TV

The Sopranos: Series Finale

Marisa Carroll

A priest once explained to Carmela, "God understands that we all live in the middle of tensions." David Chase understands that too.


The Sopranos

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Robert Iler, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Steven R. Schirripa
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: HBO
US release date: 2007-04-08
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[Life is] all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?

-- Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand), "D-Girl" (Season Two)

Our existence on this earth is a puzzle.

-- Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), "The Sopranos" (Season One)

When the screen cut to black in the final moments of The Sopranos on 10 June, some viewers felt David Chase had orchestrated a Livia-style hit on them: in the end, it was all a big nothing.

More than a week later, fans have watched and re-watched the tense few minutes at Holsten's diner that led up to the abrupt ending, still debating the significance of the blackness. Was Tony whacked? His family too? The pursuit of meaning has led to more questions. Maybe it's more like a puzzle, closer to Carmela's worldview than to Livia's.

It's fitting, really. Throughout the series, viewers' complicated relationship to Tony (James Gandolfini) paralleled Carmela's. Although some argue that Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), as a "civilian," was the audience's on-screen surrogate, in the end she gave up on Tony while his wife stuck with him to the last second, just as we did. Carmela always suspected that Tony was guilty of horrible acts, and from our privileged vantage point we witnessed them: the lying, philandering, stealing, and, worst of all, the killing, whether by his own hands or by his decree. But no matter how much revulsion Tony's misdeeds stirred up, we remained fascinated. We knew who he was, and like Carmela, we had to ask ourselves if we "loved him in spite of it -- or because of it."

Carmela's ambivalence about her husband was established from the series' outset. After Tony suffered his first as-yet-undiagnosed panic attack in the pilot episode, his family physician sent him for an MRI, Carmela at his side, fully supportive. But their conversation soon deteriorated into an argument about Tony's relationship with his goomara and Carmela's with her parish priest.

Tony: I told you, I'm not seeing her anymore. How do you think I feel, having that priest around all the time?

Carmela: Don't even go there, all right? Father is a spiritual mentor. He's helping me to be a better Catholic.

Tony: Well, we all got different needs.

Carmela: What's different between you and me is that you're going to hell when you die!

It was a hateful thing to say (she apologized for it three seasons later), yet as the MRI table began to slide into the machine, Carmela reached out to grab Tony's hand and held on to it until he was fully inside. In this brief moment, we glimpsed the inner conflict that would trouble Carmela throughout The Sopranos. Despite her misgivings, letting go of Tony proved as challenging as staying with him.

The couple did separate briefly in Season Five, but their marriage lasted. Here and there, we learned that as a teenager, Carmela was seduced by Tony's larger-than-life qualities: his brute strength, sexual magnetism, sweetness, and sense of humor. Indeed, Tony's maneuvering within North Jersey's perilous gangland made for the most compelling TV in recent memory. But watching Carmela navigate the ethical landscape as the "princess of Little Italy" was just as thrilling.

As much as Tony recognized the material dangers inherent in his line of work, he also denied the moral implications by hiding behind the vow of omerta. Carmela's crises of conscience made her complex and also mirrored the audience's disquiet with Tony's violent behavior. In "College" (Season One), she confessed her crime of complicity to Father Intintola (Paul Schulze) while Tony took their daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), on a tour of campuses:

I have forsaken what is right for what is easy, allowing what I know is evil in my house, allowing my children -- oh, my sweet children! -- to be a part of it. Because I wanted things for them. A better life, good schools. I wanted this house, wanted money in my hand, money to buy whatever I wanted. My husband, I think he has committed horrible acts. I'm the same. I've said nothing, I've done nothing about it. I've got a bad feeling. It's only a matter of time before God compensates me with outrage for my sins.

Carmela's self-awareness and moral clarity at that moment are startling. And before Father Intintola absolved her, she promised to help Tony on his spiritual path. At that point, she did believe he could "be a better man." It was this optimism that led Carmela to support Tony's decision to see a psychiatrist, even when her jealousy of Dr. Melfi got the better of her. "I think it's so gutsy! Psychology doesn't address the soul -- that's something else -- but it's a start." By the penultimate episode of the series, her optimism had all but vanished. When Tony insisted he had quit therapy for good (a lie), Carmela barely raised an eyebrow. "Except for the slight improvement after the shooting," she replied, "it wasn't doing you much good anyway." And as Tony regurgitated his family history to AJ's (Robert Iler) psychiatrist in the final episode, Carmela impatiently rolled her eyes, then shot him a withering look.

