Tonight saw the end of The Sopranos, the HBO gangster series that's deservedly become velcro for superlatives. Much has been, and will no doubt continue to be, written about the way it changed television. This isn't another one of those pieces of writing. This short post is mostly meant to provide a space for us talk about the way it ended. And it ended as it played out all along: defying expectations. Tony's not dead, but what was with that guy heading to the men's room? And he's not in jail, but it looks like he easily could be. We'll never know.
Is that a cheat? The always estimable TV critic Alan Sepinwall has spent the season predicting creator David Chase to again zig where we expect (and maybe want) him to zag and deliver a "life goes on" ending. And so he did, delivering an episode that was all tension and little release, apart from the unexpected flashes of humor. (What's a mob hit without a little projectile vomiting?)
Part of what made The Sopranos so revolutionary (okay, maybe this sort of is one of those pieces) is the way it siezed on an advantage that TV has over films and novels in a way that few other shows have ever done: It understood it had time. The story unfolded over years. Chase let the medium hold a mirror up to how you and I experience life—slowly—in a way other forms never could. The characters grew and changed without the need to wrap everything up in 120 minutes or 283 pages.
And yet didn't really change at all. We leave Tony still in awe of the golden years, still grappling with mother issues. Carmela remains in deep denial of how they live. Paulie still sits, alone now, working on his tan. And so on. Only the thinning ranks of the Jersey crew speak to the human toll. Six seasons and eight years is a long time to wait for such a fatalistic conclusion that doesn't feel like a conclusion at all—I could almost feel the Internet explode in rage as the credits started to appear—but it also feels of a piece with Chase's resonant imitation of life. Or, in the words of Tony's muse of choice for his last television supper, the movie never ends it goes on and on and on and on.