Much ado about nothing

What exactly has happened to "The Sopranos"? And after two years of waiting, will we have any patience left when the final chapter airs in six more months?

Published June 5, 2006 1:30PM (EDT)

How could it end this way? After recovering from the gunshot wound inflicted by Uncle Junior at the beginning of the sixth season, Tony told Dr. Melfi, "Every day is a gift." Fans expected every episode of "The Sopranos" in this final season to feel like a gift, too, but instead we got old, familiar stories and a finale without fireworks. As the credits rolled on a bucolic Christmas scene apparently stolen from a "Full House" holiday special, it was hard not to shake our fists at the sky and moan, "We waited two years, for this?" Why do the gods mock us so?

David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos," has always thumbed his nose at the traditional pace, dialogue, plot structure and viewer expectations of television. In so doing, he changed the nature of the televised drama, and countless high-quality shows have followed in his footsteps since "The Sopranos" first aired in January of 1999. But in this last season of the show, Chase clearly expects his viewers to have an unlimited amount of patience and faith in his storytelling abilities.

Forget that after two years of waiting, it's been a relatively uneventful season from the start, not the kind of season you'd expect from what was once considered the best show on television, when the writers have had plenty of time to think things through, more than enough time to come up with something truly big and devastating and unexpected. Forget that this is a show known for its gripping finales, or that a bunch of loose ends needed to be tied up, or that when you use the word "finale" to describe an episode, you invite the assumption that viewers are going to be given the vaguest whiff of what's in store in the final hours of the show, particularly when they have to wait another six months to find out what happens next. Forget all of that. Chase and the writers left us with following closing lines, delivered by AJ's brand-new girlfriend Blanca and Carmela as they're celebrating Christmas Eve together with the family.

Blanca: You have a gorgeous home.

Carm: Thank you. (Pausing to look around.) We do.

A nice little exchange of small talk, and the credits roll. Yes, we get it: Carmela is having a moment, appreciating all that she has been given, ostensibly before it all falls apart.

But Carmela may be the only one who's feeling grateful right about now. For 13 weeks, loyal fans of "The Sopranos" have endured a pretty predictable season by preoccupying themselves with how the season might end. "Be patient," they told each other. "Big things are just around the bend. It's obvious." But all that was around the bend was a story line we've seen many times before: An associate of Tony's strays off the expected path (in Vito's case, by having his homosexuality discovered), makes a few errors in judgment (by returning to New Jersey where homophobic mob guys are thirsty for his blood) and winds up dead. You know, just like Big Pussy, Richie, Ralphie, Tony Blundetto and Adriana, only Vito was less central to the story than those characters, and his death had far less of an impact on the main characters than those other deaths did.

Complaints about this season were inevitably quelled by the true believers, who predicted that Carmela (Edie Falco) would discover that Adriana (Drea de Matteo) was killed on Tony's (James Gandolfini) orders, and that that knowledge would send her over the edge. Others said this season pointed to AJ's (Robert Iler) death at the hands of Phil Leotardo's men. Tony may have been through some tough times in the past -- the inescapable murders of Big Pussy and his cousin, Tony Blundetto -- but nothing would hit so close to home as the death of his son. Some thought that Christopher (Michael Imperioli) would get into a bad spot, join witness protection and tell the feds everything -- after all, they're not "The Sopranos" until somebody sings.

Last night's finale toyed with these expectations, but instead of offering viewers a concrete notion of what the last eight episodes had in store, the writers left us hanging once again. Carmela pressed Tony to hire a private investigator to find out the truth about Adriana -- but all Tony had to do was lean on the building inspector so that Carmela's spec house could still be pursued, and she blew off the whole thing. As usual, Tony bullies or buys his way out of trouble with Carm -- nothing new to see here.

Christopher was revealed to be cheating on his brand-new, pregnant wife with, of all people, Julianna (Julianna Margulies), the sexy real estate agent Tony stopped short of bedding. The liaison threatens not only Chris' relationship with Tony, but his sobriety as well -- Chris met her in AA, they discovered a shared history with junk, and soon fell into using together. The couple seems perfect for each other -- two self-destructive addicts attracted to danger -- and Julianna is smart enough and scary enough to lead Christopher astray, or to get herself killed. But until then, they'll both be drawing lines in the sand, telling themselves they have it under control. "For one thing, we don't use needles," Julianna says, which, coming from her, seems to be another way of saying, "Let's start using needles soon." An interesting twist in the path for Christopher, but we've seen him here before, and we gave up on his redemption a long, long time ago. Will he eventually sing, as predicted? Probably -- his loyalty to Tony, even in the face of Adriana's situation, was always entirely self-serving. In fact, no one looks more likely to rat than Christopher, with his Hollywood aspirations and his hunger for a more glamorous life. But then, we've known this about him all along, and his relapsing into drug use is hardly big news.

