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‘Sopranos’ could mimic ‘Godfather’ in finale

In "The Sopranos" series finale Sunday night, David Chase may be torn between the examples of two families: The Sopranos themselves, and the Corleones.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

In “The Sopranos” series finale Sunday night, David Chase may be torn between the examples of two families: The Sopranos themselves, and the Corleones.

“The Godfather” is mentioned here not as a template — even though it is arguably the finest American film ever and therefore the finest American mob picture ever — but as an ideal. The characters in Tony Soprano’s inner circle live their lives in the hopes that they, too, could someday amass the power that Michael Corleone seized so ruthlessly at the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 operatic masterpiece.

Characters in “The Sopranos” have mentioned “The Godfather” trilogy often throughout the run of the series, referring simply to “One” or “Two.” (Never “Three.”). As far as the mob family is concerned, the Sopranos wish they could be the Corleones.

As the grand finale approaches, there’s still a chance they could be. In last Sunday’s episode, the simmering feud between Phil Leotardo and the New York family and Tony and his New Jersey gang spilled over into all-out war. Bobby Bacala caught the train, but missed the bus, so to speak. Silvio was shot up, sent to the hospital and has one Bruno Magli in the grave. Tony and his remaining soldiers went to the mattresses, and not because the Sealy Posturepedic offers a superior sleep experience.

At the end of “The Godfather,” Michael pulled off the unthinkable: He had all of the heads of the five families killed. In the Mafia, it’s considered an egregious breach of the code of conduct to whack a “made” guy — witness what happened to Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas” — but apparently Michael either misread the rule, or he found a loophole.

But he was, if nothing else, proactive. He understood that the other families were planning a move on him, so he took the initiative. That’s the Corleone approach. If Tony had adopted that plan, the Phil problem would be over by now. Granted, he wasn’t officially tipped off about being a target until the last episode, when Agent Harris of the FBI gave him a tip outside Satriale’s. But Tony surely realized that events were reaching a boiling point, and he knows now he should have acted sooner.

Wiping out weaknessWhich brings us to Chase’s other option besides the Corleone model.

Tony Soprano hates weakness. He hates it in his son. He hated it in Christopher, which caused him to . And he hates it in himself. He recognizes a history of depression and panic attacks in his family, and he’s ashamed of it, an issue addressed repeatedly during sessions with his now ex-shrink, Dr. Jennifer Melfi.

But Tony’s weakness, his reluctance to wipe out Phil before Phil could wipe him out, his tendency to try and use diplomacy to calm the waters whenever a brouhaha arises, may prove to be his undoing — and may give Chase an excuse to have Tony killed.

Just like the conflict rages inside Tony about whether he wants to be assertive like Michael Corleone or passive like A.J., so too does it take place in the mind of Chase, the show’s creator and executive producer.

That choice will help determine, in part at least, whether “The Sopranos” ends in a satisfying manner or not.

“Satisfying” is a relative term. Often on another HBO show, “The Wire,” storylines end bleakly. But they still satisfy, because audiences understand why they happened the way they did. There are many more shades of gray on “The Wire,” and therefore more latitude when stories are resolved.

Not so on “The Sopranos.” Tony is the hero, and Phil is the villain, just like Michael Corleone is the hero in “The Godfather” and Barzini (in cahoots with the lesser mob bosses, as well as Virgil Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey) is the villain. There is a clear-cut line.

In the mob genre, everybody is a bad guy when measured in terms of a civilized society. But when evaluated in their own malevolent sphere, there are good bad guys and bad bad guys. Michael Corleone is a good bad guy because audiences root for him. So is Tony Soprano.

With that in mind, the one outcome Sunday that would be completely unacceptable would be to have Tony die and Phil live. After all the venom Phil has spewed at Tony, that would send the “Sopranos” faithful off frustrated and angry. That wouldn’t be justice.

But that isn’t to say Tony has to live. He can die — career criminals do die, after all; it was perfectly appropriate for Tony Montana to die in a hail of gunfire at the end of “Scarface” — but Phil has to get plugged, too. It’s as simple as that.

So the entire series comes down to which way Chase wants to go. Does he want Tony to go out on top — strong, powerful, triumphant — with a Corleone-esque flourish? Or does he want Tony to be remembered as the vulnerable Melfi patient, wracked with inner turmoil and insecurity, who isn’t quite up to the task and can’t handle the responsibilities of power?

Through the course of the series, it was acceptable to have Tony alternate between both personas — until now.

Can A.J. finally step up?Going into Sunday, it’s a standoff. Tony is in hiding, so is Phil. Obviously, the series won’t end that way. Somebody will tip off somebody. In terms of pure malicious intent, Phil probably is the more qualified candidate to survive.

Perhaps in a wild-card finish, Phil will snuff out Tony, but A.J. will return the favor, exacting revenge in much the same way A.J. went after Uncle Junior with a knife when he shot Tony. Like father, like son.

Another possibility might involve the law: Remember that the freshly made truce between Tony and Johnny Sack was interrupted when the FBI raided the latter’s house, causing Tony to scurry; with Johnny Sack in prison, Phil eventually took over the New York family. The FBI could nab either Phil, or Tony, or both, before they get a chance to eliminate each other.

And there is always the chance that Little Carmine could fool everybody, show some ambition and do something other than mangle the English language. He could step in and take sides, and if he did he would probably want to rub out Phil, who presides over the larger chunk of territory.

Many fans of the show will watch the finale and walk away unsatisfied no matter what, grumbling about the Russian who got away in the Pine Barrens, or the fact that the camera never actually showed Adriana getting shot. Chase and his colleagues have never felt obligated to tie up every loose end.

But Tony’s fate is one they can’t leave dangling. They have to decide if Tony will overcome his own demons, survive the ultimate test against a worthy adversary and achieve the success he’s always wanted.

He’s the American dream personified — just like Michael Corleone. But not every dream comes true.

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.