June 12, 2007

Also, Thelma & Louise and that kid from Quadrophenia are alive too

So the whole Nikki Leotardo theory is bullshit. That's too bad, because it would have confirmed what I think was going on. Not that I really need it confirmed. I'm pretty comfortable with my reading, which is this:

Questions about whether Tony "lives" or "dies" after the final scene miss the point, which is that there is no "after." First let me back up to say that my initial reaction was that of course he's dead -- not because the black screen represents his consciousness or anything that some literalists are insisting on, but because the narrative cohesion of the scene demands it. But then I realized that the abrupt ending was a way of intentionally breaking narrative cohesion, so something else is going on.

Even before Chase said he wasn't trying to "(mess)" with people, I didn't buy the "prank on the viewer" theory. It just doesn't fit the tone of the series. Rather, I think what Chase tried (successfully) to do was to rewrite one of the basic principles of storytelling, which is that a story has to have an end.

Robert McKee says there are only two types of endings: closed and open. Closed endings leave "nothing in doubt, nothing unsated." Open ones leave some questions to be answered by the audience, but "open doesn't mean the film quits in the middle, leaving everything hanging. The question must be answerable, the emotion resolvable."

Chase doesn't do that either. Instead, his non-ending deliberately suspends the action. It does not project forward to one possible ending or another (Tony might die, Tony might go to jail, Tony might take over New York). It creates a permanent state of suspended action — Tony exists forever in a single scene of ambiguous but deadly menace. (This is essentially a more postmodern version of Alan Sepinwall's Theory #1.)

Now when I first heard that all the characters in the diner were people who had been on the show before -- and who had reason to want to kill Tony -- I thought my reading was confirmed. I know some people took it to mean that Tony was clearly about to be killed, but that doesn't work because there's no way all those people would "actually" be in one place all at the same time. They would have had to be symbolic of Tony's deadly karma. Even without this confirmation, I still think my reading makes more sense than any other. If Chase had wanted us to decide what happens "next," he would have used the traditional language of cinema -- a fade out or something -- to indicate that there is a "next" that we're not getting to see. By violating that, he's trying to say that there is not one. The show has just, as the song says, stopped.

Just because Chase was not trying to "(mess)" with viewers, doesn't mean that people conditioned by McKeean (or is it Aristotelian?) principles will not feel (messed) with. Here's McKee again:

All films need a Resolution as a courtesy to the audience. For if the Climax has moved the filmgoers, if they're laughing helplessly, riveted with terror, flushed with social outrage, wiping away tears, it's rude suddenly to go black and roll the titles... A film needs what the theater calls a "slow curtain." A line of description at the bottom of the last page that sends the camera slowly back or tracking along images for a few seconds, so the audiene can catch its breath, gather its thoughts, and leave the cinema with dignity.

I won't argue that this isn't usually true, but Chase broke the rule to great effect. The ending was probably the most satisfying moment of the entire season.

Update: All that said, I'm still open to the theory that Tony comes back to life with cleavers on his hands.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


This may not seem related: For crying out loud, judge the friggin dog cartoon!

You're right, it doesn't!

I'm sticking to the same schedule as the New Yorker. They take a week off. So do I.

How about everything since he was in the wreck with Christopher has been dream sequence and Tony is already dead? There were some strange edits in that episode. Jumps in continuity. When he's talking to Melfi, the first session he says he killed Chris, then he wakes up. Then he has another session where he doesn't tell her that. Which one was the real one?

This abrupt cut to black isn't anything original or new. It's just something done by lazy writers. Almost every beginning writer does something like this in his first story. It never worked then and it doesn't work now.

Tony should have ended up in jail and Carmela should have ended up broke. Paulie could have made a deal with New York and become the puppet head of the NJ. That way everyone's worst fears come true.

Plus it would have been much more satisfying.

Everyone's entitled to their opinion about what really happened and what should have happened (he said graciously) but can you give some examples of he cut to black used in the same way? I can't think of any.

Maybe there never is an ending. Life goes on. What are we going to do?; Watch the show to see how A.J and Meadow's children's children do? It has to stop but it never ends.

Dan, fair enough. Let the NYer dictate the schedule. But the Thurber cartoon was confusing. And soon u will be faced with judging two anticaptions simultaneously, which I am pretty hasn't be attempted by anyone before.

abe - in case you hadn't noticed, my trick is to not care if I do a half-assed job.

