10 June, 2008

Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes

So here's the thing.

Did you realise that today is the one year anniversary of the HBO airing of "Made In America", the final episode of The Sopranos. One year since every person in America simultaneously yelled out "What the **** was that?"

Now I've always been very clear on my view of what happens in that controversial final scene (and if you never watched The Sopranos, never saw the final episode, turn off your computer, take a week off work, go to the local rental store, hire the DVDs, watch them, and then come back. I will be discussing spoilers.)

A lot of people believe Tony died in the final episode. They point to the "Guy In Members Only Jacket" going to the bathroom, suggesting that, like in The Godfather, he's going to collect a gun. The reason for the sudden unexpected cut-to-10-second-black-screen is that Tony is suddenly dead, shot in the back of the head - the black screen and sudden silence is an example of Bobby's comment that when you die, you never hear it coming.

And it's an argument I've never bought. For a start, it's too obvious. Ending the story of a mafia boss with the boss dying? Too predictable, too cliched. And a lot of people cite The Godfather reference as proof. To me, that's never a convincing argument. There's no doubt that Chase loves the Godfather films, but not so much that he would end this, the programme he will be remembered for until he dies, copying the movie.

Personally, I've always seen the final scene as an extreme version of a life-goes-on ending. Throughout the run of the series we've always known, whatever happens, Tony Soprano was safe. He's the main character, and he's pretty much irreplaceable. There may have been some tension of how he will deal with any particular problem, but we always knew he was okay. We wasn't going to die, he probably wasn't going to go to prison (even if he had some close calls). He would just carry on being Tony. Even when Tony was shot at the end of the first episode of the final season, wounded so badly he ended up in a coma, we knew he was essentially safe. So we never had any fear about what would happen to Tony.

Until the final scene. Because we know that all bets are off. There are only five minutes to go, they don't need to protect their star character anymore. For the first time in the entire series, anything could happen. Tony could be killed. Tony could be arrested. Will Tony be fine, but something happen to someone else in the family? Or things could just go on as normal. What's going to happen.

And the final scene seems a strange choice for the show - there's nothing obviously significant about it, it almost seems mundane. Tony walks into an typical American diner, takes a booth, orders onion rings. Slowly the rest of the family arrive, first Carmela and AJ. But here's where David Chase is brilliant. He knows that we don't know whether Tony is safe, so suddenly we, the viewer, are looking at every single person we see in the scene with suspicion. Two black guys walk in, there's someone in a cap possibly hiding their face, someone glances over and seems to take an interest in Tony, is he a hitman, or just someone thinking "Didn't I see him on the news once?". Everywhere the camera looks, even in this inocuous scene of a family eating, we see a potential threat. So, possibly for the first real time in the entire run of the show, we actually sense what it really means to be in the mob, the constant danger, the constant risk. It's not quite that we've been put in the mind of Tony Soprano, as I initially thought, since Tony is actually quite relaxed in the scene. He's used to living with that danger, so he's learned not to be constantly looking over his shoulder (since living every moment like that would drive him crazy). It's more that, whether or not Tony is actually worried about it, the audience understands that that danger is always there.

And then we get the sudden cut-to-black-slience, sustained for 10 seconds. What does that mean? Let's imagine the scene executed somewhat differently - Tony sits there, talking to his family, Meadow comes in, sits down, the camera pulls back away from the family, their conversation fades away, and finally so does the image. If they had shot the scene like that, with a typical life-goes-on feel to it, this story has come to an end, but the characters continue. Most importantly, it has a satisfying everything's-going-to-be-all-right feel. And that would be completely wrong for the show, because, after all, everything's not going to be all right. Tony may not killed tonight, but there's a good chance at some time in the future he will be. The guy who was talking to the Feds may not give them everything they need for a prosecution, but one of these days they will have enough, and Tony will go to jail. Whatever happens tonight is irrelevant, because at some point in the future he's either going to be killed or arrested.

So to me, the sudden cut-to-black-silence was about making that point in a dramatic fashion that a traditonal fade-to-black ending would not. David Chase basically seems to be saying that life goes on, whatever happens it's going to end badly, but you're not going to see it because we can't follow these characters for the rest of their lives. All we need to know is that it will happen one day, the final scene sets up the two main options, and then Chase says "I've finished telling the story" at an essentially arbitrary point. And the fact that it's mid-scene is irrelevant - in fact, it highlights the fact that the endpoint is essentially arbitrary.

So that is how I interpret the scene and the ending. Until tonight, because I've just read this impressively in-depth 21,750-word analysis of the ending, which argues forcefully for a Tony-dies interpretation. (I came across it after Alan Sepinwall wrote a post in which he highlighted this analysis.) He does a great beat-by-beat analysis of the final scene, interpreting the POV shots. He also does some nice work in analysing the overarching themes of the season and where Tony's death would fit into that, examines the role played by Tony's coma dream, does a nice comparison with the death of Phil Leotardo, and goes back to the first episode of the season (Members Only) for further clues. It didn't quite win me over to his point of view, but it came close, and certainly had me questioning how I interpret the ending for the first time since the series ended. Anyway, it's a fascinating read, and if you're a Sopranos fan, it's worth reading no matter how you interpret the final scene.

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