“Made In America” (season 6, episode 21; originally aired 6/10/2007)
In which you don’t stop
Tony Soprano dies.
Maybe he dies at the end of “Made In America,” when the Members Only jacket guy puts a bullet in the back of his head (something we don’t see, because we cut to black from his point-of-view). Maybe he dies in 40 years, surrounded by family and friends and little Parisi grandchildren. (At the thought of that, maybe he would have preferred the bullet.) Maybe he dies right after leaving Holstens when he gets hit by a bus. Maybe he dies because he gets cancer. Maybe the cancer is eating him alive right now. Maybe he dies in a fight with Carmela, when she finally gets fed up and takes a shot at him. Maybe he decays slowly in a hospital somewhere, like Uncle Junior, the only solace he has a moment to look out the window at the sun and the birds, a moment to wonder who he is or who he was. Tony Soprano dies. So do you. So do I.
A crazy thing happened to me on the way through the final nine episodes of The Sopranos. I’d read the famed “Master Of Sopranos” essay that this comment section has discussed and debated a million times over. I actually read it a couple of times, since I found it a fascinating piece of using formalist film criticism—the picking apart of the smaller elements that go into the whole of a filmed work (shots, cuts, etc.)—to make one very specific argument. If you’ve never read it, I recommend it, even if I don’t really endorse it. After reading it, I was pretty convinced that I would watch these final nine episodes and see everything the unnamed author of the blog post saw, see how everything points to the death of Tony Soprano. Indeed, I find the “head-on shot of Tony cutting to point-of-view shot of the door” argument so persuasive—particularly because this is something the entirety of the series has used for multiple purposes (and once to indicate Tony was having a panic attack by fuzzing out his vision, which would support the “cut to black” hypothesis)—that I toyed with adopting the theory wholesale.
But I can’t, and for reasons that go beyond my general irritation that the blog post, more than any other element, has turned far, far too many discussions of this show into discussions that solely talk about the final five minutes of its entire run. If you haven’t watched this episode in a few years, did you remember that the bulk of its plot is about Tony and Carmela trying to keep A.J. from joining the military? I had remembered that plot point, but not how it dominated the hour, so much weight does the final scene now hold in the minds of people who watched and enjoyed the show. And it’s easy to see why. From just about every point-of-view, it’s a masterpiece of filmmaking craft. In fact, let’s watch it again:
Every shot there is chosen carefully to at once orient you within the reality of that diner and to subtly disorient you at once. The editing does the same (think, for instance, of that much-discussed cut between Tony seeing the place he’s going to sit and Tony actually sitting there, which seems to suggest he, for a brief moment, sees himself), while simultaneously building a tension that never receives proper catharsis, a tension seemingly designed to make you think your TV has stopped working. Absolutely nothing is happening—Tony, Carmela, and A.J. are enjoying sitting together, while Meadow is struggling to parallel park—but David Chase, who wrote and directed, makes it feel like everything is happening, like everything is on the line in this one moment. And for all we know, maybe it is. Maybe this is the last chance for Tony Soprano. Maybe if he doesn’t change his ways, that guy in the jacket is going to stalk out of the bathroom and change those ways for him.
But my primary objections to that reading of the final scene—which I will re-stress is totally valid, and if you think the scene says Tony dies, I’m fine with it, so long as you don’t insist that those who say otherwise are vapid idiots (as too many “Tony dies!” evangelists do)—come, ultimately, from the world I grew up in, the world of fundamentalist Christianity. (And please let me apologize for the slight detour into personal history. I promise it will make sense.) Fundamentalist Christianity—fundamentalist religion, really—is an attempt to take something that purports to be mysterious and more about opening questions than receiving answers, then turn it into a long series of perfect answers to every little question. Why does God allow suffering? Because it’s part of his plan. Why would God create gay people? He wouldn’t, so shut up. Why does there have to be a Hell? To punish those who rejected the good news. And on and on.
