Even so, let's consider the argument that nothing happened at the end, that the narrative did not end according to the culturally expected rules of narrative. The one rule of narrative that no novel or television finale, no matter how experimental, can violate is closure. The Jane Austen heroine gets married, the bad are punished, the family members reconcile, and, on Six Feet Under, everything ends and everyone dies.

One recurring, distinct feature of The Sopranos was the show's avoidance of closure. Would there be any consequences from the asbestos dumping or the two Arabic guys reported to the FBI? And what ever happened with Valery, the Russian veteran of Chechnya lost in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey in episode 37?

In the bigger picture, David Chase as a writer has challenged himself and his audience to ask questions about the necessity of closure in narrative fiction. We don't experience closure in real life. Why should we expect it from fiction? And what, after all, would a more definite ending to The Sopranos have achieved? Bullet or no bullet, the series has ended. What distinct benefit do we derive from watching a story end neatly as opposed to messily or indefinitely?

Ending the way it did, the final episode achieved something different than any other long or serial fiction: it made the audience acutely aware of its traditional need for closure by refusing to satisfy it, and it invited them to see the limitations of that need. My earlier statements notwithstanding, it's quite pleasurable to experience such a provocation. Denying closure is as radical a move as a writer can make. I look forward to the climate of experimentation, but hopefully not direct imitation, that this bold gesture promises to usher in among the next generation of screenwriters.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are other hints that Tony was assassinated: foremost amongst the ones you did not mention is the Godfather reference (the man going to the bathroom), coming as it did within the span of several episodes with specific (overt) references to films of the 70s featuring Italian Americans (Raging Bull, Rocky). The reference is more than simply a visual cue, but plays in with the narrative we had - do you remember, in The Godfather, how Sonny and Clemenza et al were so concerned about where the meeting would be, so that they could get the gun into Michael's hands? Do you remember, in the Sopranos finale, how it was earlier established that there had been a change of plans regarding dinner, and it was announced where they would be eating - early enough to let people know where Tony would be? (I need to see this episode again: who knew about this change of plans? Did Paulie? Had Paulie tired of Tony's cutting derision? Had Paulie realized that Tony had lost all his lieutenants and was isolated and powerless, and so could not maintain a family? Had he reached a deal with Phil's men?)

There are two other pieces of circumstantial evidence: the first is the death of Phil Leotardo, who "did not see it coming" - what happened to him would be very much like (I presume) what we would have seen from Tony's perspective with a bullet to his head: a sudden blackness, like a TV being switched off. Unlike Bobby and Sil, who saw it coming (much too late), Phil did not - and nor would Tony. Of note, I would add: the show was never shot from Tony's explicit point-of-view (see the dreams, the coma-delirium) but was shot from within his world, and so it is not inconsistent that Tony's world should end with us looking at Tony, rather than from his POV.

The second aspect that supports Tony's murder is that Meadow was desperately running to join the family: families are safety and refuge; when families are together, they are safe. This may or may not be true (Phil was killed in front of his wife and grandkids), but with the Soprano family, there was the sense that when they were together they were safe from the outside world (if not from each other). Meadow's panic, manifest in her almost getting run-over and her inability to park the car (not synecdochal for women drivers but for the inability to accomplish a simple task when you are shivering with anxiety), is not specific, and not a premonition: it was instead some primitive sense that the family needed to be together to be safe at that time . . .

Perhaps. But it was a brave and moving ending, and I won't ever, ever dismiss that Journey song again: it was the perfect ending, the song that, no doubt, Tony and Carmen smooched to in the 1970s, the Jersey rock that Tony would listen to, the culture from which they emerged: corny, trashy, but, in the right context, fucking amazing.

12:51 PM, June 13, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The bathroom indeed. The diner layout may not actually work, but there is no doubt about the establishing shot indicating the direct line between the bathroom door and the side of Tony's head.

Another point about the final shot. I've often said that half the show is reaction shots, primarily Tony's. And so the series ends on Tony reacting to the bell on the diner's door but not to the gunshot that kills him: a reaction shot and a non-reaction shot at the same time.

Unlike Anonymous, I think the writers were indeed relying on the stereotype that women cannot parallel-park.