I think you're right. I don't watch the show but I've been subjected to months of this stuff. Isn't the point/charm of the show that reality complicates, twists, overturns, and supercedes familiar narrative tropes, cliches, and structures? Why would such a show turn all Hollywood at the end? I'm sick of the paeans but I'm enraged by the complaints and desperate, Lost-like speculation.

As far as an example, the cut to black was done at the end of Reservoir Dogs.

It may be new to tv, but it's old in books. Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon, and The Diamond Age, for example. He just ends it in the middle of an action sequence in the first one. The "and then he woke up" ending is pretty old.

Here's an editor writing about bad stories, http://www.reflectionsedge.com/archives/nov2005/coasm_sm.html

""And then he woke up." You just negated the entire experience of reading your story. It makes monkey sad."

Every book I've ever read on writing fiction or class I've taken says never do this.

Michael O'Donohue of SNL/Natlampoon fame said one should not end a story by saying "And then they were all run over by a truck."

Maxwell - I don't think anyone has said the Sopranos had an "and then he woke up" ending! (Or a hit by a truck one). Although actually you came pretty close with that "he was dead the whole time" suggestion.

The RD ending was stylistically similar, but for a completely different purpose. In any case, I won't try to claim that this has NEVER been done, but I definitely don't think it's common or lazy.

Another cut-to-black ending was John Sayles's Limbo. I was actually talking on Sunday about that movie, and how I wouldn't be surprised if The Sopranos ended along those lines -- and how terrible that would be.

(I actually don't think Reservoir Dogs belongs in this category; listen closely to the soundtrack -- or read the script -- and it's clear that Mr. Pink is arrested, and Mr. White pulls the trigger on Mr. Orange and is then shot by the cops.)

I'm saying it's an "and then he woke up" ending. It may not be exactly the same, but it's pretty close.

And the Reservoir Dogs ending...yeah, that's there, but no one knew it when the movie came out. I didn't know it except a friend of mine was obsessed with the movie and when the 10th anniversary dvd came out he made me watch it with the sound turned up on his home theater system. The VHS sound wasn't good enough to hear all the stuff that happens after the cut to black.

But the Sopranos didn't even do that, did they? I thought the damn dvr had messed up and was about to flip over to HBO-w to catch the last of it when the credits rolled and I realized it was just a dumb ending.

It's up there with that whole season of Dallas where it was all a dream. Or the St. Elsewhere ending...but that was actually bettter,

OK. I agree that the "it didn't really happen" ending sucks (though Newhart was the exception), but I don't see how this was one at all. Stopping before the end doesn't negate anything that came before. If my interpretation is correct, it reinforces it.

Anyway, I don't want people to think I care too much about all this. I mean, it's just a damn TV show. We're not talking about Shakespeare. Or the Wire. Or Buffy. Or Freaks and Geeks.

I thought the end was brilliant. But the song doesn't say the show has just stopped. In fact it says the opposite:

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

The Sopranos wasn't a crime procedural that needed a button on the end of it. The Sopranos was a story about a family and a story about any family has an arbitrary beginning and an arbitrary end. In this case there was no end, but there wasn't really any beginning either. The Sopranos was all middle. We didn't see the beginning and we don't get to see the end. And I'm totally fine with that.

Chase was clearly manipulating with the edits in that final scene, but he was doing it to such excess that I think he meant it to be fun. I don't think he was doing it deliberately to piss anybody off. Maybe it was insidery, but if you've ever edited film or even if you've just paid close attention to it, you could spend hours dissecting all the old tricks Chase uses in that scene. It wasn't a joke on the viewer it was a joke on the medium.

I do think the last cut was meant to be a prank, though. We can overthink what it means all day, but based on the amount of black on the other side of that cut, I'd say he really wanted people to think the cable went out. At least for a second.

But the song doesn't say the show has just stopped.

OK, that sentence was badly worded, but from the context of the post I think you can see I meant it stopped but it didn't stop.

From an interview with David Chase.

"Another problem with a movie is that so many characters died in the last season. Chase said he has considered "going back to a day in 2006 that you didn't see, but then (Tony's children) would be older than they were then and you would know that Tony doesn't get killed. It's got problems."