The more I watched these final nine episodes of The Sopranos, with the Master of Sopranos essay in mind, the more I felt myself bucking against those constraints again. Yes, all of the death foreshadowing the author finds throughout the series is present, and it steps up a notch in the final season. Yes, all of the signs, portents, and symbols that seem to point to Tony dying within this episode itself exist (and could, indeed, mean what the author suggests). And yes, there’s plenty of compelling extra-textual evidence (the interviews Chase has given; actor Matt Servitto’s remarks; Aida Turturro’s comments in the wake of the finale’s immediate airing; etc.) that could, indeed, suggest Chase intended to show that Tony died in a brilliantly elliptical way. (This could all head off into an argument about bringing extra-textual information to a critical gunfight, whether the author’s intent matters, and a bunch of other stuff, but let’s not go there for now.) I can concede all of that and agree the blog author has made a compelling argument to back up his central thesis of Tony’s death.
To me, though, it’s a lacking thesis because it relies on the reductionist tendencies of fundamentalism. It robs the mystery out of a series that was always replete with it, and it forces things that could mean many things to mean only one thing. That death foreshadowing throughout the rest of the season could mean Tony dies, or it could mean any one of a number of other, equally grim things. This was always a series that was filled with death imagery, simply because of the world these characters operated within. (Remember Pussy’s ghost in the mirror back in “Proshai, Livushka”?) The more times I watch this series, and particularly this final season, the more I find myself enamored of its refusal to offer pithy answers. It is a show about many things, and the argument that Tony dies works far too hard, for my tastes, to shoehorn it into a “one size fits all” box where plots always have concrete endings. Can you still think Tony dies and appreciate the series in all its multitudinous glory? Sure! But for me, it ends up like hunting rabbits: Sooner or later, every burst of the leaves starts to look like a rabbit.
My friend Film Crit Hulk has this great piece of wisdom he’s beat into my brain over and over again: The ending is the conceit. What he means by it is that the ending is the place where the filmmaker gets his best shot to leave the audience with something to contemplate. If you think of how many times The Sopranos ended an episode with an image that perfectly encapsulated the hour that had come before, like, say, Christopher trying to right that uprooted tree in “Walk Like A Man” or Melfi saying, “No!” in “Employee Of The Month,” you’ll get sort of an idea of what I’m talking about. So what does Chase leave us with when he wants to get us to contemplate the whole series? He leaves us with a man looking up at a door to see who’s entering a restaurant, then a black screen. He leaves us with almost unbearable tension, which he then doesn’t allow to dissipate. He leaves us with a blank space into which we can project whatever ending we want. The “Tony dies!” argument again reduces this to essentially one possible reading: because Tony rejected the lessons of his trip to Purgatory, he now will suffer for his sins. Does Chase really want to tell us this? Does he really want to leave us with something that boils down to “crime doesn’t pay”? I don’t think it’s really in keeping with his modus operandi, to be honest.
Oddly enough, shortly before I started to research and write this piece, Chase commented the most forthrightly he ever has about the finale, to the point where he suggested it doesn’t even matter if Tony lives or dies. What he’d hoped to convey, he said, was that time is short, that life is fleeting, that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. (The interview, of course, was immediately seized upon as proof that Tony had died.) And that strikes me as more likely. Maybe Tony’s dead. Maybe he’s alive. But we don’t get to see him anymore, and we’re left with mystery and uncertainty and lack of closure. This was a TV show we watched for eight years, and now it’s not a part of our lives anymore. Life is short. Things are taken away.
The other thing driving me away from this interpretation is something Paulie says early in the hour, after Bobby’s funeral. “Even in death, we are in life,” he says, talking about how much he ate at the post-funeral meal. “Or is it the other way around?” Meadow smiles and says that, yeah, it is indeed, and I thought, briefly, of the Christian concept of spiritual death. Spiritual death means that even when you’re out there, living your life and doing whatever it is you do, you’re dead in your spirit, that your spirit specifically needs Christianity to “come alive.” Coming to Jesus, then, is a literal resurrection of the self, even if your physical state doesn’t change. (Most religions have concepts similar to this, but I’m using the one I’m most familiar with.) From this point of view, it doesn’t even matter if Tony dies at the end of the series. He was given multiple opportunities to come alive and only half-heartedly grasped at a few of them. We know this man well enough now to know he will live the rest of his life—whether that’s 30 seconds or 30 years—in a state of spiritual decay as profound as the physical decay his uncle lives through.
