As Jonah Weiner puts it, the final scene “does stage a violent death, patently and unambiguously: ours.” If the cut-to-black is punitive, it’s also Chase’s memento mori: remember that you will die. We ask “Is Tony dead?” Chase’s answer: “Tony can’t die, he’s a fictional character. As for you: don’t ask for whom the (diner’s door) bell tolls. When your time comes, cable’s out – forever.” . . . Memento mori is a good ending for a TV series, because if any activity approaches a waking death it’s watching television.
* * *
In 2016 I finished The Sopranos for the first time, and was impressed by the finale, including the cut-to-black. Of course, some objected to the ambiguity; others said the cut-to-black represents Tony Soprano’s death. I don’t think he gets shot, but it’s not why I’m writing. As creator David Chase says, whether Tony dies at Holsten’s is the wrong question (Adams).1
Coming late gave me an advantage, but I avoid spoilers: the cut-to-black was a slap in the face (I thought they’d let the song finish, at least). While we’ve mellowed toward “Made in America” – the untimely death of James Gandolfini reminded us: sudden interruptions are real – the backlash of 2007 matters in itself. It may figure in occasional grumbling about The Sopranos’ place in the canon and (especially) Mr. Chase’s stalled career. I’ll explain while exploring the ending from three different angles: as television history, as closure to a narrative, and politically.
In the episode “Stage 5,” there’s a moment that says something about art and the care with which it should be criticized. The dying John Sacramoni receives his family. Confronted again with her husband’s bad attitude, Ginny suggests it caused his cancer in the first place; he refers her to “all the 6-year-olds with leukemia.” We can sympathize with Ginny and John’s opposing viewpoints, but somehow they’re both wrong. At least, it seems that way to me.
Tony Soprano loves his son, and he hates his son. Tony and Carmela are good company, and they’re repulsive. Art allows mystery, and it gives respite from the lies we find ourselves telling. We should not be surprised when it denies easy summary.
Part I: The Cut-to-Black as Television
It’s worth mentioning that I was raised in two of the cultures – two faiths, even – that converge in The Sopranos, Catholicism and television.2 The faith of the couch potato was not in vain: The Sopranos is the redemption of Hollywood television. “Made in America” acknowledges as much with a clip from the Twilight Zone episode “The Bard.”
In the 20th century, The Twilight Zone (1959-64) was often ranked best-ever U.S. series. Rod Serling was already an Emmy winner when he created a fantasy series despite the genre’s low status: it was the perfect format for an era when so much had to be coded. The Twilight Zone showed an impressionable David Chase that TV could be smart and surprising, and it’s a touchstone for his work.
Chase chose “The Bard” (above) for its satiric premise: no-talent TV writer Julius Moomer (Jack Weston) resurrects William Shakespeare, who becomes Moomer’s ghostwriter. Writer Serling parodies his timid industry – e.g., suicide is censored, so a modern Ophelia runs off with a musician. Three decades later, network veteran Chase echoed Serling’s frustration: “I was never surprised watching hour-long TV. And I never saw (characters) who behaved like real human beings” (Sepinwall, 33).
“Made in America” has a dialogue break so we’ll overhear Moomer’s insincere agent: “the TV industry is … preoccupied with talent and quality, and the writer is a major commodity.” Then: the signature Twilight Zone riff, once slang for the bizarre.
The Maligned Medium
“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” – Agent Goddard, “Members Only” (first line of Season 6)
“Shit has its own integrity.” – Gore Vidal on writing for Hollywood (Bailey)
The reversal in prestige of film and television seems science fictional, with evidence lingering in HBO’s status-climbing name (Home Box Office) and slogan (“It’s not TV, it’s HBO”).3 The definitive book about TV’s late rally, Difficult Men by Brett Martin, begins with a chapter titled “In This Maligned Medium.” Industry history is operative, because like most of The Sopranos the cut-to-black was long unthinkable – yet it’s not unprecedented.
David Chase broke in on The Bold Ones and The Magician, then wrote the majority of the sole season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (above, 1974-75), a pre-X-Files about a rumpled reporter whose dispatches were doomed to obscurity (David). From 1976-80, Chase was on staff for the above-average detective show The Rockford Files. Already we find the thread: Chase writes stealthy, black-humored exposés with dim hopes for change. Like Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin), Jim Rockford (James Garner) is an outsider, but he’s more like Tony Soprano in being a smooth operator but (nevertheless) exasperated.
Sopranos fans will find much familiar in Chase’s Rockford scripts, some of them ending in knots. In the two-part “To Protect and Serve,” an obsessive (Joyce Van Patten) sees nothing wrong with insinuating herself into police business. Finally, Rockford’s cop friend blasts her: “You don’t hate crime, you hate people – you hate life.” We expect compulsory therapy, but the episode ends on Van Patten alone, eyes gleaming with wounded defiance, listening to her police scanner into the night.
David Chase has derided the version of The Sopranos that could have aired on traditional networks: Tony fights terrorism, or he’s sleeping with Melfi, or his sister’s in a wheelchair. Incredibly, Chase was disappointed when Almost Grown (1988-89, CBS) and The Sopranos were picked up as series: in each case he hoped to turn his pilot into a theatrical feature (Martin 45, 69).
Chase much prefers cinema; “The Bard” is rare Sopranos acknowledgment of scripted television. No textual satire could cut deeper than the writing credits, which feature veterans of The Incredible Hulk (Diane Frolov, Andrew Schneider), Party of Five (Robin Green, Mitchell Burgess), and Xena: Warrior Princess (Terence Winter).
An exception: screenwriter J. T. Dolan (Tim Daly), AA friend of Christopher Moltisanti. Dolan’s demise (“Walk Like a Man”) mocks traditional-TV logic. Torn from his Law and Order script, he blares discomfort with Moltisanti’s Mafia gossip. Dolan’s motivation is understandable – relatable, even – but he should know his relapsing friend can accept nothing but fraternal sympathy.
“The way the public behaved, it was like somebody took the bottle away from a baby.” – Matthew Weiner on response to the cut-to-black (Kashner)
The cut-to-black defies our talk of inclusion: you get it or you don’t. For precedents we look to British TV, which matured early thanks to government funding. Nigel Kneale and Dennis Potter made their names writing television; others with significant credits include playwright Tom Stoppard and screenwriters Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Alan Bennett (The Madness of King George).
The Prisoner (1967-68) is another staple of best-lists. Star and creator Patrick McGoohan cashed in favors earned with Danger Man (Secret Agent in the U.S.) to create a Kafkaesque puzzle about a spy (McGoohan) held for questioning in a quaint but sinister place known only as “the Village.” The esoteric, 17-episode series was a hit in the U.K. until the symbolic finale (“Fall Out”), which suggests the character’s hard-won victory returns him to the start of an unbreakable cycle. (The Prisoner was picked up by CBS, and syndicated on PBS affiliates.)
Flip to 1978, when writer-producer Terry Nation parlayed success on the original Doctor Who into his own edgy cult-item: Blake’s 7, about insurgents in a dystopian galaxy. The 1981 finale, “Blake,” ends with bad guys shooting the heroes, but it’s hard to tell with both picture and sound distorted. Like “Made in America,” these existential codas place TV on par with movies, like the similarly truncated The 400 Blows and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and later, Thelma and Louise, Fight Club, and Inception).
So the tradition goes back. The better the show, the more likely it pulls the rug: St. Elsewhere, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost, The Killing. It happens too often to be mere accident.
Think about it: if you’ve spent years on a series, do you want a resolution as fixed and familiar as Darth Vader’s family tree? It’s less of a problem with literature: how does Dracula end? King Lear? Mansfield Park? If you know, you don’t flood the Internet with spoilers. (Twilight Zone influence notwithstanding, The Sopranos never needed a twist, shock or definitive ending. This isn’t Lost, where we wondered how they’d explain it and felt taken when they couldn’t.)
