The series finale of ''The Sopranos'': Cut to black
It's a tribute to the passionate discussion about The Sopranos that has gone on in this space over the past year that the minute the credits concluded for the last time ever, in reverberating silence, following a heart-stopping picture blackout that probably generated a million panicked phone calls to cable providers across the country (''Noooooo! I'm missing the mass rubout of the entire Soprano family!''), I thought of you. Yes, you, you who loved every ballsy contrarian move the series took as well as you who were impatient and critical, you who thrilled to whackings as well as you who thrilled to everything that happened in the psychic abyss that signified the opposite of whackings.
I admit I had gotten myself so anxious between last Sunday and this that I almost almost expected to witness Tony's actual end-of-the-road death, in bloody color. And yet I also knew that The Sopranos wouldn't end that way it just couldn't, not if David Chase remained true to his vision of psychic mess handed down from generation to generation. Really, did you expect otherwise? Toying with many of the big-bang endings predicted (and wished for) by plenty of opinionated viewers in a final episode he wrote and directed himself, Chase (1) didn't turn Tony over to the witness-protection program; (2) didn't expose Paulie as a turncoat who would sell out his boss; (3) didn't let AJ kill himself, or Meadow distinguish herself, or Dr. Melfi take T back as a patient, or the Russian mobster come back out of the Jersey Pine Barrens. Hell, Chase didn't even let Silvio live or die just left him there in a dreamless coma so very different from Tony's, hooked to a breathing tube while his wife clipped his toenails and Little Miss Sunshine (family, redefined!) played on the hospital TV screen.
Nevertheless, Chase had a grand time in his almost playful home stretch, offering a clue-strewn valedictory episode and a beautifully unresolved stopping point not so much a conclusion as a curtain coming down, with the suggestion that in this thing of theirs, these people will continue to go about their business, even if we're not around to see them doing so. Beginning with the classic overhead view of Tony gathering his wits on his back in a bed a POV that has, over the years, been associated with dreaming, with a coma, with waking in bed with his wife, or with finishing off a rendezvous with some woman or other not his wife the episode, called ''Made in America,'' rewarded our shared deep knowledge of the show over the years. Agent Harris who told Tony, ''You're overreaching,'' when T asked for help in finding Phil turned out to have not only a wife at home who heats up his dinner but also an illicit hotel-room life of his own. A visit to Tony's sister Janice, the moderately grieving widow, recapped the vista from John Sacrimoni's McMansion where T and Johnny Sack once did business (and where Tony, spotting FBI agents emerging from the woods, bolted in the snow).
This time, it was snowing, too, and Phil's hapless tool of a captain, Butchie, walked down a street in Little Italy that's just a tinselly remnant of the neighborhood's former ethnic grandeur. The new shrink AJ went to crossed her legs in a disorienting variation of Dr. Melfi's famous Basic Instinct pose, yet smiling and immune to Tony's litany she didn't rise to the bait as he talked about ''this whole therapy thing'' and how there was ''little love in the house'' of his youth.
As it was in the beginning, world without end: AJ moved into the space left open by his late would-be movie-mogul cousin, Christopher; Meadow, now engaged to Patrick Parisi, morphed into a vaguely more legitimate but still self-deluded version of her willfully ignorant mother; and Paulie still read baroque, dumb-ass signs and wonders into everyday occurrences, whether he was meeting up with a baleful cat or confessing to a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary at the Bada Bing. Nothing's the same their world has shrunk, family has died but nothing's different, either, even if Phil, a vision in a velour tracksuit, was finally dispatched with a macabre flourish, done in first by a bullet and then by his own SUV, rolling over his body while two infant grandkids gurgled in the back seat. (As the man said on the episode of The Twilight Zone flickering on a TV in Tony's safe house, the television world is always looking for writers who can deliver talent and quality....)
In one crucial theme-enforcing scene and the end of the end, Tony finally went to visit Uncle Junior in June's shabby prison hospital. The old man was wizened and seriously addled, a lost, nattering guy in a wheelchair, apparently minus his upper dentures. The same monster who once pumped a bullet into his nephew's gut now didn't recognize the man he shot, nor did he remember the name or face of that same nephew now standing in front of him, invoking the memory of Junior's late brother, Johnny Boy. ''This thing of ours,'' said Tony, ''you two ran north Jersey.'' ''We did?'' replied the former power broker. ''That's nice.'' So much for dynasty.
In my favorite, crucial theme-enforcing scene, meanwhile, pathos played no part in my pleasure, and neither did playful misdirection you know, the cutting to various strangers in that final diner scene who could have been hitmen waiting to strike. No, what I'm thinking of is the food line at the reception following Bobby's funeral, a sleek shot that panned right to left sweeping over the faces of so many we've known over the years, and loved, all of them ready to chow down. There they all were, in their frequently used funeral clothes, chatting and tasting as the living do. And there it was, a huge pan of baked ziti.
What? No more f---in' ziti? How are we gonna live? Was this the ending you hoped for? And if not whaddaya gonna do?