Think about that scene with Uncle Junior, which has always been my favorite in the finale. Chase places it directly before the final scene for a reason, and it’s to remind us that this, all that the series and season and episode has been fought over, ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s all an empty shell that these men pour themselves into, only to come to an ignoble end. Junior used to run North Jersey, Tony says, the start of tears in his eyes. And Junior seems sort of pleased with this knowledge, but it ultimately gets left behind in the soup that his brain has become. He’s much more contented to look out the window at the sunshine, to partake in a simple pleasure afforded to every single person alive on this planet that, nonetheless, most of us completely elide out of our day to day lives. His condition is a profound reminder of the risk of physical death, yes, but an even more profound reminder of the fact that Tony, who’s increasingly incapable of even these small moments of pleasure (though he takes a moment to look upon the trees before going to see Junior), is spiritually lost. He tried to find his way through the wilderness of his own psyche and soul, sometimes with the help of Melfi, and he ultimately failed. When he complains to A.J.’s psychiatrist about his mother in the episode, he’s back to square one. He got so lost in the maze he went right back to the beginning.
Who survives to be Tony’s right-hand man to the end of the series? It’s Paulie, of course, who would have been an unlikely choice back in season one. But Paulie is capable of reading the signs, at least somewhat. He’s somebody who seems attuned to the omens and mystical forces that are always around him as a character on The Sopranos, which could make the moment when he agrees to head up the doomed Cifaretto crew a literal death omen (only for a point after we’ve ceased to watch the series). But Paulie’s openness and understanding also keep him out of the state of spiritual death that Tony exists in, even if he doesn’t quite grasp what it is that’s happening to him. He tries to open up to Tony about the vision of the Virgin Mary he had several episodes ago, but he’s incapable of keeping Tony from busting his balls about it. In one way, Paulie survives because he’s a cockroach; in another, he survives because he’s open to the messiness of life and its myriad possibilities.
Early in the episode, A.J. and his new girlfriend, Rhiannon, are parking his car in a secluded forest grove to make out. Sparks from the engine ignite on dried leaves beneath the car, causing everything to go up in smoke. (The two are listening to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” which is filled with passages that speak to the episode and series, but particularly this one: “Advertising signs that con you/ Into thinking you're the one/ That can do what's never been done/ That can win what's never been won/ Meantime life outside goes on/ All around you.” The episode’s interest in advertising also speaks to the episode of The Twilight Zone the guys are watching in the safe house, which is all about a teleplay by Shakespeare being creatively compromised by a sponsor.) The two race from the car, out to safety, and, of course, there are plenty of scenes of Tony and Carmela chewing out A.J. for not seeing the leaves, but there’s also a telling scene where A.J. tells his psychiatrist that when he watched the fire devouring the seat where he had been just seconds before, it was cleansing. It was like a moment of clarity, and it probably was. For a second, he could see everything, from the fate that awaited him, to the needlessness of his things. But it’s also the moment he begins his “recovery” to the same old spoiled A.J. his parents want him to go back to being, because it’s the moment when he has to start putting that stuff behind him, start ignoring it to get back to the callousness of everyday life.
This is what we do every day. We’re all headed for death. We’re all dead a little bit inside, able to ignore the suffering around us or refuse to change for our own betterment or capable of blotting out the terrible things done in our name (like the Iraq War all of the characters refuse to discuss with A.J.). Rhiannon says that Dylan’s song sounds as if it could have been written today, with a sense of wonder, but she only says that because she flatters herself into thinking her problems are more interesting or unique than anybody else’s, as we all do almost all of the time. Yet beneath all of the petty struggles and mob warfare that drive the plot of season six thrums an insistent terror, a constant mystery that engulfs all of the characters, even if to look at it blinds them. They are going to die. They are already dead. We are going to die. We are already dead.
