It’s been a month since the HBO series The Sopranos faded to black, the details of New Jersey gangster Tony Soprano’s destiny left ambiguous. In just a week—but who’s counting?—the last book in the Harry Potter series will reveal how this story winds up, too, and we will see whether the world’s most famous high-school hero ever makes it to graduation. This is a summer of pop-culture desertification, of long-dreaded endings that will be argued over for years. (And really, couldn’t Paul Newman have waited until September to announce his retirement from acting?)
Yet, though we’ll never know whether Tony lived to finish his onion rings, his fate was not so much foreshadowed as it was predestined. The asbestos king of Essex County wasn’t going to be The Boy Who Lived any more than Harry Potter was going to grow up to be cowardly. Whatever the specifics of the last episode—whether Tony had been killed on camera or gone into the witness protection program—redemption was off the table from the start.
Comic references to the Virgin Mary notwithstanding, The Sopranos was Catholic like the Olive Garden is Italian: they weren’t trying that hard to fool anybody. Why would they, when in Tony’s world, we were all posers—pretending to know Yeats, pretending to know ourselves? Windshield or bug, we were all doomed; and federal agent or hit man, we were all corrupt. Whether we are bought off by a BMW or a kitchen island, the only difference is our price. Even when the supposed moral throughline of the series, Tony’s shrink, finally lost hope for him, it was only after watching him tear a page out of a magazine in her waiting room that she got mad enough to throw him out.
In J. K. Rowling’s highly moral, nearly Narnian universe, on the other hand, evil is real but good is no slouch. Sacrifice is rewarded, and eternal life is a given. Which is why Harry not only must be redeemed but must be the redeemer, I’m guessing, and at least in some sense die to live again. Just as Dumbledore, the deceased Hogwarts headmaster, will surely remain available for consults via a talking portrait in his old office, Harry will live on whether or not he survives his final showdown with the reptilian Lord Voldemort.
Of course, his salvation was never in doubt; he befriended Hermione, “the cleverest witch of her age,” while Tony was further degrading the grubbiest. Harry was learning more about himself than he ever wanted to know while Tony was only simulating self-awareness. With Harry, too, the fix was in from the get-go; while Tony got that narcissist Livia for a toxic mommy, Harry was blessed with the Madonna-like Lily—as in, is it Easter morning yet?
There never was any Easter in The Sopranos. Much as we wanted it to be a morality tale, it wasn’t. Nobody changed, other than those who decomposed, and as even Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, could no longer deny, she and the rest of us crowding onto her couch had only been indulging our favorite criminal all along. (The penultimate episode took a highly enjoyable shot at the entire therapeutic community, as Melfi’s colleagues casually violated their own vow of omerta—and most every other rule in the shrink’s handbook—over dinner.)
For all the controversy over The Sopranos’s blackout ending, it’s entertaining to be left with questions about its sociopath: Had the writers been making Tony sound more and more Clintonian—“Why me?’’ and “I can’t catch a break!”—on purpose? Would his suddenly bookish son, A. J., ever happen on Hannah Arendt? Wasn’t the scene in which A. J. blames his suicide attempt on the dorky raincoat his mother Carmela made him wear in second grade the series’s true denouement?
Harry Potter, though, is something else to me, and the character’s final exit is more wrenching. I read the first Potter book to my kids when they were so little they didn’t notice I was skipping the scary parts. The installment before last arrived the day we were leaving for the beach, and that time, we took turns reading it out loud. Two summers ago, the children were at camp and we all zipped through our separate copies. Last year, my writerly ten-year-old daughter said she had figured out that a classics major must be the way to go “because I’ve noticed that whenever people talk about J. K. Rowling they say, ‘You know she studied the classics.’’’
So even if David Chase’s bad guy was more endlessly fascinating than Rowling’s good fellow, it’s the kid wizard I’ll miss more.
Related: Salvation & the Sopranos, by Cathleen Kaveny