To end a television series, writers have to override industrial DNA. They can do it, but they’re not going to put a bow on the thing. Nor can they break the fourth wall a la “Sympathy for the Devil”: the answer to “Who killed Laura Palmer/Rosie Larsen?” can’t be “you and me.” The ambiguous ending, however troubling, encourages future viewing – leaves chances for a sequel – sends you back to the show you loved (“the movie never ends it goes on and on and on”).4 Even the legendary tags to St. Elsewhere (autistic boy’s snow globe) and Newhart (psychologist Bob Hartley’s dream) send us back because, however clever, they’re too arch to be taken literally.
Unlike most creative works, a long-running TV show has already succeeded. Traditionally, American series had no finale; this complicated the task for the producers of The Sopranos and Lost, raising expectations as it denied them a map of the terrain. With his cut-to-black, David Chase made the precipitous ending an artistic statement. It might be a reclaimed pejorative.
The cut-to-black was called pretentious, arrogant, arbitrary and a cop-out. Was Charles Dickens pretentious with his ambiguous ending to Great Expectations? Was Sergio Leone arrogant by concealing whether Max (James Woods) is in the garbage truck at the end of Once Upon a Time in America? Did Sofia Coppola cop out by not subtitling Bill Murray’s whisper to Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation? Shouldn’t the Bible tell us what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:6? It’s unfortunate Dante’s so coy about Beatrice, because we deserve to know: did he tap that ass?
Obscure endings aren’t uncommon in theatrical films. The shock ending was everywhere in the 1960s and early 70s – e.g., Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Vanishing Point – as the era’s learning curve forced critical mea culpas. In sci-fi, the existential fade is nearly cliché: If …, Kiss Me Deadly, THX 1138, The Thing (1982), Total Recall (1990), Cube, the director’s cuts of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Blade Runner. Like “Made in America,” both The Thing and Blade Runner were unpopular before they became contested classics. Chase cites the jaw-drop ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey as an influence on “Made in America” (Greenberg).
TV anthologies were dying in 1959, but Rod Serling wanted freedom – Twilight Zone episodes can end anywhere. Some use straw villains, including “The Little People,” “The Masks,” and the crime-themed “The Four of Us Are Dying.” Fans who imagined Tony sprayed with bullets expected this construction. Arguably, it’s the most primitive type of Zone.
The Twilight Zone challenged our sense of entitlement, and the best have downbeat endings. In “Time Enough at Last” a bookworm (Burgess Meredith) survives nuclear war – he considers the bright side – he breaks his glasses. Vera Miles reports her “Mirror Image” at a bus station – a kind man assumes she’s ill, has her led away – his double appears.
As someone who’s seen a lot of films, the cut-to-black reminds me particularly of three moments. Two are from the fringes of Hollywood television; only one’s an ending. The first is the killing of Marion Crane. Psycho was a theatrical film, but Alfred Hitchcock shot on the cheap with his TV crew. Much as David Chase was driven by years of artistic frustration, Hitchcock took nihilistic revenge on the audience that ignored Vertigo (another film with an existential tag).
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne shoots the title villain but leaves credit to Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer (and future senator). The circumspect summary: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Chase went further, collapsing villain into hero and making his death (punishment) itself a legend.
The third moment is from the original Twin Peaks (1990-91, above), another Chase influence. Like Twin Peaks, Season 6 of The Sopranos returns to dual or false identity: the realm of Tony’s coma, Christopher’s invention of a black girlfriend, Paulie’s ma is really his aunt.
Twin Peaks was a loopy phenomenon, but (the mostly upscale) viewers defected in Season 2 even as they learned Laura Palmer was killed by her father (while possessed by the demon “Bob”). In Episode 13, lawmen question Bob’s partner in crime, who says the demon sometimes becomes visible to “the gifted – and the damned.” As actor Al Strobel completes the line, he looks at the viewer. It was chilling.
Wearing a Wire
References to David Chase don’t slight his collaborators, of course, but by all accounts he authored The Sopranos. Chase said when he left the writer’s room “either ‘not much progress would be made’ or ‘progress I didn’t want’ would be made” (O’Falt). Peter Biskind calls Chase “one of the few authentic auteurs television has produced.” Like the pilot, “Made in America” was written and directed by David Chase.
Like any critic, I value what’s on screen over interviews. Even assuming they understand their work, artists are inherently ambivalent about commenting, because art expresses what defies conversation. (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is an example: in an anti-determinist culture, how else to say “some are born to sing the blues”?)
Regarding the cut-to-black, Chase mentions a sense of separation, and the fleeting nature of life, as in Paulie’s “in the midst of life we are in death,” and a favorite poem, “Dream a Little Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe. On the explosive reaction:
“I didn’t want people to be reading into it like The Da Vinci Code or something. I was amazed when it happened. … It wasn’t meant to confound anybody. It was meant to make you feel.” (Suskind)
There’s one point I dispute: when “Made in America” debuted, Chase was in France with his family, prompting some to say he’d “fled”; he says that’s “ridiculous” (David). Consciously or not, I think Chase got out of Dodge. In his 5-hour interview on The Archive of American Television, he smiles a lot discussing the cut-to-black; sometimes, he absently hides the smile with his hand. (I’ll get to it.)
Elvis Shoots the Television
Sample old TV dramas and there are things to admire, including the actors (The Sopranos brought some back, including Tim Daly, Ron Liebman, Patti D’Arbanville, and Joe Penny). The guild hit hardest is the writers: expected to avoid any offense or ambiguity, their scripts tend to be trite, kitsch, or merely slick.
David Chase and other showrunners broke a 50-year curse by smashing petrified formulas. Networks observed strict customs including stand-alone plots; The Sopranos assumes adults watching every episode. Instead of (regular) characters at worst “crusty but benign” (as mocked in Network, written by Serling contemporary Paddy Chayefsky), Chase’s masterwork seduces affection for immoral, even unredeemable characters (Sepinwall, 34). The Sopranos is unpredictable and idiosyncratic, with frequent shifts in tone, moral complexity and obscurity, and loose plot threads. And of course, Chase felt free to kill off almost anybody.
A curse isn’t broken by getting cute, it’s broken by looking the devil in the eye and saying “Let’s do this.” So it was with The Sopranos, which devoted a record budget to an apparently stock premise, with mostly obscure actors, on a network mocked for its reliance on bare breasts, boxing, and The Beastmaster.
Chase was 53 when the series began. He’d spent 20 years on lucrative development deals in network television, calling them a “fellowship” for his planned feature films. Those movies went unproduced; he describes those deals as “an act of cowardice” (David). This clarifies his refusal to compromise on The Sopranos. (The famed exception: Chase gave Tony added motivation to kill the “rat” in Season 1’s “College” (Martin 92-3).)
Chase regretted missing the American New Wave of features – most with downbeat, anticlimactic endings – including The Last Picture Show (by Peter Bogdanovich, who plays Dr. Kupferberg), Chinatown, Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, and Raging Bull (with Frank Vincent, who plays Phil Leotardo) (Martin 45-46). Ironically, he was destined for the New Wave’s last, toughest conquest: Hollywood television.5
Chase is devoted to Poe and the mystic Carlos Castaneda, and his network career only strengthened a belief that some mysteries are better unsolved. When filming Ralph Cifaretto’s death, he refused to tell Joe Pantoliano whether his character set the fire that killed the horse Pie-O-My (Biskind). Like Chase’s Off the Minnesota Strip (1980) and Not Fade Away (2012), Season 6’s “Kevin Finnerty” arc leaves its main character abruptly, on a California street. Sopranos writer Terence Winter told Chase it was a “huge mistake” not to revisit the vanished Russian mobster (below, center) from “Pine Barrens,” source of much fan speculation (Sepinwall, 64). Chase: “I don’t give a fuck about the Russian” (Nochimson).6
Most of the gifted creators who toiled in 20th-century TV lacked the luck of Chase, Garry Shandling, Alan Ball, and George R. R. Martin. Imagine Chase’s joy that his business changed at the right time (“don’t stop believing”). When The Sopranos got a green light, he was about to take over the X-Files spinoff Millennium (Martin 65).
