When The Sopranos cut to black during the show’s 2007 finale, creator David Chase deprived audiences of the closure the episode was building toward. The Man In The Members Only Jacket (Paolo Colandrea) entering the diner, Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) struggling to parallel-park her Lexus, “Don’t Stop Believin’” blaring as Tony (James Gandolfini) munched on onion rings—that suspense, gone, all gone. Chase, who directed the final episode and frequently played a heavy hand in the show’s editing, left all threads unresolved on purpose. It was the last chance for viewers to feel what Tony always felt: a menacing suspicion that he could be whacked at any moment. The show ends with an ellipsis, not a period.
Like any good showman, Chase left us wanting more, but on the series he created and The Many Saints Of Newark, its recent spinoff prequel film, desire is a deadly sin. “It’s the wanting,” says Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), reciting his Buddhist philosophy in Many Saints. “All life is pain. Pain comes from always wanting things.” Yet, ironically, the whole film seems to miss that lesson. If only Chase had listened to the Buddhists.
The Many Saints Of Newark is the latest—and most high profile and most expensive—of movie codas to television shows. Unfortunately, it’s also the most divisive. While movies have made for good TV prologues and epilogues for decades, The Many Saints Of Newark is among the most disappointing. After two years of COVID-related delays, the film landed at the box office with a thud. Though it fared better on streaming, Many Saints already feels a bit forgotten. Fans almost immediately returned to posting memes from the original series. At the same time, David Chase went back to press tours about making movies and revealing what became of Tony Soprano after the finale.
Compared to other movie revivals for acclaimed, prestigious television shows, Many Saints falters. The decidedly more low-key El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and Deadwood: The Movie prove that some approaches to the growing (or shrinking) pains of going from prestige TV show to tentpole movie work better than others.
The Golden Age Of TV sustained its years of critical adoration on the promise that these long-form narratives could provide character studies in a way that film could not. Across Breaking Bad’s five seasons, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), for instance, methodically transformed before our eyes from a dying chemistry teacher who gets pushed around by his cop brother-in-law to a fedora-wearing kingpin who gets his brother-in-law killed.
Breaking Bad represented the best of these shows, where season-long arcs created a more profound investment for viewers. That the series ended with many believing its run to be near-perfect is a high wire act achieved by very few.
Adding more story was a risky proposition—one Sal Moltisanti would probably warn against. But, surprisingly, Breaking Bad found the perfect prologue in the spin-off prequel series Better Call Saul. Jumping back into the main storyline, though, creator Vince Gilligan aimed for an epilogue, tying up a loose strand in a way that wouldn’t disturb his original work.
The one thing all revivals must do is justify their existence. That usually means finding a question the show never answered. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me examined, “What was Laura Palmer like as a person?”; Entourage explored, “Are these guys still rich and horny?” For the epilogue to his series Breaking Bad, El Camino director Vince Gilligan continued a line of thought from his finale script: “From here on, it’s up to us to say where he’s headed,” Gilligan wrote of Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) escape from captivity. “I like to call it ‘something better’ and leave it at that.” Leave it at that, he didn’t. What happened to Jesse Pinkman after he zoomed to freedom in the show’s finale? El Camino would show us.
To the 2019 film’s benefit, El Camino is essentially inessential. Gilligan’s approach is slight, refusing to disturb the main narrative but homing in on the show’s stylistic quirks and emotional catharsis. Like its source, El Camino is about the process of how one escapes a seemingly impossible situation. While it doesn’t succeed as a standalone movie (one that anyone would watch on a whim without seeing Breaking Bad), it packs enough familiar thrills and faces to make a worthy supplement that could be tucked neatly into the main narrative. One could imagine Jesse’s heist of Todd’s (Jesse Plemons) apartment spread across several episodes, with the reveal of rival thieves, providing several cliffhangers for commercial breaks and episode cappers along the way.
El Camino’s reluctance to take risks ends up helping it. It’s a familiar Breaking Bad story, complete with tense plotting, brutal violence, and propulsive energy. El Camino is both pretty good and also totally inconsequential. It doesn’t pose a big question like, “Who made Tony Soprano?” Instead, it focuses on the immediate escape and conclusion that never felt necessary but is available if fans want it.
