Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sense of an Ending

(Photo Credit: HBO)
Now baby I don't wanna be just another useless memory holding you tight
Or just some other ghost out on the street to whom you stop and politely speak
when you pass on by vanishing into the night
left to vanish into the night

I don't wanna fade away
Oh I don't wanna fade away
Tell me what can I do what can I say
Cause darlin' I don't wanna fade away
--Bruce Springsteen, "Fade Away" (The River)
Moose has a headache. Perhaps it's the insomnia that continues to dog her sorry perimenopausal steps. Or perhaps it's the fact that she can't get the execrable sounds of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" out of her head since she and Goose watched the finale of The Sopranos in the middle of the night. (The late viewing was due not to insomnia [which came even later] but to a swelegant dinner party the moms had last night. I'm telling you, kids, their pork tenderloin is so good it probably violates the sumptuary laws, so please don't tell the king about it. Just stop by some fair summer evening and see if you can get them to put some on the grill for you. Trust me. You'll love it.)

Anyway, the internets are on fire today with commentary on the inconclusive conclusion of The Sopranos, which went out with neither a bang nor a whimper but with a really, really bad example of what the culture mavens at Wikipedia describe as a "power ballad" (which is helpfully defined as a confessional rock song that "explore[s] sentimental themes such as yearning and need, love and loss"). It was a strange choice for a show whose soundtracks were always as compelling as its gripping plots and stunningly well-drawn characters. Tony plays the song on a jukebox while waiting for the rest of his family to join him for dinner at a retro-looking place called Holsten's. "Don't Stop Believin'" was on Journey's album, Escape, released in 1981, so perhaps its banal invocation of "a city boy" on a "midnight train goin' anywhere" taps into Tony's nostalgia for the lost possibilities of his own hard-edged youth. Tony, like Moose, was born in 1959, so he would have been twenty-two in 1981, the year Moose headed to Tony's home state of New Jersey for grad school without a tape of Escape in her Chevy Citation. (No snarky comments, please. It was not a cool car, but it was free. She has a cool car now, thank you very much, and it got close to 50 miles per gallon on the moms' recent road trip.)

What is it, one wonders, that viewers of The Sopranos are urged to not "stop believin'" as the song ends and the screen abruptly goes black? Should we cling to our faith in Tony's tough-guy
instincts, despite the blandness of his musical taste? Should we imagine that the tableau of Soprano family unity we are offered in the final scene will endure -- despite the fact that Meadow isn't at the table and the family is feasting not on heaping platters of pasta but on greasy onion rings that Tony has ordered? Perhaps the blandness is the point. That would fit in with the systematic de-romanticization of the characters that has occurred throughout the final season. (Tony seemed both brutal and petty in forcing Bobby Baccalieri to commit his first murder this year, while Carmela seemed barely to notice the bodies piling up all around her. Her instincts often proved to be as tough and self-centered as her husband's.) Or perhaps we are simply urged to believe in the afterlife of images. As the song says, "Oh, the movie never ends / It goes on and on and on and on" -- as will The Sopranos, through repeats and the eternity offered by the boxed sets that will soon be flying off store shelves. (Moose thinks Springsteen's "Fade Away," which she did have on a tape in her Chevy Citation in 1981, expresses this idea much more effectively than the treacly "Don't Stop Believin,'" which is why she insisted we quote it in the epigraph to this post. In the abruptness of the show's ending, Tony and crew may seem to have "vanish[ed] into the night" of that black screen, but their hyper-circulation in the culture of images guarantees they will never "fade away.")

Would it have killed them to end the series with a good Springsteen song rather than an awful Journey "anthem"? Steve Van Zandt, you couldn't do some kind of musical intervention to keep Moose's head from aching?

As for the lack of resolution, well, English profs have a pretty high tolerance for open-ended endings. Indeed, irresolution helps keep English profs in business. Moose has tortured students for years by pointing out that the technique of the freeze-frame, whether in film or fiction, keeps characters in a state of suspended animation that balks the reader's desire for certainty and "closure." (English profs hate closure.) Still, the moms are inclined to agree with viewers who felt cheated by the ending of The Sopranos, because the whole thing felt gamey, orchestrated to whip the audience up into a frenzy of anticipation that ultimately came to nothing. For the first time in the life of this brilliant series, The Sopranos struck some false notes as it lurched toward its ending. Corners were cut. Characters were compromised, as they were written into hasty actions that seemed insufficiently motivated. Dr. Melfi's abrupt dumping of Tony as a patient after all these years? Because of a study on sociopaths and some dinner party chit-chat among shrinks? Not bloody likely. AJ's announcement that he planned to join the military and become a helicopter pilot? Even though he quickly abandoned the idea, it would have been more credible if the slacker student who thinks that "Yeats" rhymes with "meats" had announced he was heading off to grad school.

Here's a round-up of some of the commentary:
  • Timothy Noah weighs in first on Slate in the conversation that he, Brian Williams, and Jeffrey Goldberg have been having about the final season. Noah is disappointed by the manipulativeness of the final episode.
  • Alessandra Stanley in the Times nicely captures the abruptness of the ending and the weirdness of the final musical choice: "The abrupt finale last night was almost like a prank, a mischievous dig at viewers who had agonized over how television’s most addictive series would come to a close. The suspense of the final scene in the diner was almost cruel. And certainly that last bit of song — “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey — had to be a joke." The Times also has a piece on on-line responses to the show.
  • Tom Shales in Wa Po likes the ending, saying it delivers the characters to myth and imagination.
  • MSNBC has some good stuff up, including a conversation between Tucker Carlson, who felt let down by the ending, and Star-Ledger media analyst Steve Adubato, who loved it.
  • Update: TV writers weigh in in NYT. Compelling.
We like the suggestion we saw somewhere that, in the end, it was viewers who got whacked by The Sopranos. The black, silent screen brutally exiles us from our imagined intimacy with "the family." We are forever outside their circle, doomed never to know what happens next, permitted only the hollow consolation of repeats and laborious examination of textual evidence. In the end, The Sopranos has made English profs of us all.

1 comment:

  1. BRILLIANT post, my sweet Rox. One of your best ever. In fact, I think it safe to say that you are just getting better and better. We'll probably watch this episode again tomorrow evening (with your Aunt Margie) and we can see what interpretive skills these ole English profs might turn on this manipulative, funny, strange ending. THANK YOU for citing "Fade Away." Perfect choice, you sweet wonder.
    --Your Goose


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