Finally, one more Six Feet Under flourish: ending on a song that will forever be associated with the show's final scene. Neither song is one that most of us would listen to otherwise. 'Breathe Me' still chokes me up. Sadly, the song has since been licensed for several other uses, all of which offend me deeply.

5:36 PM, June 13, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will never know if I would have loved Breathe Me without Six Feet Under, because even when it is used in manners that offend you, it brings me back to that ending; I enter a fugue of sorts. Similarly, I look forward to being trapped in some awful venue or cab or somewhere and the Journey song comes on: instead of groaning, I'm going to be transported. It has happened already. I think it will happen again.

I don't see why you nitpick on the stereotype: there's no reason now to assume that this was a stereotype of women - by which I mean, Meadow has been many things that might be "stereotypical" (girlish, boy-mad, inheriting her mother's denial, etc.) but they were part of Meadow. The point was not that Meadow was "being like a woman in being unable to parralel park" but that she was at that moment delayed, and delayed further, by being unable to accomplish a task: why? "Because she's a woman"? Or for the reasons I mentioned earlier. Meadow was always the hope of the family: the one who would get out and become a professional or - or! - the one who could take over from Tony. She was the one who completed Tony, Carmela, and AJ - just as Lisa Simpson completes the Simpsons (although Meadow lacks Lisa's vanity, and Lisa lacks Meadow's superficiality). Because she was the one who completed the family, her absence left the family vulnerable. (Or, perhaps, given the possibility of the blank screen, it is the completion of her return that we do not see, because as soon as she sits down, the family is complete and they move on with their lives)

11:58 PM, June 13, 2007

Blogger Alyson said...

i agree that the ending was brilliant and jarring, but the cynical part of my brain thinks he is still alive so that david chase can make some big money on a movie deal.

2:12 PM, June 29, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Who would be in a potential Sopranos movie? Everyone is dead: Silvio, Bobby, Phil Leotardo, Johnny Sac, Chris-ta-fah et al. As on HBO's Oz, everyone was killed off in the end to punish them for their sins. Very Catholic, if you ask me.

5:33 PM, June 29, 2007

Blogger Simon said...

In my opinion, that entire sequence in the diner was fantasy or a dream if you will. If you look carefully Tony is wearing a grey shirt when he visits uncle Junior and when he is wearing a shirt. The shot cuts to a POV of Tony looking in at the restaurant then cuts back to a close up of Tony's face back to another POV shot, only now Tony is in the center of the frame sitting at a table. One could deem this is a nice little edit to get Tony at the table, however one cannot ignore the fact that Tony's is different. Now then I know continuity errors are bound to occur sometimes, but no one would be so inattentive as to make this mistake in the final five minutes of the show. Indeed the scene was crafted with great attention to detail, particularly the shots I speak of above. If you would, this final scene is not a way to suggest what happened to Tony. Rather, the scene itself is a metaphor for the state of Tony's life and for the show itself.

I don't want to break down the scene too much but I'll point out a few things that back up this idea. It points out Tony's relationship with each of Tony's family members. Look at the way Tony grabs the menu and drops it on the table as soon as he sees Carm; suggesting his need to keep her pleased and occupied. When she sits down it is the coldest of exchanges and you feel the discontent in the realtionship of the two. Next AJ enters, the three of them sit there eating onion rings, a disturbing site in itself. Carmella and AJ are sitting at the table because these are the two that are still so dependent on Tony. They need him to help them with their lives and any cost. Carmella has forgotten (or seems to of) who her husband really
is just to maintain her house, her "normal" family and to keep up appearances. Meanwhile AJ is pushing down his hatred and confusion as Tony keeps him occupied. It is very likely that AJ will end up just as Tony has, only is AJ's bitch ass really tough enough to handle it all? History is repeating itself and to quote Dr. Melfi in an earlier episode "history will continue to repeat itself if you don't know it". Well this family has learnt their history, only at this time they seem to have forgotten it or are just ignoring it. Meadow's own ending seems to be the grimmest. She tells Tony that he is the reason why she wanted to become a lawyer, because of all of the time the FBI busted into their house. At this point Tony realized what he has done to his daughter. Tony has undoubtedly poisened Meadow's ability to tell right from wrong and his reaction shot of this is of pure sadness with a hint of self angst. She is the one who never actually makes it into the diner, as though she is bound to be left in the dark without meaning. No matter what Meadow believed at the time of the show's ending she will find her self dissappointed, disenchanted with what her life has become or even worse she won't realize a thing. Now the guy who goes into the bathroom (an obvious reference to Godfather 1). If you look at this as a visual metaphor it means that at this point Tony is going to remain at edge just waiting for something to happen to him. He doesn't know when it's coming but he knows it is. "Death is the only absolute" and in Tony's case how can he not expect something?