Like El Camino, Deadwood: The Movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel. The show already did that. Rather, it plays it even safer, delivering a two-hour episode of the show, built to bring closure to an unfinished story. When Deadwood ended in 2006, it wasn’t due to a lack of viewership. David Milch’s revisionist Western was doing similar numbers to other critically adored cult hits on HBO, like Six Feet Under. There was no pretense about upending everything we knew about Deadwood. Milch just wanted to put this baby to bed.
Milch finds an easy way back to Deadwood in his 2019 TV film: Now-Senator George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) returns to town to commemorate Dakota’s statehood and kills Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie), a beloved member of the community who refuses to sell his property to the tycoon. This situation gives Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) the perfect excuse to deliver justice that viewers were deprived of in 2006.
The shortest of these movie codas, Deadwood: The Movie is also the most satisfying and complete. David Milch concludes his story by moving it 10 years into the future and relying on his strong stable of actors and production designers to fill in any gaps. Director Daniel Minahan allows Milch’s world to create the illusion that Deadwood continued without us organically. The upgraded sets, the emergence of telephone poles and train tracks, and Al Swearengen’s (Ian McShane) weathered face do most of the heavy lifting. Milch brings us up to speed without overcomplicating things. After all, Deadwood’s dialogue is hard enough to follow.
Milch brings closure to Deadwood. By the film’s end, Hearst is beaten and thrown in jail, Calamity Jane kisses Joanie Snubbs (Robin Weigert and Kim Dickens), Bullock finally feels at home enough to kiss his wife (Anna Gunn), and Swearengen dies peacefully after refusing to give up whiskey for five minutes. Milch brings poignant closure that never betrays the show, its characters, or its themes (although the whole “Waltzing Matilda” bit feels like a cheat to get me crying). Deadwood: The Movie does what it set out to do—it brings Deadwood to an end.
The subtitle of The Many Saints Of Newark, “A Sopranos Story,” is a concerning prospect. Evoking Disney’s Star Wars franchise building with “A [Blank] Story,” the title seemingly alludes to more on the way. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie also posed this problem, but cast off the concerns with the end result. However, in recent weeks, both HBO and David Chase have indicated that they’re interested in more Sopranos stories, even if they can’t agree on a format. Ironically, the biggest problem with this Sopranos Story is that there’s too much story.
Many Saints falters in trying to plot a two-hour movie the way a whole season might be devised. There are A, B, and C stories of varying levels of importance and Dick Moltasanti takes the lead as the only necessary arc, though his most significant moments get passed over without remark. Dickie kills his father and capo Hollywood Dick Moltisanti (also Ray Liotta), suspiciously burns the body in a warehouse explosion, and no one reacts to it at all. Even in the movie, the characters would rather watch television at Moltisanti’s funeral than figure out what happened to him. In a series, Hollywood Dick’s murder would be a multi-episode arc; it barely gets a mention in the film.
Meanwhile, editor Christopher Tellefsen could airlift Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) out of Many Saints, and not much would change. There would be less connecting it to the overall Sopranos-verse—though, you’d still have Christopher’s (Michael Imperioli) narration to keep you in its orbit. Other threads, like Johnny Boy’s (Jon Bernthal) return from prison and Harold’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) power play, get pushed to the sides.
Many Saints is Chase and Taylor attempting to put cinematic glossiness on the Sopranos’ rougher edges—to make it a movie! It feels like a movie the characters in the show would love (or, as some galaxy brain takes suggest, a movie one of them would write), a nostalgia-tinged look at the good old days that Tony always saw through rose-colored glasses. In an attempt to class up the show’s production, making it more Mad Men and less Sopranos, they inadvertently made something blander: a humdrum version of the show often cited as the one that made television a respectable place for art to exist.
The jump from TV to movies is never seamless. Adapting the structural rhythms and style from one visual medium to the other can prove tricky, but it seems like the closer creators stick to the original ethos, the better off they are.
Unfortunately, like the antiheroes that populate these shows, overreach can lead to death. In its attempts to deepen the Sopranos history while also carving out some space for its franchise future, Many Saints ultimately picks the wrong medium for its return. The Sopranos is a TV show, and in many ways, The Many Saints Of Newark is, too. It just doesn’t want to admit it.