“It’s my nature.”
That’s the punchline of the the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable repeated in numerous pop culture works, including The Sopranos, which referenced it in season two. About 10 minutes into “Made in America,” the final episode of the final season of David Chase’s drama, that phrase wriggled into my head and stayed there. It’s key to appreciating the final episode, and key to understanding Chase’s attitude toward people; they are what they are, they rarely change, and when they do, they stay changed for as long as it takes to realize that they were more comfortable with their old selves, at which point they revert; and once they’re taken out of the picture, by illness or incarceration or death, the world keeps turning without them.
Which is a roundabout way of saying, what the hell did people expect from David Chase? Closure? Satisfaction? Answers? A moral?
It was the perfect ending. No ending at all. Write your own goddamn ending.
Tony goes to a restaurant to meet his family for dinner, after an episode showing you that after all the bloody machinations of the past six episodes, life had begun to return to something like “normal,” whatever that means for this sordid bunch of self-deluded materialistic suburbanites with blood on their hands; he sits down in a booth and flips through the jukebox trying to pick a song (a great self-referential joke for a show that prides itself on picking exactly the right song for a scene). He chooses Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (the refrain “Don’t stop” expressing the feelings of Sopranos fans so perfectly that I fear it’ll be the go-to headline for stories about the finale); when Steve Perry sings, “Just a small town girl,” the little bell on the restaurant’s front door rings and Carmela enters and sits with Tony. They exchange chitchat—most of the episode, which was both written and directed by Chase, is chit-chat heavy, with some halfhearted exposition sandwiched in. “What looks good tonight?” Carmela asks. “I don’t know,” Tony replies. He tells her Carlo flipped, that he’s going to testify; Carmela’s grave expression indicates that this could be the beginning of the end for their family as well as Da Family.
The bell rings again, Tony looks up, and a middle-aged white guy in a Members Only Jacket (so named in the final credits, and another nice extra-textual gag) enters the restaurant and peels off screen right toward the bar, revealing AJ coming in right behind him. AJ sits with them. More chit-chat. Tony makes eye contact with the Members Only guy, who seems to be staring at him a bit too intently; is he an assassin, sent to kill Tony and maybe his family as well, or is he just someone who recognized Tony from TV and newspaper stories? We don’t know; the guy eventually gets up from his stool and goes into the bathroom. Is he pulling a Michael Corleone? Is there a gun taped to the back of a toilet tank? We don’t know. Moments later, two young black males enter the restaurant. Tony was almost killed by a couple of young black men in season one; are they assassins, or just a couple of friends going out for dinner? We don’t know.
Meadow is the last Soprano family member to arrive at the restaurant. The scene cuts between Tony, Carmela and AJ inside and Meadow outside, desperately trying to parallel park. The final episodes of the final episode of The Sopranos, and David Chase is spending a solid minute on Meadow’s poor parking skills. Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know we want to know that everyone died or that everyone was all right, or that Tony eventually flipped or didn’t, or that the Sopranos went into witness protection or didn’t, or that Tony ripped the skin off his face, exposing circuitry, and proceeded to reveal to his family that all this time, he was a cyborg sent from the future to save humanity from extinction? And yet the tension is unbearable. So often on The Sopranos, when a character or characters spend a lot of screen time shooting the breeze or fixating on some mundane bit of business, the non-drama is followed by a beat-down or a bullet in the brain; your attention starts to wander and then WHAM. We expect the same dynamic this time; but Meadow successfully parks the car. She walks across the street. We think she might get hit by a car; she does not. Cut to the inside of the restaurant; Tony looks up at the sound of the bell ringing; cut to black.
The sound cuts out, too.
The credits roll.
There is no music.
What happens next? We don’t know. We’ll never know.
“What the hell?”
The above sentence is the opening of a brief conversation I had with my sister-in-law. She called at 10:15 eastern time. She and my brother had just finished watching the final episode of The Sopranos. They wanted to talk about it. I hadn’t watched it yet. I cut her off. “Don’t tell me anything,” I said. “I want to watch it myself.” I’d wanted to watch it in real time, but my three-year-old son refused to go to bed by nine. I hung up and headed upstairs and pulled up the episode on my digital video recorder. Keith Uhlich, my managing editor, called, and even though I tried to cut him off instantly, he still managed to squeeze out, “I think David Chase just pissed off millions of people.”
If so, they were millions of people who weren’t watching The Sopranos, but another show that they hoped would turn into what they wanted The Sopranos to be. They kept hoping that this time, the scorpion won’t sting them. He always did.
Here, yet again, Chase did exactly what I expect him to do: the unexpected. No gangster story has ever ended like this. The lack of resolution—the absolute and deliberate failure, or more accurately, refusal, to end this thing—was exactly right. It felt more violent, more disturbing, more unfair than even the most savage murders Chase has depicted over the course of six seasons, because the victim was us. He ended the series by whacking the viewer.
