Schrödinger’s Capo

Well, that didn’t last. One week and seven episodes after I started watching The Sopranos, I found out how it ended. The culprit was Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” blog, of all things. Technically, it got ruined much earlier, several times over; I just hadn’t realized that when Yahoo News changed their big headline from “Will Tony Soprano get whacked?!?” to “Did Tony Soprano get whacked?!?”, they weren’t being coy.

Of course, I can’t really evaluate the finale, because I haven’t actually seen it. And even if I watched it right now, it wouldn’t count — I’ve only got seven episodes invested in the series, instead of seven seasons. But I was already going to make a comment about the ones I’d just watched, and it’s interesting how much of my opinion of those episodes seems to apply to the finale as well.

By the time the end credits rolled on “College”, I was left thinking I’d just seen one of the best hours of television ever made. For those who don’t automatically remember TV episodes that aired eight years ago by title alone: it’s the one where Tony takes his daughter to Maine to look at colleges and happens to run into a mob informant; meanwhile back at home, Carmella spends the night with her friend the priest after they have a sexy, sexy communion. The things I liked best about this episode and the ones immediately following:

They’re not about plot. Stuff happens, but what happens isn’t as important as why it happens and how the characters react to it.

There are no sudden life-changing epiphanies. After Tony has his final meeting with the mob snitch, there’s a moment where he stands in a field, looking up as a flock of ducks — like the ones that started his anxiety attacks — fly overhead. Meanwhile, Carmella breaks down with guilt and has to confess her complicity in Tony’s crimes. Does Tony recognize the symbolism of the ducks? Not really; he just sees them. Does Carmella forsake her mob money and move out? Not yet; she wakes up and reads a newspaper.

But this isn’t the frustrating artificial gimmick typical of episodic TV, where everything resets back to the default state at the end of each hour. And it’s not the equally artificial gimmick of the current crop of story-arc-based series, where each hour has to have some life-changing event that keeps escalating the tension. Instead, it’s more like reality. Real people are resistant to change. They have moments that chip away at their world-view, leaving them subtly altered.

You never know what’s really happening. There’s a great dynamic going on throughout the series. We’re constantly led to believe we’ve got an omniscient view of Tony’s story, and then constantly jarred out of that, shown that we don’t have any idea what’s going on. We see Tony’s dreams, and his sessions at the therapist, which should be a direct insight into the character’s mind.

But dream sequences inherently put the audience on edge; after the first one, you’re never sure what you’re being shown is real. And his sessions with Dr. Melfi are filled with lies; the scene will start with him talking about something that directly contradicts what we saw in the previous scene. If he’s lying to the therapist about his mistress, what else is he lying about? Can you trust anything he says? It all works together to build the sense that no matter how much time you spend with somebody and how deeply you dig, there’s an impenetrable wall at the end of it. We can never really know what’s going on with Tony Soprano. We’re not even sure if he knows what’s really going on.

The series gets more mileage out of what’s left unsaid than what’s actually said. This is supposedly one of the prime directives of screenwriting, but you so rarely see it done well. In the “College” episode, they had the stones to attempt it on two fronts: Carmella and the priest (after watching The Remains of the Day one of the few movies that does do it well), and Tony and his daughter.

The scenes with Tony and Meadow in the car are just amazing, because so much happens with so little said. All through the episode, you’ve had the sense that they’re bonding, and it’s all felt genuine, and it’s all felt reassuring. It’s as if a great pressure that’s been building up over the past few episodes, has been suddenly released. But then, with just a few lines of dialogue and increasingly lengthy silences, she learns that there’s still a wall between them, some things that he’ll just never tell her.

And because of a couple of great performances, there’s more to that scene than the obvious. It’s not a simple case that he wants to tell her what he’s been doing, but can’t. It never even occurs to him to tell her; lying to his family has become so natural at this point, that it’s simply instinctual for him to keep his work and family completely separate. It’s not even the case that he feels guilty for what he’s done, or wants to keep her from feeling ashamed of him; if there is any of that, it’s all subconscious.

And as soon as he starts evading her questions, she starts responding to him with a simple “Nothing.” And again because of a great, subtle performance, you can detect what’s on the surface — she’s angry that he won’t come clean with her, so she keeps quiet as revenge — and also what’s underneath, her disappointment that the bonding they’ve had is over, and her realization that she’ll probably never be as close to her father as she wanted. It was a perfectly understated, realistic, and ultimately sad scene.

So, disregarding the irony of writing four paragraphs in praise of a show that works best when leaving things unsaid: at least based on the few episodes of the series I’ve seen so far, I’d say the finale sounds about right. The Sopranos doesn’t seem to be about resolutions, or realizations, or big life-changing events. It’s about normalcy, the realization that big finales and conclusions don’t typically happen in real life. It sounds like the best way for the series to end is simply not to.