Endings and Non-Endings
Why the brilliant series finale of The Sopranos is forever etched in TV history.
“In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.”
How do you end a TV show? Do you go for an all-out explosive climax, or a safe, nostalgic reunion? Do you leave viewers hanging, or give them complete closure? How many narrative risks can you take?
The last episode of a series has to do too much, really - resolve long running story arcs, please critics and audiences alike, end on a high note, mean something (whatever that means) - I could go on and on. And showrunners know that no matter how a show ends, you can never please everyone.
Different showrunners have thus tried different approaches towards endings, to varying degrees of success. In its last episode, How I Met Your Mother swung big and missed completely. Both The Office and BoJack Horseman ended with reunions - one happily nostalgic, the other poignantly bittersweet. The Good Place’s ending was profound, Community went full meta, Scrubs looked ahead and back at once. All were excellent.
Among great dramas, Breaking Bad brought Walt’s journey to a near flawless finish. Game of Thrones ended with an astute meditation on the nature of history and the way it unfolds (unpopular opinion, I know). Meanwhile, the showrunners of Lost said, “Who cares about answers? It’s all about the characters, you guys” and ended up making the single most divisive television episode of all time.
Because the only other episode from any show I can think of, that has been discussed, debated, and argued over online as much as the Lost finale, is, of course, the series finale of The Sopranos. “Made in America” aired almost fourteen years ago now, and it seems that people have never stopped talking about it.
(It’s here that I give you an obvious spoiler warning for The Sopranos.)
So, what makes Made in America (“MiA”) so divisive? It’s that goddamn blackout of a non-ending, mainly. There is no climax that ends the show, no arc completion. With one exception, the episode avoids violence almost entirely, and gradually builds towards a crescendo that never materializes.
But wait. This is one of those episodes where people tend to remember and talk only about its last five minutes, but I feel like that's a disservice of sorts. MiA is unique in terms of series finales for two reasons: one, it’s just another great Sopranos episode that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and two, like I said, it ends like no TV show ever has.
I. Just another Sopranos episode
The tail-end chapters of a show, especially a serialized drama, tend to have a conclusive, culminating quality about them. Think again of the endings of Lost, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones - so much happened in their final hours. Characters died. Goodbyes were said. Irreversible decisions were made. Things came to a close. Catharsis was achieved.
Some might disagree, but I always felt that The Sopranos was never as intricately plotted as the shows above. Don’t get me wrong - it did have many long running stories that built on top of themselves, and always rewarded you for paying attention. But it never prioritized escalating tension to hair-raising boiling points, or thrilling you with last minute plot twists and cliffhangers. It was, instead, always more engrossed in Tony’s psychology, and the hypocrisy often displayed by his family (and his Family).
So as I watched MiA, it made perfect sense to me that this final episode is not a laser-focused conclusion, but a haphazard mishmash of things happening as they always do. By the time we get here, Christopher, Bobby, and Sil are out of the picture. Melfi has denounced Tony. All that remains is the Tony vs Phil Leotardo war, but since the show isn’t called The Leotardos, we all know how that’s gonna go. MiA doesn’t bother tying up stories because there’s nothing much left to tie up.
But in spite of that, there’s just so many thrilling, melacholic, and darkly comic things to watch out for in this hour. For instance, these are just some of the things that happen in the episode:
A cat, who to me seems to be some reincarnation of Adriana, suddenly wanders into the pork shop and creeps out Paulie (it's a whole thing).
AJ accidentally sets his SUV on fire while making out to a Bob Dylan song, and a few days later is gifted a BMW by his parents (!?).
AJ then says he's going to start using the bus, because "we have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil!” Never change, AJ.
FBI agent Harris is having an affair with his co-worker.
Little Miss Sunshine (a movie I just rewatched last week!) plays on the TV when Tony visits a comatose Sil.
While discussing Tony's impending, possibly-life-altering trial, Tony's lawyer can't seem to stop staring at strippers at the Bing.
After Phil Leotardo is shot at a gas station in front of his family, his wife accidentally runs their car over his dead body, crushing his face, as his oblivious baby grandkids sit in the backseat. Talk about dark humour, sheesh. As always, passerbys react but don't help.
Tony complains about his mother to a new therapist - his son’s. He’s back to square one.
Tony enjoys some onion rings - "the best in the state!"
