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The Soprano Bots June 12, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture.
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After much deliberation, I have decided that I am OK with the cut-to-black ending of the Sopranos. Yes, it was manipulative and writer/director David Chase gave a big middle finger to the fans who wanted a climactic, definitive end in this final episode. Yet, despite appearances, there was narrative closure.

The Sopranos was never about justice or whether Tony, the anti-hero, is going to come out on top or get what he deserves. It was about the grip that a particular culture–the Italian mafia in America–has on people who grow up in it and the effects of that culture on their psyche.

The question that the series poses is not whether Tony will live or die but whether anyone embedded in that peculiar, toxic mix of family loyalty, nostalgia, tribal affiliation, violence, and greed striving to achieve the American Dream can ever gain enough perspective to escape. Much of the narrative of this season was devoted to answering that question, and the answer we are given in the final episode is a resounding no.

Meadow, Tony’s daughter, was on her way to medical school but abruptly decides to get a law degree in order to defend Italian-Americans like her Dad who are rousted by the Feds–in other words she wants to be a mob lawyer. AJ, Tony’s son, depressed but inspired by idealistic though juvenile worries about the state of the world, decides to join the Army, but ends up taking a job as gofer for a producer of porn movies. Carmella is back to remodeling houses thinking that will allay her doubts about Tony’s ability to provide financial security. All are sucked back into the maelstrom of mob life that brings them little but grief.

The die was cast for this narrative of cultural determinism in the penultimate episode, when Tony’s long-term participation in psychotherapy comes to an abrupt end. Dr. Amalfi, worried that new research suggesting that psychotherapy encourages psychopaths makes her complicit in Tony’s crimes, summarily cuts off his weekly therapy sessions.

Therapy represents Tony’s only opportunity for self-understanding, though it never was particularly effective. When that is terminated, cultural determinism is allowed to run its course. Self-understanding (though not necessarily psychotherapy) is the only path to freedom for all of us. Without it we are all robotic reproductions of our past.

Of course, it is not as if nothing has changed. Tony’s loyal lieutenants are dead, in a coma, or headed off the deep end. His connections to his childhood and his old neighborhood are fading. He will soon be under indictment. Gone are the lavish dinners in Italian restaurants with expensive wine and sycophantic visits from the owner. He ends up with his immediate family in a cheap Jersey diner eating onion rings–an American saga of assimilation gone awry.

Even while he and his family remain in the grip of mafia culture ,it is collapsing around them, because no culture based on greed and violence can flourish.

So the Sopranos are doomed to the continual repetition of a faded past. “Don’t Stop Believing,” the song by Journey that plays over the final scene, is appropriate accompaniment though it is often bad advice.

On second thought perhaps the show is about justice. 

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1. Nina - June 18, 2007

Ah, the Cut-to-Black…still on my mind. I thought I was doing some original thinking, coming up with the idea that it was the audience who got “whacked” instead of Tony (reminiscent of what Tony told Bobby early on in the season, about what happens when you die, “it just goes blank,” and then I read it in an irate review of the last Sopranos in LA Weekly…Be that as it may, I agree that the show, over the years, has worked on many levels, like all good entertainment: Plots and subplots keep us busy, but the real story is the morality tale that is being conveyed to us over the heads of the Family: Crime shouldn’t pay, unprovoked violence reaps its own reward, the hater will be met by hatred, etc. Just like Pulp Fiction (which I love). And I think it really has been about Justice all along. The genuine moral compass (at least from a liberal point of view) has always come from the kids, A.J. and Meadow, when they were younger—even A.J. whose stunts came about because he couldn’t cope with the double-talk. And now they’re grown-up, they are sucked into the Family maelstrom, like what happened to Tony himself when his father died. So overall, the series has absolutely made sense, in the ways of hermeneutic interpretation: Reading the end into the beginning.
But…but…even so, I think the last episode was a cop-out, a tired dismissal (even “dissing”) of the audience. Chase just didn’t care anymore—or the movie sequel was just too tempting an option (after all, Tony has only lost Chris and Bobby—everybody else is still there, and Tony’s sister is poised to be “made”…) But that is, in effect, a betrayal of the trust concept that we talked about earlier. We, the audience, trust a good storyteller to stay true to us, tell the story as if the characters are real, and not let in the cold wind of realization that what we’re watching is fiction, that none of the characters are real, that it’s all an illusion. But that’s what Chase did, he ripped the curtain aside and we saw that there was no Wizard of Oz, just manipulation. Not that we didn’t know, but nobody wants to see it happen during a séance with the Wizard. Reminds me of one of the funniest but also most irritating scenes in movie history, the end of Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles…the fistfight, breaking into another movie set, and then they ride off into the sunset—to their limos. Enough with the illusion, you’ve been watching a money-maker.
So can’t we salvage it? Make something out of that extended middle finger of the Going-Blank, despite presumed lack of good will from Chase? Sure we can—like we do all the time, when we interpret our dreams. There must be some meaning to this!!! And there probably isn’t, but we connect the dots and create one, and it makes us feel better. The interpretation makes us co-author of our own story. So let’s be valiant co-authors of the Sopranos story and choose to make the last scene make sense.


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