Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sopranos Watch: This Thing of Ours

"You and my dad, you two ran North Jersey."

"Hmph. That’s nice."

Gandolfini is at his hulking, ominous best in the penultimate scene of the series finale, when Tony goes to see Junior in the state facility. He’s trying to see to things—to make sure Junior’s stash goes where it “should,” to Bobby’s children (and we don’t mean the guy from the Ambassador Hotel)—and he tries to jog his uncle’s memory about “this thing of ours,” which leads to Junior’s dismissive “that’s nice.”

From there, Tony walks into the most innovative final scene in tv history. It combines breath-holding suspense, visual wit, cinematic allusions, and a nod toward the technology that makes it all possible. David Chase, on the other hand, beat by beat, frame by frame entered a zone of persona non grata for a good deal of his audience.

The big issue here has to do with the implicit social contract between the creator and the consumer of art, and how we both feel about this thing of ours.

The phenomenon of the reaction to the series finale—115 pages on Television without Pity in one day, much of it shrieks of disappointment and charges of foul play and more vivid images—is a testament to the sheer creativity of the series. Chase breathed life into the characters for 7 years and spun out the tale that he wanted to tell. It happened that the tale captivated legions from many angles: action junkies followed for the bloodletting; mob fans liked the intrigue; ex- English majors liked the lyrical flourishes; everybody could get caught up in the family relationships.

It also happened that Chase is deeply adept at using pop cultural references throughout his work: the music, the movies and tv on the tv, the visual quotes of great films. This all pulled the legions of fans in deeper. This allowed an attachment by “things we know and love.” You hear an imaginative use of Tinderhooks, and you have a “wow” moment in your head, because they are your favorite band. You know the lyrics to an obscure AC/DC song Chase uses, and now that moment become very personal for you.

That’s how over time, the ritual of the Sunday evening watching became very a special experience for the legion, and The Sopranos became “this thing of ours”—Chase's and mine. I (as surrogate for the many) began to feel that my participation in receiving Chase’s tale was equal to his creating it. He was lucky to have such a knowing partner. The whole process was a living form of Reader Response Criticism. When is Stanley Fish going give his take on the ending???

Except for the practicality of the business of creating television, I think that Chase would have told his tale even if there had been only 1 very wealthy patron who had paid him to tell it. I don’t believe he owed anything to we readers, no matter what our expectations were. I don’t think Chase owed anything to the conventions of narrative—he used the semiotics of storytelling in a highly imaginative way throughout the series. Why should he follow rules for the last hour?

From one angle, you could say that Chase pulled the plug on his creation—beautifully simulating the cable going out to a collective gasp across the country—doing to his tale what his audience had the power to do to him, each and every week: simply turn him off. It’s the kind of power that a creator might grow to resent. And a man as clever as Chase may not be able to resist the opportunity that allowed him to turn the tables.

On the other hand, the entire “Made in America” is a work of beauty. From the bright whiteness of Tony waking up to Jim Kerr and the morning show, to the snow swirling around the airport meet with Agent Harris, and the poignant shot of the 2 chairs in front of Satriale’s with Paulie sunning himself—this is not the product of disrespect from the creator toward his created nor toward his audience.

And it resolves the core family’s lines: Med is on her way to being Consigliari; AJ is settling into a combination of Christopher and Tony; Carm is continuing with her spec houses; and Tony has triumphed over New York. [The resolution is so fast and tidy—if sad that what’s left of the Family way of life is going to continue in the next generation—that one theory floating around is that it’s a dream sequence from the end of The Blue Comet, when Tony lies down in a cold, blue room with his assault weapon, completely under siege. ]

The Bell Tolls for Tony, Absolutely
And that brings us back to Holsten’s diner, a throwback to the seventies by way of the eighties. Here Chase paints a tantalizing canvas of unsettled disjunction. Tony enters, surveys the tables, and the next cut shows him sitting in a booth. [Some have suggested that that cut switches the POV to Tony himself, setting up that the screen goes black when Tony dies. More about that in a minute.]

Sitting there while each character enters, he isn’t brooding—he doesn’t seem depressed, even as he tells Carmela about the indictments. When AJ comes, he flings a spitball at him. It’s a light side of Tony we didn’t often see. They all pop onion rings, perfect little ciphers or great big ZEROS. Now there's a harsh visual comment from Chase.

The scene builds, the bell rings as each person comes through the door, tolling for thee, when Chase shatters convention—and apparently his relationship with much of the legion—by going to black before the end of the visual sentence.

I’m in the “Tony is dead” camp. The “Tony will always be looking over his shoulder camp” just isn’t interesting enough to me. And like other great characters in the pantheon—Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, (dare we think Harry Potter)—their creators had a need to put them to rest, I think in order to put to rest their own demanding relationships with them. (It’s possible Chase learned something from Conan Doyle, who had tired of Sherlock and killed him in The Final Problem, and then had to find a way to bring him back when the outcry was overwhelming and he needed money.)

Alan Sepinwall has an exclusive, day-after interview with Chase:

"I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there," he says of the final scene.

"No one was trying to be audacious, honest to god," he adds. "We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds, or thinking, 'Wow, this'll (tick) them off.' People get the impression that you're trying to (mess) with them and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them."

I believe Chase. (And admire his loyal to his hometown Jersey paper.)

As I said, I think the cues in that last scene set up Tony’s death. If they don’t, Tony may get the last laugh. When you leave a creation as vivid and real as Tony Soprano “out there,” you do it at your own risk. Surely Chase is familiar with that other Italian dramatist, named Pirandello. . . .