There is not really any reason that Tony would have been popped in that diner. In fact, for the first time since Tony became don of Jersey he has no one on his back, no one to fuck with his shit anymore. Ironically T is left with no one he can really depend on. And he is as discontent as ever; as bitter at the world around him as ever has been.

To me the Sopranos is as much about the redemption of an individual; trying to make right in a world of wrong doings than about whackin motha fuckas. But in this final season Tony has gotten to the point where he has lost many of the redeeming qualities that made him the Tony that we all can't get enough of. Going back to the beginnings of the show, how Tony started therapy because of those damn ducks. Which he realizes is because of his own fear of losing his family. Well it has all come full circle; Tony's quest for redemption was a failed one. His family has accepted Tony for what he truly is; at the cost of much of the good in their own souls. He truly has lost his other family, much of which could be pointed to his own doings. Worst of all Tony has not changed for the better in the least, he is as angst filled, confused and anxious as the first episode, much more so even.

I could not have seen it any other way. Personally I wanted to see Tony die, it was just something in me that felt that was right. I've had one or two little fantasys in my time of watching the show of how it will all go down, in an ever so epic fashion. But this would be so out of key to the rest of the show. To me the ending black out is precisely what the show has been about leaving you to have it "anyway you want it".

7:10 AM, August 12, 2007

Blogger Simon said...

These lyrics from immortal technique seem ever so appropriate for this little subjec:

"I'm sure he's standing among one of you at my shows and every street cypher listening to little thugs flowe. He could be standing right next to you, and you wouldn't know. The devil grows inside the hearts of the selvish and wicked
white, brown, yellow and black colored is not restricted. You have a self destructive destiny when your inflicted and you'll be one of gods children and fell from the top. There's no diversity because we're burning in the melting pot.
So when the devil wants to dance with you, you better say never, because the dance with the devil might last you forever."

7:16 AM, August 12, 2007

Blogger Simon said...

I just reviewed the scene where Uncle June shoots Tony and it seems that the shirt he is wearing in that scene is the exact same design as the shirt that is the subject of the continuity error in the final scene at the diner. This connection could not have been an accident and it opens up a new realm of possibility for this whole thing to be interpreted in.

When Tony was in the hospital, still in a coma Carmella says to him "you are not going to hell becuase you are coming back here". Now this one is really far fetched but bare with me. Could Tony have been dead for the entire season? Everything coming after the second or third episode of the season is the time of his judgement; answering the questions of who Tony is and where he is going (the questions he aksed when he briefly came out of the coma). I do not mean this in a conclusive narrative way but rather in a conceptual manner; which has proven to be more important to the show than narrative elements, keeping consistent with the root and form of the show itself. Much like David Lynch's Eraserhead the season itself is what it is, it doesn't show Tony contemplating his own existence in the forefront (at least in the metaphysical sense) but rather what is in front of you is what they would be seeing themselves.

2:33 PM, August 12, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I am less inclined than Simon to read things symbolically, but I appreciate his willingness to share his thoughts.

I thought the final season was meant to remind the audience what they sometimes forget when they identify with the characters: that the Sopranos are violent, vulgar people. As Simon points out, Meadow has chosen the wrong side of the law. We see AJ leave a hard day's work producing porn, get in his sports car, and pick up his girlfriend from high school. And Tony is remorseless for all his evil deeds, including killing Christopher, which he shallowly justified to himself by the sight of a tree branch through an emtpy kiddie carseat. Redemption? For these nasties? No way.

11:45 PM, August 12, 2007


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