Monday, June 11, 2007

"The Sopranos" Finale: It's All About the Journey

"Don't Stop Believing" by Journey (an instantly recognizable hit from the 1980s) is the song Tony Soprano picks on the table jukebox as he waits for his family in the diner. Later AJ reminds him that he once said to "Remember the good times" as a way to get through current difficulties. Okay, Mr. David Chase, we get it: It's all about process, moving forward, the journey is literally more important than getting there. Thus, we got nowhere last night and, in essence, that's just where Mr. Chase wants us to be.

Many viewers probably did what I did last night when the screen went blank as Tony Soprano looks up as the bell jingles on the door. I immediately reached for my remote and was worried something was wrong with my cable system. No such luck, right? We were all victims of the black screen and then the silent credits. I stewed for a few moments, wanting to throw the remote at the television screen. How could Mr. Chase do this to us? How could it be?

The answer is that we the viewers got exactly what we deserved. For weeks everyone has been complaining about the series not being up to par; then we get a superior episode like last week's "The Blue Comet," and suddenly everyone is excited again and geared up for a bang-zoom grand finale. However, Mr. Chase has been true all along to an artistic vision, no matter how controversial or criticized, in which the development of characters and the plotline were to follow no format but what was true to the vision.

For 86 episodes we have been treated to something that is nothing like what we're used to on television. Despite a few excellent recent broadcast television shows like 24, Lost, and Ugly Betty, the real deal has always been found on cable in the form of The Sopranos. No matter how angry I got (usually because I took exception with the portrayal of Italian Americans), I still watched because it was just like reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and getting the point that racism is an important part of the story because it is a truth about what life was like back in the 1840s.

The Sopranos always has come across as particularly truthful, whether it was the violence that so influenced the lives (and deaths) of the characters, or the philandering of the men with women who were not their wives and girlfriends. There was also real human interaction between characters: love, hatred, anger, jealousy, and rage. The dynamics that were established could make us laugh one week (think Christopher and Paulie lost in the snowy woods), make us cringe the next (Tony and Carmela having a blow-up), or make us cry (like the death of Adriana).

In thinking about the series as a whole, from the very first episode to the last, I must say that I don't believe I got what I was expecting, and perhaps that was the greatest gift of all. Just when I thought I liked Christopher, he would go do something that got me hating him again (like beating up JT). Just when I felt sorry for Paulie, he would do something horrific (like strangling the old woman) to qualify him as a bad guy underneath it all.

These characters are always complicated and complex. There is depth and surface to deal with for most of them. On the surface, we see the person that the character wants the world to see. Paulie often goaded Christopher, sometimes unmercifully, and yet when Christopher dies Paulie has moments of introspection, realizing that he had been too hard on the kid and maybe pushed him over the edge. This is just one example of many throughout the years, and this is why I couldn't stop watching. These characterizations are so vivid, so honest in their brutality and ugliness and sometimes brittle but undeniable affection, that I just felt like I knew them all personally.

This is the whole point, isn't it? We react to a fiction in a personal, almost intimate, way, to glean from the experience something meaningful and thus relate it to our own lives. In this way David Chase has been completely successful, for his characters were not in search of a story: they made the story, and none of them were more important in this achievement than Tony Soprano. He is the central figure, and there is no show without him, just like there could be no 24 without Jack Bauer or The Shield without Vic Mackey.

Tony is the Everyman that we can relate to on our own levels; however, he also is a prince, mob royalty who lives in a castle of his own making. Here Tony spins his webs and runs his "business" with care, trying to match the personalities of his associates with work to make them earn money and generate more business. It's a classic model, and it makes me think that Tony should have retired and started his own company to coach potential businessmen. He certainly can juggle the many responsibilities that he has, but when there is a wayward fly in his ointment (a Ralph Cifaretto, for instance), Tony reacts ruthlessly and eradicates the problem.

In essence, Tony Soprano is the most evil person that has ever been the protagonist of a television drama. He is an anti-hero, something like Satan in Paradise Lost, who rules his own New Jersey hell without ever worrying about being a servant in heaven. Yet, there are moments of introspection, never more obvious than in his weekly meetings with Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Tony's therapy was a convenient device for us in that we got to hear the equivalent of a Shakespearean soliloquy every week. Melfi lets him tell the tale and we listen in awe as he justifies everything from adultery to murder.

No wonder in the end Melfi has to let him go. It is literally a battle for survival. Melfi listens to her own therapist and realizes that what she is doing will never "save" Tony Soprano, because he doesn't want or need saving. So Melfi does the only sensible thing she can do: she saves herself. Only by extricating Tony from her life can Melfi be healthy again.