By June 2007, TV had caught up to Chase. HBO had Six Feet Under and The Wire, Showtime answered with Weeds and Dexter, fx with The Shield, and AMC was readying Mad Men. It was time to pop the champagne, not time for another bloodbath. This conflates narrative with production, but not without reason: in The Revolution Was Televised, Alan Sepinwall says the “characters can almost sense they’re in the final season … and are worrying about their legacy” (56). Sepinwall points to closure – Christopher’s movie, the ordeal therapy at the lake – and stubborn digressions like Vito Spatafore in New Hampshire and the Finnerty arc.
The New Age
“College” is the most-cited episode, breaking the long-standing rule against a TV protagonist committing murder. The title is a double meaning: Meadow tours colleges, it’s the education of the American viewer. This palate-educating aspect continued through the cut-to-black. Martha P. Nochimson: “Made in America” is “part of the ongoing evolution of the American imagination.”
TV Tropes lends support: with a dozen categories for narrative endings, “Made in America” fits virtually any depending on interpretation. These include End of Series Awareness (characters comment on the end) and Ending Aversion (fans give up early).7 If Tony dies that’s a Bolivian Army Ending, after the aforementioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Many prestigious series have a Gainax Ending (an anime reference) – one that makes no sense – these play better if you’re into quantum science or (like Chase) had a positive experience with hallucinogens: Twin Peaks, Quantum Leap, Battlestar Galactica (remake), Life on Mars (both), Lost (Gainax).8
Despite a love of Welles and Fellini, Chase isn’t a snob. In addition to The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, he’s praised I Spy and The Larry Sanders Show. His harshest comments concern the whimsical, New-Age Northern Exposure, which he ran for creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey, who’d employed him on the Civil Rights-era I’ll Fly Away. Chase scoffs at the Northern Exposure (above) premise of a “nonjudgmental universe.” He maintained the show’s existing direction while considering it “a fraud at its core” (David).
Steven Van Zandt’s fond description of Chase: “He’s not moody – he’s always in a bad mood” (Biskind). The darkness of the man and his work led many to expect a violent on-screen death for Tony, but they forgot Chase hates the formulaic – and censorship. Killing Tony in the finale would have effectively revived the Production Code, specifically its requirement wayward characters be punished. That doesn’t sound like Chase. Compare Matthew Weiner’s take on the cut-to-black: it’s a “fuck you” to critics and complainers, and it’s rock-n-roller Chase smashing his guitar (Matthew).
At one time, the sudden death of a TV regular was shocking (Henry Blake on MASH9 in 1975) but in 2007 it was a trend: Teri on 24 (2002), Dr. Romano on ER (2003), Stringer Bell on The Wire and Adriana on The Sopranos (2004), Nate on Six Feet Under and Caitlin on NCIS (2005), Lem on The Shield (2006), Charlie on Lost (2007). Even before Big Pussy’s demise (2000), there was NYPD Blue‘s Bobby (1998), Seinfeld’s Susan, and Law and Order’s Claire Kincaid (1996).
“Made in America” delays judgment, at least, to leave us with the best of Tony Soprano: his devotion to (nuclear) family. There are reasons to believe he survives. The war is winding down; maybe the hit’s been cancelled but word hasn’t reached the hitters (we’ve seen such muddles before). If Meadow reaches the booth she’d sit next to Tony, activating the “families don’t get touched” rule. It would be fitting: despite her whine about the primacy of Italian sons (“The Second Coming”), Meadow’s the pride of the family. She’s already saved her father’s life: her voice led him back as his coma ended (“Mayham”).
Part II: The Cut-to-Black as Closure
In the remainder of this essay, I explore the cut-to-black in terms of psychology and spirituality, and then politically. These proved difficult to separate. At a minimum, I strive to interpret Chase’s cut-to-black rather than airing my beliefs (granted, I see lots of overlap).
Again, I’ll quote David Chase (and others), but his comments can’t be determining. While The Sopranos can be meta- or self-referential, no one calls it a multimedia installation including interviews, thus Chase’s comments are secondary except to the extent he messed up as an artist. When I first saw the cut-to-black, I thought it was bold, aggressive, masterful, and somehow profound. I still feel that way.
The Sopranos is psychologically rich in acknowledging human beings as complex and conflicted – statements confuse or mislead – memory, subjective – motivations often mysterious, even to the actor. Artists are not exempt. If David Chase said tomorrow the cut-to-black is Tony being shot in the head, we’d need to consider the possibility he’s wrong. Some things are coded to their creators.10
“Death … is the final, transcendent experience: the trip of all trips.” – Sky Aquarian, The Rockford Files, “Quickie Nirvana”
In Difficult Men, Brett Martin says Chase is no fan of Aaron Sorkin or David Milch, known for using characters as mouthpieces (44). In “Made in America” he comes as close as he will to breaking the fourth wall: the punctuating clips from “The Bard” and Little Miss Sunshine, the same song keeps playing on the radio, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (“set me free why don’t ya babe”). Chase says when Tony grabs A.J.’s arm across the Holsten’s table, it’s (also) Gandolfini shaking Robert Iler’s arm in their final scene together (Greenberg). (Holsten’s is in Bloomfield, New Jersey.)
Throughout, scenes are edited so Tony enters his own point of view, until the final scene, when he seems to see himself sitting in a booth. Or is that Tony seeing Gandolfini? The song playing as he enters is Little Feat’s “All That You Dream.” Chase edited the chorus, too on the nose: “can’t be around this kind of show no more.”
I happened to read Amanda Wilson on the NYPD Blue finale, the last shot:
we walk – no, float – out of the squad room backward … we’re looking at Andy … from above the set itself – our imaginary world is thus broken forever, and we are given finally the perspective of [deceased characters] Bobby, Sylvia, Danny and Andy Jr.… I think this is the first time in television history that the audience has gotten killed off at the end. (Wilson)
Light bulb: this applies to the cut-to-black. As Jonah Weiner puts it (in The New Yorker), the final scene “does stage a violent death, patently and unambiguously: ours.” If the cut-to-black is punitive (see Part III), it’s also Chase’s memento mori: remember that you will die. We ask “Is Tony dead?” Chase’s answer: “Tony can’t die, he’s a fictional character. As for you: don’t ask for whom the (diner’s door) bell tolls. When your time comes, cable’s out – forever.” (Chase was denied permission to end on a longer black screen, without end credits (Tropiano, 114).)
Memento mori is a good ending for a TV series, because if any activity approaches a waking death it’s watching television. Contrary to Wilson, the viewer always pretends she’s in heaven. The St. Elsewhere (above) finale equates the viewer with an autistic child.
We express our ambivalence to television in various ways; some reviewers take a suspiciously negative view of Tony Soprano. Matt Roush calls him “the most vulnerably human of brutal monsters” (Roush). Sepinwall thinks he survives but “his punishment is continuing to be the fat, miserable fuck that is Tony Soprano” (65). In a video accompanying Nochimson’s interview, Vox editor Todd VanDerWerff says Tony is already “morally dead” because “he can’t change.”
They presumably watched every minute of Tony’s saga, and probably complained when he stayed away too long. I get it: Tony’s a brutal mobster. Still, I’m reminded of Seinfeld’s “The Letter” (1992), with the snobs fussing over the painting of Kramer: “he’s a loathsome, offensive brute, but I can’t look away.”
As Chase says, Tony tries hard to be a better person (James).11 After reviving from his coma, he’s not as short-tempered: he lets Christopher make his movie and Carmela her spec house. When Melfi terminates, he weathers it without significant retaliation. He realizes he doesn’t care Vito is gay. He tries to make peace with Phil.
