The following article contains spoilers for the TV episode and films discussed.
Since the start of the pandemic, one of the television programs reportedly binged or patiently revisited by many people has been the HBO landmark series The Sopranos, which ushered in the template that cable TV has used since the 1999 premiere of this gangster-related fiction about a mob boss (Tony Soprano) psychologically balancing his duties to his family (wife Carmela, daughter Meadow and son A.J.) and his illicit operations with his work “family.”
The Sopranos’ 86th episode, first aired in 2007, offered a finale best remembered by the controversy it provoked among fans. Creator David Chase had made clear in interviews throughout The Sopranos’ lifespan that he wanted the series to be like film, particularly like those of his favorite European directors Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut. And he achieved that, most notably in his conclusion.
The final moments of the finale feature the manipulation of images by Chase as director. The scene contains established conventions associated with crime movies, including a hint at the moment in The Godfather when Michael Corleone, dining at a restaurant with the boss of an opposing crime family, excuses himself to visit the bathroom to retrieve a gun planted there for him.
During those final moments of The Sopranos, filmed in an eating establishment in Bloomfield, New Jersey, Chase builds suspense through a sequence of shots during which Tony is seated in the diner. The character examines selections on the booth’s jukebox as Chase continually cuts to other patrons entering or already sitting in the eatery.
Carmela arrives and the cutting continues. A.J. seats himself and we are now moving between shots of the family, the other patrons and Meadow outside, frustratingly attempting to parallel park across from the diner. Her frustration contributes to our anxiety as we now begin to focus on a man in a Members Only jacket who eyes Tony. Is this a prelude to a hit? Is Tony the target?
Meadow’s frustration increases. The other Sopranos converse calmly while the man in the jacket surveys the scene and several more individuals enter the diner. Meadow continues to struggle with parking, delaying her entry. Will she avoid a brewing catastrophe or trigger one? Will she also be targeted or simply witness a tragedy? The man in the jacket rises and walks toward Tony. Is this it? No, he turns toward the restrooms but gives Tony a glance.
More shots of patrons, the Soprano family. Meadow finally parks, walks across the street, enters the diner. Tony looks up at the door and…blackout. But the series isn’t truly over at that moment. The blackout holds for several seconds before the credits roll. Within that time, something occurs, but we are no longer permitted to peer into the life of Tony Soprano.
The scene not only follows the film grammar of the suspense genre, it also references a movie released the same year the series began, John Sayles’s 1999 feature Limbo. The movie’s three main characters, after escaping drug smugglers in the wilderness of Alaska and surviving the harshness of the weather and the limitations of the land, are spotted by an acquaintance who has seen the castaways’ signals while flying over the territory. The acquaintance has a lifelong grudge against one of the protagonists and says he is unable to fit them all in his plane but will go for help.
At the film’s end, the three characters are on the beach watching the slow approach of a plane, not knowing if it bears rescuers or assailants who will finish what the smugglers hadn’t. In the last moment, the camera, shooting from inside the plane, only allows us a limited view of the exterior as it nears the beach, the incessant roar of the engines blaring on the soundtrack, building tension to a nerve-wracking level and then…blackout. House lights up. We do not discover the identity of the passengers or the fate of the protagonists.
In essence, Sayles, in passing the baton to the audience, is asking us to consider the ending according to our imaginations and to inquire what that might reveal about ourselves. Do we see the glass half empty or half full?
What then, we may ask, does Tony Soprano’s glass reveal? n