Finale taps into our psyches

Times Staff Writer

The public reaction to the final episode of “The Sopranos” would be enough to keep Dr. Melfi busy for the rest of her psychotherapy career. If, that is, the psychiatrist character played by Lorraine Bracco were real. Cyberspace has been filled with paranoia and obsession, more than a little anger and some smug satisfaction.

“Sopranos” fans have been filling cyberspace blogs and chat rooms with insights, theories and reactions to the final episode since the screen went black June 10. And it appears there may, indeed, be two types of people: those who thought the final episode was brilliant, and those who hated it to the point of outrage.

No doubt English majors and psychotherapists, happy to search endlessly for symbols and relate them to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jung or Freud, are among those satisfied with the ambiguous ending. But hard-core couch potatoes, trained by years of tidy endings, may be having a harder time.

And gamblers who put money down on “whacked” or “not whacked” are still arguing over who won.


Through it all, everyone, it seems, has become an amateur Dr. Melfi.

“Art elicits repressed emotion,” wrote Chris Rice, a viewer compelled to comment on latimesblogs. “We the viewers were left with a panic attack.”

In the language of psychology, television viewers have been conditioned like Pavlov’s dog to expect tidy resolutions. After all, it’s what they’ve been getting since Lucy and Ricky made up at the end of every show. They sit in front of the screen and know they can expect events to be all wrapped up.

But David Chase, the “Sopranos” creator and lead writer, never played to that expectation, says Dr. Glen O. Gabbard, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “David Chase thrives on defying audience expectations,” he says. “The writing constantly subverts the conventions of television. We expect to see a tragic hero who has a flaw in his character. That person is supposed to get his just desserts. The medium reinforces the idea that there is justice in the universe.”


Gabbard may well be the ultimate expert on the Freudian aspects of “The Sopranos.” He wrote “The Psychology of the Sopranos,” and counts Chase and some of the cast members among his acquaintances.

His take on the ending: “I loved it.” Tony, Carmela, Meadow and A.J. are left to live out the lives they’ve created through the choices they’ve made. Like Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology doomed to endlessly roll a stone uphill, only to have it roll back down when he reached the top, real life goes on and on and on. And so, Gabbard reasons, the Sopranos go on -- Tony, isolated and paranoid; Carmela, in diamond-studded denial; Meadow, on the road to mafia-wife denial herself; and A.J., as spoiled and shallow as ever.

There are two kinds of people, he says. People who expect and want television’s typically black-and-white characterizations and tidied up endings (these were angry and bitterly disappointed by the show’s finale). And people who love the rebellious attitude of Chase, who for eight seasons has insisted that television characters can be drawn in shades of gray. “Many people would argue that what’s brilliant about the show is that things are not tied up in a bow,” he says. Those people thought the ending was inspired and were content to imagine the Soprano families’ future, their lives or their deaths, without being told.

“We’ve been conditioned as a television audience to expect an operatic finale with blood and gore and tears and wailing and gnashing of the teeth,” he says. “Instead we got life as usual, a humdrum routine, and some in the audience feel robbed.” Life goes on -- onion rings in a diner.

But many wrote their own ending. “Tony gets killed,” wrote an anonymous viewer on the fan site We were warned, the writer says. Remember when he’s on the boat with Bobby Bacala? And he says, “What do you think it’s like when you get killed?” And Bobby says, “I dunno. I guess everything just goes black.” What more proof do you need, the fan goes on to argue.

Scroll down, and that same fan offers up second thoughts. He says he has watched the final scene five more times. “The final shot before the blackout is us looking at Tony’s face,” he writes. The blackout, he now reasons, is from our perspective. The end, he concludes, is for us. Not Tony. “Tony lives,” he writes.

A few cynical viewers felt cheated, betrayed. The ambiguous ending was so that Chase could resurrect the family and make a movie, they contended. It’s all about money, some blogged.

The angry, disappointed folks seemed to need to know, to be told, what happened. Maybe they wanted an epilogue like the ending of “American Graffiti,” which spelled out what happened to each of the fictional high school characters well into their middle age. Or the flash forward to Claire’s old age in the final episode of “Six Feet Under,” in which she recalls the deaths of all the other series’ characters.


John Anderson, film critic and host of UCLA’s Sneak Previews extension course, sees the divisions all the time in audience discussions of films. Some people see a movie like “Stephanie Daley,” about a pregnant high school girl who hides her pregnancy, gives birth, and the baby dies, and hate that they don’t get closure. Did she kill the baby? The movie never directly spells out the answer, and the unknown drives some in the audience crazy.

Yes, there are two kinds of people, says Anderson, who thought “The Sopranos” ending was great. Those who can imagine, and those who lack imagination. “It’s a brutal way of putting it,” he says. “But there’s a certain personality that feels it’s an affront to be challenged in that way.”

Still, closure is good for mental health, says Dorothy Singer, senior research scientist in the psychology department and co-director of Yale University’s television research center. “Without closure, people are left feeling a little anxious,” she says. “People identified with the characters. They felt like family, and viewers wanted to know what happened to them.”

And lest anyone forget, Gabbard has this cold slap of reality about Tony and his families. “They were not real people,” he says. “They were points of light on a screen.”