While it’s overshadowed by the question mark over Tony, the series resolves most storylines. Meadow and A.J. each has a new job and significant other; A.J.’s brush with death seems to cure his depression. As the death obsession continues (half of Season 6 episodes begin with Tony recumbent), the losses are less devastating than they might have been: Bobby dies with his nostalgic trains (below), Johnny Sack had a chance to say goodbye. Because I’d stumbled on a spoiler I knew Christopher would die, but was still surprised because his death is gentle. However self-serving, Tony’s assertion that it may save lives (given Christopher’s habit of driving impaired) is accurate.
Season 6 presents four bosses in a spiritual context, as opposed to moral or legal (Johnny and Junior are incarcerated, their legal struggle is over). These men have tasted power but are given to self-pity to the point of comedy. In contrast, the soft-spoken wisdom: “focus on the good times.”
Inevitably, we parse the brilliantly constructed final scene. Tony arrives first, selecting “Don’t Stop Believin’” as he waits for arriving family: first Carmela, then A.J. and (we assume) Meadow. The scene builds to Meadow’s entrance, which is more powerful for our not seeing it (compare the Lost finale, which managed to show/say too much as it left viewers confused).
Chase takes one more shot at political correctness by showing how bad the girl is at parallel parking. As she crosses the street we flash the millennial cliché of character-struck-by-vehicle, but no: this showrunner protects his kids (Chase’s real daughter has already appeared, as Hunter Scangarelo). We cut to Tony, the bell’s ring (that’d be Meadow), and “Don’t stop” and cut-to-black. Silence.
What then? There’s the Italian-looking man (above) in a Members Only jacket (soon dubbed Members Only Guy or MOG). In greater New York, the jacket tends to mean “a mobbed-up guy” (Terence). MOG enters the men’s room, echoing the scene in The Godfather (and “The Test Dream,” where the gun is missing). There are two young black men, well dressed and imposing, reminding us the Mafia sometimes outsources hits. Tony sees, but doesn’t seem worried: he’s always a target.
Those who argue the cut-to-black is Tony’s death reference Bobby Baccalieri in “Soprano Home Movies”: a mobster getting whacked “never hears it coming.” Some say MOG goes in the bathroom to emerge on Tony’s blind side. Neither argument holds up. Chase:
(Tony’s) instincts are very sharp. He doesn’t feel threatened by (MOG) but I’m sure he clocks that that guy’s in the bathroom, and that that guy should come out. It’s more like “I want to see that guy come out.” (Greenberg)
There’s another time you don’t hear the bullet: when no one’s shooting at you. With this in mind, “don’t hear it coming” is a specious argument that veers into Donald Rumsfeld territory, with MOG’s intentions the “known unknown.”12 We tend to ignore the possibility, however slim, he’s there to protect Tony. Or he could be undercover – or a customer who needed the bathroom.
Artistically, shooting Tony begs storylines about Carmela and the kids handling grief. Finally, Tony-is-dead fails to account for “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The song plays out almost completely (the cut-to-black is shocking partly because we hear the song begin, creating a sense of entitlement to the end). Chase shows off a little here as he rescues another maligned medium, the music video.
Millennials hedge their bets by enjoying Journey “ironically,” but that’s not Chase’s style: he favors tradition, judgment, and mystery over irony and “character arcs.” If Tony gets shot, the song can only be ironic. Indeed, Chase says “it’s a beautiful song,” the message is “don’t stop believing,” which dovetails the dialogue (David).
The focus on Tony distracts from the setting, but the family diner is as much dinosaur as the Italian gangster. The Sopranos has an ethnographic aspect, as it records the decline not only of the Mafia but the American middle class, with shrinking families and loss of community (“I came in at the end”). One of the saddest plotlines involves no direct criminality: Tony sells out Caputo’s chicken-and-eggs, partly for the chance to sleep with the agent, herself a rootless addict (“Johnny Cakes”). In this context, a traditional finale would be an evasion of loss.
Also usually ignored: MOG looks vaguely like David Chase. This may explain the sartorial choice: is this 1980s Chase? Or an alt-Chase, one who never left New Jersey. In and out of the narrative he insists on the existence of alternate universes. To play this out: if MOG is Chase, perhaps Meadow represents The Sopranos, and the gun some assume is in the men’s room represents the device Chase writes with, or the camera he shoots with. As Meadow is Tony’s saving grace, The Sopranos is Chase’s redemption as an artist. (I’ll return with an alternate take.)
At Holsten’s, Carmela says Meadow went to her doctor’s to change birth control. The implication: she’s so fertile it’s hard keeping puck from net. We can assume Meadow will have children, the most affirmative response to “Don’t stop —.” Indeed, she may be pregnant: hormones could explain the trouble parking.
Or, it could be ambivalence about returning to her parents even as she establishes moral distance. Chase says Meadow and A.J. represent American improvement (Martin 289). Maybe we don’t see Meadow because we can’t see the future. Like Kubrick with his star-child, Chase took the story as far as he could.
Though a gruff depressive, David Chase is a child of the ’60s and believes the world can get better. The most humanistic moment in The Sopranos may be the ending to “Employee of the Month”: without trivializing rape and its legacy, the cut-to-black is the artistic equivalent of Jennifer Melfi’s “No.”
It’s not just Meadow and Melfi: we admire the mafiosi, especially the way they protect their own. Even as the Mafia dissipates, we’ve mainstreamed some of their behavior. We can better understand prestige TV if the violence represents words, in which case, yes: this is us.
Finally, we admire them for maintaining their heritage. They’re criminals, but that’s how they retain culture: it takes a secret society to resist modernity. Note that in Holsten’s, everyone takes pride in belonging: the worker in his USA cap. The black men, representing. The young lovebirds. The scout troop. Members only.
Clean Practically Anything13
“Everybody gets away with it. Plenty of people make deals with the devil …” – James Gandolfini, 2006 (Flaherty)
“My spiritual pain is unbearable.” – from a letter by Mikhail Kalishnikov, inventor of the AK-47, to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (Harding)
Death and the afterlife is the major theme of Season 6. My translation: while the church (pick one) has crimes to its record – as seen here: fraternizing with gangsters, homophobia – this doesn’t mean heaven and hell do not exist.
The Sopranos found time for the spiritual. In the pilot, Tony pulls Meadow into a church; he wants to tell her family built it, but it’s a sacred moment. Tony expands his consciousness communing with ducks, and via near-death experiences and peyote. In “From Where to Eternity,” Paulie evidently meets a genuine psychic. In “Join the Club,” alt-Tony notices a Christian infomercial: “Are Sin, Disease and Death Real?”
The Sopranos did better than Lost in weaving spiritual threads into a final season. Season 6 begins with William Burroughs’s poem about the seven souls of Egyptian mythology. There’s also Tony’s (variable) embrace of the Ojibwe proverb, “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.” John Schwinn (Hal Holbrook) defers to quantum science, possibly inflected with Eastern religion: it’s an illusion the two boxers (on pay-per-view) are separate entities. Among other things, the cut-to-black is practice in dying. We might say The Sopranos ends with Tony seeing (about to see) Meadow in the doorway. That phrase “meadow in the doorway” could describe the view approaching (or leaving) heaven.
The born-again Christian who visits Tony’s hospital room fits the stereotype – he believes humans and dinosaurs coexisted – but this series won’t mock him. The Buddhist monks defy preconceptions in that they’re judgmental. At first they think alt-Tony is the target of their lawsuit, but soon they don’t care who he is: they’ve recognized someone who evades responsibility.
David Chase was raised Protestant (if it matters, he’s still married to his teenage sweetheart), but he told Nochimson:
“I’m not a religious person at all, but I’m very convinced that this is not it. That there’s something else. What it is, I don’t know. Other universes. Other alternate realities.”