But, also, we aren’t dead yet. There’s still time to reach out and experience all of the things you’ve missed, to make the most of every moment, to remember the good things. Tony Soprano blinks out, so his time, at least in our terms, is done. But we have this moment and this lifetime, and it will be gone before we know it. What comes after is anybody’s guess, but what we have now is something none of us experience in its fullness every day. The things that seem like they matter often don’t, and the things we lose ourselves in are often the least helpful. Chase leaves us with nothing but the blackness, and he’s giving us space to think, ponder, and consider, not a puzzle to be solved. Embrace the mystery. You’re not dead yet. What are you gonna do about that?
- This is overlong as is, so I’ll keep these brief. Thanks so much for reading these over the more than two years I’ve been doing them! The community that’s sprung up around these reviews has been more than I ever would have imagined, and I hope we all bump into each other elsewhere on the site. Thanks for indulging my sidelong tangents and rabbit trails! (My original plan had been to mention the final scene only in passing in this review. I guess that worked out well, huh?)
- I apologize for last week identifying the safe house as Tony’s mother’s house. For some reason, I’ve been believing it was that location since “The Blue Comet” first aired and had never been corrected on that fact.
- It’s coming on Christmas again, which marks this episode as taking place roughly one year after “Kaisha.” Time has flown.
- I love the cat that shows up in this episode, and I’ve read some persuasive arguments that it’s a representation of both Adriana and Chris. However, I think it’s enough that the cat suggests both characters, whose presences hang over the final episodes in often literal ways.
- The episode spends a lot of time showing us just how disappointed Tony and Carmela are in Meadow’s choice of mate and career, without really saying anything outright. The look on Edie Falco’s face when Hunter talks about being in her second year of med school conveys so much without any words.
- The two scenes with Janice in this episode are among the most heartbreaking in the series’ run, and they’re perfect reminders of just how much the ghost of Livia still haunts her children.
- I love how the mob plot mostly peters out. Tony brokers a peace with Little Carmine, and New York tacitly allows a hit on Phil, which leads to the horrifying sequence at the gas station, wherein Phil’s head is crushed by a car tire, and the onlookers let out horrified gasps. (Again, we have an audience watching a horror happening but not rushing out to help, just as with the hit on Sil last week.)
- It doesn’t take much to get A.J. back on the self-involved track Tony and Carmela want him on. All it takes is a new car and a nice development executive job, as well as a script that, long story short, is about a private detective getting sucked into the Internet through his dataport. “He's gotta solve some murders of some virtual prostitutes,” Tony concludes his plot summary. It’s “very scary,” he assures us.
- The episode is brimming with meta-commentary on the series as a whole and on the medium of television. To unpack all of it would require another article (though I suspect you guys would read that), but my favorites are the frequent, snide digs Chase takes at broadcast television.
- Another favorite moment: Harris, hearing that Phil Leotardo is dead, enthuses, “We’re gonna win this one!” to the incredulity of his FBI colleagues.
- “If there were children playing in those leaves, you'd have just run them over?” Carmela once again outlines why I so love the Soprano parenting style.
- In case the grade is not enough indication, I will come out and say it: This is the best series finale ever made, give or take a British Office.
- I could go on about this for another 3,500 words, but I’m already well over the limit most people can be expected to read. I thank you all again, and I’m happy to announce that I’ll be starting an 18-week look at the great drama series Slings And Arrows on January 23, 2013. If you’ve never seen it, it’s all on Netflix Instant, and I guarantee you’ll watch the whole thing after you’ve watched one episode. (It’s also slightly more life-affirming than this.) After that, my plan is to go through Freaks And Geeks, probably starting May 29, 2013 (though that date is very tentative). Please join me for either or both!
On Jan. 23, 2013: We begin Slings And Arrows with a few theatrical complications.