Wednesday, October 3, 2007

There’s Nothing Wrong with the Ending

Now that the crying has ended and the pouters have uncurled their lips, it’s time to examine the sheer brilliance of the final episode of The Sopranos. At the core of interpreting why the ending didn’t work for some and worked for others is the conditioned series finale syndrome or CSFS; the triumvirate levels of what Shakespeare referred to as “noting”; and what I’ve dubbed the “plausibility equals suspension of disbelief to experience ratio”. And, of course, there is the sorting of miscellaneous debris within the final scene.

The things that are probably most troubling to viewers are the conditioned expectation of a “neatly wrapped” series finale as seen in M.A.S.H., Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and most recently, Six Feet Under. Now, these shows vary in their quality, but each concluded in a somewhat satisfying way. The predictability factor is determined by how a viewer’s expectation is shaped by show convention. So, when a show follows tried and true convention, its conclusion becomes more and more predictable because the audience expects certain things to happen.

In the case of The Sopranos, audience expectation was primarily based on what their determination of convention was prior to the series. For most, it is the conventions of the mobster genre as defined by The Godfather trilogy, Good Fellas, and the like. In these stories, the main male character fits a stereotype of hardened and street savvy thug who doesn’t have a heart, conscious, or care (exteriorly speaking) of what others think of him. The main characters of these stories would never in a million years think of seeing a psychiatrist for therapy, let alone become self-aware of emotional and psychological problems.

This became the general premise for David Chase’s work. He set out to shatter expectation by changing convention—ultimately changing predictability. He masterfully—along with his writing team—pulled this off, episode after episode. Viewers disappointed with the final episode did one of two things—they either felt their viewing senses were tantamount to Chase’s predictability factor and fooled themselves into thinking there were in step or one step ahead; or they, in a moment of insecurity or, perhaps nostalgia, experienced a viewers relapse into the old convention, expectation, predictability mode. In short, this latter group needed or wanted the tightly packaged finale that would allow them to continue life knowing the fully resolved story.

Of course, Chase pulled no punches in that he established from the get go that this show was not about predictability, and his writing team certainly changed convention, partly by the graces of H.B.O. and partly because of their panache in pushing the limits. Unfortunately, disappointed viewers just may have had too many years of conventional television to undo the Pavlovian effect.

Now, what exactly allowed Chase to change expectation? Viewers know that the H.B.O. format in and of itself challenges conventional television in that it is sans commercials, breaks the cliffhanger format for commercial breaks, and can portray sex, violence, and profanity among other things. But, these are easy things to do by themselves. What chase did was take the assumptions of mob life and give viewers the fly-on-the-wall purview to see what really might happen in a mobsters life. With The Sopranos we went from being fascinated with la cosa nostra as depicted in two-hour films, to getting past that and really getting to know the characters.

Television is a voyeuristic endeavor. No questions asked. However, the way the eavesdropping or “noting” as Shakespeare called it, occurred on The Sopranos was quite different from normal prime time fodder. In most shows, the viewer sees the show through a single layer. However, just as Shakespeare demonstrated in Much Ado about Nothing (Alvarez’s favorite), Chase uses a triple-layer of observing.

Recall that in Much Ado about Nothing, there are characters that hide behind bushed and eavesdrop on genuine conversations between other characters. There are also characters that stage a conversation because they know that they are being observed and give false information or merely perform for the eavesdroppers. Finally, the audience or reader of the play become the third layer of voyeurism in that the audience views all levels of the “noting” and become eavesdroppers themselves.

How does this work for The Sopranos? There is the perfunctory audience level. This is standard television for sitcoms, dramas, or sporting events. As for the staged level—the viewer got to see Tony say things to people that he both meant and didn’t mean, depending on the situation. Sometimes for a set up a la Adriana. Sometimes for the agent who gave him inside information. But, as we continued to view The Sopranos by way of unconventional settings (kitchen of Tony’s house), characters (just about all of them), or situation (Tony in therapy, suicidal son, lawyer daughter), we gained a view of mob life that had never before been portrayed. This became the hook that would ultimately lead to the need for a tightly closed ending. Being along for the ride so long gave viewers a sense that they were part of the family through the three levels of observation. This point of view was significantly apparent in the final seconds of the show as the screen went to black. But, more on that later.

One of the most fundamental challenges of any work of fiction is the idea of suspension of disbelief. That is, to what extent must a viewer suspend his or her belief of reality as they know it in order to follow a story? The difference between a viewer’s real life experience and level of suspension of disbelief are what gives a work of fiction its plausibility.

Tony seeing a therapist was one of the first challenges of disbelief. How many viewers would believe that a mobster would see a shrink? At first thought, probably very few. However, as Chase uses the three-levels of observation, challenges convention, he changes our expectation and thus increases the amount of disbelief we are willing to suspend. It gets to the point that by season two, nobody gives the thought of “a mobster in therapy” a second thought.

