Thoughts on Old Television: THE SOPRANOS series finale

Given how behind I am on updating this blog, AND how behind I am on current prestige television shows (I’m still on season one of House of Cards for crying out loud), this topic seemed appropriate. As mentioned previously, My journey with The Sopranos has been long and halting–I first began watching the program in the summer of 2005–and my reaction to the content of the show has more than likely been affected by my inability to stay current with television.

It should come as no surprise, then, that my reaction to the recent cultural feeding frenzies surrounding new episodes of Game of Thrones (I’ve never seen an episode but I finished maybe two-thirds of the first book) and Mad Men (I just started watching episodes of season six now that they’re on Netflix) was to dig into my long dormant Season 6.5 episodes and watch the five that I had been putting off for lo the past six months.

My main takeaway: a fantastic series, one that really ushered in this current era of prestige television that has now firmly chained feature films to the cultural whipping post (a place formerly occupied by television itself). But let’s not bother with a retreading of something a TV critic wrote in Entertainment Weekly seven years ago. Let’s talk about that ending.

Wikipedia, the Web Site of record, says that the initial critical response to the final episode, Made in America, was generally positive. I was no longer watching at the time, but as a film student, there was no way I could avoid it, and from my memory, almost every professor and fellow student I encountered who had followed the show from the beginning was pissed. Even now, I think the idea that the Sopranos series finale was a letdown is taken for granted–more than one person I know compared it unfavorably to the series finale of Breaking Bad. The issue most people seem to have with the ending is one of closure: the theory goes that after hanging in there for 6 seasons, viewers were entitled to know how it all ended, and that the final scene, with its abrupt cut to black (that left many viewers literally wondering if their cable had cut out) was little more than the writers throwing up their hands and giving the loyal audience an eternal “fuck you”.

In keeping with my incredibly tarnished reputation as an entertainment contrarian, I have to disagree. To begin with, the supposition that creatives “owe” an audience anything, to say nothing of “closure” is the eternal battle cry of those who view art as something that feeds a hunger for distraction and general consumption, and who care nothing about what the art says about them, the creator, and the world at large. All that aside, I think most of the Made in America final scene detractors forgot one key element about The Sopranos as a whole: this was a show about, above all else, depression.

This probably seems more obvious to somebody who has been viewing the show piecemeal across two decades, but The Sopranos is a bright and shining example of one of my favorite artistic concepts, first explained with perfect articulation by producer Brian Udovich: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. This show has gangsters, and there’s certainly a lot of shooting and garroting and red sauce, but The Sopranos is a show about depression more than it is a gangster show. In that light, the final season, and especially the final episode, crosses over from the realm of mere entertainment into artistry. The entire series had dealt with metaphors for depression and mental illness with varying degrees of success, but Made in America is packed to the brim. A case could be made for the finale representing something less true to reality than many viewers might have been led to believe, and Chase certainly hadn’t been shy about playing with surrealism and dreamscapes throughout the series run.

Tony Soprano is a sick man. That was established at some point in the first season, and as we follow his own bumpy journey down the road of therapy and up the ladder of organized crime, we’re forced to face a fact that many people who have never suffered from depression have a hard time facing: you don’t ever really “get better”. There are good days and bad days, and even good years and bad years. There are long periods of happiness, of adjustment, periods of light following moments of seemingly inescapable blackness, but like the hunted Tony in the season finale, watching his empire fall apart, there is never rest. Depression can strike at any time, without trigger without cause. That’s the nature of mental illness, and it only exacerbates pre-existing feelings of hopelessness: the realization that this is your life, and it’s not changing in any significant way, is enough to make anybody look at existence with an eye tending towards the absurd.

In that light, consider the first few moments of Made in America. We’re treated to a shot of Tony, alone, holed up in a rat-hole bedroom moments before dawn, cradling a very large gun, that comes very close to his own face several times. “You probably never even hear it” Bobby says in a voice-over flashback, speaking of being murdered, but possibly referring also to those pangs of desperation that might emerge at any time and bring all facades related to a normal life crashing down. There are other clues as well: a beautiful shot of Tony and Paulie, refugees in a war that has taken a terrible toll, survivors of a crew that was once full of strong young men, now down to a few lone survivors. Tony walks through the snow, small and insignificant in a sea of dark and cold, towards the one thing that might save him. I could keep going, but this my main point: Phil Leotardo and his outfit’s efforts to snuff out Tony might as well be a stand-in for Tony’s depression, a disease that pursues him just as relentlessly and with just as much deadly potential. And just like his flesh-and-blood enemies, Tony’s depression is dangerous even when it seems as though it’s been put to rest. Even in a diner with his family, enjoying what seems to be a good moment amidst a sea of troubles, Tony has one eye on the door, assessing each and every person that comes through as a potential threat. This is depression: not just that is steeped in sadness, but in fear.

David Chase once said in an interview that he wasn’t interested in satisfying the audience’s bloodlust by treating them to a bloodied and dying Tony Soprano, as though they had somehow earned a perverse sense of justice through their years of devoted viewership. Chase should be lauded for that hardline stance, but what’s been overlooked is his refusal to bow to the false God of closure, even in a fictional narrative. A life lived with depression is just that: you live with depression, you never beat it, much in the same way that alcoholics are “recovering” and never “recovered”. For somebody with depression, closure never comes, until you are gone and can’t feel a sense of anything (“you probably never even hear it”). That’s why the audience doesn’t get closure, because Tony’s life goes on without it (or not).

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