Monday, November 12, 2007

Ambiguity Made In America

My thoughts on the series finale of The Sopranos


I finally had a chance to watch the series finale of the Sopranos over the weekend. Long gone are the hype that preceded its airing and hysteria that followed. The sheer volume of critical attention given to this one event is staggering. In the end, this is just a TV show and as much as viewers of the show are outraged about the ambiguous and anti-climatic ending there are more important things in life worth getting upset about (one of them, the Iraq war, is even an underlying theme of the last season of the Sopranos).

Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, what is the meaning of this abrupt conclusion to the series? Does Tony get shot? What about his family? Does he escape with his life only to be indicted? So many questions left unanswered, and what does it all mean? Bob Harris has an excellent, and exhaustive, analysis of the religious symbolism in the final scene (along with some fascinating ties to the Godfather trilogy). No doubt many others have mined the rich depths of symbolism in this episode so I will leave it as an exercise to those with curiosity (and time) to look into this further. Rather than simply rehash others' analysis I want to focus on what for many was the main point of contention with the finale. The lack of a definite conclusion, of not knowing Tony's fate is the single biggest criticism being leveled by fans and critics alike.

It seems almost laughable to me that anyone would be surprised when the conclusion to the single most morally ambiguous show on television is itself ambiguous. Like the show, the protagonist Tony Soprano, one of the greatest anti-heroes ever created, is a melting pot of conflicted emotions and paradoxical motivations. A merciless killer who can suffocate his self-described "son" and heir apparent with his bare hands. A family man brought to tears when a family of ducks that was living in his pool flies away. Over the course of seven seasons the show paints these two (along with many other) completely contradictory pictures of the same man. Far from the stereotypical one-dimensional mafioso, Soprano is so multi-faceted it is at times hard to keep track of which Tony we are seeing. In fact the way that Tony can switch from one persona to another at a moment's notice leads to some of the show's funniest and most dramatic moments.

The show does not shy away from the implications of such a conflicted existence. Over the seven years Tony's faces everything from marital estrangement, assassination attempts and nervous breakdowns. Through it all the viewer is brought to a place where we understand Tony (as much as anyone can), where we simultaneously empathize with him for his human foibles and revile him for his monstrous acts. That we can exist in such a moral limbo about the show's main character is ultimately what makes The Sopranos so successful (both commercially and artistically).

The connection between plot and abstract concepts is very tight in The Sopranos, more so that most other shows. Everything from the music playing, background images and the colors of key props is intentional and often has some deeper symbolism. In order to represent such a complex family of characters the show must make full use of the more complex aspects of art. It is only fitting then, that such a complicated and multi-layered show would be concluded in a similarly inscrutable fashion. The creators could have easily created the Godfather-esque bloodbath that so many fans anticipated (nay even hungered for), or the fairy-tale "everyone escapes to live another day" ending. But both of these would be the wrong choice, both would be an absurd oversimplification of what deserves better. To cut to black when he did, David Chase is not abdicating his responsibility as so many have claimed, he is letting his show die the way it lived, in the messy moral gray area where one man can be both a sinner and a saint (sometimes both at the same time). That the creators chose to wrap this faux-climax in religious trappings and leave the final answer on the tip of the tongue is only fitting when none of the answers in this show ever came easily. Indeed the difficult questions in life never truly get answered, at least not forever. That is, after all, what makes these questions interesting, and what makes the process of finding the answers worth while. Only a fool seeks an easy answer to a difficult question and I can't help but see the hubbub over the Sopranos finale as just a bunch of foolishness.

No comments: