In the final moments of the eighty-sixth and final episode of “The Sopranos,” nothing happened — which is to say, everything happened. The HBO series’ exit was not bloody or violent, but it was perhaps worse: a portrait of an American family, eating onion rings in a New Jersey diner, consumed by the life they’ve made for themselves even as it falls down around them.
Like so many scenes before it, however, those last few minutes were exploding with almost unbearable tension. Random strangers entered the diner, and one glanced repeatedly at Tony. Arriving later than the rest of her family, Meadow tried repeatedly to parallel park, which was shown from ominous angles.
Would she be shot in her car, or be hit after finally successfully parking and then darting across the street? Would the diner explode before she could make it inside? Or would one of its patrons turn out to be an undercover agent there to place Tony under arrest? Was one a hit man, getting ready to unload a clip into Tony after exiting the bathroom?
The show played with viewer expectations that something big like that was going to happen, cutting the audio and video precisely when Tony looked up, a difficult-to-read look on his face. Journey was silenced immediately after the words “don’t stop” in the group’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which Tony had earlier selected on a jukebox. Nothing but a black screen followed for a full 10 seconds, before the silent credits rolled, signaling that abrupt conclusion was the actual ending, not a failed cable signal, power failure, or problem with the television.
Family's journey continues
What was actually there in that final scene, beyond the tension from the all of the menacing elements, was actually more disturbing than, say, a final bloodbath or a mob boss taken away in handcuffs. Tony Soprano was eating dinner with his wife and kids, all of whom have fought against his way of life, only to give themselves over to it. Just as Tony could not escape the oppressive effects of his mother’s failure as a mother, neither will his children slip away from his failures as a father.
After contemplating enlisting in the military to deal with his angst about the world’s problems, A.J. settled with fetching coffee for a movie producer, a job lined up by his father, one with the promise of a future but a dismal present. Besides abandoning med school for law school, which she explained to Tony by saying she was inspired by seeing how he was repeatedly treated by the FBI, Meadow is now on track to marry the son of someone within the mob family, which she will probably someday represent as a lawyer.
And this is certainly not a life without consequences, as Bobby and Silvio, and so many others before them, can attest. As a result of a war with New York, Tony’s crew has been decimated, although he didn’t seem to be really all that affected by it, perhaps confirming Dr. Melfi’s colleagues’ fears that he is, indeed, unreachable and beyond help, or just amoral.
Tony’s most trusted allies are dead, and Paulie Walnuts has gone a little nuts, admitting to seeing an image of the Virgin Mary and becoming petrified of a cat that wouldn’t stop staring at Christopher’s picture in the back room of the Bing. It’s ironic, then, that it’s only now that Tony is truly in charge, without power plays coming from New York or his own relatives.
Visiting a now-delusional Uncle Junior, the man who both shot Tony and tried to have him killed, Tony saw both his present and his future. His uncle is not dead but is quite gone; Janice reported the death of her husband, Bobby, and Junior thought of Bobby Kennedy. At one point, Tony reminded Junior that he and his brother once ran Jersey; all Junior could reply was “We did? That’s nice.”
David Chase, the show’s creator and the writer/director of the final episode, seemed to be suggesting that this is what a life at the top comes down to: dementia in a decrepit facility. Junior’s own behavior led his family to abandon him there, rather than pay for better treatment. Junior's fate may be Tony's own, if he makes it that long.
The series leaves us with these and many other unanswered questions, but their answers are in no way integral to understanding the 86 chapters in the life of Tony Soprano. David Chase has left us with those moments, the ones that linger, just as they do in life. To ask for answers from the series is antithetical to its nature.
“The Sopranos” was not a mystery or a thriller, or even, ultimately, a mob drama, but instead worked as a biopic following the life of a complex man as he navigated through a complex world.