So now let's get to that ending. Remember, it's all about the journey and not the destination. That's why that Journey song is playing. As Tony hears the bell and looks up, we might be tempted to think this a For Whom the Bell Tolls moment, but that's not Chase's point. It is more of a nod to It's a Wonderful Life, a kind of "every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings" kind of thing. Meadow has been Tony's angel all along, and as he looks up and sees her, there is nothing more to say. The core family is alive, well, and together. The journey continues; we just won't be a part of it.

Obviously, Chase isn't such a bad businessman either. This "journey" is left open-ended for many reasons, all of them rather lucrative. The DVD can be advertised to have an ending (or alternate endings), which would generate even more interest. Also, with all the talk about a movie being made, this ending leaves all sorts of possibilities for the characters.

At the last second Episode 86 of The Sopranos, "Made in America," gives us a blank screen, and if that is not a surprise ending, I don't know what is. We don't have to like it; we just have to live with it for now. Bada-Bing!

Some Thoughts about "The Sopranos" Finale

As an Italian American, I have sometimes had issues with this show because of the violence and the derogatory way Italians have been depicted over six seasons. I particularly recall one episode where some of Tony Soprano’s gang made a big deal about Columbus Day, and it seemed to me incongruous and condescending for these gangsters to be worried about any American holiday, since the essence of their lives was going against the fabric of society and cheating the system to earn a living.

Yet, as the series draws its last breaths (as do some of the characters), I have had sort of a feeling of peace about the depiction of Italian Americans, for one because of the way that Tony and company have been more clearly shown to be brutes and thugs and not people to be idolized, but also because of Dr. Jennifer Melfi’s awakening (a long time coming) that no matter how often you try to clean dirt, it is still dirty. Whether or not she had delusions of altering Tony’s behavior to the point that he would become a choir boy (hey, shouldn’t a Soprano be singing?), Melfi has always been the most intriguing character for me. On the periphery of Tony’s violent and evil world, she can only observe as we have, and even after she is raped she fails to ever call in any favors from Tony, for her ethical standards are as high as Tony’s are low.

During the course of the series we also have seen Tony’s long-suffering (sorry, I can think of no better adjective here) wife who has evolved from the first season. No longer an elegant ostrich with her head in the sands of jewelry, furs, and the fancy house, Carmela has shown perseverance in the face of terrible tragedy and a resilience that is remarkable when compared to Tony’s almost child-like whining and complaining. She is actually the typical Italian mother: good cook, nurturing, loving, and the glue that holds the family vase together (no matter how many times it is shattered). Even Tony knows that without Carmela he would be nothing, though at times it seems he doesn’t care one way or the other.

Now, as the series ends and the manicotti hits the fan, Tony’s men are falling left and right, and one wonders if Tony is next. There is a string of dead bodies in this series starting with season one that threads its way through the fabric of the story, slowly tightening and creating a noose around Tony’s neck. So, is it only a matter of time for him? Does he get away with it?

No matter how much he might like to disguise himself as a “business man” and the head of a “waste management” company, Tony has blood on his hands. Lots of blood. Friends, family, associates, and innocents have all fallen because of him. The cruelest deaths have been Adrianna’s (since she was a canary in a coal mine from the day she met Christopher) and Christopher himself, who was a murderous thug to be sure but died pathetically. Tony’s offing his nephew clearly defined his true nature as cold-blooded killer, his redemption never seeming more impossible than at that moment.

Whatever happens on Sunday night, The Sopranos has been must-see television, even if at times I was angered by what I saw. There were also times where the narrative slowed down to a crawl, but this can be attributed to David Chase’s sense of the big picture in terms of scope, like a classic novel taking its time to get to the climax. I can think of some lengthy sections in classics like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that do nothing for the main storyline, but since it is Melville, attention and respect must be paid. I would say the same holds true for Chase, who has never allowed his artistic vision to be compromised despite all the sound and fury from the fans and critics. I say “Bravo!” to him for the courageous and wise course he has taken with this series.


1. Tony Turns Terrorist Fighter

Tony is already armed with the AR-10 and could assist Agent Harris in getting the bad guys. There have been hints all along about the FBI wanting info on these terrorists, and even in the last episode Tony was looking at AJ’s computer screen where there was something about terrorism. It would be an odd twist, but Tony could move in a whole different direction here.

2. Tony Gets Whacked

Since the opening credits start with Tony’s point of view in the car coming into New Jersey from New York, I always thought that the last scene could be of Tony at the toll booth going the other way. As he takes his receipt Phil’s men jump out from behind the booth and shoot him into the next world like Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. This would be perhaps the most fitting (and satisfying) way for him to go, just like Melville's Ahab meeting his end with the whale of his obsession.

