So, the first of those things: the finale of The Sopranos. Folks have weighed in on this everywhere (so everywhere, in fact, that I’m not going to bother linking), but I found the episode’s ending compelling enough that I want, however belatedly and repetitively, to record my reaction to it. For propriety’s sake, I’ll note that one should stop reading now if one is among the three people left in the country who don’t know how the episode ended.
I understand that some folks were really perturbed by what seems like the series’s non-ending — the sudden cut to black in the midst of not very much happening. Not least of these, my mother; my phone rang four-point-three seconds after the credits started rolling, and when I answered, all she said was “I don’t get it.” The good news is that we’d watched the east coast feed, rather than waiting for the west coast, so I could give her my sense of what had just happened, at least as it was then developing.
That sense is this: the scene is filled with a very intentionally constructed and uncertainly located though not in the least vague sense of menace, a menace which emanates from some expected places, like the hinky guy at the counter who keeps looking at Tony over his shoulder and the fairly tough-looking guys apparently scouting the jukebox in one of the last shots, but also from some unexpected places: the man sitting with a table full of Cub Scouts; Meadow’s repeated inability to parallel park. The scene pays just a bit too much attention to the small details of what’s going on around Tony, encouraging us to begin guessing what’s going to happen: the hinky guy at the counter is going into the men’s room to get a gun hidden there, à la Godfather, or he’s just given a signal to the toughs at the jukebox, who are going to open fire; the Cub Scouts are going to get caught in the bullets’ path; Meadow is going to be a horrified late witness to the scene that’s just unfolded. Or, perhaps, Meadow is going to get caught in the crossfire, and the Cub Scouts are going to be horrified onlookers.
Or perhaps none of that. As Tony and Bobby Baccala discussed earlier in the season, probably you don’t even hear it when it happens, and so it’s very likely that the cut to black is that end: the shots that Tony never sees coming. But on the other hand, perhaps what’s after the black isn’t carnage, but just more of the same, and this last scene is just allowing the viewers to enter into the world that Tony will, as long as he lives, continue to inhabit: a world filled with unlocalizable menace, in which every moment could well be the last.
For both of those reasons — that you don’t hear the bullet that gets you, but that if you think it’s coming, you hear it everywhere — the only way that the series could conceivably end was simply to end, precisely because, as Steve Perry reminded us, “the movie never ends; it goes on and on and on and on.” And that, I’ll confess to thinking, was a brilliant choice, and evidence of the show’s impact: “Don’t Stop Believin'” finds itself, 26 years later, at number 22 on iTunes.
The world’s going to be a bit different without The Sopranos, but on the other hand, the world’s radically different for their having existed. There could have been no Six Feet Under, no Deadwood, no The Wire, no The Tudors — or, for that matter, no turn toward complexity in network television, either — without The Sopranos leading the way. It’s an appropriate end, I think, for the series not to end, but rather to go on in imagination and discussion and argument. Not a big fuck-you to the fans, as some have accused David Chase of delivering, but one last thing worth thinking about.