Thursday, June 20, 2013

Again, We Watch Tony Soprano Die

It’s still a surprise when a celebrity death hits me hard, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. There are people who can be a crucial part of our lives though our paths technically never cross and we’d probably have nothing to say to each other even if they did cross.  James Gandolfini—Tony Soprano—is in this category for me, and yes, 51 is waaay too young to die, but I’m pretty sure I’d also be sad if he were 90 or 100.  He—and that show—were revelatory and important for me; I might say that watching “The Sopranos” closely provides an excellent tutorial on how to write a novel.

Ah, of course…that’s the beauty of art, that it lasts, when we don’t.

In honor of James Gandolfini, and of Tony Soprano, I’m reposting my analysis of the controversial final episode, which was originally posted on June 11, 2007, the morning after that episode first aired:

The Story Arc of Tony Soprano
(Note: Don't read this if you haven't seen the final episode and plan to.)

Am I the only one? I didn’t see the ending of last night’s episode as ambiguous in the least. Tony was shot. He was shot as was adeptly foreshadowed in the first episode of the season, where he and Carmela visit Bobby and Janice in the lake house and there is a conversation that feels “important”: They’re sitting around the dock and Carmela and Tony talk about a toddler who recently drowned in a pool, “right there in front of everyone.” (Okay, not a direct quote, but a close paraphrase.) Janice, watching her daughter, freaks out, but they linger on the conversation a bit more. That’s the moment I suspected Tony was going to die “right there in front of everyone.”

That same episode also set us up with the massive gun that Bobby gives to Tony (happy birthday, brother-in-law!). There are references to the deer head (or was it a moose?) on the wall and how the animal didn’t know what hit him. This moment was also referred to in flashback in last week’s episode, where there was a moment of Tony and Bobby talking in the boat. “Like your friend on the wall,” Tony says, “Didn’t know what hit him.”

And more: The irony of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (how “American is that sentiment—remember, the episode was called “Made in America—as if the power of our belief can stop death). The increasing tension to the scene in the diner as Meadow can’t park (I totally sympathize with parallel parking woes!). The idle chit-chat about onion rings (tell me a circular shape is random—onion rings instead of fries). The nod to The Godfather movie as the spooky guy goes into the bathroom as Michael did, to get the gun. The feds closing in, the look on Paulie’s face as he and Tony part (what an actor; how does one make a face on demand that captures that anguish and emotion?).

All these details were chosen for a reason by the writer/director/creator, David Chase. To my mind, they were all leading to the inescapable—which was inescapable from the beginning, frankly. To be true to what has been established with Tony’s life and character, there were only a few possible outcomes: witness protection (not likely for Tony who’s believed in the Code throughout and never once wavered), jail, getting whacked, or, perhaps, continuing on..but only until one of those three things happens. Not many mob bosses get to retire and live ahppily ever after...just the way the job goes. So, to me, this episode was the definition of the “surprising yet inevitable ending.” I’m so distraught that I woke up to NPR reporting on the news that Tony didn’t get whacked, or my favorite guy on Slate magazine (thus far) comparing the ending to the choice in the short story, “The Lady or the Tiger?”—a cop-out that doesn’t offer an answer (this is an ongoing
discussion, and others will weigh in throughout the day). Viewers quoted in the Washington Post Metro section also didn’t get it: nothing happened, they complained, it was like David Chase’s joke on us. Even Tom Shales didn’t fully say that Tony got whacked, suggesting instead that we don’t actually know while allowing that the very next frame could have shown a massacre.

So—am I the only one who thought it was a brilliant ending, and true to the show and character to the end?

So be it. Maybe TV is an art form (and this show, anyway, is art) that needs to be spelled out visually in the way a short story or novel doesn’t: in written literature, things can and should be suggested and intuited. Or maybe I’m wrong and Tony lives on.

While I’m on the topic, I was reminded of the beauty of creating tension by adding a clock to a scene. When we see that there are only 5 minutes left to the episode, every detail in that diner scene becomes fraught. One of my favorite remarks on this subject is Alfred Hitchcock (sorry I don’t have a source for this; I found it several years ago and didn’t keep the attribution…my bad):

“Finally, a good film has suspense, not surprise. Hitchcock avoided the simple mystery films, where the main point of the movie is to find out who the killer is. … ‘Surprises’ last only a few seconds, but suspense can be sustained indefinitely. Hitchcock's favorite way of explaining this was to describe men playing a card game when suddenly a bomb in the room explodes. The audience is shocked for about five seconds. But show a bomb under the table with five minutes until detonation, and now the players' boring conversation about baseball becomes an urgent matter. Sequences in films like Dial M for Murder and Frenzy are compelling only because the audience knows who the killer is. Or, as Hitchcock puts it, 'The essential fact is, to get real suspense, you must let the audience have information' (Hitchcock 1973).”

The other components of my personal Sopranos evening were definitely unambiguous: my husband mixed up negronis, in honor Bobby’s remark last week about how he imagined the classy people riding the Blue Comet to Atlantic City sipping negronis, and I made the full, all-out version of Carmela’s Baked Ziti from the
Sopranos Family Cookbook: fantastic! (And lots of leftovers!)

I miss this show already. ###

[Here’s a nice write-up from David Remnick of the New Yorker, including a number of Tony’s greatest moments.]


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.