3. Tony Sings a New Song

I have always felt that the last name of Soprano was intentionally used. Even when UncleJunior was singing his heart out in the Italian restaurant, I remember Tony’s expression; he looked like it was painful for him to listen. Yes, Junior was no Sinatra, but I think the reason Tony was wincing was because the thought of “singing” was so repugnant to him. Yet, when faced with annihilation of his family (he has told Dr. Melfi his family means everything to him), Tony just might turn and give up everything in return for the safety and security of Carmela and the kids. Instead of going out in a blaze of gunfire like a movie gangster, Tony’s end would be inglorious (and quite fitting) indeed.

4. Tony Gets Into Acting

Tony runs away to New York and tries out for bit parts, eventually snagging the lead in the musical version of Shrek. The good news here is besides some green paint and funny ears, he will save the make-up department lots of money. Tony has honed his acting skills over the years, especially lying to Carmela. This might be the easiest way for him to become a member of society.

5. Tony Goes Rambo

Tony comes downstairs the next morning and finds all his buddies dead. With the AR-10 in hand, Tony goes gunning for Phil and his crew and takes them all out. As Tony stands with corpses all around him and the gun in his hand, Agent Harris and company arrive and arrest him. There will be no getting out of this one, no Teflon Tony as in days past. He is caught and this will send him to jail forever. Whether this leads Tony to think about what is mentioned in Number 3 or not remains to be seen.

6. Carmela and Janice

After Tony gets whacked, Carmela and Janice decide to pick up the pieces and run what’s left of Tony’s business. Paulie is a big help here as he knows what to do and when to do it. By default, Paulie finally rises to the top of the organization and is Carmela’s right-hand man. AJ gets a pair and helps Mom out, and Meadow decides to become Carmela’s consigliore. This actually could become a spin-off, something weird like Hope and Faith meet Twin Peaks. I know this will never happen, but I can dream.

7. Kevin Finnerty

After Tony was shot and in a coma, we got the story of Kevin Finnerty: legitimate businessman who seemed to have lost his way. Wouldn’t it be a blast that the series ends with Tony getting shot, and as he is dying we switch to a scene of Kevin Finnerty snapping out of his own coma. There has never been a Tony Soprano (or any of the others either). It’s all been Kevin caught in a tornado and falling into the land of The Wizard of Mob. All the times we have heard Tony whining that “this is a business” has really been poor little Kevin’s way to get out and back because there’s no place like home. Hey, if Dallas could have Pam waking up to find the supposedly dead Bobby taking a shower (meaning the whole season was a dream), and Bob Newhart could wake up to find Suzanne Pleshette in his bed (a wife from another series making the entire Newhart series a dream), why can’t David Chase do this? It would be totally unexpected and a real shocker that everyone would hate and never forget.

Well, those are my thoughts of possibilities more than they are true predictions. I hope everyone enjoys the series finale. It will be something long-time fans have to see, and some day everyone else will be able to catch up when it’s on DVD. Until then, we can get the popcorn ready and leave the clean-up for the next morning, because no matter which way it goes, I think some of us will be jumping out of our seats.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

In Memoriam: The First Anniversary of My Mother's Passing

“Mother died today. Or was it yesterday? I can’t be sure.” These are the words of Meursault, the protagonist in Albert Camus’s famous novel The Stranger. This first sentence of the book has haunted me since I read it back in high school during the 1970s. I think why this rates as one of the most memorable first lines of a literary work ever (right up there with Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities) is that it is so shockingly incongruous to human nature that it jolts us into the fiction with our mouths wide open.

I was thinking about that book on Thursday (May 31), which was the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. I thought that Meursault’s seeming indifference was actually confusion (based on an ambiguous telegram); however, this is still indicative of his alienation, not just from family but, from life and reality. My situation was such an opposite experience, with the exact minute of Mom’s passing unforgettably and unrelentingly etched into my consciousness. This past year has been nothing if about reality and the harshness of its incessant sting.

How do other people cope with such a monumental loss? I don’t know, really. I listen to people telling me things about their experiences with the loss of parents, but this usually seems more like an attempt to rally my spirits and assist me in dealing with the situation. While this is admirable in so many ways, it does not work (at least for me). I know I’m not the first or last person to lose a mother, but damn it if it doesn’t feel that way.

Perhaps I can qualify it more: I am the only person to lose this mother (except for my sister). Even my sister and I cannot understand each other’s loss completely, since our relationships with Mom were unique and had nuances that are extremely personal and, in many ways, intensely private. There are those moments shared just between mother and child, when no one else is a witness, and those become a slide show of memories that are precious yet heartbreaking.

I can recall many times spent with Mom that made me realize not only how much she loved me, but how that love was magnified by things I said and did. When my daughter was born, I saw something in the sparkle of Mom's eyes that was both familiar and different, a sort of maternal pride that coalesced as she held the baby, reminiscent of her own motherhood and yet celebrating my new fatherhood. It goes beyond saying that this affirmation of our own mother-son bond was multiplied infinitesimally by this new dynamic. Just when I thought my mother could not love me any more, I found that she could through my child.

