The Sopranos stops, but doesn’t end
In an effort to get that damn Journey song out of my head, I feel compelled to write about the finale of The Sopranos. I should be upfront and say that I have not actually seen the finale – just the final 5 minutes, which I’ve watched multiple times. I haven’t seen any of season 6 except the first episode (when Junior shoots Tony), and these final five minutes. I like the show, and think the first two seasons are wonderful and crucial innovations in the history of television storytelling. But every season has strayed further from what I think works best about the show (the core relationships, Tony’s moral dilemmas, seasons building toward narrative climaxes) toward frequent digressions, slack pacing, and lack of payoff for what has been set in motion. That being said, I certainly intend to watch the final season on DVD, and from what I’ve read I might enjoy it more than seasons 4 or 5.
But after trying to avoid spoilers, I slowly gleaned that the bits & pieces I’d seen online were essentially all there was to the ending, or at least all that could be spoiled. So I went ahead and watched the final scene to be able to participate in the discussion about serialized narrative conclusions (which I care about), and as an experiment in watching season 6 with the mindset of a spoiler fan. My analysis of the ending, greatly influenced by conversations with my friend & colleague Chris Keathley, is beneath the fold – I’ll report back on a “spoiled” season 6 in coming months.
The final scene is just under 5 minutes long, contained within a restaurant and on the street outside. It is edited quite rapidly, with an average shot length of 2.5 seconds – an editing pace more typical of a Hollywood or Hong Kong action sequence than dramatic television. But there is no “action” in this scene, at least that we witness – Tony and his family are having dinner at a diner, eating onion rings, with Meadow trying to parallel park. It is the mundane life that the show traditionally undercuts with a sense of dread and danger.
Nearly all the commentaries I’ve read about the scene highlight the sense of dread and danger in the sequence, as Tony glances suspiciously at others in the diner and the Journey song crescendos to create tension. But watching it in isolation from the rest of the episode, I’m struck by how little suspense and anxiety is actually generated – for me, it was just a mundane dinner sequence until the final shot, not much different from the many scenes of eating families peppering the entire series. What seems to create tension and anxiety is its narrational context – every viewer knew this was the final scene of the final episode, and eagerly awaited the final payoff and burst of violence that never came. Thus the suspense seems entirely contextual, with the lack of action ratcheting up tension precisely because we expect something more at this moment in the story.
But to say nothing happens in the sequence is only to focus on the story, not the narration. While we cannot point to any events that qualify as “action,” the way the scene is presented calls attention to itself in two particular moments that demand scrutiny. The first has gotten no notice in any of the criticism I’ve read. As Tony enters the diner, a series of four shots over seven seconds violates continuity norms in a potentially significant way. We start with a straight-ahead medium shot of him casing the diner:
We cut back to the first angle, but in a close-up of his face – this convention clearly establishes our visual point-of-view as tied to Tony, suggesting that we will experience the scene via his perspective:
We reverse the shot once again to show the full diner again seemingly from his perspective, but now Tony is sitting in the middle of the scene:
This abrupt violation of continuity editing is subtle but important. The music plays continuously from the jukebox, so we seem to have a visual ellipsis but continuity on the audio track, a break of conventional style that calls attention to itself. Why make this unusual choice? The motivations within the narrative itself are varied – perhaps it signals that we are in Tony’s head and he is seeing himself from a remove, or imagining the events we will witness as he stands contemplating how the dinner might unfold. But there’s no other cue within the scene to suggest that the events on-screen are anything but realistic, and given the show’s propensity for elaborate dream sequences, we expect that if a sequence is a fantasy, there will be talking fishes or ghosts.
I believe this subtle continuity violation that many people seem to have not noticed operates more at the level of emotional response by creating a feeling of unease, a sense that something might not be quite right here – a set of feelings that certainly fit with audience expectations ramping toward a final climax. But more importantly, it cues us that the events we will see are mundane and boring, but the way they will be told are what matters – this edit is telling us to pay attention to narration, not just story.
This message pays off in the end, because the big climax is not at the level of story, but at the level of storytelling. The now infamous last shot of Tony looking up to see Meadow (presumably) entering the diner is cut off midstream, creating a sense of interruption that has provoked both anger and adulation. But I’d argue that the true last shot is not the less-than-two seconds of Tony that feels incomplete, but actually the longest “shot” in the entire scene – 10 seconds of silent blackness. This absence is so provocatively asserted that it needs to be understood and analyzed as a shot itself, a presence of nothingness rather than a default state lacking content and form. In the abrupt shift from Tony to blackness, nothing happens at the level of story; but at the level of storytelling, this “nothing” happens actively and insistently – we notice this nothingness, with the sequence rubbing our noses in the interminable gap between images of Tony and the first credit.
How might we explain this edit, which may be one of the most jarring and unconventional choices in the history of American television? This edit invites us to try to understand and justify the odd and utterly unexpected choice. I’ve outlined a few potential motivations for what this shot does and how we might explain it:
My cable went out – according to many reports of in-the-moment viewers, this was the first reaction. My television broke. My TiVo messed up. Something has gone wrong here. While none of these explanations are quite accurate, I do think this immediate reaction is both justified and intended. Whenever a medium norm is violated, our first assumption is that it was some sort of mistake, whether technically or aesthetically. Imagine reading a book with a page ending in a partial hyphenated word, only to find the next page to be blank – a printing error! It’s only once the credits appear that we realize that this was an intentional violation of the rules.
