R.I.P., Tony Soprano

The Sopranos final episode, “Made in America” (originally aired June 10, 2007) is a marvel of literary engineering both independently and for the way it resolves the entire series. To do the latter, the episode must resolve the underpinning engine of its plot—Tony Soprano’s ongoing efforts to reconcile his family life and his Family life. While the meaning of the controversial sudden cut-to-black conclusion has been much debated, a convincing analysis of the cinematographic cues (which most of this post is an abbreviated version of) shows that the blackout is Tony Soprano’s (inevitable) death. He is ultimately incapable of resolving family and Family life, and that failure is embodied by his being violently assassinated in front of his family. Part of the genius of the episode is the unexpected representation of that violent assassination.

The series’ theme/plot engine is established in its pilot, when Tony makes his first visit to his psychotherapist Dr. Melfi and they identify that the source of his ongoing dread is his fear of losing his family. One of the things the writers are most adept at is use of the objective correlative, which it turns out therapy is preoccupied with, as it too is a field that understands the tricks of the psyche—specifically how our abstract emotions attach themselves to concrete objects. The objective correlative for Tony’s fear of losing his family is the flock of ducks that’s been nesting in his pool but then flies away, causing him to have a panic attack.

Over the course of the series Tony repeatedly makes decisions that prioritize his quest for power and money over his family, implicitly imposing questionable values on them in the process. Brett Martin, in his book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of A Creative Revoluion, explains why television is the perfect medium for an ongoing cycle of progress and regression:

After all, the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—in other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

This is a pattern that could still easily be replicated in a novel. There are 86 episodes of the show; it could be an 86-chapter novel.

Tony Soprano is the model for the male antihero that emerged to carry what Martin calls television’s “Third Golden Age” on his shoulders. The show’s creator David Chase describes how the show captures the post-9/11 emotional tenor of the country, an extreme event causing us to think we’d start doing everything differently, an intensity of feeling that faded with time, much like Tony Soprano’s arc in the final season, during which he’s shot and, in a coma, experiences something of a parallel universe. In this parallel universe he’s not Tony, but a law-abiding businessman who winds up with another man’s briefcase. He is berated by some Buddhist monks for not taking responsibility for his actions, and diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which he considers to be a death sentence, though his doctor insists that these days it doesn’t have to be. This is his symbolic warning: he can change, or die. In his coma universe, a beacon continually flashes in the distance; upon discovering that the man who took his briefcase is supposed to be at the house that is the source of the beacon, he eventually makes his way to it. He’s greeted by the cousin he murdered, though in this universe he does not know him to be such. The man tells him to go into the house where everyone is waiting for him, but he cannot take his briefcase with him. Tony resists, saying his whole life was in his real briefcase. He is not ready to die, and his daughter Meadow’s voice at that moment calls him back from his coma.

Upon emerging from the coma, Tony does at first seem to change. He resists an opportunity to cheat on Carmela, lets his nephew Christopher pursue his non-mafia filmmaking dream, and declares that every day is a gift. After some time passes, however, Tony reconsiders:  “Every day is a gift. It’s just . . . does it have to be a pair of socks?” The old Tony reasserts himself, stronger than ever. The culmination of his sink into his old self occurs when he opportunistically, and guiltlessly, murders Christopher after they get in a car wreck together; he’d been grooming Christopher to be his number two but regretting the decision based on Christopher’s behavior and issues with substance abuse. (As he suffocates Christopher, a pair of headlights flash by in a manner very similar to the coma dream’s beacon.) Tony then goes to Vegas to wrap up some of Christopher’s business, which includes sleeping with Chris’s old goomar and taking peyote in a trip that’s an inversion of his coma experience, the ultimate confirmation that he will not change. (Though he does not share this particular episode with Dr. Melfi, she, too, is able to sense that he will never change, that he’s done nothing with the insights about his actions and motivations that they’ve come to together, and drops him as a patient in the second-to-last episode.) Which means it’s time for the character’s tragic flaw—his prioritizing Family over family, all the while convincing himself his prioritizing the Family is in fact for the sake of the family—to undo him.

As the final episode begins, Tony is in the midst of a war with the New York family that’s just killed his number two and three guys, but, once again, he himself escapes and an ostensible peace is brokered. It seems Tony will continue with business as usual. In the last scene, he meets his family for dinner at an all-American diner; he gets there first and takes a booth in the center of the restaurant—signifying that he seems to be at ease. He watches the front door attentively, but this is because he’s expecting his family; he’s clearly not watching his back. He watches Carmella come in, and then his son AJ (notably partially blocked from Tony’s sight by the guy who enters right in front of him), and in the meantime we see shots of his daughter Meadow outside making multiple attempts to parallel park her Lexus. Tony mentions to Carmella that a guy who’s flipped to the feds that same episode will likely testify against him in court (notably, the guy has flipped for the sake of his son, who’s been arrested on drug-dealing charges). Then the guy who walked in with AJ, who’s been eyeing Tony although Tony has not appeared to notice, gets up and goes to the bathroom. As Meadow finally enters the restaurant, Tony looks up, and then the shot cuts to black, holds there for several seconds, and the series is over.