So I think that means he does want people to think Tony is dead.

Personally I think it's a load of horseshit. Stories should have endings. That's all there is to it.

I was upset about the ending (the red herrings that are not in Tony's POV, like Meadow's parking problems, Paulie's walking alone in Bada Bing are not a part of any story; they are only dialogues with the audience to say "I tricked you. Wasn't that a fun ride I gave you?" I'd like to hear Chase claim otherwise.)
I think it's definitely meant to be ambiguous. If it was definitely Tony dying, we would have seen some reaction from Carmela, AJ, etc. to communicate to us "something's happening to Tony." I also don't think anyone would hit Tony when there are a couple of people there who would not have hung back from the shooter, which would cause that shooter to either get caught, hurt, or shoot Tony's family members.
BUT concentrating on the ending and whether it worked or not to me is also a red herring. The fact that the whole season was flawed makes talking about the ending kind of besides the point. It seems like the show became all about Chase saying "The more thing change, the more they stay the same." The false-starts, the "Oh, this is happening! no it's not" stuff, etc. made the season one-note; and it didn't work on telling a story that could convey so much more. I think Tony's life and that of his family would have been more realistically very altered by what they've been through; instead Chase seemed to think it was realistic to show that nothing changed. Ironically, in trying to do something so different, he stuck to unrealstic old traditions of Hollywood: the hero kills his enemies and all his family are still alive (I don't think Tony died there) and they're all doing pretty well.

So I think that means he does want people to think Tony is dead.

Actually, I take that as confirmation that he doesn't want you to know either way.

I think the "you would know that Tony doesn't get killed" doesn't have any bearing on the finale one way or the other -- all Chase means is, it'd be hard to amp up the tension on the question of whether or not Tony was going to get whacked in '06, when the audience knew that he made it alive to the episodes set in '07.

I think the "you would know that Tony doesn't get killed" doesn't have any bearing on the finale one way or the other...

Oops. Yep. Actually that's right.

Robert McKee? Mother of God tell me you didn't pay your own money for one of his seminars!!! I hope it was on assignment or something.

Also, I agree 100% with your take on the end of the show. Post-modern without a doubt.

Awesome post.

Answer is...Daniel is correct!

Bye bye!

tell me you didn't pay your own money for one of his seminars

Nah, I just shelled out $20 for the book. I actually found it pretty useful as a starting point, though I imagine someone with more experience writing fiction would find it a waste of time.

Interestingly, I can think of one other show that did the "cut to black" thing, and did it really well -- "Angel", if you'll recall, stopped mid-action right before (SPOILER) all our heroes entered battle to face near-certain annihilation. OK, so it wasn't quite as abrupt as the "Sopranos" finale -- it gave Angel a final line to put a capper on the show, then cut out -- but it had a similar "maybe they live, maybe they die, but hasn't that always been the way?" quality to it.

Oh right. But I hated the ending of Angel. That did feel like a cop out to me.

Howzabout Blackadder IV, then? Same general concept - right before all our heroes entered battle to face near-certain annihilation - only with that edge of mordant British wit.

Anyone read Philip Roth's American Pastoral? About another troubled New Jersey family, has a very similar ending. Chase's ending could be seen as a homage, or a rip off...

Alfred Hitchcock was an amazing director and writer. Perhaps his most famous work is "The Birds". Remember the dramatic let-down ending? They just hopped into a car drove off with all the birds watching. No explaination as to why it started or how it would end. No sequel. Just left up to your imagination.
(My appologies to those who haven't seen the movie). Why can't The Sopranos just end as quick as it began... No explanation or excuses as to why?!
Maybe this is what David Chase wanted... lots of dialog as to what YOU (everyone who watched)thought happened. After all, everyone has an opinion...

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends that way too. But you're left knowing what happened. The ending sucked, and I don't believe Chase deserves the benefit of the doubt of having some kind of zorastrian wisdom to express with the end. If anything, the last two mini-seasons have shown that he's basically a hack, veering left and right at random, with no arc or plan at all. From the harlequin romance of the Johnnycakes saga, to a randomly appearing and disappearing gambling addiction, to tony yelling "I get it!" at the sun, the whole season was a big jerk-off session, the most depressing descent of a once-great narrative since the second half of Huckleberry Finn.

It's all about the oranges and onion rings, folks.

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