Monday, June 9, 2008

When Tony Was Ralph

Alan Sepinwall has opened the door to a one-year re-evaluation of the ending of The Sopranos, and I find myself walking on through. Such is the power a haunting, artistic achievement in television can have.

Alan focuses his look at a loquacious blogger who has put forth 22,000 words arguing for the “Tony is dead” team. Sepinwall came out strongly for the other side last year, but is taking a one-year re-appraisal of his position and is open to changing his mind.

I was immediately in the “Tony is dead” camp for two main reasons: the Bobby Bacala flashback in the penultimate episode, that “you never hear it coming”; and The Godfather/bathroom connection. Both are such strong signals to Tony being shot that I don’t see how you can interpret the scene otherwise. (And I would throw in the “for whom the bell tolls” of the door opening, for good measure.)

But what strikes me more deeply, now that we are revisiting, is an uneasiness about the whole scene that I felt at the time and has become more clear.

The entire diner scene is off: it’s completely wrong in tone to the story we have been watching.

At the top of the scene, when he walks into the diner, we have the Tony who has just visited Junior---he’s the dangerous, hulking serious mob boss we have been following for six years. He surveys the restaurant with that mixture of general malaise/depression and anger that define him.

In the next moment there is that strange jump cut/change of POV, to where Tony is now sitting at a booth.

Except that Tony in the booth has become Ralph Kramden, right out of the ‘classic 39’. He has the hapless, easy expression of Ralph in his sweeter moods. He even makes a little Kramden-like grin when Carm tells him about Meadow going to the doctor for different birth control.

He is lighthearted when AJ joins them, flicking his straw cover at him. He’s a goofy, sitcom Dad.

What’s going on here?

Most of his crew has been killed, Carlo is going to testify, and he’s calmly sitting and playing the jukebox? True, Phil is gone, but Tony is looking at nothing but trouble, and it’s not in his nature to take things that well.

The scene plays like a curtain call, with each character coming in one by one to take their bow. And still, it’s Ralph Kramden who sits down for our Tony.

Heresy though it may be, the more masterful treatment of the character that people became attached to may have been created by Terry Winter, who wrote 23 episodes (topped in number only by Chase’s own 25). (A point suggested to me by Steed.)

At the end of the series, where Chase probably asked for the least amount of input from his creative team, we were subjected head on to Chase’s sensibility, which has a lot of sentimentality in it. Boomer television tropes were bound to seep in.

Ultimately the ‘is he dead/is he alive’ was a bit of misdirection from the better questions: who is this character now? Has he grown or changed since we first met him with the ducks? Is he a tragic figure in the classical sense, with a heightened sense of his own downfall?

None of which are even hinted at in the diner. It could have been structured as a more sophisticated ending all around—building on the whole season of philosophical questions from the Kevin Finnerty travails to Yeats among the weeds-- but deep down, that’s not who Chase is.

Ralph Kramden’s life was not without irony. Who wrote “Swanee River”? I imagine Chase chuckling over that one every time.


Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

So glad you've recovered your headgear - you'll be needing it, from what's being reported here about US East coast heatwaves.

I wonder if you've come across an alternative The Sopranos, an account by one Alan Warner of an apocalyptic Scottish catholic girls' choir outing? Well worth making an effort to read.

M.A.Peel said...

Christopher---no, I don't know this alternative Sopranos. Sounds interesting. Just out of curiosity, how many Scottish Catholics are there?

At the moment I'm reading Sicilian writers for some ambiance before my vacation next month.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

I should think about 30% of the Scottish west coast population, concentrated in Glasgow.

You're going to Sicily! Tell me all! It's the most fantastic island in the world! I expect you've got Il Gattopardo under your belt already - I'm not certain too much has changed, really. If you're hiring a car, make sure you get one with a REALLY powerful horn.