How will 'The Sopranos' end?
How will it end? Badly.
For the characters, that is.
The series finale of "The Sopranos" will be a much-analyzed event. All signs point to a grim conclusion on June 10. Death, decline and disillusionment have marked recent episodes.
Most series indulge in nostalgia as they bow out. Not "The Sopranos."
"`Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation," mob boss Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) sneered in a recent episode.
So how will it all end for Tony? Theories range from death to prison to a witness-protection program.
Other beloved series, usually comedies, have become national events when calling it quits. Making headlines with their finales were "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H," "Cheers," "Seinfeld" and "Friends." A disappointing conclusion, as "Seinfeld" demonstrated, can cause a backlash.
Dramas don't stir the same widespread affection. "The Fugitive" was an exception, but many dramas, from "Dallas" to "L.A. Law," simply lasted too long. ABC will try to circumvent that dreary trend by ending "Lost" in 2010.
On premium cable, "The Sopranos" couldn't become a ratings behemoth. But the drama was widely influential for revealing that cable would accommodate complex series about dark characters. "The Sopranos" ushered in "Six Feet Under," "The Shield," "Rescue Me" and "Big Love."
"The Sopranos" demonstrated again the most important rule in television: It's a writer's medium. This series was David Chase's creation, and his bleak vision has pervaded the show to the end. (The edited episodes on A&E just don't have the same power.)
On "The Sopranos," a screenwriter's lot was grim and ironic. A writer (played by Tim Daly) was hit with a Humanitas Prize, which celebrates inspiring themes in filmmaking. The writer was later shot in the head by Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), Tony's nephew who broke into the movie business.
The message: Writers get no respect. Except that few writers in television history have been as revered as Chase.
On "The Sopranos," bad things have been piling up in recent weeks. Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) continues a long slide into dementia.
Christopher fell off the wagon and caused an accident when driving recklessly. (Tony, fearful that an unhinged Christopher might blab to the law, killed his nephew at the scene.)
Tony's brother-in-law Bobby (Steven R. Schirripa) was killed by a rival gang, and his right-hand man Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) was mortally wounded.
Tony's son, A.J. (Robert Iler), attempted suicide after his girlfriend dumped him.
Tony flopped at gambling, faulted his associates and stumbled through therapy sessions with Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).
In a crucial scene, Tony told his therapist, "I'm a good guy, basically. I love my family."
Another series might let him have the last say. Not "The Sopranos." It explored Tony's unwillingness to look at himself honestly.
Melfi was forced to face Tony's limits when her therapist, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg (Peter Bogdanovich), suggested that "talk therapy serves to validate sociopaths."
What a succinct way to sum up the series: Gangster seeks therapy, makes no headway.
Chase has refused to sentimentalize these selfish, cold-blooded louts. Even so, he and the actors have found ways to keep them appallingly funny.
Christopher's foray into filmmaking was a ludicrous horror story called "Cleaver." It was instantly forgettable, except that Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) fumed at the portrayal of a mob boss modeled on her husband. Her fury heightened Tony's doubts about Christopher.
"The Sopranos" repeatedly has found inspiration in pop culture. At a crucial moment, the drama cited a scene from "The Public Enemy," a James Cagney gangster film from 1931. Ben Kingsley, Lauren Bacall and Nancy Sinatra played themselves in memorable guest appearances.
After Tony tried peyote, he was shown in a locale that recalled the dawn of man sequence from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Looking at the sun, Tony said, "I get it."
Sociopaths say that a lot, don't they?
However it ends, "The Sopranos" has become a crucial part of pop culture. The ending probably can't be happy. It probably will be authentic and brutal.
It would be best, though, if the ending is surprising. "Newhart," a comedy, pulled off that approach brilliantly. You expect brilliant from "The Sopranos."