The biggest surprise of the finale may have been AJ's sudden interest in becoming vaguely reliable and mature. That's what sex with a hot older woman will do for you, I guess. But while Vito's downfall took a few too many episodes to play out, AJ's sudden transformation into a devoted, serious boyfriend happened over the course of a few quick, superficial scenes, not nearly enough to get us invested in his happiness when he's been acting like a spoiled moron all season. Does this newfound maturity mean he'll end up dead, and it'll actually feel tragic instead of seeming utterly inescapable for an idiot of his magnitude? Maybe, but we won't know more for another six months.

The big question looming in everyone's mind after last night's so-called finale is not what will happen to Christopher or how Tony's feud with Phil Leotardo will play out, but instead, what's the point, after a two-year wait, of separating a season into two halves with six months in between? Since the first half of Season 6 doesn't really hold its own as a complete season -- and yes, I suppose we should've suspected that it wouldn't, since no one has dared to call the next eight episodes "Season 7" -- why throw in a six-month hiatus? Are we supposed to be so addicted to the fates of these characters that we'll take them on whatever perverse schedule the writers dream up? Throw us a friggin' bone, here -- we've waited too long for this!

And exactly how full of anticipation and wonder are we supposed to be in another six months? All the fans have been worked into a lather, thinking this half-season will pay off in one way or another, and nothing really happened. Now we're supposed to wait another six months -- that's a total of three years between the last solid season, which ended with Adriana's death, and the conclusion to this once-compelling show. Is Chase the architect of some elaborate experiment in human behavior and expectations, and we're his unwitting guinea pigs?

Or is this merely the headstrong overconfidence of a true artist? If so, thwarting expectations is all well and good, to a point, and "The Sopranos" will go down in history as a brilliant show regardless. But after hinting that someone close to Tony is going to die -- most of all throughout this final episode -- Chase left us empty-handed. I mean, all artistic and high-minded aspirations aside, let's just put this in perspective: This is a show about the mob. The plot of "The Sopranos" has always hinged on bloodshed. Wherever we may be headed in six months, the writers had to know that last night's show would be a disappointment.

It's a shame that the final season of a great show had to leave us feeling so frustrated, since there were still those artfully crafted scenes and nuanced exchanges that reminded us of the ways "The Sopranos" set the bar so high for every other drama on television. Little moments on the show are still handled with so much devoted attention and grace, like when Carmela and Rosie are lost in Paris, and suddenly they look around at the amazing sculptures surrounding them. "Who could have built this?" Carmela asks, awestruck, while gazing thoughtfully at a statue of a woman. Then we cut to straight to Sil, yelling up at a guy cleaning the "Bada Bing" sign: "Make sure you clean that shit off her tit!"

That disconnect between a deep appreciation for life and an ignorant, hedonistic disregard for its divinity has always been this show's bread and butter. If the sixth season did one thing well, it demonstrated once again how difficult it is for those in the family to break out of the life or redeem themselves. At the beginning of the season, Eugene Pontecorvo showed that even inheriting $2 million from his aunt wouldn't buy him a ticket out of mob life, so he hanged himself. Once outed, Vito (Joseph Gannascoli) made a new life for himself in a little town in New Hampshire, but ultimately the daily indignities of work outside the mob led him to his grave. After he returned to Jersey, Vito tried to tell his boyfriend, Jim, over the phone, "I got kids. I couldn't live without them." "Bullshit," Jim replied. "It was the fucking life you couldn't live without." Vito's bad choices echoed those made by Christopher, who was about to join witness protection last season to save Adriana, then spotted a working-class family, packed into a car, at a gas station, and decided he couldn't handle life without the perks of the mob. And each season, Tony has had to accept the brutal decisions necessary to mob life. Even when he doesn't feel that someone should have to die -- his cousin Tony Blundetto, or Vito -- he has to pay for his wealth and status with the lives of those around him.

Still, this season, Tony has tried harder than ever to keep the bloodshed to a minimum. In one of the last scenes of the finale, he visits Phil Leotardo in the hospital. Even though he can't stand the guy and loudly cheered the news of his heart attack, he speaks with him in an attempt to get him to stand in the way of future violence that might affect those in his flock. "You take your time. You get better. You get out of this fucking place, but when you do, you focus on grandkids and good things."

And then, after a pause, Tony adds, "We can have it all, Phil. There's plenty for everybody."

We know very well by now that in mob life, there's never enough for everybody, since all the players are self-serving bastards who'll gun down anyone who stands in their way. We know that we may be seeing Tony's final attempt to keep the peace before everything devolves into chaos. It would've made a nice scene in the second-to-last episode of the season -- or better yet, a great mid-season scene, signifying the calm before the eventual storm.

But this is the finale, and there are miles to go before anyone sleeps with the fishes. There's not enough for anybody in this season of "The Sopranos," and we wish Chase would stop taking his time and start dishing up the kind of conflict and action that first knocked us off our feet seven years ago.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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