David Chase just flipped us the bird! – probably the second thing passing through a viewer’s head once realizing that it was an intended rather than mistaken interruption. How dare he not tell us what happened? But I think the anger and hostility this provoked is less due to ambiguity in the story, as many people expected that the show wouldn’t be wrapped up in a nice little package, but the ambiguity of its telling. The sheer chutzpah, or as Ron Moore wrote, “balls the size of Volkswagens,” it took to end with such a formal violation felt like an insult to many, a refusal of pleasure and closure to the millions who proclaimed Chase as an iconic television genius. And why? For many, it was a cop-out, a sign that Chase couldn’t come up with a satisfying ending and thus just maximized frustration out of spite. But if you think the show was the masterpiece that so many do, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – what could be the rationale for such a bold choice? What might the 10 seconds of nothingness signify?
Tony got whacked – it seems like this is the only way to explain the choice in terms of the diegetic action. Someone – maybe the guy in the Member’s Only jacket who’d gone to the bathroom to evoke The Godfather, maybe the two African-American guys that remind us of the first-season carjackers, or maybe someone unseen entering the door – shot Tony just as he looks up, with nothingness symbolizing our already established first-person perspective on the situation. As alluded to by many fans, Bobby had earlier in the season mentioned that when you get whacked, you don’t see or hear anything – it just happens. Such an abrupt death is the only rationale I can think of that would motivate the nothingness. We have to stretch to think about how Tony would be whacked so quickly without any look of recognition on his face, but it is possible. If you want to feel that the final cut was motivated by the story, then Tony is dead. But as I mentioned regarding the disorienting edit earlier in the scene, we’re being cued to focus more on the narration than the story. Thus…
The show stopped, rather than ended – one of the greatest challenges with today’s complex serial narratives is how best to end them. Do you try to wrap up everything neatly, even if the thematic and structural design of the show denies neatness? Do you leave questions unanswered, even if it risks frustrating viewers looking for closure? Given the norms and themes long established by the show, a neat tidy ending was unthinkable for The Sopranos, unless perhaps as a satire along the lines of the final moments of The Player. But if we look at this scene, it seems like the story is wrapped up fairly well – Tony has resolved most of his immediately pressing problems (or at least as much as he ever can), his family is intact, and he’s talking to his son about focusing on life’s good moments. If Meadow had entered the restaurant, sat down, and the scene faded-to-black to the refrain of “Don’t Stop Believing,” I don’t think people would be griping about unanswered questions – the message would be “life goes on” and family still matters most. (People would have griped for other reasons no matter how it ended of course!)
But instead we got an abrupt moment of the storyworld eclipsed by nothingness. Why? The message I take away from this choice is a commentary about storytelling: every moment of conclusion in a story is as arbitrary as the next. There’s always more story to tell, and any conclusive ending is a myth, so let’s just be done here. Sorry Steve Perry, but we will stop. It’s abrupt and jarring, but ultimately no less conclusive than any other arbitrary “resolution” – in other words, it’s a way of stopping, but not ending, the story. Taken to a broader level, this is a bold critique of the arbitrary structures of serial narration and a refusal to comply with the medium’s expectations and norms.
I think this is Chase’s goal, and ultimately I don’t buy it. My take is that as the Sopranos hyperbolic praise grew, Chase began to believe his press, seeing the show as not only a great & innovative series, but somehow better than the medium – he thought “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” was an essential truth, not just a marketing slogan. Throughout the past few seasons, the show has repeatedly taken storytelling risks with seemingly little motivation than just seeing how far it could diverge from television norms (and few critics called him on it, as they’d constructed the show’s mythos too much to critique it). So this final edit is Chase’s way of refusing the finality of series narration in a manner that mocks you for wanting closure, and ultimately shows little respect for either its audience or medium. It’s a confrontational style of ending the series, and the victim is the viewer – it’s a more sophisticated version of Chase flipping us the bird, or perhaps disconnecting the cable (which, by implication, is inevitable now that the show is gone and we can cancel HBO).
I’d like to embrace this formal reading of Chase’s choice, as I generally enjoy risky narrative gambits (such as the season finales of Lost and Battlestar Galactica). But making a leap requires a good motivation, not just to show off or defy naysayers. My favorite ambitious endings seem both incredibly unconventional and utterly consistent with the narrative – Six Feet Under is television’s gold standard, paying off the show’s logic and philosophy of death while creating more emotional impact than any finale I’ve ever seen. One of the more ambiguous but successful endings is the abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion to David Foster Wallace’s huge novel Infinite Jest – the lack of satisfaction is thematically tied to the book’s ruminations on addiction and entertainment, paying off the content via the form. But I just don’t see why the arbitrariness of The Sopranos makes any narrative or narrational sense aside from a statement of defiance and artistic hubris.
So I’m choosing to interpret the ending as Tony being whacked. It might be less ambitious, and is certainly flawed in its execution (as the sense of a real threatening presence isn’t there), but it’s more satisfying than Chase’s dismissal of television’s narrative pleasure and closure. In my mind, Tony’s last moment was seeing his daughter gasp when seeing his assassin approach from behind, as Steve Perry cried “Don’t stop.” I can live with that.
Filed under: Narrative, Spoilers, TV Shows | 15 Comments
Tags: finale, Sopranos