A finale without finality, David Chase chose to leave millions of “Sopranos” fans hanging at the end of the storied HBO series without a final gundown, arrest or escape plan. Yet with a cloud of vagueness he ended the series in familiar territory: Tony Soprano, his wife and children by his side, a sense that family comes first, that flesh and blood needs the feeling of security over all else, and that the patriarch’s No. 1 duty is to provide that net. That’s one way to look at it.
The setup for the final scene of the 86th episode of “The Sopranos” involved the family gathering at a diner known for its onion rings, each member of the family feeling a little safer than they have in recent weeks. Daughter Meadow is last to arrive; the camera switches between her poor parking skills and the hangdog expression James Gandolfini wears through much of the final hour. The bells ring to signal the arrival of another customer. One last look at Tony and the screen goes black. For what felt like 30 seconds.
We assume it was Meadow showing up for supper, but the whole scene — with Tony reassuring son AJ that life works out while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” blasts from the jukebox — played off a tension built by the camera scanning faces in the room. Are they hit men? Government agents? Local nobodies?
Debate will certainly go on for weeks about whether this was a cop-out ending, a safe freeze-frame end to a winding morality play that has altered the playing field for dramatic television. The final episode, no matter how you slice it, presented Tony Soprano (Gandolfini) as a winner, a decisive leader who refuses to tolerate indecision over all else. What pisses him off? His son’s crazy rationale for entering the Army, his daughter’s decision to skip med school for law and Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) refusing an assignment. He only asks that people operate as he has.
Soprano had varying moments of closure throughout the finale: a touching, silent visit to Sil’s (Steven Van Zandt) hospital room; a confrontation with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese); a hostile visit with a therapist that turns into a confessional regarding the lack of love from his mother. Well-written, up until that final scene, this was a model for a finale.
For those who didn’t follow the Sopranos religiously, there were a lot of character names thrown around, including Harpo, the long-forgotten son of Tony’s sister Janice (Aida Turturro). Bonus points for not dumbing down.
Gandolfini looked like he hadn’t slept in a week, and his perf was as tough and focused as any of his best work on the series. It’s highly unlikely he’ll ever get another role as rich as Tony Soprano, and we can only hope that future showrunners allow actors to develop their characters the way Gandolfini has done over the last eight years; Tony Soprano has been worn down and Gandolfini looks like he has led Tony’s rough-and-tumble life while making the show.
Nothing during the show’s run has made him more attractive, only more human, despite his ability to tuck away his sins and vices and follow an odd moral compass each time he enters the family house.
Relationships — and the boundaries and limits established, inferred and crossed — have served as a fulcrum for all of the best moments of “The Sopranos.” After 85 episodes it was clear Tony’s biggest fear was abandonment — it started with his father and as “The Sopranos” hit the penultimate episode, his therapist and his son were voluntarily setting him aside; his protege, Christopher, died at the conflicted hand of Tony.
The final season has been one of the best; the root of its drama possessed a much-needed consistent freshness. The focus returned to the home, to AJ’s struggles with self-image and internal chaos, to a marriage still in a shaky state of recovery and the demands relatives place on a father figure.
While we’re certainly still wondering if that crazed Russian is still running through the Pine Barrens, Chase and company have done yeoman’s work tying up loose ends — often through death — and leaving enough gaps to make us wonder where all those Sopranos might be five, 10, 15 years from now.
As always, “The Sopranos” made expert use of music through the ep — Bob Dylan’s “It’s Allright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” accompanying teenage foreplay and an exploding SUV; Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” dropped in a couple of spots; Paul Simon’s “Cecilia” as Paulie Walnuts’ ringtone; John Fogerty’s guitar solo on CCR’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” during a drive through the woods. But to close the show in total silence only added to the episode’s poignancy and the sense of loss America’s television audience will feel.