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Tony Soprano Lives; David Chase Rubbed Out

[SPOILERS ABUNDANT IF YOU HAVEN'T YET SEEN THE FINAL EPISODE OF THE SOPRANOS.]

Of course it ended in a restaurant. The Sopranos was the greatest food show in the history of television. I watched three of the earlier episodes yesterday on HBO On Demand, and then succumbed to an overpowering urge to make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce. There was hardly any Italian sausage left in the meat case at Balducci's -- everyone had the same idea. No one should be shocked if we soon see James Gandolfini relaunching his T. Soprano character on the Food Network. "Cookin' With Tony!"

So: I'm in the camp that says it was a great finale -- oddly satisfying in its ambiguity. But I have friends who are howling mad at creator/director David Chase. Cop-out, they say.

The buzz had been that the ending contained "a mistake," but the mistake was intentional: The screen goes blank right when the Soprano family is either going to: a) be obliterated in a hail of gunfire, or b) have a relaxing family dinner.

[Here's the AP story with a good description of the final scene. Last week on Slate, Jeff Goldberg correctly predicted, "the series will end on some sort of ambivalent note, something that underscores the tension and the physical and emotional dangers in the life Tony has chosen for himself." Tim Noah has a nice comparison to the short story "The Lady or the Tiger." Tim writes, "I think Chase didn't know how to end this wonderful series. So he created a lot of fake tension and then pulled the plug of my television set."]

For weeks now, and really for years, we've all had the same question: Will Tony live or die? And if he lives, will he wind up in the slammer, or fishing down South? In the end, David Chase refused to give us the answer.

You could imagine the financial motives for keeping it uncertain. He could revive the series. He could make a Sopranos movie. But I think what really happened is that Chase decided, in effect, that the person who would be whacked in the final episode would be the screenwriter.

Yeah: Chase whacked himself.

He decided to rub himself out by making himself an Unreliable Narrator. This is what Tim Noah alluded to with his comparison to "The Lady or the Tiger." By failing to tie up the loose ends (other than the Tarantino moment when Phil's head turns into a speed bump), Chase resigned his position as a conventional storyteller. In the process, he all but shouts at the viewer: THIS AIN'T REAL.

It's only a TV show. These are fake characters. This is not a real family. The reason there's no conclusive ending is because this is all made up stuff and our desire to know "what happens" is delusional on its face. [Arguably this is mere contempt for the viewer. A middle finger, as someone put it on one of our blogs this morning.]

What's that last song that Tony plays on the jukebox? "Don't Stop Believin'," by Journey. The viewer might think it means, "Don't stop believing in Tony." But to my ear it means, "Believing that any of this is real is as goofy as liking this antiquated power ballad by an 80s hair band."

The last few episodes have been filled with winks at the viewer. Chase went "meta" on us. There was even, in the final episode, some background chatter about Hollywood needing screenwriters (I'll see if I can track down the transcript). Shales picked up the "Godfather" allusion with the maybe-hit-man going into the bathroom in the final scene. Chase had fun with the mysterious cat who kept staring at the framed photo of Christafuh. My friends theorized that the cat was wearing an FBI wiretap. I think the cat WAS Christafuh.

Sometimes the Unreliable Narrator is the most honest way to deal with a story. To change art forms: The central weakness with Don Delillo's otherwise wonderful novel "Libra," on the JFK assassination, is that he didn't go with an inconclusive ending. Delillo tied it all together, with two shooters, a crossfire scenario. But "Libra" was primarily an exploration of the elusiveness of certainty. It was most powerful when describing the impossibility of knowing exactly what happened in Dallas. (See, for another example, Adam Gopnik's piece on Lincoln's final moments.) Delillo let all the quantum uncertainty collapse into one particular narrative -- a highly unsatisfying conclusion.

Sometimes keeping it ambiguous makes more sense.

Chase let us know in this final season that Tony is, as many observers have long alleged, a psychopath. That's why Melfi quit on him: She realized that he'd conned her, and everyone else. She was making him a better criminal rather than a better person. Sure, he's not COMPLETELY incapable of human feelings. But he's ultimately all about himself. And we were all conned. We liked and rooted for Tony even though he was racking up a body count that was getting up into Ted Bundy range. Chase didn't kill off Tony, but he whittled him down with a thousand cuts.

And in the end we realized that a TV show, any TV show, is a variation on a confidence game. It's all pretend. But don't stop believin'!

Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin anything to roll the dice,
Just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on


By Joel Achenbach  |  June 11, 2007; 10:30 AM ET
 
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