Coupled with this is the very real and down to earth of Tony struggling as a father. He, like any other dysfunctional family, cannot control his own children and adds fuel to the fire in terms of his marriage. His tireless pursuit of the American dream is in vain. As he gains power and money, he loses his son, daughter, and maintains a constant friction with his wife. Ultimately, he is only able to acknowledge his childhood difficulties, but never quite resolves them. So, that brings us to the final episode, namely the last scene.

The cat may be Adrianna, may be a reference to the Egyptians belief in cats as good luck, and may be an ode to The Godfather when Don Vito Corleone pets the cat as he sees visitors. Maybe Chase just wanted to give a part to an animal that doesn’t die. Who knows?

Final scene. Tony is alone in the diner from his youth. A critic recently referred to it as a Normal Rockwell scene. Families and patrons enjoy “soda fountain” fare, jukebox music, and a flare for nostalgia. Enter Carmella. Husband and wife are joined. Tony orders and old favorite—onion rings, best in the state. A.J. enters. The prodigal/emotionally disturbed son returns.

Outside, Meadow struggles to park the car. She continues to do this as conversation unfolds inside. At each attempt, she is trying to park while going backwards. Yes, she is trying to squeeze between two parked cars, but her inability to go backwards prevents her from joining the family.

Inside, we see a man in a Members Only jacket looking like a possible hit man. There is the mesh cap clad truck driver looking guy. Tony and A.J. talk over “Don’t Stop Believing” with Carmella listening. Tony glances to the door each time someone enters. Meadow continues to struggle—she desperately wants a “do over” on several levels. How can she navigate the difficulties of medical school, let alone law school if she can’t parallel park a car?

The scene cuts quickly between Members Only, truck driver, two African Americans, etc. as A.J. says to Tony, “You said to always think about the good times.” Tony replies, “I did?” A.J., “Yeah.” Tony, “Well, then, yeah.” Meadow, now parked, nears the entrance. Tony looks up and, zap. Black screen.

Were we bamboozled, and Chase laughed his ass off? Not likely. Not after eight years of a well-crafted show. Why not an on screen whacking of Tony? Convention and conditioned expectation. We’ve seen the mob boss killed too many times. Why not sailing off into the sunset? This would be, after all, the conditioned predictability, which, for the most part, gives people comfort. Chase could have followed in the footsteps of St. Elsewhere and had Kevin Finnerty awaken from a dream or coma and the entire thing could have been his alter ego or his take on what he wises he were. There are certainly enough hints that could validate this route. But, this is really where I think Chase was going. And I thank him for it. After all this time of giving us a deep intimate look at Tony and his family and other characters, making us work to understand, making us lessen the need to suspend our disbelief, changing convention, he not going to suddenly reverse and give us the neatly wrapped package.

Chase gave us a series that made us work and think. He gave us an ending that makes us work even harder. Tony is going to live his life until it is his time. But the question is not whether he is going to die at the hands of another mobster or by heart attack; it is, rather, how is he going to deal with his failure to reach the American Dream?

A dead Tony is just another mobster who dies and leaves a widow, fatherless kids, and a fortune he never enjoyed. Letting him live doesn’t make him a hero. He still lives the life of worry, the king who can usually control his court, but not his family. It is just as we are about to see the Norman Rockwell portrait come to life that it is taken away. And for the wife and kids—they’re in the same boat, pursuing a happiness that they just can’t obtain. Carmella will continue her failed pursuit of independence via prospect properties. Meadow will strive to undo her “mobness” by becoming a doctor or lawyer—something that is for a good cause. And A.J., the suicidal son who, cannot live up to his father’s expectations, just like Tony couldn’t.

Chase changed convention, raised our expectations, and created unpredictability. He gave us multiple layers of intimacy. And, just as we got comfortable, he reminded us that things are not so easy. He wasn’t going to take us this far only to undo that which we pursued. And, in kind, he rips our point-of-view away just before we think we know it all. Sure, he made every fan jump for the remote, curse aloud, or ask “what the hell’s going on?” as the screen went blank. But, Chase was doing what he’s been doing all along.

Just when we thought we had the “Chase convention” solved, we falsely settled, and ultimately lowered, our expectations, and fooled ourselves into hoping for a predictable ending. But those are safe. Tony’s life is not predictable. It is not safe. In that blackness we take what we’ve learned from all of the episodes and ask ourselves, “What would happen next?” As the Journey song reminds us “Don’t Stop Believing” because that is what made the show so great. We didn’t stop believing that we could keep disbelieving. Chase certainly allowed us to suspend our disbelief, the least we owe to him is a thank you for changing what we think we should expect. After all, we take Tony’s advice as A.J recounts and “think about the good times.”

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