The best show in television history ends with an odd whimper rather than following through on the momentum of the series and making Tony pay for his many crimes, lapses in judgment, and other mistakes. Instead, he pulls a rabbit out of his hat at his weakest and David Chase tries the same on the audience.
Let me begin by saying that The Sopranos is far and away the finest television show ever produced in my opinion. Even if you set aside the breakthrough nature of the series and its pivotal role in today’s prestige television landscape, the combination of impeccable acting, complex characterizations that drove interesting plots, clever yet realistic dialogue, and top-notch production values remain unmatched. At its peak, the show had that rare, almost Shakespearean combination of plots driven by people and their emotions, rather than some predetermined story arc, and believably witty dialogue coming from characters that weren’t witty themselves.
Who can forget great lines like “for an interior decorator, his apartment looked like shit,” driven by a failure to understand the Department of the Interior was not, in fact, populated by interior decorators? Or “you never had the makings of a varsity athlete” and the ability of those few words to inspire rage in Tony decades after high school? Or great scenes like the FBI staked out at a funeral and the mobsters running for cover? Or Tony and Carmella’s epic battles over his endless cheating and her boring life? Or even smaller stuff like Tony going crazy because his sister Janice appears to have conquered her anger management issues?
Tony himself is that rare character, monstrously engaging, somewhat understandable, yet entirely inscrutable. He has admirable qualities: He’s not particularly smart or educated, but curious about the world. He’s fiercely protective of his family and his crew. He doesn’t enjoy the violence the way some of the more sadistic characters certainly do, and he has some limited sense of empathy, especially for animals and those he deemed life has treated unfairly. This is a man that we can believe would kill Ralphie over a horse and yet get excited about dinosaurs when he’s stuck in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound, marveling that humans have only been on this Earth for a short period, only to have Chrissy inform him that he “doesn’t see it that way,” even as we later learn Chrissy believes Tony understands the human condition.
Ultimately, Tony has insecurity and fears we can all relate to, even as his business and family dealings wreak havoc on everyone around him, often resulting in death and destruction. He’s a murderer who also hires contract killers, and steals everything that’s not nailed down. Yet, it seems like he is perpetually on the verge of becoming something better, even as we’re not surprised when he doesn’t. Consciously, we acknowledge his myriad crimes, but he remains charming and captivating on an almost instinctual level.
Unfortunately, the season finale, “Made in America,” completely fails to live up to the promise of the series, primarily because it refuses to follow through on the momentum of the previous episodes, indeed the entire show. Instead, we get a meandering denouement, capped off with perhaps the biggest cop out in finale history. The infamous Don’t Stop Believin’ cut to black. I’ll be blunt: I don’t care what David Chase has said about the finale since, whether or not he believes that we’re supposed to interpret it as Tony’s death.
Perhaps one can interpret it that way and I know many have, but I think they’re deceiving themselves, looking for something that isn’t there. The undeniable truth is that there’s nothing in the scene itself to indicate Tony Soprano gets his final comeuppance, whacked in front of his family while having dinner at a local restaurant, Holsten’s Diner. Instead, the scene is edited in such a way as to make you believe something is about to happen, but it’s a cheap trick pulled straight from a low-budget horror movie and essentially a fake.
In the actual scene, Tony himself is obviously on high-alert after narrowly escaping a hit by Phil Leotardo and learning from his lawyer that he might be indicted. There’s the shifty, oddball man at the counter in the Members Only jacket who gets up and goes to the bathroom. The ring of the bell over the door opening and closing, other people coming in and out, particularly the two somewhat suspicious looking African American youths. The repeated shots of Meadow parking, or well failing to park and curbing her rim. We see this all in detail, our own observations heightened, as Tony continually checks the door for the arrival of Carmella, A.J., and ultimately Meadow after she successfully pulls her Lexus into a spot.
At the same time, it’s nothing more than a trick of the editing, the soundtrack, and the overall sound mixing, helped along by a slight nervousness in James Gandolfini’s acting, that encourages us to believe something might actually be happening. There is nothing in particular about the man at the counter, the African American youths, the other people in their booths. They are extras, nothing more, nothing less, with no link to any prior storyline, much less hired hitmen. Nor does anything threatening occur. There is no gun, knife, or other weapon. No one is clocking Tony. No cold-blooded killers walk up out of the blurred background like Bobby in the hobby shop.
Putting this another way: If the scene were edited even slightly differently, there would be no reason to think anything else than the obvious: Tony was playing with the jukebox, waiting for his family to arrive. The tension is all in how the scene is assembled. In fact, it’s an older slasher movie trick, as I alluded to earlier. You know the drill: The hero or heroine hears an offscreen sound, the audience assumes it’s Jason, Michael, or whoever. The character creeps over to the source; the creeping is filmed in the same slow moving camera and longshots that suggest a kill is coming, only to find out it’s a cat or something else. There’s a jump scare and that’s it.
While I’m a huge fan of old-school slasher films, having tried to make one myself with me as the slasher, The Sopranos was always above such crass manipulation for thrills and chills. Alas, the entire final episode isn’t much better on the whole, even apart from the ending. It’s not that the scenes themselves are bad or lack entertainment value. It’s that Mr. Chase and his creative team continually resort to narrative tricks instead of following through on the story.
Tony somehow convinces Phil’s top lieutenant, Butchie, to betray him. He also somehow convinces the FBI to side with him and gets crucial information. Carlo goes missing and, all of a sudden, Tony is about to be indicted. A.J. gets a new job, a new car, and a new girl after accidentally blowing up his old car, and suddenly his suicidal thoughts are gone. Meadow is getting married to a character we’ve barely seen. Carmella is busy with a new house we’ve never seen. Paulie doesn’t want to be the boss, but then accepts the position. There’s even a strange cat that torments Paulie by staring at a picture of Chrissy.