Read those plot points again - do they seem like something that would happen in the last episode of a show? None of these incidents has a “conclusive” feel to them. They feel like stories from a typical episode. In fact, if I showed this list to a viewer who's on season three or something, they wouldn’t believe I’m describing the show’s series finale.
When you compare this approach to, say, the Breaking Bad series finale, an episode with zero filler, where every single scene and character beat helps build toward a definite culmination, you realize that the two finales serve as perfect microcosms to display the larger differences between their respective shows. Both are uniquely fascinating.
Most television writers, if they had to write the concluding chapter of a mafia series, would probably make it completely about an all-out war between the New Jersey and New York Families, and end with Tony getting one last triumph, or death.
But showrunner David Chase is not most writers. Watching MiA, you get the feeling that Chase knew he had only one more episode he could create, and instead of crafting a memorable sendoff for each character, decided to just go ahead and write another seemingly-normal installment of the show, filling the hour with as many Soprano-isms as he could.
MiA is like less of an ending to the show's story, and more of a general comment that Chase wants to make about American society, with whatever screen time he has left. This is another great episode of The Sopranos; it just happens to be the last one.
And in spite of the episode’s seeming haphazardness, you can tell that this episode is the result of a singular, auteurist vision. You feel the weight of the "Written and Directed by" credit Chase has here. Because every single plot thread, every single shot and edit and directing choice in MiA feels purposeful, pointed. It adds to part of a larger worldview that Chase has, which to me seems to be something along these lines: humour and misfortune co-exist together; your tragedy is someone else's entertainment; people mostly suck.
But don't stop believin’.
This is what makes Made in America such a fitting ending: that lack of finality, of closure, fits what The Sopranos has always been about: that people don’t change, even when given a way out. AJ will always be a spoiled brat. Tony will always complain to some poor therapist. Carmela will always be in his shackles. Amid whackings, funerals, poker games, family drama, and therapy, things do change, but mostly they stay the same. Life goes on.
And life would have gone on, in peace, for me and millions of other viewers over the last fourteen years, had Chase decided to end the show like a sane person. But where’s the fun in that?
II. That goddamned ending
Remember that so far, Made in America has been quite a normal, solid episode. Almost everything has been resolved. Phil Leotardo is dead, Junior is dying, Melfi is out of Tony’s influence, Meadow is engaged, AJ is working in a production company, Carmela is doing whatever she does, and Tony is Tony, forever cursed to be himself.
But then, in the last five minutes of this eight-year-long, eighty-six episode series, Tony walks into the diner where he’s decided to have dinner with his family. And all hell breaks loose.
Except… it doesn’t.
I mean, all hell doesn’t break loose, not even remotely. Nothing really happens. On paper, The Sopranos ends in the simplest, cleanest way it possibly could: with the Sopranos having dinner together.
And that’s what’s brilliant about the way this show ends: it’s such a normal scene on the surface, but the premonitions of death throughout it are so prominent, its tone so purposefully set to put you on your seat’s edge, that you instinctively catch that something’s wrong, even though everything seems all right. It essentially puts you in Tony’s state of mind: you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. Every other person in the diner is suspect. Even a boring family meeting is tainted with paranoia and unease, and before you know it, the lights are off.
Rewatch the clip above, and you can read Gandolfini’s performance in it as that of a man who somehow knows he’s about to die, and has accepted his fate. And maybe Tony does die in that diner, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he was always dead on some level. Either way, there are no happy endings in his world.
To be frank, because I spend too much time on the internet, I sort of knew about the abrupt cut-to-black before I even watched the episode. Certain pop culture touchstones are so popular it’s impossible to avoid them. But that spoiler made no difference to my enjoyment. Because as soon as Tony sat down at his booth, I could tell something special was happening. I don't quite know how. But the way the scene is directed and sequenced, it manages to orient and disorient you at the same time. It has a controlled but chaotic energy to it. It's literally about a man in a restaurant, but somehow manages to be eerie, peculiar, unsettling. Is this what being Tony Soprano feels like?
Here’s my exact thought process during the entire final sequence:
Okay, so Tony is at Holsten’s. Is this seriously how they’re going to end the series? Weird. Let’s see. Anyways, there are lots of other patrons in the restaurant. Every time the opens, Tony keeps jarringly looking up. Strange. Now he’s fiddling at the jukebox, the way you do when you’re just killing time. Nice, he’s put on that Journey song I like. Okay, this is iconic.
