The Fat Lady Sings

June 11, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

SPOILERS for the final episode of The Sopranos...

So, for fans of the long-running HBO mob drama, the fat lady has sung, but did she hit a low note or a high one?

By now, the controversy has boiled over, being discussed in front of water coolers, on the Internet, and on TV and radio talk shows. Today, it was almost impossible to go anywhere and not hear someone venting or otherwise giving an opinion about the suddenly infamous fade to black. (I pity those who recorded the show last night but have not yet watched it.) If nothing else, David Chase's unorthodox conclusion to his series has done for The Sopranos what nothing else has accomplished in years: brought it to the forefront of pop culture (if only briefly) and gotten people talking about it. If that was his goal (and it certainly was at least part of it), then he had succeeded.

How did I react?

First of all, I wasn't impressed by the majority of the episode. I thought it was anticlimactic, poorly focused, and an unfit way to bring to an end one of the most celebrated TV shows of the decade. Then came the final five minutes... Brilliantly conceived and executed, they set up two possibilities: a simple night out for the Soprano family or a bloodbath. Chase, who wrote and directed the episode, ratched up the tension slowly but surely by cutting back and forth between Tony, Carmela, and A.J. at the table and Meadow ineptly parking her car. The camera caught nefarious looking men all around the restaurant. The Meadow entered, Tony looked up, and it all went black, with the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" cutting off as suddenly as the final image vanished.

My initial reaction: WTF? A moment's stunned disbelief, then a chuckle. The more I thought about it, the more I loved what Chase did. The kind of cajones it requires to end something like that - forcing the audience down the "choose your own resolution" path and turning his back on closure. Surprising everyone. When you think about it, almost any ending would have been a letdown, so Chase elected an approach that no one could have predicted. Those who received an early publicity copy of the episode were convinced that the final minute had been excised from the DVD. But, no, that's how it ended.

I don't lean one way or another where Tony's future (or lack thereof) is concerned. Maybe he lives (un)happily ever after, paranoid but surrounded by his loved ones. Maybe he goes down in a hail of gunfire. The series is over. Many believe that Chase selected this ending to leave the door open for a movie. I don't accept that. I think this is as final as it gets. Even another future minute of The Sopranos would violate the ending and render it pointless and impotent. I'm willing to take Chase at his word when he says that Tony and his family will never again appear in any form, be it on the big or the small screen. (And, yes, Sean Connery did say "never again" before Never Say Never Again.)

Two titles came to mind in the near-term aftermath of Made in America (the episode's title): Blakes 7 and Limbo. The former, a British TV series that first aired in the late '70s and early '80s, came to a sudden and violent conclusion that left things shockingly unresolved. The latter, a John Sayles film from the '90s, cut off at a critical moment and left it to each viewer to decide how things would turn out. I loved the endings of both Blakes 7 and Limbo, but many did not. In fact, during the screening of Limbo, people in the audience threw things at the screen when the end credits began rolling. I have never seen such an explosive reaction before or since in that theater, regardless of the movie or the crowd.

We demand closure from our TV shows, books, and movies. We feel cheated without it. I can't say I don't understand the impulse (and I often agree with it), but there are instances when the decision to go another route feels right. It also takes courage. Had Chase elected to gun down Tony and his family at the restaurant, he would have taken a lot less heat today, but how would that have been interesting or different? We've seen it in The Godfather saga and countless other gangster films. That would have been the easy way out, the sell-out. Paradoxically, although it would have provided the greatly desired "closure," it would have made for a less memorable fade out.

There are many reading this who disagree with me. Violently. They feel betrayed by Chase and are angry at him and HBO. In a way, I am also irritated, but not by the ending. The Sopranos has been treading water for a while now, meandering pointlessly here and there. It has come back into its own during the last few weeks but can three or four solid episodes dispel the sense of staleness that has grown over the past three years? Chase's mistake was in taking HBO's money and keeping the show running past its expiration date. Made in America should have aired in 2004, not 2007. Thank god Battlestar Galactica is going off after one more season. It will be spared a similar fate.

I'm not going to defend my opinion of the show. People will like it or hate it, with few falling in between. I can understand both sides. Above all, however, I'm pleased that there's finally something to talk about with this program, and that it didn't slip away quietly. Rage, rage against the dying of the light... Watching 24 this year was akin to viewing the slow, inexorable deterioration of a good friend. That show's final episode only underlined the decay. The Sopranos chose another way out. Like it or hate it, you will not forget it.

The fat lady has sung. Can she get off the stage without being lynched?