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‘Sopranos’: What was that all about?

Times Staff Writer

It was an ending that, if nothing else, had millions on their feet. In what may be the first case of finalus interruptus, David Chase, faced with deciding between a bang and a whimper, chose neither. Instead the creator of “The Sopranos” decided to fool millions of Americans into believing their cable had gone out for possibly the most important moment in the history of televised drama.

The final scene of the final episode of “The Sopranos” had all the elements of traditional climax down to the benign plate of onion rings Tony “ordered for the table.” As the Soprano family gathered in a diner, the light was mellow, the talk was mundane and Tony (James Gandolfini) kept one eye on the door, watching any number of possible assassins or smug federal agents as they poured sugar in their coffee or visited the men’s room (possibly to retrieve, a la “The Godfather,” their weapons cache). Then, just as Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) joined the group, and the tension became virtually unbearable -- szzzz. Blank screen.

For several agonizing moments, America was united ... in uttering every profanity known to man as millions of hands reached for millions of remotes, while partners and friends yelled, “No, no, don’t touch it!”

Then, silently, the credits began to roll and somewhere Chase was, no doubt, having a pretty good laugh.

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Not a predictable way to end what is now constantly referred to as the most significant television show ever, but then Chase has reveled in his unpredictability from the start. Certainly the show’s setup -- a depressed mob boss seeks solace in psychotherapy -- was a bit off-template. And through the eight years the show has ruled cable, Chase has consistently refused to bend for dramatic convention; the creation of characters and situations that rose to shuddering heights only to disappear two beats before climax has become one of his hallmarks. The Russian mobster simply disappeared into the snow; this season Little Vito seemed primed to “go Columbine” only to vanish from the scene.

In the previous episode, Chase summarily dispensed with the beloved Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) through a rat-a-tat series of ridiculous events that had the psychiatric community in an uproar last week -- no self-respecting shrink would allow herself to be conned, at a stupid dinner party, into believing that all those years were worthless. And fans wondered whether Chase and his writers had forgotten what it was they had loved about the show in the first place.

So after the initial heart palpitations have slowed, the surprise ending does not seem quite so surprising. The episode that led up to it, that alleged final episode ever, was workaday “Sopranos.” Or as workaday as it could be with Bobby dead, Sil almost dead, and the Feds apparently working a turncoat. Rapt viewers analyzed every detail, from the look on Paulie’s (Tony Sirico) face after Tony asked him to take over Carlo’s operation, to the songs on the jukebox in the final scene.

Chase wrote the episode alone, and he was clearly enjoying himself, playing on the fact that people had their own expectations -- odds were Tony would get whacked -- and would bring to these details what they wanted to bring. He even managed to insert a little lecture about the downtrodden scriptwriter through an old “Twilight Zone” episode playing in the background of one scene.

Much of the narrative dealt with the state of that interminable whiner A.J. (Robert Iler). As he prepared to commit statutory rape (his girlfriend is a junior in high school), his car caught fire and he experienced, he told his therapist, the thrill of destruction. Tony, of course, was furious because he had already told A.J. the danger of parking the SUV in leaves -- “you could grill a steak on that converter.” The things that haunted Tony for the last eight episodes were suddenly nonexistent. Christopher’s death had improved his gambling luck (though he had picked up a stray cat that did nothing but stare at Chris’ picture). He even came to some sort of terms with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), a man bitter even without his memories. “The two of you ran North Jersey,” Tony told Junior. “Did we? That’s nice,” Junior answered before gazing blankly out the window.

With the exception of that scene and the fact that Tony’s operatives were finally able to locate and whack Phil Leotardo (Frank Vincent), it was as if none of these people realized this was the final episode of “The Sopranos.” (Except the cat. The cat seemed to realize.) As Tony managed to turn a conversation with A.J.'s therapist into a conversation about him -- “My mother was a very difficult woman. I didn’t have a very happy family life” -- the look on Carmela’s (Edie Falco) face was priceless. And for a moment it was as if Tony’s years in therapy, his entire character arc, the entire show for that matter, had never happened. People were trying to kill him, his son had just attempted suicide and was now joining the Army, and again it was all about him and his mother. All that hard work for nothing. Which may be exactly what many people were feeling as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” while the Sopranos sat in a diner, and it was then that the television went dead.

