Is The Sopranos the best television ending ever?

Nothing like a little sibling rivalry to pass a sunny winter day…

I love distractions. Like all people who make their livings punching words into a keyboard, I have to act like my time is so valuable and my train of thought can never be stalled once it leaves the station. But that’s phooey and nobody knows it better than The Bride. Unfortunately she is very respectful about not bothering me, which kind of blows, because as I said, I love distractions.

The other day I literally dropped everything when a simple email from my brother came into my mailbox. He had just read the bride’s Oscar preview blog and noticed her reporting on my rant about The Sopranos ending and my general hatred of it.

So my brother, who still after all these years enjoys tweaking my tail (what’s an older brother for?) wrote:

“The Sopranos ending was the greatest of all time. Yeah, I hated it at first, too.  But now. genius.”

And it was on like Donkey Kong!

I wrote back:

” OK. We are having this debate. I promise… No name calling ( I think I had recently called him a “degenerate and inveterate sycophantic [my favorite definition is #3: A fawning parasite] shill for the Q-word-that-shall-not-be-named left-wing lobby” over a little family spat we were having about the over-hyped merits of Quinoa). You go first. I’m all ears… I’ll confess… I have the confidence of Goliath right now and all the indignation as I stare incredulously across the field of battle… ‘What am I? A dog?’ 

We are doing this.”

Happily he took the bait. Distraction engaged! My day suddenly brightened.

His response:

“Okay.  First, a little pre-seminar reading…” sending me to a fellow Wordpress blogger’s page. After spending a lot of time reading, I was convinced this writer is on David Chase’s payroll and is very, very astute about screenwriting. I think my work improved significantly just reading this blog, and I’m not kidding. He’s still wrong about the ending, as I’ll explain later, but a tip of the cap is in order.

I said my brother could go first so I read the blog. That was a HUGE distraction, but like I said, I loved it. I responded thusly:

“OK. I actually read all that… (Great lesson on screenwriting which is very timely… Thank you). Go on.”

Brother: “That.  That’s my answer.  Tony is dead and you got to feel it. “

Me (rubbing hands together with a slobbering grin on my face):

Ok, well done.

So let’s go back to your original comment: “The Sopranos ending was the greatest of all time.”

Would you then state it is better than this:

“Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.”

I bring this up not because I vote for this as the greatest ever, but because it is a similar ending… a death being forecast but not shown. My point is this: Nobody had to debate that the bells would soon toll for Robert Jordan.

Whereas in the lengthy argument you had me read, one line is most telling, and therefore perfectly sums up why this ending was a cop-out and not artistically brilliant. The writer says, “nobody but David Chase really knows, but…”

And there it is. If any writer doesn’t give the ending she may as well stamp “to be continued…” at the end, and NOBODY has ever seen those words pop up and say, “Wow, genius. Wonderful!” It just doesn’t happen and didn’t in the immediate aftermath of The Sopranos ending. It was only later the whole cult of personality around David Chase sprung up claiming how brilliant it was. You yourself said, “Yeah, I hated it too at first, but now… genius.” Only because it’s been explained to you. An ending should explain itself.

You also say, “Tony is dead. You gotta feel it.” But we didn’t feel it at all. We felt pissed because we didn’t know. That was the ending… ‘to be continued…”

Are there any doubts about these endings:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Those are genius.

It’s like David Chase’s game with the world, pretension and hubris that in my mind is beneath the brilliance of his writing. Yes, I always thought Tony died and I think the scene by scene break down suggests it as well. The POV switches are wonderful script-writing.

But you can’t know and therefore it doesn’t end. A story must… must… end. As a writer I owe it to those who give me their time to journey on my story to end it and let my ending be judged as clearly as the rest of my story. We wouldn’t dream of a story without a beginning, but in the name of art we claim we can do so with the ending and, as the author, be the only one who really knows what that ending is?

Lest I’m being unfair comparing a TV show to literature, (perhaps you meant greatest TV ending of all time…) I submit the following:

Entertainment Weekly ranked The Sopranos only #10, below #9 Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If anyone thinks the ending is worse than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it is immediately banished from all greatest ever discussion.

Is it really better than M*A*S*H?  That ending rocked with rocks spelling out the word, “Goodbye.” Brilliant. We FELT that.

Or even Friends where, “after ten years of coffee-house meetings, on-and-off romances, and memories both hilarious and heartwarming, the series wrapped up with fans feeling a sense of closure. Ross and Rachel were in it for good, Monica and Chandler had twins, Phoebe was happily married to Mike, and Joey had a new chick and a duck. With new sets of goals all around, the characters seemed ready to move on with their lives, but the same can’t be said for us. Much like Monica’s purple-walled apartment in the final scene, we will always be a little empty without our Friends.”

Those purple walls in that empty apartment signified an ending. The story goes on, but it’s not as interesting so the telling stops.

SO… I see why David Chase didn’t let Tony hear the shot. I’m glad it ends on his POV, which is brilliant. But he absolutely owed an ending to those who gave to him their time to journey on his story, meaning he had to show a glimpse, something that made it so he alone wasn’t the only one who knew the ending.

I felt this way about one of our favorites: Robert Parker. He had a responsibility to end the Spenser story. He should have written a final book, put it in his will and released it upon his death. But instead he allowed his widow to draft another writer to keep the character alive, and therefore the profits coming in, much to the disservice of us, his loyal readers. At some point, the story has to end. Thank GOD J.K. Rowling figured this out.

And here’s my biggest complaint. WHY? Why did Chase end it as he did?

Because he was a sell-out. If you recall the actors themselves were talking often about a movie. Sex and the City had made millions spilling over into movies. It seemed certain The Sopranos would as well, and when James Gandolfini and Chase teamed up on his autobiographical movie they both still were entertaining the idea of a Sopranos movie.

He couldn’t end it because if down the road the money was too good to pass up, he could sneak back into that black and bring Tony back to life.

And that my brother is why that ending sucks.”

All good debates (and this is a great one) allow time for a rebuttal. Gentleman that I am I gave my defeated brother his, to wit:

Two thoughts:
1) Greatest TV ending.  No way am I comparing it to Ernest.  MASH makes me think twice. But Sopranos changed TV and that ending just cemented it. 
2) Yeah. I like it.  I like that he messed with us and pulled us in. I think it made us feel the way Tony and his family would feel. He knew that his life could only end “one of two ways” and so did we.  But then, it happens.  Bam. Pride goeth….even for the all-knowing viewer. 
 
Okay, 3rd thing.  David Chase is probably a tool and would have sold out in the end.  I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had messed it up by doing so.  But…Gandolfini dies. Even David Chase can’t outrun death. Bam. Black. Only God is all-knowing.  
 
Yeah. I like it.”

As for those scoring at home… Is there any debate who wins this debate?

I liken it to Mitt over Obama round one. It was that clear a victory for me (as much as I hate to even consider comparing me to Mitt… and because my brother is wicked smart, he too will soon bounce back and throttle me in one of these distraction debates. I won’t go near him on way more topics than I will…)

But, gentleman that I am, I’ll let you decide. Hit the comment button and vote for a winner. Please do offer your own commentary. It’s a great debate, cost me at least three hours of work (happily, I might add) and will continue to be debated for a long, long time, despite what I think is the definitive answer that should settle it for all time (mine). Besides, we both celebrate the art that was The Soprano, and the actor James Gandolfini, RIP. He was a true Effin Artist, man… as is David Chase, despite his total sell-out ending.

Your turn!

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