The song is gradually escalating now; so is my heartbeat. Why? There’s nothing suspicious going on here. (Or is there?) Carmela has arrived. They smile and talk. Someone from Tony’s crew has flipped; Tony might be in trouble. Shit. They’re talking about other things now, like a regular couple. But no. Something is off. Is it? Not really. Meadow is almost there, she's trying to park outside. The song is in full swing, flowing. It's so, so good. But somehow, there’s tension in the room. I can’t tell why. AJ is here. They’re talking some more, just a normal family enjoying food in a restaurant. But no, something is really not right. Did the old guy in the jacket glance at Tony? Wait, is something about to happen? No no no no I don't want Tony to die please. Now AJ is reminding Tony of his own advice: remember the good times. Amen. But why is Meadow being so reckless with parking? Why does Tony keep looking up every time the door opens? Man, this song slaps. The old guy is going to the men's room. Okay, I think Meadow is here. Again Tony looks up as the door opens and-
Holy fucking shit.
In retrospect, I'm frankly astonished by how high my emotions were the whole time. My face was literally inches away from the screen. Nothing of importance was happening, yet so much was. I could feel my heart thumping loudly, my eyes wide open. When the screen cut to black, I screamed. Or burst out laughing. Or both at once. I honestly don't remember. Either ways, I'm glad I was alone.
But as I sat there for a few minutes, reading the show’s end credits for the last time, I suddenly knew that this was the perfect, or maybe the only, way to end this show. And this has nothing to do with the episode’s public perception. I'm not pandering. I can't necessarily explain what makes the cut-to-black effective from a filmmaking perspective, but I felt it in my soul. It's art, pure and simple. Once you watch it, nothing else seems right.
This is one of those monumental TV moments you forever remember your first viewing of, and one that gets better the more you think about it. Chase himself probably said it best, describing his motivations behind the scene in a 2015 interview:
“The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing.
There are attachments we make in life, even though it's all going to come to an end, that are worth so much, and we're so lucky to have been able to experience them. Life is short.
Either it ends here for Tony or some other time. But in spite of that, it's really worth it. So don't stop believing.”
In the weeks that followed, I (of course) read everything I could about the episode - reviews, analyses, theories, video essays. I agreed with some, not so with others. But it doesn’t matter. Because going back to the moment when I watched the show end, there was no need. I didn't have to "analyze" the ending. (Or the non-ending, to be more accurate.) I felt it. I understood. I was grinning with joy.
Tony Soprano probably dies. It’s ambiguous, but quite likely. The Sopranos has always been an anticlimactic show, and keeping with that tradition, we’re spared from the cheap, grotesque view of having to watch the character we’ve rooted for get shot in front of his family. We instead get to live his final moments, exactly as he does. One moment you’re there, the next moment, gone. But who hires the shooter? It’s implied heavily in the episode that Paulie could’ve flipped, and that he and Butchie might’ve struck a deal to get Tony out of the way. But again, I don't know.
Or maybe Tony doesn't die. Maybe that night is just another forgettable night for him and his family. Who knows what happens later - maybe he survives and takes over the New York crew, or ends up in prison, or gets killed some other day.
Or not. I don't know. I'll never know. It doesn't matter.
Because the one thing that matters is that Tony Soprano is always in stasis, never quite dead, never quite alive, never quite pleased with what he’s become, but always ready to grace our screens to eat and murder and argue and seduce and complain and dream his cryptic dreams, whether in his first episode or his last.
To quote Journey, the movie never ends. That’s the point. It just goes on and on and on and on.
There are certain moments in life when you just know you've witnessed something incredible. Something that is going to stay with you for a long time. It doesn't matter where you were; you could be alone in a dark room at 1:30 am, having finished a TV show you've been watching since college, with only the glow of a laptop screen lighting your big, dumb face.
But in such moments, I feel like it's important to appreciate what you just saw. Acknowledge it. Bask in it's afterglow. Have fun. Be eager to experience more, to chase that feeling. But don't take this one for granted. Because you only get to watch The Sopranos end for the first time once. Life is short. The screen will cut to black. Till then, put on some music. Enjoy your onion rings.