Throughout the run of “The Sopranos,” Tony constantly pulled viewers in opposite directions. He was a devoted family man, but he had two families: the one that included wife Carmela, daughter Meadow and son Anthony, Jr., and the one that consisted of Jersey mugs, thugs and roughnecks like Christopher, Paulie and Silvio.
For many, his involvement with the brutish clan revealed his true colors. He was a sociopath who committed murder when necessary and slept well afterward. That was the real Tony Soprano, many insist, the one Dr. Jennifer Melfi eventually realized was beyond therapy in the penultimate episode of the series.
But while the finale ended abruptly, frustrating many and foiling prognosticators — perhaps David Chase is a fan of the 1999 John Sayles film, “Limbo”— it left the show’s audience with an appropriate and lasting image: a man sitting down to enjoy comfort food at a local eatery with his wife and kids. No matter the speculation as to Tony’s eventual fate — a whacking at the hands of a shadowy enemy, a forceful arrest by the Feds, or maybe just dessert, coffee and then home to catch a good movie on DVD — the final scene reinforced Tony’s more admirable side, and made sure that the show’s indelible family portrait was done with love instead of blood.
Again, that’s not to say that in the mind of series creator and executive producer Chase there wasn’t a more tragic end in store for Tony. Certainly Chase must have shot more than one ending, and held this one like an ace up his sleeve.
But the fact that the series finale ended with Tony breaking bread with Carmela, Meadow and A.J. almost suggests that it doesn’t matter what happens next. Tony managed to survive this long in an unforgiving business in which retirement doesn’t mean a gold watch and a pension. The family that was around him in that restaurant was the only family that mattered.
For viewers, it might have been hair-pulling time. But for Tony, it was a happy ending.
Just think about life from his point of view. First of all, his marriage remained intact. Roughly half of the marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Then when you add Tony’s repeated philandering, the constant scrutiny by the FBI, the everyday danger of mob life and the strain of two headstrong children, along with never being sure where your next brick of unmarked $100 bills is coming from, the Tony-Carmela union seemed doomed.
Throughout the series, Tony seemed destined to ruin a good thing. Although Carmela was intensely loyal, she had her limits. She couldn’t stand the humiliation of watching a conga line of goomahs parade through her life, and his bursts of anger had to be terrifying to her.
Yet miracle of miracles, she kept coming back. The marriage withstood much more pressure than most. The fact that Tony was able to work through his marital problems and convince Carmela to stick around was far more important to him than winning a turf war with Phil Leotardo.
The series, which debuted in 1999, did not take place while the kids were pre-schoolers, but rather when they were both going through the most tumultuous periods of their young lives. That often put Tony’s parenting skills, which were not always textbook, to the test. But for every explosion of rage over something that A.J. did or Meadow said, there was a period of calm in which he conferred with Carmela and charted a reasonable course of action.
The final episode was a perfect example. Instead of berating A.J. about his decision to join the military, Tony shrewdly arranged for his son to get a job in the movies. That wasn’t a bloodthirsty gangster issuing a command to someone in his orbit but rather a concerned father who has learned over the years how to maneuver around his willful children.
Tony the boss really didn’t change all that much since the beginning of the show. From the pilot, when he mercilessly beat a deadbeat gambler until the bone stuck out of his leg, to the predatory act of squeezing a friend who owned a sporting-goods store and was unlucky at cards, to breaking the teeth of one of Phil’s henchmen this season after the guy harassed Meadow — not to mention the various killings, both planned (Big Pussy) and unplanned (Ralphie) — Tony had no compunction about using violence in the course of his work.
But maybe if there was a difference in him, it was in the frequency of such acts. As the series progressed, his actions reflected a man who was growing slightly weary of it all, and therefore increasingly looked to solve problems with sit-downs before they erupted into full-fledged conflagrations. His dealings with the late Johnny Sack was a study in diplomacy, to the point where he blasted his own cousin in the face with a shotgun to make peace. Perhaps the Tony Soprano of the first season might have told Phil where he could stick the remains of his dead brother before he would ever kowtow.
Finally, there was Tony the patient. Over the years, his work with Dr. Melfi may have seemed as if it had gone for naught. But it allowed him to gain an understanding of why he was the way he was. He developed an awareness of the damage caused to him by his mother Livia. He came to grips with his love-hate relationship with Uncle Junior, the evidence coming in the series finale when he relented and visited him in the home to warn him to protect his assets, only to find out that Uncle Junior isn’t really Uncle Junior anymore.
Tony realized that his father suffered from depression and panic attacks, and not only did he inherit that curse but he may have passed it on to A.J. He learned to bob and weave to counter the conniving ways of his sister Janice, who was Livia Lite.
Most of all, he learned that he was lucky to be alive and have his family around him. That’s the Tony Soprano people will remember most.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.