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'The Sopranos': Did the audience get whacked?

Like millions of other pop culture fans, I watched the final episode of TV icon The Sopranos, breathlessly waiting for a big finale. And we all got it but not the one we were expecting.

All the lead-up talk to the final episode led to two expectations. First of all, there was the idea of redemption. Would our great anti-hero Tony Soprano finally mend his wicked ways somehow and become a mensch. To me though, that seemed like a false projection of reality. The real reason many of us were captivated by a character like Tony was that he was such a bad-ass mother, even with the doubt he expressed in therapy. To have his somehow redeem himself at the last minute would have been the worst kind of vapid ending for the series. After all, one of the models for the show was Public Enemy where James Cagney plays another great gangster cad who never redeems himself.

Then there was the question about whether or not Tony would survive the final episode or not. HBO couldn't have asked for better press for this with radio stations and rival networks talking about this possibility. How else do you end an epic series than to finally kill off the main character who's piled up bodies around him?

No doubt that as the last show unfolded, many people were clock-watching to figure out how things were going to get wrapped up in the time that was left. Near the end when Carmella announces that the family would be going out to dinner together seemed like the set-up for this, just as Tony is quietly raking leaves in his backyard, staring at the sky and reflecting. The penultimate episode did a great job also of setting up expectations with his psychiatrist cutting him off cold turkey, one murder and one near-murder in Tony's crime circle while he and his family had to run into hiding. With the rival boss offed (with the blessings of his underlings), it seemed that Tony might be off the hook and could get back to business.

And so there was that final diner scene. The family arrives one by one but we notice something strange. The camera spends a few seconds on a couple of diners at the counter, at a table and at a jukebox. Why do we briefly glimpse these people a few time each unless these supposed-strangers are going to be part of the scene otherwise? Meadow is in the parking lot, frustrated at trying to park and no doubt seeming to drag out the tension of what's going to happen in the scene. She finally parks just as one of the counter strangers gets up to go to the bathroom and two others look over the jukebox selection. Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" (also used in a climax for the film Monster) is playing in the background. We hear the door bell of the diner ring, no doubt meaning that Meadow is about to join her family as Tony looks up to see her.

And then... it's over. The scene is abruptly cut off. There are a few excruciating seconds where the screen is blank and then the credits roll. During the blank screen, my girlfriend and I (I'm sure like many others) jumped out of our seats and exclaimed "what the hell!", thinking that HBO had cut off at this crucial moment. Creator/writer/director David Chase had pulled the rug under all of us though. He knew that we'd be drolling over those final moments and got our hearts beating and then... poof. It's gone.

I'm sure that many people will be infuriated not only with how quickly Chase just cut everything off but you gotta give him credit- it's an ending that we won't forget and will mull over for a while. Even for anyone who wasn't disappointed that Tony didn't get killed, surely many folks were angered by the way the scene literally vanished without warning. "What the hell was he thinking when he did that?" many wonder now.

Chase directed only two episodes of the show- the first/pilot and this final episode. He wanted the finish to be exactly was he envisioned it so he took total control over it. It was no accident or after-thought. He had been planning the show to come to an end for a while now. He was also worried about the ending leaking out so he reportedly shot three versions of it (one of them no doubt including the demise of Tony and/or members of his family).

No doubt he'll take a lot of heat for his show's ending. As an audience, many Sopranos fans figured that with all of the blood, violence and shootings, the only way to cap off the show would be some kind of blaze-of-glory shootout like Tony Montana had in Scarface- the last episode has only one scene of real violence and it's not directed at Tony. They wanted the show to go out (literally) with a bang and not a whimper. Though some fans are probably happy that their (anti) hero Tony did survive, they were still left scratching their heads over the quick ending.

Anyone who thinks that Tony got off easy is fooling themselves too. Remember that Chris is dead (by Tony's own hand no less), Bobby's been murdered, Silvio is near death, Junior is in a perpetual fog of dementia and Paulie is haunted and caught in the grip of his own superstitions (to the extent that it stops him from ascending the pecking order). Tony also finds out near the end that he's about to go to court again and fight a new wave of charges against him. Even though he's resolved things with the rival New York gang, his life is hardly peachy. The only thing he has left is what we see him with at the end- his own nuclear family. Tony is indeed gone as the series ends but not in the way that we thought. Chase decided to let him live and let his life go on as it does for many real-life good guys and bad guys instead of settling things with the old cinematic retribution that we hoped for. It's also possible that Chase grew weary of the blood and body counts and wanted to remind us that beyond that, we've been riveted to the show by the unique characters there and how their lives evolved- even actors James Gandolfini (Tony) and Steve Van Zandt (Silvio) have said in interviews that they were disgusted and appalled sometimes by what their characters did in the show.

If anyone is still bitching about the ending, let me offer a little bit of solace with my own gunman-in-the-grassy-knoll theory about it. Tony does get whacked but not as we see it. Think about the diner scene in detail. Why exactly does Chase mull over the other customers? We're set up to assume that these 'strangers' are there for a reason and knowing the show, they're probably lying in wait for the right moment to strike Tony (maybe from a splinter faction of the New York gang who still wants revenge). Why do we focus on Meadow's problems in the parking lot which drag out the scene and build suspense to the final moments? Notice that Chase picked the moment to cut off the show exactly when Meadow seems to enter. What if that (the entrance of the last member of Tony's immediate family) was the signal for the bloodshed to begin? Maybe that could be the reason that the scene is cut off cold right there and Chase expects us to use our imagination to finish the scene in our own minds. The music and the picture get cut off quickly but why? Chase could have had Meadow arrive and sit with the family and enjoy dinner and then fade out but he decided to stop everything cold right there for some reason.

Admittedly, I have an over-active imagination and at some level, I did want Tony gone. But after my initial shock over the way everything ended, it did seem like a fitting finale (though I'm sure that many watchers will say that this cheap, hurried ending is par for the course for a lame final season). Chase had delivered memorable television to us before and now, whether we like it or not, he did it again. No doubt some fans will pin their hopes on the rumored promise of a Sopranos movie to maybe resolve everything the way they want it to but don't hold your breath: Chase is too smart to give us exactly what we think we want. He endeavored to give us edge-of-the-seat drama and that's just what we got, even if it's not the way we expected it.

As much as the stories, characters and mayhem, one other thing I'll miss from the show is the soundtrack. Few other TV shows took so much trouble to frame the stories and scenes with such an elaborate selection of music. Many times, I'd go running to this website to find out what I was hearing. HBO figured this out too, not only providing these listings but also eventually specifying which scenes each song was heard in and giving users the chance to buy the songs. It's a great marketing idea and hopefully other shows will follow suit not just in offering such items online but taking the time and care to weave an elaborate soundtrack to their episodes.

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