A remark to Sepinwall supports a focus on the Finnerty arc: “Something spiritual was happening with Kevin Finnerty; it wasn’t in ‘The Test Dream’” (56). Also important: Chase credits therapy with helping him grapple with a difficult childhood (fans know Livia Soprano is based on his mother, Melfi on his former therapist) (David). In a narrative, as in therapy, dreams and similar are important because they could be anything. Such freedom is especially notable on The Sopranos, where most storylines are determined by obsessive fidelity to real subcultures and (as the series progressed) vivid characters.
With the phantasmal Finnerty arc (“Join the Club” and “Mayham”), The Sopranos kept pace with Lost (above), Life on Mars, and the quantum morality of The Wire and Crash (2004). Quantum physics doesn’t necessarily overlap philosophy or religion, but for most of us it’s close enough. It might be more than coincidence that Erwin Schrodinger chose animal abuse as his metaphor (compare the Butterfly Effect, and Breaking Bad’s “Heisenberg”). When told nearby atoms are entangled with distant ones, we think of distant people.
Tony’s suddenly dependent on (mostly non-white) health-care professionals, even as he contests his identity with litigious Buddhist monks. One monk says “all Caucasians look alike,” another slaps him: “lose your arrogance!” Fortune favors the monks: alternate-Tony is denied entrance, belatedly turned down by a woman, forced to commit fraud, served with a lawsuit, falls down stairs, and gets diagnosed with a terminal illness. Arguably, alt-Tony is neither solar-heating salesman Finnerty nor in the Mafia: does he not deserve the slap?14 (Did we deserve the cut-to-black?)
As alt-Tony’s identity blurs, he sees flashes on the horizon. They might be wildfires – seen in news footage captioned “Costa Mesa” – then he’s told it’s a beacon. When he follows, he can’t enter the Finnerty reunion with his briefcase (“my whole life’s in there”). Despite pleasant surroundings and the urgings of the shade of Tony Blundetto, alt-Tony is afraid. In “Kaisha,” a recovered Tony tells Phil he never wants to go back to that place – whatever it was.15
The stereotype about Catholics, of course, is that they can do whatever they please as long as they apologize to God. This is a misperception, if sometimes encouraged by Catholics: every time Tony hurts someone, he’s further removed from the humility needed for an apology. If we imagine Tony Soprano at the Pearly Gates, it may seem a near thing, which helps make him a fascinating character.
Most Sopranos characters are masters of self-justification, mindful of the “sins” they are least likely to commit: divorce, homosexuality, wasting food. Yet even as the series continues to issue erratic punishment, its spiritual entries must be in the accounting. A personal God might view Tony with the adoration Tony feels at seeing Meadow a split-second after series’ end. If this was Chase’s thought, it wasn’t the first time.
In 2013, Chase ended his eulogy for James Gandolfini by sharing a scene he’d planned but never shot, in which Tony loses wallet and phone and has to take the bus home. The episode would have ended on Tony, Joan Osborne on the soundtrack: “What if God was one of us? … just a stranger on the bus, tryin’ to make his way home” (James). The opening sequence might suggest the connection: the credits end (each episode begins) with a peeved Tony in his driveway getting out of his vehicle. Any child knows there’s little difference between God’s judgment and “wait ’til your father gets home.”
Finally, make of it what you will: Tony Soprano is not the only creature spared in “Made in America.” Superstitious Paulie is unnerved by the stray cat’s apparent connection to the late Christopher. Tony intervenes, touching the cat: “He’s a good guy.”
Part III: The Cut-to-Black as Jeremiad
Political messages arrive in movies and TV shows for a simple reason: that’s what we’re watching. Now that news is divided to partisan outlets, narrative films are a rare arena. It’s like national therapy: we do it to feel better, but if it’s too easy it’s a waste of time.
This final section is more intuitive, in that I continue to place weight on the Finnerty arc despite moving from spirituality to politics. It’s marginally longer than either of the first two, as I abandon Chase’s counsel and set to decoding black silence.
The next image from David Chase, the opening to the 1960s-set Not Fade Away, cuts to the Indian Head test pattern and Emergency Broadcast System: evocations of crisis, especially nuclear war.16 If the cut-to-black lacks such specific referents, it also lacks the comfort of a long-resolved setting. I proceed suspecting Chase’s blackout signals what is banned from American series television – even after the show that broke the rules.
The Negative Outcome
“Woke up this morning, (with) the world turned upside down” – Alabama 3
“You Americans: you expect nothing bad ever to happen.” – Svetlana Kirilenko, “The Strong, Silent Type”
Just as The Sopranos brought attention to past television, its controversial finale defined a pattern: this is a syndrome. The cause may lie in the nature of a series. Given their expense, narrative films have a special relationship with their target audience; if you’re with someone for five or ten years, at some point you tell the ugly truth.
Seinfeld cleared space for The Sopranos by establishing an audience for selfish protagonists. The finales have curious similarities: a new job, a cell-phone walk-and-talk, friends-or-lovers amid near-death by vehicular mishap, a looming trial, different food while confined. Like Tony Soprano, George Costanza has a futile encounter with a bottle of ketchup, and aggravates his partner going off-topic in a meeting. Earlier in Season 6, Geraldo Rivera hosts a TV documentary; he does the same in Seinfeld’s “The Finale.”
In portraying “the New York 4” as criminally self-centered, “The Finale” is more like the penultimate “The Blue Comet,” where Melfi sees through Tony like never before (below). Larry David seemed to miss his own swipe at viewers (stung by criticism, he vowed never to write another series finale). Nine years later, David Chase chose a nearby path.
The infamous Lost finale broke a contract with viewers. Battlestar Galactica (like The Prisoner) implies eternal recurrence. Dexter euthanizes his sister, a surrogate for viewers. The Shield punishes Vic Mackey with the life of an office drone (that is, the life of the average viewer). Both Seinfeld and The Shield end with confinement for longtime character(s) – so do Millennium, Alias, True Blood, and Two and a Half Men.
The syndrome isn’t new. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ends with the news staff fired (except the inept anchor). Little House on the Prairie literally explodes: locals blow up the town to spite a greedy railroad. On Dallas, mogul J.R. Ewing is an apparent suicide (he was revived for the reboot). A Jim Henson-created sitcom has Dinosaurs go extinct because they’d ruined the environment. Like the recent How I Met Your Mother, Roseanne ends disclosing long-concealed tragedy. As cancellation loomed, Sledge Hammer! nuked its home city; on Twin Peaks, the hero is possessed by the demon.
Sometimes confrontation comes elsewhere in a final year: a miscarriage on Moonlighting; witchcraft on Felicity; the deaths of regulars on Beauty and the Beast (1987-90), thirtysomething, Six Feet Under, and Battlestar Galactica. The most grimly conceived series culminate in a multi-season shame-spiral: The X-Files, Prison Break, Heroes, Dexter, True Blood, and (evidently) The Walking Dead. Financially, this pattern is preferable: the first three have been revived.
David Chase found it “disgusting” so many wanted Tony shot (Weiner). He admits the possibility of “poor execution,” but I suspect his only error was assuming most fans wanted Tony to survive the finale: if so, it was the fans who disappointed Chase. Missed amid the furor: an overall “sense of foreboding” (David). Given Chase’s track record and the prominence of The Sopranos, this foreboding connects to American decline. The Holsten’s scene might imply the “exchange of situation” dreaded by Thomas Jefferson (or perhaps the presumed entrance of a young lawyer is just in time).17
As a nation we expect to be punished, thus our television is Stygian (The Wire, Lost, The Walking Dead, Twin Peaks) as it reviews our mistakes (Mad Men, Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire). It’s not that Americans are terrible, though the charge pushes a file-cart of evidence: we expect punishment because of our self-image as exceptional nation. And if not, we’re an aging empire and can expect payback. Either way: winter is coming.18
Critics note entertainment bending to reality. Jesse Green suggested Shakespeare’s tragedies no longer work because “we are the kings.” Malcolm Morton described Gladiator (a preoccupation of Ralph Cifaretto) and HBO’s Rome as a radical break with Hollywood tradition:
“Gladiator was a conscious effort to embrace the perspective of the slavemasters with whom our … culture shares so much, rather than embrace a too-easy affinity with enslaved peoples largely alien to us.”
Prestige TV is a reality check, the antihero the only white-male lead we still believe.
Even escapism bends: in the spy genre the rogue or coerced agent is standard, as in the franchises La Femme Nikita, Mission: Impossible, Minority Report, XXX, RED, Jason Bourne and (recent) James Bond; one-shots Shooter, Traitor, Salt, Hanna, Haywire, and Safe House; and (at least some storylines on) Alias, 24, Prison Break, Jericho, Burn Notice, Heroes, Chuck, Dollhouse, Covert Affairs, Rubicon, Homeland, Agents of SHIELD, and The Americans. Many superheroes have ties to the government or defense industries: Hulk and Iron Man begin as weapons designers, Deadpool as a mercenary. By offering fantasy heroes curtailing the worst offenses, the above effectively promote the military-industrial complex, and the global corp.-state succeeding it.
Like Neo in The Matrix we want the red pill – the truth – but we’re ambivalent. So is Tony Soprano: a World War II buff, Tony’s offended by the (retouched) painting of himself as colonial general (above). “The Blue Comet” supplies Carmela’s version: as she gets the bad news about Bobby and Silvio, we cut to a photo of her and Rosalie in Paris, posing in period finery.
If MOG might be a symbol of death – not the source of Tony’s death now, at Holsten’s – we question the assumption it’s Meadow in the doorway. If Meadow is Tony’s saving grace, she also shows a child differs from her parents. If Meadow’s an angel, we recall myths of dark angels.
After Tony’s shot by the senile Uncle Junior (“Members Only”), we meet alt-Tony, salesman at a defense-industry convention in Costa Mesa, California. Alt-Tony holds the wallet and briefcase of the similar (identical?) Kevin Finnerty (compare Chase’s eulogy). This name yields “infinity,” no less when a character verbalizes the pun. “Kevin Finnerty” is “cave infinity” or “infinity cave-in”: Tony’s coma drops him in the universe next door.
Why is alt-Tony so different? Unless he’s not: as a defense contractor, alt-Tony arguably causes as much suffering as mob-Tony, at a polite distance. His blurred identity evokes our polar fears of being forgotten or busted. Chase may be testing us: given a sympathetic character, do we prefer deceitful solar-heating rep or honest defense contractor?
The Finnerty arc is entangled with the cut-to-black: Chase not only fails to punish Tony, he creates an alternate Tony and punishes him. The two Tonys share a sense of entitlement and taste in women; in being harried, alt-Tony recalls his namesake’s purgatorial dreams. Aside from a distaste for violence, alt-Tony is distinct in that we can imagine him following an HBO drama.
Alt-Tony sells precision optics, a link to subversive films about failure to see. The mutating Videodrome signal is fronted by weapons firm Spectacular Optical. In John Carpenter’s They Live, custom sunglasses reveal the aliens running the planet. A horror subgenre indicts viewers as sadistic voyeurs: Peeping Tom, Funny Games, Saw. Heroic rebels employ pirate TV in The Prisoner (“It’s Your Funeral”), Serenity, and V for Vendetta (fictional kin to WikiLeaks and Anonymous). Chase’s 10 seconds of black silence could be considered auto-broadcast intrusion.
The Finnerty arc evokes other science fiction narratives. The typical Twilight Zone is about a middle-class, white American whose viewpoint is degraded as time runs out. “Shadow Play” has Dennis Weaver on death row, but it’s really a nightmare, recurring with variations (we’re never told if he deserves the fate). A lesser episode, but apposite: “The Quality of Mercy” proves elusive to a World War II officer (Dean Stockwell) until an interim where he is, instead, a Japanese soldier on a similar mission.
In George Orwell’s 1984, war is endless. Costa Mesa is a real town, but as used here it borders on Orwellian – is it coast or mesa? The Prisoner implies its unnamed spy retired due to guilt; like him, alt-Tony is stuck at a retreat facing troubling questions. This form recurs in prominent films, both fantastic – Seconds, Masque of the Red Death, The Shining, Groundhog Day, The End of Violence, Looper – and art – Citizen Kane (below), Vertigo, Last Year at Marienbad, The Exterminating Angel, Stalker.
Much like the dream-Tony in “Funhouse” and “The Test Dream,” alt-Tony is an amnesiac hitman, identified by Michael Barrett as prominent in millennial film including Total Recall (1990), Lost Highway, The Manchurian Candidate (2004), and the series Dexter (Barrett). A violent amnesiac is a deft symbol for a warlike society unable to form self-implicating memories. Many rogue spies fit here, including Jason Bourne. Variants are common: Dark City, Mulholland Dr., Vanilla Sky, Collateral, Source Code, Side Effects, Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire.” Sometimes, it’s just a murderer in denial: American Psycho, Memento, The Machinist, Inside Man, A Perfect Getaway, Shutter Island, The Killer Inside Me.
The fade-to-white is popular in reality-bending films, including the aforementioned Total Recall, Cube, The Machinist, and Vanilla Sky (alt-Tony sees white when approaching waking). This reversal of convention suggests the film is as real as the “reality” to which we return. Chase’s cut-to-black also invites skepticism, regarding the viewer’s relationship to Tony Soprano, the last thing seen. If Tony is me, all Chase can do – is drape the mirror.
Sometimes, an innocent is in denial. Star Trek: Deep Space 9’s “Far Beyond the Stars” is set in an alternate universe where Ben Sisko, Star Trek’s first black lead, is instead a 1950s science-fiction writer. Here, Captain Sisko (and by implication, the franchise) is Benny Russell’s fictional creation – and grab for sanity amid constant injustice. Similarly, the British Life on Mars concluded (two months before “Made in America”) by revealing the narrative was the main character’s coma. His choice of this realm in the finale may amount to suicide (compare Inception). In the sequel Ashes to Ashes, it’s described as a limbo for “restless dead” police officers.
Maybe The Sopranos is like these: maybe alt-Tony is the real Tony, but we wouldn’t watch that show, so we got mob-Tony. Mob-Tony’s violence has limiting factors; alt-Tony works for a smooth-running machine with no sign of stalling.
We are (federal) agents (of empire). If troubled by guilt, we role-play amnesiac, rogue or coerced. Alt-Tony is amnesiac. Mob-Tony is rogue relative to alt-Tony, or to the many mobsters cooperating with the FBI (some of whom come to see themselves as actual FBI agents). Tony’s coerced, even, in being a fictional character: he has to kill so we’ll watch. As he’d put it: there’s no retiring from this (thing of ours).
“I did something very simple … I made them watch their own deaths … see their own terror … and if death has a face, they saw that too.” – Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), Peeping Tom
After The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling co-adapted Planet of the Apes (1968) for the big screen. Serling is credited with the ending (actually a variant of his 1960 episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air”), with astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) finding the Statue of Liberty half-buried in sand.
The movie begins with Taylor’s claim he volunteered because “there’s got to be something better than man.” This is belied by his rage at the Statue of Liberty: Taylor wants Earth in (white) human hands. (In the first sequel, he blows up the planet rather than leave it to the apes.) Planet of the Apes can be seen, then, as elaborate psychodrama to expose Taylor’s hypocrisy. To a lesser extent it confronts viewers, most of whom were shocked by the reveal despite the apes speaking English throughout.
