Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Meet The New Boss (Not Even Remotely The Same As The Old Boss)

I posted on the Paris Hilton jail saga, so I guess I can stay off topic long enough to weigh in on the final episode of the Sopranos, before reverting back to more familiar, and familial, terrain. Like a movie that really works, Sunday night’s series finale is still with me, still kicking around up there, three days later, mainly because it ended on such an uncertain and unresolved note. I'll tell you what else is also with me, three days later - that damned Journey song. The last "envelopes" in the history of the Soprano crime family are the inordinately large royalty checks that are bound for Steve Perry and Neal Schon, following the bump in sales that occurred starting at, oh, about 10:05 p.m. Sunday night.

Some viewers have blasted series creator David Chase for not concluding his landmark show on a clear, specific and instructive moment of finality. Since Tony's violent death would have been, really, the only way achieve that, I guess these people were looking for a repeat of Sonny Corleone on the Causeway. In slow motion, maybe. I don't agree with that. There's a reason "Who shot J.R.?" works so much better as a question than an answer, and Chase applied this reality to his final episode. "I'll give you a nice car and all the gas you need," he seemed to be saying, "now you go where you want to go."

So, absent clear direction and a neat little bow, there has been a lot of chatter and speculation this week, around water coolers and online, relating to that final scene, the final moment, and whether or not Tony winds up getting whacked, causing the screen to go black and the sound to cut out before the credits rolled. I have to say I didn’t have that reaction as I watched it in the moment, I just felt like Chase was ending on the ultimate uncertainty that is and was Tony Soprano’s life – he never really knew what was going to happen next, who was going to come through that door, whether he was going to be able to enjoy a nice meal with his family or catch a bullet in the head.

I thought the final episode, itself, was just pitch perfect. Janice winds up desperate and alone, scrounging around for money and focused on whatever self-serving angles might remain, including having to “snag another husband.” Suddenly sanctimonious Phil gets whacked in the least dignified way possible, something we’d been hoping and rooting for going all the way back to the day he became Tony’s day-to-day contact with New York. Meadow is moving on and settling down, Anthony Jr. seems to finally be on relatively stable ground, “focused on the good times,” and Carmela has a new house to renovate, to go along with the money stashed in the backyard bird feeder.

In the span of just a few minutes there near the end, Tony goes to see his trusted #2, Silvio Dante, laying in a hospital bed, unconscious and bullet-ridden, machines breathing for him, and also his uncle, who is doing a different and more gentle kind of wasting away in a psych ward. I thought the scene between Tony and Uncle Junior was maybe the most powerful moment in the last episode. After everything he had been through, all the power he'd applied, decisions he'd made and terrible things he'd done over a course of a lifetime, Junior literally has to be told who he was, what he was. Upon hearing that he and his brother Johnny “ran North Jersey” for the mob, he musters a bemused little smile and a muted “that’s nice.” A response that would have been just as appropriate a reaction to getting flowers from an aunt, or finding a convenient parking space. So this is what it all adds up to.

Over the course of an amazing hour, we learn that one of Tony’s key guys has likely flipped, and it seems clear he’s going to be facing a difficult trial, assuming he survived the basket of onion rings in the ice cream parlor. Advocates of the “Tony got murdered at the end,” theory seem very wrapped up in the use of his perspective in that final scene. The way he walks into the restaurant and we see the place as he does, focused on the booth he’s going to sit in, then we see him, then we’re back behind his eyes again, looking at the selections on the table-side jukebox. Ominous figures lurk in the place, or do they? The guy at the counter in the Members Only jacket who winds up going to the bathroom that is maybe just out of Tony’s peripheral vision might be sizing him up in advance of a hit, or he might just be checking him out because at some point he’d seen his picture in the paper, knows who he is, and is a little uncomfortable to find himself in the same room as New Jersey's top mobster.

I guess the one major stumbling block for me in terms of Tony getting killed at the end is this – if that was what Chase intended, why didn’t the final shot switch to Tony’s perspective, his daughter Meadow entering the restaurant, at the moment the screen went black and the sound cut out? If he’s going back to Bobby Bacala's “you probably don't even hear it when it happens” thing, shouldn’t we be inside Tony’s head, behind his eyes, when the screen goes black? Seems like it to me. Tony looks up, we see Meadow rush through the door, uncertain expression on her face – maybe she’s witnessing terror, maybe she’s just self-conscious about being late for dinner or frustrated by the challenges of parallel parking… and then cut immediately to silent black.

Ultimately, if Tony was shot he most definitely had it coming, and if he wasn’t it appeared highly likely he was going to wind up rotting away alone in prison. He knew it, as he stood in his yard raking leaves, looking up at the tops of the trees and, for the moment, breathing in his freedom and strong sense of satisfaction over the life his work had built.

Either way, whether he was intended to die or go to jail, I’ll never be able to watch a Sopranos re-run again without smiling a little bit at the realization that, at the end of it all, the end of everything, the presumptive favorite to become the new boss of North Jersey is none other than the incessantly passed-over Pauley “Mix It With The Relish” Walnuts. Now there’s a viable spin-off. HBO’s very own version of “Joey.” Cut back on the substance, amp up the imbecilic and idiosyncratic humor… I smell another TV dynasty, and more Emmys!

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