Chase is possibly the only man in America who could get away with such a thing, and maybe he shouldn’t. While it is one thing to flout the conventions of television, it’s another to flip dramatic tradition, not to mention your audience, the bird. No, he didn’t owe us any neat endings, nor some sort of final word on the nature of good and evil. But after eight years, he did owe us catharsis, some sort of emotional experience that would, if not sum up the entire eight years, leave us with something more meaningful than instant panic and lingering irritation. In the end, the art of writing is the art of making choices. Ending a series with the social weight of “The Sopranos” is not an enviable task, but end it must, and not with the sophomoric gesture of a blank screen.

Yes, people will be talking about the show tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, but they probably won’t be talking about Tony Soprano or any of the work the very fine cast of actors and writers has done over the years. They’ll be talking about how frustrating the blank screen was.

In fear of tainting the legacy of “The Sopranos” -- if Tony really was just one more truly bad man, some viewers would feel betrayed; if he went from antihero to hero, others would feel the same -- Chase has offered us instead an epic novel with a do-it-yourself ending.

And, of course, the distinct possibility of “The Sopranos: The Movie.”

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

FAMILY PLOTS

It’s hard not to bring your work home with you, especially when you’re a made guy. Here’s a look at the final fate of Tony Soprano’s clan and crew as the HBO series “The Sopranos” goes off to sleep with the fishes.

The New Jersey-New York mob wars got out of hand, with the resurgence of a very angry Phil Leotardo. There are casualties on both sides -- Bobby’s dead, Silvio’s in a coma.... Phil gets knocked off at a Long Island gas station, but will it end there?

--

Tony Soprano

Filled with ambiguity, it was an ending worthy of Tony, if not the “Sopranos” audience. Creator David Chase pulls the plug -- literally -- on Tony, possibly as content as we’ve seen him, in a diner sharing onion rings with Carmela, A.J. and Meadow, while the forces of evil gather.

--

Carmela Soprano

All pretense is gone. Carmela both concedes and embraces the reality that she is the wife of a mob boss. The payoff is a nuanced series of moments between Carmela and Tony that are tender and real. Chase leaves her with the only thing she’s ever wanted -- her family, together and getting along.

--

Meadow Soprano

Meadow’s decision to go for law school, not med school, finally gets her dad’s approval. His public humiliation by the FBI was the turning point, she tells him. He’s her hero again. How can Tony do anything but back her now?

--

A.J. Soprano

Anthony Jr. may become the son Tony has wanted all along. He finds that watching his car turn into a ball of fire takes the edge off his depression. He’s hooked up with a beautiful but troubled girl. And he’s decided to become a Hollywood development exec rather than change the world.... The kid has promise.

--

Tony Soprano

The brutal son of Johnny Boy Soprano is, well, in transition. Though his crew has been decimated by a war with New York rivals, he’s come out the other side alive and with a chance at some sort of future -- maybe. Though if we see Tony again, and we might, it will be a different world.

--

Christopher Moltisanti

Tony’s nephew had been the anointed one, but his drug problems, Hollywood flirtations and finally the tangled ethics that came with his sobriety made him expendable. Moltisanti’s bad DUI car crash provided an opportunity to get rid of the young hothead.... Tony just had to help a little.

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Silvio Dante

Tony’s consigliere was given a chance to join a coup against his boss, but he responded by strangling the messenger. That loyalty put him on the target list and, outside the Bada Bing strip club, Silvio took a couple of shots, including one in the chest. He’s in a coma, and the outlook is bad.

--

Peter Paul Gualtieri a.k.a. Paulie Walnuts

Early in the season, a boat ride with Tony left Paulie sweating -- would he get whacked? That fear of mortality continued to plague him, from the jinxed job Tony has just given him to the mysterious cat that stared at the dead Christopher’s photo and now stares at him....


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