Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Farewell Sopranos

I have to weigh in on the debate over the finale of The Sopranos even though I am in the middle of reviewing for the bar and don't really have time to be writing this.

Many commentators are saying that the ending was a sign of Chase's hostility toward his audience or that to end it on such an indeterminate note was a cop out. I disagree; the ending is neither petty nor lazy, but consistent with the indeterminacy of the entire series.

We never know how to feel about Tony. He is truly a character that we both love and hate. Gandolfini has said that his attitude toward Tony really turned after Tony kills Christopher. Mine did too. That was the point where we realize that there may be no one in the world, even his own children, who he loves enough not to kill. Coupled with the study (fictional or real?) that talk therapy tends to assist sociopaths in perfecting their art, we as the audience begin to understand that, like Dr. Malfi, we've been duped into thinking redemption was possible for this guy - we've had faith in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Our love of him is part of his craft as a sociopath. But we need not go too far down that road, since as one person I know has said, "Just because he's a sociopath doesn't mean he isn't human." We can still love Tony and be aware of what a despicable person he is.

How does this relate to the last episode? Well, our ambivalence toward Tony is reflective of a type of indeterminacy of meaning which runs throughout the series. Are Tony's acts the acts of a business man or a sociopath? The dream sequences from when Tony was in a coma suggest a different life for Tony, an alternate path, but that path is just as inextricably linked with death and destruction as his real life is; what is the moral status of a weapons developer? How is it different from the moral status of the mob boss? (There are, of course, things to be said about this, but I don't have the time to do so here - one big difference is the familial aspect of the 'business' of the mob boss - the mob boss will kill his own family, the weapons developer is presumably only thinking he will kill other families - in fact, he is convinced perhaps that he is protecting his own family. Of course, the mob boss kills members of the family to protect 'the family'. It's complicated, as expected.) But back to the point of this rambling - why is the series finale brilliant and not petty or lazy? The key to the finale lies in the "you see, Bobby" scene at the heart of the episode.

Tony and Paulie are sitting in front of Satriale's. Paulie tells Tony about his vision of the Virgin Mary and receives a typically sarcastic response from Tony. Paulie is hurt and says something like, "I share something from the heart and you make a joke out of it." Tony repents saying, "Look, I'm not saying there's nothing out there. But what, you're not gonna live your life!" Paulie accepts the job, Tony walks away, and the mysterious cat walks into the frame to sun itself next to the sunning Paulie.

This is the heart of the episode and the heart of the series. There is no moral measuring stick, at least none we can put our hands on. We have no idea what the meaning of it all is, what life is all about. Meanwhile, we muddle through. Granted, Tony's muddling is a bit on the dark side, but Tony stands in for America as he always has throughout the series, and the finale, Made in America, despite its obvious pun, situates the series and any meaning it might have in the morally ambivalent universe that is 21st Century America; anyone who pays attention for even a moment (as A.J. did, momentarily) recognizes that America's muddling through is a bit on the dark side and has been for a long time. An ending that purported to mete out justice or allowed for Tony's redemption would be a lie because it would be counter to the very status of the narrative itself. We love The Sopranos for its ambiguity and subtlety as much as for its stark violence. Why would we expect anything less in the final episode? What would be the point?