the sopranos: the means justify the ends

This week, it was sort-of-but-not-really revealed that perhaps Sopranos creator David Chase believes that Tony Soprano ended up surviving the end of the show, though probably not, or maybe yes, or whatever.

I’ve known about the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos since the finale aired in 2007, but I’m only actually watching the series for the first time right now – I’ve just finished season 3. In theory, the series has been “spoiled” for me since the beginning.

And yet I’ve savored the series – a fairly grandiose way of putting it, but not really much of an exaggeration. The pleasure of watching The Sopranos far outweighs, for me, knowing what’s going to happen to some or almost all of the characters. In light of what I get out of the series, it seems a little upside-down to me for anybody to get up in arms about the lack of a definitive ending for Tony Soprano.

Of course, Tony’s life or death makes up at least part of the way the show depicts the world and the nature of fate. Maybe “living” past season 6 for Tony would mean that he still has a shot of redemption (if he hasn’t already blown any chance of it by the end of the series; remember, I’ve only seen through season 3). Maybe “dying” would mean that Tony is finally paying for the ruin he’s caused or enabled in so many lives.

To my mind, these are entirely terms under which it’s “important” whether Tony makes it out of the diner at the end of The Sopranos. I mean, The Sopranos is not Law and Order, which turns much less on character and art and much more on the whodunit. There, the facts of the plot are the show’s raison d’etre, and musings on fate are few and far between. But The Sopranos is valuable (and much more valuable than Law and Order) because of character and detail, the way it both bring humanity and keen observation to its characters. Not only are Tony, Carmela, and various Tony associates well drawn characters worthy of attention, but minor characters and moments give the show depth and nuance. It’s a big measure of the show’s worth that even Bobby, Uncle Junior’s put-on caretaker, gets moments of pathos. If we only cared about the plot – the life-or-death part of the show – we would miss its best aspects.

Take the “Pine Barrens” episode. A Russian, apparently shot in the head, escapes from Paulie and Chris in the woods, and may or may not be dead by the end of episode. I only saw this episode a week ago, so I remember clearly the ending: Tony warns Paulie pointedly that he’ll have to clean up if the Russian ever turns up again. Watching that moment, I thought that the show as a whole, having given us this explicit threat of consequence, would be better off if we never did see the Russian again – that is, if the show never cashed in on this hanging thread it had so blatantly created and which held so much obvious potential for use later on.

And it never did (or so I’ve learned from reading). But the Pine Barrens episode is still worth watching, for its depiction of Paulie under stresses we’ve never seen him under. It turns out the man who has killed so many is a coward in the face of death. Hungry – after what looks like less than a day without food – he gobbles up the tic tacs he finds without sharing any with Chris. When he’s discovered, the man who’s made a life out of murder can only offer a sad excuse for hogging the breath mints. His selfishness isn’t even the damning detail – it’s how the hardened mobster wriggles out of responsibility like a little boy.

Even the Russian himself, seemingly only a minor character, is given fascinating particulars, even with as little time as he actually appears. His confrontation with Paulie begins when Paulie refuses to put the Russian’s universal remote back in its charger. A less creative writer than David Chase et al. might have felt that the Russian, as a stock tough guy, would never be attached to something as pedestrian as an expensive piece of electronics.

But that’s why the show is fascinating. It freely weaves together gangster life with domestic inanity and drama. It gives personality to characters that could easily be cardboard cut-outs. If I just wanted to find out who gets bumped in the show and who gets away, this would probably be the wrong thing to watch to begin with; one of the show’s best moments for me so far has been Carmela dressing down her pastor for his strangely flirtatious-yet-chaste interest in her.

It’s hard to see what her moments with the pastor have to do with gangsters, but it’s riveting in its own way, and it’s weird to me that anybody who enjoyed the show for any of the reasons I do – and why would you otherwise, really? – would be put out by a classic art-film ending. Forget the end; look at the means.

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