With the cut-to-black, there’s no Charlton Heston to mediate our entitled rage. In their issue of July 9, 2007, TV Guide included a blind item about “one of the wealthiest TV writer-producers working today” and his Sopranos finale party, the venue for his rant against Chase’s “cop-out” ending. The tirade went on so long, per one attendee, it became “embarrassing and uncomfortable” (Blind).
The mogul had extra incitement: The Sopranos established beyond doubt Hollywood’s underestimation of viewers (Chase running Northern Exposure is like Francis Ford Coppola directing Steel Magnolias). No one likes being shown up, especially the alphas who run industries. David Chase has released one film since 2007.
Aria and Allocution
“The essential (absurd) joke was, life in America had become so … selfish that even a Mob guy couldn’t take it anymore.” – David Chase to Peter Bogdanovich, interview on Season 1 set (Bogdanovich)
Brett Martin compares prestige TV to Victorian serialized novels, with both “singularly equipped … to address the big issues of a decadent empire” (7). These include the “notion that the American dream might at its core be a criminal enterprise” (84). A prominent example: in Season 3 of The Wire, Stringer Bell uses business-school training to set up a drug dealers’ co-op. It’s a popular metaphor elsewhere, as in noted, self-critical books by Americans abroad: War Is a Racket by Gen. Smedley D. Butler and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. In recent decades, of course, “gangster” can be a compliment.
If Chase isn’t considered political, it may compliment his artistry and independence. Longtime friend and Sopranos writer Lawrence Konner: “I think he gets angrier than most of us at … the injustice of the world” (Biskind). Chase’s Rockford Files can be very political (these are from the first half of Chase’s tenure): “The Dog and Pony Show” has a schizophrenic mobster claiming knowledge of the CIA’s overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende. In the paranoid “Sticks and Stones…,” a security firm’s corporate policies passively ruin (even murder) independent competitors.
Chase is a conundrum for feminists: he writes great female characters but they’re crazy. In “Quickie Nirvana,” Sky (Valerie Curtin) endangers herself and Rockford with vain philosophies (think Janice Soprano, above, at her most pretentious). Chase won an Emmy for 1980’s Off the Minnesota Strip, about a willful former prostitute (played by Mare Winningham). The unfilmed-but-legendary Female Suspects satirizes a feminist theory that claims the rise in violent crimes by women is a sign of gender equality (David).19
The Sopranos is inherently political as it breaches the walls around our self-image. Tony Soprano is simultaneously hero and villain, and despite the show’s pair of Best Drama Emmys (of 6 nominations), it’s as much a comedy, with Tony often compared to Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker, and Homer Simpson. As Ellen Willis describes (in “Our Mobsters, Ourselves”), Tony sometimes puts effort into therapy, but the process is inevitably less formative than homicide.
Ultimately, Melfi accepts she’s only helping Tony be a better sociopath. Dr. Melfi is a surrogate for viewers, but as Chase says, she’s compromised from the start (“Jennifer Melfi” suggests a generous or gendered Mafia). Like the mob movies of Coppola and Scorsese, The Sopranos portrays gangsters mixing with respectable people to mutual profit: recurring characters include Father Phil Intintola, chef Artie Bucco, the starstruck Cusamanos, lawyer “Hesh” Rabkin, state politician Ronald Zellman, and cop Vin Makazian.
As The Sopranos confirms mob involvement in the construction, carting, gambling, and filmmaking industries, nobody’s left out: the abusive high-school coach in “Boca,” the boiler-room scam in “Guy Walks into a Psychiatrist’s Office,” the corrupt activist in “Do Not Resuscitate,” the cops fumbling chain-of-custody for a rapist who becomes “Employee of the Month,” Tony’s 50K to Columbia University in “Second Opinion,” the jury tampering in “Eloise.” Season 4 prefigured the housing collapse with an arc about a redevelopment scam. Throughout the series, women buzz criminals as men seek prostitutes.
As Chase says, Tony’s better than a real Mafia don. In his behavior as husband and father, it could be worse and often is; as for the people he’s killed, most had it coming. Tony exploits people, but so do we: who made my device? How about the seamstress for my shirt? (These are the things we touch the most.)
We want that to be different, because we didn’t hold the weapon or make the threats. As Tony would say: So what? Our criminal conspiracy is more evolved. We’re like the main character in the Norwegian horror Dead Snow (2009), who divests Europe’s Nazi past but at the end finds one more looted coin, enough to restart madness. It’s the same with Tony and the painting: he can’t get rid of the damned thing.
The Sopranos seems more political in Season 6, which includes the asbestos-dumping scam and mob-financed slasher movie. In “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh,” Tony references both Nuremberg and Katrina; the hospital liaison drops “wallet biopsy.” In “Johnny Cakes,” wise guys fail to shake down a Starbucks-type outlet (above), as the series again cites the Mafia for an outdated business model. In “The Ride,” a priest plays hardball with an annual festival. In “Moe n Joe,” Tony celebrates his FEMA skim: “Dick Cheney for president – of the fuckin’ universe.” In “Walk Like a Man,” off-duty cops line up for stolen drills. In the finale, Phil Leotardo is murdered with the help of FBI Agent Harris (below), and A.J.’s screed includes “the government let bin Laden go.”
Popular artists avoid direct appeals, because they don’t work (we’re still driving SUVs), but may smuggle a message (“you could grill fuckin’ steaks on that converter”). It can be argued “Made in America” is really A.J.’s story, as a young person of conscience is systematically sidetracked.
Taking the stage to accept the show’s final Emmy (September 2007), Chase wryly suggested “maybe the world is run by gangsters.” The other half of the equation is Lewis Lapham’s statement: “the bone and marrow of the American economy is the military-industrial complex” (Age). Like Tony Soprano, Americans can’t shake the gun charge.20 Like alt-Tony, we defend ourselves with distinctions trivial to most of the world. The message of the Finnerty arc isn’t that subtle: the more a defense contractor denies guilt, the less anyone cares what his name is. Then he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Some will protest: they’ve worked hard and have no control over the complex. Maybe, but life is not fair; good people suffer because of bad leaders. To think otherwise is more religious than anything implied here; in fact, it’s superstition. The present consequence is guilt, with vague fears of retribution. The U.S. leads the world in use of both prescription and illegal drugs per capita. We are medicating something.
In 1961, President Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex (coining the phrase): this was the presidential cut-to-black. The fog cleared at the end of the Cold War, when George H.W. Bush said (1992 State of the Union):
“Two years ago, I began planning cuts in military spending … this year, with imperial communism gone, that process can be accelerated. … for half a century, American Presidents have longed to make such decisions and say such words.” (Address)
Nine years later, the Project for the New American Century got its wish for a “new Pearl Harbor.” The U.S. was attacked on 9/11, but from the Middle Eastern point of view we’d had a decade (from Cold War’s end) to shrink our regional profile.
The U.S. maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories, at a yearly cost (including war zones) approaching $200 billion (Vine). Pentagon funding peaked in 2010 at $721 billion, more than twice the 2001 Defense budget (Military). The $597 billion we spent in 2015 is more than four times the second-place nation, China (List). Still, there never seems enough to cover veterans’ benefits. Meanwhile, defense contractors are strategically located in every congressional district. To reach beyond academia and left journals today, an Eisenhowerian message needs a dark veil.
The cut-to-black deprives us not only of Tony’s fate but of (the sight of) Meadow, suggesting a choice: the past (Tony) or the future (Meadow). Whereas Tony’s death would distinguish him from viewers, the cut-to-black turns the spotlight on us. While neither arbitrary nor cheap, this ending is hostile and deceptive: Chase made us believe Tony would be punished (“dead or in the can”), but soon after Melfi’s moment of clarity, we get our own. MOG is an assassin if you need him to be.
