"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!