The Sopranos series finale

Aired Sunday, June 10.

Did Sopranos creator David Chase panic when he went to write the final episode of his critically revered mafia series? If the show ended with Tony caving, flipping on the New York crew, and wasting miserably away in the witness protection program, everyone would point out the resemblance to GoodFellas. If the show ended with the violent death of Meadow or A.J.—the sins of the father visited upon the children—everyone would point out the resemblance to The Godfather III. If the show ended quietly with 
Tony isolated and damned—Godfather II. If the show ended loudly with Tony in a hail of bullets—Scarface. Did Chase simply throw up his hands at the impossible expectations and decide to class up a non-ending instead? Because, if so: sorry, David, but that’s been done, too—and better—by John Sayles in Limbo.

Still, I’m sure Chase doesn’t see his shockingly abrupt cut to black as a cop-out. In fact, I’m fairly sure I know what his artistic intentions are. In the final scene, the tension mounts as people enter the diner where Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and A.J. are meeting for dinner. Tony has had his New York rival Phil Leotardo killed, and his own underling Carlo has testified before a grand jury. The camera cuts to the couple in the booth, the guy walking toward the bathroom, the pair of men entering through the front door. Are they assassins? Plain-clothes cops moving in for an arrest? Just ordinary civilians? The suspense is overwhelming, even as Tony and Carmela and A.J. make small talk and Meadow struggles to parallel park outside. And then Meadow finally hurries toward the building, and the bell on the door rings, and Tony looks up, and—smash cut to black. The end.

So I think I get the point: This is how Tony must live, with everyone he meets a possible danger, a possible harbinger of death or lifelong incarceration. And yet even under the Sword of Damocles, life goes on, and you eat with your family and enjoy what good times you can. Life goes on until it doesn’t, and who knows when that will be? (Does the smash to black indicate Tony’s sudden death? Who knows?) OK. Fine.

I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been cheated. I didn’t expect (or want) a tidy resolution, every loose end tucked away in a shiny bow, but it’s disingenuous to pretend nothing exists between an artificial, pat conclusion and an anticlimactic break in medias res. My initial outrage has softened, and I can recognize how skillfully Chase directed that final scene, but it still feels like a con because breaking like that is artificial, too. Hell, storytelling itself is artificial, the imposition of a linear narrative on the messy tangle of life. But even in that tangle, there are beats of resolution—like, say, when you survive your mother’s attempt to have you murdered (season one finale) or when you kill a compatriot who has betrayed you (season two) or when you awkwardly reconcile with your wife after an ugly separation (season four).

Chase is perfectly capable of constructing artful, true-to-life dramatic arcs when he feels like it, and his belligerent refusal to do so here strikes me as arrogant disrespect for his audience, not artistry. (Even before the final scene, the finale rambled, packed with red herrings.) He’s leaving us hanging to make a point—and not a particularly profound one—and after spending years with these characters, I resent that. I think we, the audience, and they, the multidimensional characters, deserve more than a clever but pretentious and ultimately empty trick.

In the end, I don’t think the Emperor is truly naked here, but neither do I think his garments are as resplendent as he would have me believe. And after years of relishing the virtuosity of the acting and writing and direction on The Sopranos, that’s a real disappointment.