Final Comment on the Sopranos
A few people have asked me how my read of the finale of the Sopranos fits in with the themes I explored in “Salvation and the Sopranos,” which argued that season five (and the first part of season six) can be fruitfully considered in terms of redemtion and fate.
I don’t think there’s a neat fit–and I don’t think there has to be. Dramatically, in “Made in America,” Chase wrapped up the overarching theme of the show: the tension (and sometimes the surprising similarity) between old world mob values and the values of the striving middle class. That episode in the life of the Sopranos is over.
But he also wrapped up his series–his baby–also “Made in America.” And in so doing, he gave a gift to the audience who loved the show, and the characters– as constituting its own dramatic world, which parallels in some ways our world. Chase reminded us that it was a dramatic creation, coming in some sense to an end, in that bit on the television about the “talented director looking for a new job.” But he didn’t destroy the parallel world–he just pulled the shades on the window into it.
In my view, his ending was benevolent, toward the audience, the characters, and the fictive world that they inhabited. He told a good yarn. In ending it, he gratified our immediate desire for some moral judgment without foreclosing the bigger questions. Tony isn’t a good man, but he isn’t as bad as Phil. And we had a very satisfying end for Phil, not only did he die, but he was really and grossly squished–almost like a cartoon villain. We cheered. But precisely because it was a cartoonish ending, it didn’t address (and in my view, didn’t mean to resolve) ultimate questions of justice or injustice.
We are like Agent Harris–we like Tony, despite ourselves. And dramatically, we want him and his family to go on– in their world (not in ours, that would be too dangerous). So what does that mean? What are the requirements of that parallel world continuing? Well, it means that Tony can’t die. Then he’s dead in that world, and since he’s the fulcrum, the world dies too. It also means Tony can’t be reformed– otherwise, the dramatic basis of the world implodes. To redeem the major characters is to destroy them, as well as the narrative. It would become something else, something completely different, which nobody would watch. At the same time, there needs to be a way for him to be a good bad guy-maybe cooperating in the government’s battle against terrorism. Finally, for their world to go forward, there has to be both family and Family, intimately intwined. That’s what bringing Meadow and AJ in the business does. After all, he’s killed off nearly everyone else.
So Chase’s ending means these very real fictional characters are continuing their lives in their parallel universe, as we go about living ours. That parallel universe is still, imaginatively, intact. But that means that the questions it raises for our consideration are still there –including my questions about redemption.
Chase lets us abide with our ultimate questions. But in the immediate term, life goes on, both in the real world ( the great director needs a new job) and in the Soprano’s parallel universe. I don’t view that going on as making a nihilistic, or tragic statement about reality. I view that going on as Chase not destroying that parallel world that he created. What he won’t give us, however, is answers to the questions about reality that his constructed, parallel world raises– or, better, that we raise in conversation with his constructed, parallel world. We need to work those out ourselves.