What happened in the intervening years to extinguish Carmela's hope and her desire for change? Though she often attempted to take the high road, Carmela grappled with her own moral failures. If Tony's reputation served her purposes, especially regarding her children's future, she worked it, like when she shook down a Georgetown alumnus to snag a recommendation for Meadow. "What, threatening?" she said with a smile. "I brought you a ricotta pie and a high school transcript so you could write a letter for my little daughter to Georgetown." In Season Four, when Tony refused to pony up money for an IRA, she stole $40,000 from a secret stash to set up the accounts on her own. And of course, she allowed herself to be placated by extravagant gifts financed by Tony's criminal enterprise: mink coats, sapphire rings, Porsches, and a $50,000 donation to Columbia University in the Soprano name, to list a few.

All the while, she complained of Tony's infidelities to the other mob wives in her circle, like Angie Bompensiero (Toni Kalem), Rosalie Aprile (Sharon Angela), and Gabriella Dante (Maureen Van Zandt).

Rosalie: It's not just us. The president of the United States, for crying out loud. Look what his wife had to put up with, with the blow jobs and the stained dress.

Angie: Hillary Clinton? I can't stand that woman.

Rosalie: I don't know. Maybe we could all take a page from her book.

Carmela: What? To be humiliated in public, then go around smiling all the time? That is so false. I would dig a hole, I would climb inside, and I would not come out.

Rosalie: All I know is that she stuck by him and put up with the bullshit, and in the end, what did she do? She set up her own little thing.

Carmela: That's true, isn't it? She's a role model for us all.

It was only after Tony's former goomara Irina (Oksana Lada) phoned the Soprano house in Season Four that Carmela finally decided to leave him. During the separation, she pursued a relationship with AJ's guidance counselor, Bob Wegler (David Staithairn), one of a string of "sensitive intellectuals" with whom she became infatuated over the years. The romance ended disastrously after Wegler accused Carmela of using him to advance AJ in school. It was then that Carmela realized she would forever be haunted by her history with Tony, whether they remained together or not: "Whatever I say, whatever I do, because I was married to a man like Tony, my motives will always be called into question." She also experienced the brunt of Tony's ruthlessness first-hand as he contaminated the pool of top divorce attorneys in the state by visiting them all before she had a chance.

When no one would take her case after learning the identity of her husband, Carmela understood her options were dire. Leaving Tony, really leaving him, meant following the advice of a tough-talking psychiatrist she consulted once in Season Three: "Take only the kids, what's left of them, and go." This decision would be the equivalent of entering the witness protection program, forsaking everything in her life up to that point and starting over with nothing. In the end, she lacked the courage (as many of us would), and she decided to take Tony back. Her asking price? $600,000, enough to "set up her own little thing": the construction of a spec house on Crestview Drive.

But it was Tony's shooting and subsequent coma in Season Six that ultimately cemented the Soprano marriage. Carmela's concerns over Tony's soul in Season One gave way to a more pressing desire to keep him alive. As the series came to a close, Carmela was consumed with worry: over Tony's safety, AJ's suicide attempt, and Meadow's upcoming marriage to the son of Tony's mob associate. A trip to Paris with Rosalie Aprile brought her crushing anxiety to the surface. Standing amidst the rubble of ancient Roman baths, Carmela revealed, "There was one night in the hospital when things were touch and go with Tony. He came out of the coma for a minute, and he said, 'Who am I? Where am I going?' At the time, I didn't know what he meant. Coming here, I feel the same way." She goes on, "We worry so much, it seems like that's all we ever do, but in the end, it all just gets washed away, it just gets washed away."

The scene at Holsten's created a sense of unease as fierce as the one Carmela described. The blaring music, the suspicious-looking man at the counter, the allusion to The Godfather, and Meadow's failed parallel parking all led to a seeming conclusion. But before our worries could be washed away, the action cut off, and viewers were left suspended in a dreadful thrall, much like Carmela was during her entire marriage. As a priest once explained to her, "God understands that we all live in the middle of tensions." David Chase understands that too.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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