How does someone assess a lifetime of a loved one after that person is gone? I don’t know how to do it justice, but now after a year since losing her I still have trouble looking at Mom’s photograph. I want to. I need to, but when I do, emotions pour forth that cause me to lose myself. Composure seems to be such a valued thing in our society, and yet when I analyze it, I know that the breaking down of what was my once stoic nature has caused me to change considerably. The “new” me is not just more emotional, but more vulnerable, sullen, at times morose, and infinitely more quiet.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make me a pleasure to be around these days. I strive to be cheerful for other people’s benefit (most notably my wife and daughter). My father, who suffered a stroke two weeks after my mother passed away and is now in a wheelchair most of the time, has not seen my sadness, and I don’t plan to let him. He has his own grief, compounded by his physical limitations, and I know he misses Mom terribly and doesn’t need to have more worries.

When I go to visit my father it is difficult, especially since Mom passed away sleeping in a chair in the living room. Dad sits in that chair now, symbolically connecting him to her every day of his life. She is all around him, her memories and emotions intertwining with his own, their shared space and time together infused in remnants of their lives together: the photographs and paintings on the silent shroud of walls, the glistening trinkets carefully preserved in the curio cabinets, the china they got as wedding presents still nestled in the hutch in the dining room as if they're waiting for Mom to set the table.

I cannot reconcile her passing now after she is gone a year, though I try. I understand that at the end she had so many medical issues, and her one wish was to be at home with my father and her family. While I am somewhat comforted by the notion that she passed away in the place she wanted to be, I sometimes wonder if it would have been easier if she had been in that sterile world of the hospital when she passed away, where so many souls pass over and the moment becomes less imprinted and impacted on a room or house.

But I realize that is selfishness. I knowit is best that Mom was where she wanted to be, but I just wish Dad or my sister or I had been home with her instead of the twenty-four hour attendant. To get that phone call is chilling, especially from someone who is a virtual stranger. The words are forever embossed on my mind, “Your mother, she died.” This attendant was from Jamaica and meant no disrespect, but the words were kind of like those in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness when the servant tells Marlowe, “Mistuh Kurtz, he dead.” They seem so far removed from reality, so abstract as to be in essence meaningless in an excruciating moment when everything should crystallize to enshrine the hallowed importance of the instance in memory.

Nothing I do brings too much comfort, and I have tried doing all the things people have told me to try. I have been to churches; I have prayed and prayed and prayed. My return to God has been in part because of loss but also in finding something in myself that needed spirituality. For a while, I believed God had abandoned me, but I don’t feel this is blasphemy, for Jesus himself screamed as he was nailed to the cross, “Father, why have you abandoned me?” It is in the darkest time, as Theodore Roethke wrote, that one begins to see.

So on Thursday evening I went over to a local restaurant that has a Psychic Night featuring Tarot-Psychic-Medium Patricia Bono. I have seen this woman twice before. Both times she said things that led me to believe she has some kind of true connection to the spiritual world, because she knew names and mentioned situations she could not have possibly known in any other way. On this night I was feeling very low. It had been a year, and I was hoping for something, anything to latch onto.

Amazingly, Patricia came forward with some new information and clarified some things she had said before. The details are rather personal and I will not divulge them here, but let it suffice to say that I felt energized by her words and encouraged about Mom’s current place in the universe. Yes, maybe these things are part of what I want to hear, but there were qualifiers throughout the session that grounded me to the notion that Patricia was talking about real specifics; she could not have known these things without connecting with Mom (and some other people I have lost).

I came home Thursday night and have been writing this piece ever since. I wrote a fewlines and stopped; I wrote a paragraph and stopped again. It hasn’t been a fluid process at all but more one of uneasy reclamation: the capturing of my own spirit and its fledgling hope for a better tomorrow. I was working on it slowly, deliberately, knowing that I want and need to move forward.

Still, there is no choice but to look back. By this time next year I hope I can tackle the memories, delve into the boxes of memorabilia that link Mom to me and my daughter. Perhaps the healthiest way to handle death is what I learned on Thursday night: Mom is with me, a real presence in my heart and mind (as well as in my father, sister, and daughter).

Mom’s being gone is still painful, but knowing she is there in some form is helping me. Thus, when I go to bed each night I speak to her and, sometimes when the darkness settles over the room and I am between asleep and awake, I catch a glimpse of that sparkle in her eyes and hear the sweet song coming from her lips, “He’s my angel/I’m his Mom.” She used to rock me to sleep with that song and now, sometimes, she still does.