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NEW YORK - After all the hype and expectations about Sunday night’s final episode of HBO’s “The Sopranos,” the mob drama series didn’t end with a bang. It didn’t even end.


It just stopped.


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The Sopranos

Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET

(HBO; US: 8 Apr 2007)

Review [24.Apr.2007]
Review [15.Mar.2006]
Review [12.Apr.2004]
Review [23.Sep.2002]
Review [31.Dec.1994]

Series creator David Chase, who wrote and directed the finale, apparently chafed over the years at all those people who complained about loose ends on the series not being tied up - Dr. Melfi’s rapist, the Russian in the Pine Barrens. Sunday night’s ending, or lack of one, was a massive passive-aggressive payback, painful and funny at the same time.


It was guaranteed to leave you screaming at the TV set. Whether you laughed later depended on your sense of humor, and sense of betrayal. At the end, I groaned, then chuckled, then groaned again. I wanted more, and didn’t want it to just come to a screeching, annoying halt. I wasn’t furious, just disappointed. But, I have to admit, I was surprised.


I could be angrier, but I see the perverse point Chase was making. He didn’t want to wrap up things neatly, if at all, and after the endless speculation about how “The Sopranos” would end, he conspired to make the series just as endless. Despite HBO’s slogan - “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” - Chase was reminding us all, with a slight sneer, that hey, it is just TV after all.


You want closure? After eight years of “The Sopranos,” Chase ended the series with the exact opposite. He lopped off the show in mid-scene, as Tony, Carmela, A.J. and Meadow arrived, one by one, for a rare family dinner out at Holsten’s.


With a hint from Tony’s contact on the federal terror-watch squad, Tony’s minions had found and killed Phil (in the finale’s best scene; more on that later), Tony supposedly had brokered peace with the New York family and there was no reason for the Sopranos to hide anymore. But as they sat in the booth and perused their menus, menacing-looking people we hadn’t seen before loomed nearby, or shifted from the counter to the bathroom, possibly seconds away from showering Tony and his loved ones with a hail of bullets.


The tension was palpable. Was this the end for Tony, or just another tense, teasing false alarm, like when Tony took Paulie out fishing? We’ll never know, because the scene just shifted - not faded - to black. A few seconds later, after a horrible realization that there was no more to come, the final, very final credits rolled.


This was no accident. The song Tony chose to play on his tabletop jukebox at Holsten’s was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” The last words we heard on “The Sopranos” were Journey lead singer Steve Perry singing, and repeating, “Don’t stop.” And then everything stopped.


Music has been the only clue to where Chase was heading with this ending. Earlier in the episode, A.J. and his high school girlfriend were listening appreciatively to Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” including a line of dialogue that Chase clearly took to heart: “I got nothin’, Ma, to live up to.”


What’s more, the final episode opened to the instrumental strains of an old Vanilla Fudge cover, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” - no doubt another defiant song choice by Chase. And last week, he even prefigured things by having the Bada Bing girls dancing topless to The Doors’ “When the Music’s Over.”


“When the music’s over,” Jim Morrison sings, “turn out the lights.” Sunday night, to put a final punctuation to “The Sopranos,” that’s exactly how Chase ended things.


It’s an unforgettable TV series ending, sure, but doesn’t deserve to be placed among TV’s all-time best ones. “Newhart,” the reigning champ, gave closure to two series in one, by echoing back to “The Bob Newhart Show.” “Six Feet Under” gave us closure by projecting years, decades, into the future. And “St. Elsewhere” wrapped everything up by suggesting the entire series was nothing more - and nothing less - than the daydreams of an autistic kid.


Some people hated the “St. Elsewhere” ending because they felt it minimized their involvement in, and loyalty to, the series. Millions more people, I suspect, will feel strongly betrayed by “The Sopranos” for keeping them hanging on.


But that’s what life is like, Chase always has insisted. Things don’t end neatly, or resolve expectedly. And, in his defense, what we did get Sunday night, among other things, was a funny sense of symmetry (both Tony and A.J. opening up to A.J.‘s new therapist, a leggy echo of Dr. Melfi), a hilarious subplot about a cat Paulie found creepy and one trademark sense of grisly humor.


Phil Leotardo not only met his end by being shot point-blank in the head but afterward had his head crushed by the tire of his own out-of-control SUV.


A.J. reminded Tony, at the final dinner scene, that he had once told A.J. to concentrate on the good times. When remembering “The Sopranos,” viewers angry at the finale might want to take that advice to heart.


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