Whacking a Made Guy
“I had pretty much run out of options … ended up killing any hope of a musical career by being so extreme politically.” – Steven Van Zandt on getting cast in The Sopranos (Kashner)
When Chase signed with Brillstein-Grey in 1995, he was told, “we think you have a great television series in you” (Biskind). Sopranos executive producer Brad Grey became Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures (2005-17), saying early in that reign:
“(Chase) and I have had long discussions about the right time for him to get into the film business. He knows that he has an open invitation to make pictures here with me … I really believe that he’ll be in the movie business.” (Biskind)
Chase’s Sopranos colleagues have been busy, creating and/or producing Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Chicago Med, Blue Bloods, and Crash. Mr. Chase is roughly the same age as Scorsese, David Lynch, and Steven Spielberg; he’s younger than Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, and Clint Eastwood. Also instructive: Mel Gibson has made a dozen films since 2007, including writing and starring in Get the Gringo and directing Hacksaw Ridge.
Chase’s term in Development Hell may have multiple causes, but an element of punishment is likely. It wouldn’t be the first time: Orson Welles satirized the vain and greedy as his funding dried up. Abraham Polonsky was blacklisted three years after Force of Evil (like The Sopranos, it erodes the ground between business and crime; so does Blowup, a Chase favorite). Paul Verhoeven repeatedly mocked American violence and consumerism until exposing too much neck on Showgirls.
It must be noted: like most driven talents, Chase has crossed people (even aside from script choices). The Sopranos profligately redressed losses from early in his career, for example, he moved the production to Pennsylvania to get one shot of a quarry. Matthew Weiner: “We were exorcising David’s demons” (Martin, 189). Writing team Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green are credited on 22 Sopranos episodes, having known Chase since Almost Grown; Weiner said that like most Sopranos writers, Burgess and Green were fired “and it was brutal” (Matthew).
Chase isn’t shy in interviews: he referred to Italian-Americans protesting The Sopranos as “mingy little barbers” (Martin, 157). Asked in 2016 if he could still make The Sopranos: “my understanding is things have changed” in television (O’Falt). In Peter Biskind’s Vanity Fair piece (April 2007), he said the Mob and Hollywood are both run by criminals: “at least mobsters confront you.”
Made in America
“Civilization has become a device for delegating the vices of individuals to larger and larger communities.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
The final scene at Holsten’s is a Scorsesean epilogue. We know what there is to know. When The Sopranos ended, America still existed, so Tony’s still alive in the last shot. Chase: “I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black” (Greenberg).
David Chase said family-based TV drama is problematic because we get tired of the complaining: “if you don’t like it, leave” (David). This inspired Tony and Carmela’s separation, and it recalls Chase’s dysfunctional parents. The pattern shows up a third time: for at least 50 years Americans have been divided – why aren’t we discussing a national divorce? It would be difficult, but so is the way we’re living. Our reasons may be Tony and Carmela’s: we’re used to the relationship and the attendant standard of living.
Tony Soprano personifies America. His Mafia family is denigrated as a “glorified crew”; America is called crass and without culture. Tony claims to be a “sad clown,” laughing on the outside; optimism is an American trait. Tony is promiscuous and a glutton; the U.S. uses 25% of the world’s resources for 5% of its population. Tony’s wife has a backbone and his mother tried to kill him; feminism chips away at traditional American culture. Tony sporadically attends therapy; America plays kick the can with racism and inequality. Like the U.S., Tony’s claims to morality lie in being less bad than comparable actors. In “House Arrest,” Melfi compares him to a shark: “certain antisocial personalities … (crave) almost ceaseless action,” because without it, they “think about how what they do affects other people … and they crash.”
Interlaced with political polarization, our boundless pop culture is systematic distraction from the political issue unique to the United States: the disposition of our Olympian might. Many of our supposedly domestic problems – lost manufacturing base, immigration, militarized police – are feedback from global bullying.
cut to black
The widow of gun manufacturer William Winchester built a 160-room mansion in San Jose, California. Known as the Winchester Mystery House, it’s named for bizarre features: stairways to nowhere, doors that open on walls, a window in a floor. After the deaths of her child and husband, Sarah Winchester came to believe she was haunted by those killed by Winchester rifles. It was the spirits who needed the mansion, so she employed teams of carpenters for 38 years. American pop culture is our Winchester Mystery House. We become upset if the carpenters stop working, if the screen cuts to black.
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Dedicated to the memory of Anthony J. Lalli
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Images are screenshots from The Sopranos and other films and TV shows referenced in this article.
- This is a personal exploration of the cut-to-black, not an attempt to be “definitive.” I haven’t read the entirety of the blogpost that makes that claim, nor any of the books specifically on The Sopranos. I haven’t re-watched the entire series; examples may favor Season 6. [↩]
- David Chase’s biography requires clarification: though Italian-American – “Chase” is an Anglicized version of DeCesare – his parents were Protestant (Waldensians). Still, his work indicates that even in a multigenerational case, there are no ex-Catholics. [↩]
- Current terminology suggests an equalizer: if a great film is cinema, and a great novel is literature, a great series is a prestige. [↩]
- The definitive finale of The Fugitive (1963-67) earned an historic rating, but the series flopped in syndication. [↩]
- Why did I resist The Sopranos? I hadn’t particularly been a fan of the mob subgenre. Also, I’d acquired the habit of ignoring overrated, false-messiah series: Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, thirtysomething, The West Wing. [↩]
- “Pine Barrens” may be figurative of the Cold War’s end: deprived of their Russian foe, Paulie and Christopher are left in the cold where they feud bitterly. [↩]
- Few Sopranos fans stopped watching, but they jumped to conclusions: the cable was out, a sequel was planned, Tony had been shot. [↩]
- Chase told Nochimson about trying LSD “nine or ten times” in the 1960s. [↩]
- In an acclaimed MASH episode, an American soldier learns the costly lesson “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet.” [↩]
- The separation is sometimes termed Death of the Author, after an essay by Roland Barthes. Chase may agree: speaking of the prevalence of “rats” in the mob, he says (with a straight face) there are Sopranos characters collaborating with the FBI even he didn’t know about (David). [↩]
- I grew up on the Connecticut shoreline, a 3-hour turnpike drive from North Jersey, and my father was the only child of Italian immigrants. My father followed rules better than Tony Soprano (he had a real job), but in terms of his temper and presence, there was a resemblance. I’m dedicating this essay to his memory, partly to acknowledge a potential bias. [↩]
- Most of us “never hear it coming.” Even if I die from a long illness, there’s the day I get the news. [↩]
- Silvio Dante is seen reading the book How to Clean Practically Anything. [↩]
- Some say Gandolfini’s character is Kevin Finnerty, but it’s not that simple: alt-Tony speaks to his wife on the phone, and she calls him “Tone.” [↩]
- Hell is a point of reference. In “From Where to Eternity,” Christopher wakes from a coma reporting an Irish bar where every day is St. Patrick’s Day. In “Chasing It,” Carlo refers to The Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit,” about a gangster’s desserts. [↩]
- The semi-autobiographical Not Fade Away never quite comes alive, but it’s a respectable effort. Like “Made in America,” it ends with a music video (“Road Runner” by the Sex Pistols), but here the joy of rock is unalloyed. The main character’s nymphet sister, the film’s narrator, asks the viewer whether rock-and-roll or nuclear weapons will win the century, then dances the nighttime Sunset Strip, where she has unaccountably appeared. [↩]
- The Sopranos is a rich text on race and ethnicity, but peripherally to this essay. It must suffice that some Americans are more culpable than others. [↩]
- A catchphrase from HBO’s Game of Thrones. [↩]
- Chase has other unfilmed scripts: Little Black Dress is about the readjustment of a female combat veteran (Nochimson). In 2009, TV Guide announced Ribbon of Dreams, an HBO miniseries about Hollywood history (Fretts). [↩]
- Throughout the series, Tony is dogged by an old gun charge. Various characters are jailed on weapons charges, including Tony in “Soprano Home Movies.” [↩]