This ending was so consistent with everything that came before—consistent with the show’s themes, its style, its cruel sense of humor, its belief in the utter finality of death as the only real ending, the sense that life goes on anyway, even without the incredibly important person known as You—that it was the greatest Sopranos ending ever. As I’ve said over and over in these posts and in Star-Ledger coverage of Seasons One through Three, Chase would rather frustrate, baffle or disappoint than deliver what audiences expect. This finale was the ultimate example of that principle. It was the film breaking five minutes before the end of a gripping movie, or having a novel ripped ripped from your hands before you were done with the last chapter.
Phil Leotardo was shot in the head at that gas station in mid-sentence; he didn’t even live long enough to see the wheel of his daughter’s SUV roll over his skull. Life went on without him.
Good luck naming a season of The Sopranos that ended with the simultaneous rising of action to a delirious peak and the tying up of loose ends. Season one probably came the closest to attaining that kind of classical narrative shape, and that season doubtless ended as it did because Chase figured he was doing a one-off that wouldn’t get picked up for another go-round. Left to his own devices—as he was from season two onward—he established that he’d rather insinuate, tease and then frustrate. Starting with season two, every season has packed a lot of plot (and a fair amount of violence) into the second-to-last episode, left the final episode as a denouement—a protracted down-shifting—and left a lot of subplots, many of them seemingly major, unresolved. We never found out what happened to the Russian from “Pine Barrens.” Tracee’s murder at the hands of Ralphie Cifaretto was apparently never discovered by law enforcement, and justice was done obliquely, by Tony, months later, in a different context, and it’s doubtful that it occurred to him that he was avenging Tracee.
This is considered bad drama because it’s like life.
“Made in America” was the ultimate season ender; if you thought previous season enders were unsatisfying, well, you hadn’t seen anything yet.
We were always frogs offering a scorpion a ride across the river. And this scorpion never promised not to sting us.
The Sopranos eschews tidy resolutions, and seems (or perhaps I should say “seemed”) to delight in providing closure on small matters while denying it in big ones. In “Made in America,” Meadow’s wedding was discussed, but only in the abstract. We heard that Carlo flipped but we never saw it and never got any indication of why, or whether any evidence he might provide would prove damning enough to bring down the family. We heard twice that subpoenas were being handed out, but despite Tony’s depressed reactions, we never learned if they would lead anywhere; there were indications that the gun charge might finally bring Tony down, but there was no closure on that, either. Tony visited Sil in the hospital, but we never learned if he lived or died. We heard Meadow had to go to the doctor to change her birth control pills. Did she have a pregnancy scare? Did she switch medicine to be extra-certain that she didn’t have a child by the son of a known gangster, thus perpetuating the family legacy? Unlikely, since she told her dad she went into law after seeing his treatment at the hands of cops and F.B.I. agents—but we don’t know. Tony’s boys brought a cat from the safehouse back to the Bing; it kept staring at a picture of the murdered Christopher for hours on end. When the picture was moved, the cat moved with it, and kept staring. What does this mean? We don’t know.
Tony’s lawyer sat there whacking that bottle of ketchup over and over until Tony grabbed it out of his hands and tried to do it himself, and the ketchup still didn’t come out.
The pilot episode started with Tony telling Dr. Melfi that he feared he’d come into the business (and by implication, America) at the end; that the best was over. The creeping sense of numbness and despair, the sense that the best (whatever that means) is over, and the concurrent sense that nothing that happens to us is as important as important to history, or even to our friends and relatives, as we’d like think, that when we’re gone we’ll probably be forgotten like 99.99999% of the human race, is encoded in every line and scene of this finale. Almost nobody gives a damn about your life but you, and according to Chase, there’s a good chance you don’t give as much of a damn as you think, because if did, you would have already changed yourself to match your idealized image. Uncle Junior doesn’t remember anything about his long, colorful, nasty life, including the shooting of his own nephew; he might not even recognize his nephew. The widowed Janice seeks refuge in a house that used to belong to Johnny Sacrimoni. It’s surrounded by McHomes; Tony informs her that when Johnny built the house, the area was all cornfields. We learn that the key to finding Phil is locating a gas station with a pay phone in front of it; a gas station attendant explains that few gas stations have pay phones anymore. One of the Little Italy scenes begins with a shot of a double-decker tour bus zipping through the neighborhood, and we hear an announcer telling the tourists that Little Italy used to be a huge, thriving neighborhood, but now it’s been reduced to a handful of restaurants and stores; the scene ends with a shot of the street teeming with Asians. “Fuckin’ A, I’m disappointed,” Phil exclaims at one point. To quote another episode title, “Join the Club.”
Tony looks up at the sound of the door opening. Cut to black. Roll credits. The story continues. You’re not around to see it.
Throughout its run, The Sopranos has insisted, in dialogue and imagery, that there is a life beyond what we can see, a world beyond the familiar. Chase could never show us that world outright because no artist has that power. But for eight years, he did the next best thing, which was show us a fiction that wasn’t quite like any of the fictions that influenced it—a fiction that prompted contemplation of our own world, however small or large it might be. And in the final moments of the final hour of the final season, he gave us an ending we did not anticipate—an ending unlike any he’s ever staged, but not the least bit out-of-character for The Sopranos.