There’s the cinematic evidence Tony has died here, and then there’s the thematic evidence. The cinematic evidence is the way David Chase sets the viewer up subliminally to understand when they’re occupying Tony’s point of view directly. This is established in standard POV shots: a shot of Tony, a shot of what Tony is looking at, a shot of Tony again for his reaction to what he saw. This pattern is established when Tony looks up at the door every time someone enters (signaled by a ringing bell). The same pattern of Tony/what-Tony-sees/Tony’s-reaction shots recurs as he sees two strangers enter the diner, then Carmella, then AJ with the suspicious guy. As Meadow is about to enter the diner, we expect the pattern to repeat. We get the shot of Tony, and, as per the pattern, we implicitly expect the next shot to be of his seeing Meadow, entering the diner, but instead it’s blackness. The blackness, then, is what Tony is seeing. He sees nothing because at that moment he was shot in the head. He never heard it coming, and neither did we, as per Bobby Bacala’s heavily emphasized line that in a mobster’s line of work, you never hear death coming.

One of the reasons some viewers seem to resist the idea that this sudden final blackout is Tony’s death is that there’s been no clear ongoing plot for a hit to be out on Tony; he’s just brokered a peace deal in the war he’s been involved in, after all. But there have been seeds planted throughout the whole season, if not series, that point not directly to who might want to kill him, but indirectly to Tony’s obliviousness to the destruction and pain he’s caused others.

The most powerful symbol of this obliviousness callousness coming back to bite him in the ass in the end is the “Members Only” jacket worn by the potential hit man, the guy who walks in with AJ and then goes to the bathroom—whom the careful camera shot clearly shows would have a clear shot at Tony once he emerges. “Members Only” is the title of the season’s first episode, in which a character we’ve never met before but who’s apparently a member of Tony’s crew asks if he can retire to Florida, since he’s received a sizable inheritance. Tony says he’ll think about it, then sends the guy on an errand to murder someone, which the guy does, shooting someone in the head in a diner while wearing a Members Only jacket (same jacket as the guy in the last episode’s last scene). Tony then, characteristically, refuses to let the guy go. In response, the guy hangs himself, and we never hear anything about him again. The reason we don’t ever hear anything is that Tony doesn’t think about him again; he’s completely oblivious to the pain he’s caused. The guy in the Members Only jacket in the final scene is this guy, and all of Tony’s past transgressions, symbolically reincarnated, come back to kill him.

I had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that Tony would be hit like that in front of his family. But, probably not ten minutes prior in the episode, his rival mob boss who’d been trying to kill him, Phil Leotardo, was similarly capped, shot in the head in front of his wife and two grandchildren. If the hit on Tony in front of his family is not direct retribution for the way Phil died (which it well could be), then it’s certainly karmic retribution. His being shot in front of his family is also the ultimate way to resolve the show’s family v. Family dichotomy, not only for him, but for those family members. Carmella in particular has been implicated for enjoying the material comforts her husband’s career provides while turning a blind eye to how he’s procured them; now, she’ll pay the ultimate price—witnessing Tony’s death actually seems higher than Tony’s price of death itself, as he doesn’t have to deal with the fallout of his family having witnessed something so gruesome. He’s lost his family, the very thing he’s feared from the first episode, but not in the expected way of their dying or disappearing—he loses them via his own death.

As quoted by Martin, one of the most appealing factors of the show is summed up by Craig Wright, a playwright who wrote for Six Feet Under:

“A show like The Sopranos has a soothing quality because ultimately there’s an unspoken assumption behind it that even the most monstrous people are haunted by the same concerns we’re haunted by…. But the funny part is that masked by, or nested within, that critique is a kind of helpless eroticization of the power of the Right. They’re still in love with Big Daddy, even though they hate him.”

The Sopranos and the legacy it passed to its progeny was the antihero: getting the audience to sympathize with people doing objectively despicable things—itself evidence that the way television achieved its Third Golden Age was to emulate the novel. The problem, as David Chase seems to think, is that while the viewer rooted for Tony Soprano to do bad things, they also, at the end of the day/show, wanted to see him pay for it:

“There was so much more to say than could have been conveyed by an image of Tony face down in a bowl of onion rings with a bullet in his head. Or, on the other side, taking over the New York mob. The way I see it is that Tony Soprano had been people’s alter ego. They had gleefully watched him rob, kill, pillage, lie, and cheat. They had cheered him on. And then, all of a sudden, they wanted to see him punished for all that. They wanted “justice.” They wanted to see his brains splattered on the wall. I thought that was disgusting, frankly. But these people have always wanted blood. Maybe they would have been happy if Tony had killed twelve other people. Or twenty-five people. Or, who knows, if he had blown up Penn Station. The pathetic thing- to me- was how much they wanted his blood, after cheering him on for eight years.”

So he did the entirely appropriate and entirely unexpected thing, and put us directly in Tony’s head at the moment of his death—we have to suffer the same fate he does. As much as the show’s pacing and use of objects owes to the novel, it’s hard to imagine how a novel could pull something like this off. It’s an especially interesting coup considering this was the show that revolutionized TV by actually showing gruesome murders in the first place.

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