Monday, June 11, 2007

Temptations and Falls of the Sopranos Series Finale

Chas--and anyone else who doesn't want to be spoiled for the Sopranos Series Finale--Skip this post.

Gotta say, I think a lot of people who are soooo disappointed in the finale just didn't get the series. They saw a show about a mob boss who happened to have a wife and 2 kids.


This was a show about a family whose patriarch happened to be a mob boss.

Which maybe doesn't sound like that big of a difference, but it's huge -- and it explains why, every season, there have been passionate fan voices raised in anger when Chase chose to tantalize us with the larger-than-life mob details, but ultimately--inevitably--to prioritize the family and character beats.

Because, to him, the mob element was the spoonful of sugar (action, suspense, violence) that helped the medicine (family/ character drama/morality play) go down. He said so many times. This was his way of doing a family/character drama without raising the kinds of criticisms that attached to series like (my beloved) thirtysomething. "Oh, they're such whiners! Get over it!" ("Poor you!") So he gave Tony larger than life problems, and the audience accepted it when this character proved to be prone to the same little foibles and depressions and tempations and corruptions that plague all of us.

He was Everyman. With a gun. And piano wire.

And that's what the finale emphasized: character drama, family, and the little temptations that lead us all (sooner or later) into corruption -- which was the overarching theme of the series. Corruption. Above all else, The Sopranos is a morality play. It's about the Faustian deal.

My favorite bit was the Agent Harris subplot. Tony, with nowhere left to turn, reaches out to his former FBI nemesis (now on counterterrorism) for a location on his mob nemesis Phil Leotardo. It's a ridiculous, desperate move -- and it pays off. Over the course of the series, Soprano has gotten his hooks in a lot of otherwise good people all the way back to his childhood buddy, Robert Patric, in the second season.

Now Tony takes his shot at Agent Harris, and it hits at just the right, vulnerable moment. His new job is killing his marriage. He likes Tony, always has. (One episode, years ago, ended with Tony's crew, and Harris's both hanging out in front of Satriale's, eating pork sandwiches. A bunch of kids from the neighborhood who ended up on two sides of a largely imaginary line.)

Since the transfer, they've been more like buddies. Harris uses him as a contact, Tony casually mentions that the mob protected the Brooklyn Navy Yards during WWII.

Harris is right on the edge, and he knows it -- so he naturally doesn't like it when he finds out this coworker/buddy type is also on the brink.

So Harris uses his FBI resources to trace Phil's phone calls to a phone booth in (my home town of) Oyster Bay, Long Island, and he provides Tony with that information. From a hotel room bed where he's just cheated on his wife (possibly for the first time) with a female coworker (possibly his partner, or an underling).

And so Harris falls, like so many before him. (His reaction to hearing the news of the Leotardo murder is telling: "Damn, we're gonna win this one!" And by "we," he means Jersey.)

But now he will live in dread of the consequences. As we all do.

And wasn't that the point of the brilliant final scene? The Devil always collects his due. We all get whacked in one way or another. But we don't know when. We have to live in fear of that moment. It's probably not now, but at some point, it will be "now."

Meanwhile, onion rings. Capice?

The one character who was never corrupted in the course of the series, as far as I can tell, was Melfi, whose final arc had her realizing that Patient Soprano was unredeemable. A realization helped along, ironically enough, by a bit of corruption in her own world -- Her own shrink, Elliot Kupferberg, revealed at a dinner party that Soprano was her patient, which lead to discussion of a new study that suggests talk therapy doesn't work for sociopaths. It only makes them into better sociopaths. She reads the study (which she had rejected out of hand when Elliot first brought it up), and finds it credible.

So Melfi faces her final temptation. Will she allow her long, close (dr/patient) relationship with Tony to continue despite the very real possibility that she's made him from a good criminal into a great one? Is her obligation to her patient of 7 years greater than her obligation to society?

Melfi has been the moral heart of the show throughout, the only character who steadfastly refuses to give in to the corruptions on offer just by knowing Tony. She even successfully resisted the urge to tell Soprano she'd been raped--after law enforcement failed to convict the perp.

And here, climactically, she resisted the temptation to continue treating him despite this new fear that helping him has hurt the world. Their final session, which focused on--of all things--Tony tearing a recipe out of a magazine in Melfi's waiting room, was triumphant and powerful for Melfi... and utterly damning for Soprano. His own final fall.

(Not that he even noticed. Like a true sociopath, he proceeded without any introspection on why she did it. Instead, he hijacked a meeting with his son's shrink. So we know he'll find a replacement for Melfi because he likes to whine about his mudduh, and needs a sympathetic ear. And also to keep sharpening his teeth.)

Tony may not have thought much about Melfi kicking him to the curb, but I think a lot of people (myself included) started baying for Tony's blood. Melfi had finally pronounced him unredeemable, so therefore he must now be punished. Those are the rules. Of film. Of tragedy. And so we all went through the finale waiting for that gun to creep up on the back of Tony's neck (as it did Phil's).

But Chase--obstinant storyteller that he is--wasn't having that. That was the easy way out. Maybe The Sopranos is a tragedy -- but if so, so are the warts-and-all stories of all of our families.

Yeah, he's a murderer and a rackateer, etc..., and most of us, thankfully, can't say that about our families, but set that aside for the moment. Treat it as the almost-metaphor it was meant to be, and--for the most part--Tony and his family are no more corrupt than the vast majority of us.

That's the message of the finale, and of the show in general. I think it's a powerful, insightful message for all of us to take to heart.

Thank you, Sopranos writers (especially Chase, Winter, Burgess & Green) and actors and crew for seven seasons of absolutely brilliant, absorbing television.

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Blogger Lee said...

Wow....A powerful and detailed reading of the final episode,which as you know, I don't see here in the Great White North (Calgary version) only because of my refusal to by pay-per view. But, you've convinced me that the ending is appropriate and defies the tragic ending that I personally assumed would be the proper end....I

6/26/07, 1:44 PM  

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