These scenes come and go, leaving little impact. I remembered the ending of course, and the almost slapstick death of Phil Leotardo, shot at a gas station and then head crushed by a tire complete with a crowd looking on, but the rest was swiftly forgotten until I finally watched it again.
Three things stand out. First, the Butchie betrayal doesn’t make much sense. Previously, Butchie had been the equivalent of the little creature perched beside Jabba the Hut in Return of the Jedi. He was Phil’s man through and through, and he had no love for Tony, even confronting him at the hospital. Butchie’s dissatisfaction with Phil is barely established by noting that he thinks the plan to take out Tony’s crew goes too far and one phone call where Phil is unhappy they were unable to kill Tony. That’s it.
For some reason, however, Butchie decides to betray Phil even after Tony’s crew is practically wiped out. It might have made some kind of sense for Butchie to betray him on the principle of the matter, before the successful hits on Bobby and Sylvio, but afterwards Tony has nothing. Paulie is his only boss, and he doesn’t even want the job. Butchie is presented as a lifelong mobster: Even if he wasn’t happy with Phil, why would he throw in with a non-existent crew?
All of Tony’s high earners had already been killed, and even his muscle was weak. The show has always presented the mob world as one where only the strong survive, even featuring an episode where a weakened Tony intentionally picks a fight just to show he’s strong, and yet somehow Tony manages to survive at his lowest point.
Second, the trial of Tony Soprano might have made an excellent entire season. The Sopranos dabbled in the courtroom with Junior, but never really showed the high drama possible with a crooked defendant that would stop at nothing to go free. I have no idea why Chase chose to sneak that in at the very end. What purpose does it possibly serve at that point?
Third, why did they go out of their way to show Agent Harris cheating on his wife for no reason? It’s hard not to read that as establishing some kind of moral equivalence between the FBI and the mob, or at least Tony and Agent Harris, and it comes entirely out of nowhere. I might be mistaken, but I’m not even sure we knew Harris was married in the first place. Then, in the space of two scenes they introduce his marital troubles when he meets with Tony and his cheating in a hotel room for no discernable purpose. It did make sense that the agent preferred Tony to Phil, and I’m willing to accept that he might have even helped Tony, but the way it unfolds is odd to say the least.
That being said, the episode does have its moments. A.J.’s desire to be a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump is hilarious, especially in retrospect. Paulie and the cat staring at the picture of Chrissy are funny. Carmella’s reaction upon learning that Meadow’s formerly troubled friend is on track to become the doctor she desperately wants Meadow to be is priceless. Junior, unaware that he was a player in the mob, was strangely touching, especially after Janice tried pumping him for money.
The script itself is typically sharp and the acting exceptional as always; the look on Tony’s face confronting A.J. after learning about his new girlfriend, technically just a friend at that point, is probably worth the price of admission alone. The problem is the combination of story lines that come out of nowhere or go nowhere coupled with a refusal to hold Tony accountable after 7 seasons of criminal depravity.
Let’s face it: Tony deserved to die, much as I admit the magnetism of the character. In addition to being an amoral psychopath, he made countless mistakes in a world where a single screw up can kill you. In fact, the entire war with Phil Leotardo comes as a complete surprise to him after Tony felt he had a moment with the New York mobster when he was in the hospital toward the end of the previous season. Tony had no idea that Phil was still fuming over previous slights or was about to go to war. In addition once in the war itself, Tony felt he could “strike first” and easily take out Phil. This is after he trusted Chrissy while deep into drugs, and for years couldn’t find someone to run his most successful crew, amid myriad other instances of bad judgment.
The New York mob already believed Jersey was a glorified crew and not a real family, why would they back this horse? They wouldn’t. Tony would’ve been whacked, but for some reason or another Mr. Chase didn’t want to go there, either out of his own affection for the character, fear the audience would hate watching a fan favorite die, or something else. So, he chose to leave it open ended, and use editing tricks to let you know that, though we may see Tony still alive, his life wasn’t exactly going to be easy and he’d spend his days looking over his shoulder.
The problem is: They already did that much better in the penultimate episode, “The Blue Comet.” If Mr. Chase and his creative team wanted to leave it unclear precisely what happened to Tony Soprano except to say he was desperate, in dire straits, they could have just as easily ended the series there, when everyone’s favorite mobster is in hiding, sleeping with a machine gun by his bed.
At that point, the momentum of the story suggested that Tony was done for, but he was still fighting, even as he’d lost everything. You can imagine him somehow surviving even as you doubted it.
It doesn’t hurt that the episode is much better overall. Tony tries to strike at Phil first, but botches it, ultimately killing his mistress and her father, followed by typical The Sopranos confusion over whether Phil spoke Ukrainian, as if that were remotely a possibility. Bobby meets his end in an unforgettable scene, looking at his favorite Lionel Trains, hoping his son might take an interest. Sylvio gets taken out outside the Bada Bing, but not killed. Tony is forced to tell his family it might be the end, but A.J. is so messed up, he literally has to drag his son out of bed. It seems all is lost and things are so bad that Tony isn’t even interested in the food his crew is ordering.
That alone is an excellent end for a character that ate more on screen than anyone I can think of in the history of television or cinema. Mr. Chase would have been better off ending it there rather than reducing seven seasons of brilliance to a cheap trick. It’s still the best show ever, all the same.