The Sopranos has come to a conclusion, not with a bang or a whimper, but with the sudden ending of what must be one of the tensest imaginable scenes of a family gathering in a restaurant.
The attention this week has focused on that final scene, with everyone either expressing anger or trying to figure out what that abrupt cut to a black screen really meant. Those are interesting conversations, clearly the kind the show’s producers intended to create. But I’d prefer to focus not on the ending but to pay tribute to one of the finest television series of all time. It’s a show that posed, again and again, a basic question: Where is our moral compass?
And it did so gracefully. The Sopranos should be celebrated for its artistic merits alone. Its writing at times approached the brilliance of great literature, since the producers were content to suggest meanings rather then cram them down the viewer’s throat. David Chase, the show’s creator and executive producer, felt no need to wrap up every storyline or explain every detail, instead allowing for great interpretation of the material.
It’s also an important show because it choose to show the criminal life in all its filthy truth. The 1972 film The Godfather has created controversy over the years for portraying mobsters as being noble beings living by a code of honor. Time and again, The Sopranos has created fascinating characters and allowed us to indulge our fascination with the Mob – and show the Mob’s fascination with its own glamorous image – while always reminding us that these are animals, who would as soon kill you as look at you.
However, the real power of the series is its portrayal of an American middle class family struggling with contemporary issues and, as it struggles, falling prey to self-deception and anxiety. Tony Soprano is constantly chasing money, trying to pay for the huge house, the fancy cars, the college tuition. His wife Carmela frets that if Tony is killed or arrested, she will have no means to support herself, leading her into an ill-advised real estate development venture. Their children Meadow and A.J. struggle with living in the shadow of a notorious father, but still expect a comfortable life to be given to them.
So, even though this is a story of lawlessness and a culture based in larceny, murder and mayhem – literally – it feels like a part of modern capitalism: the good life in the suburbs. Even as the facade of Soprano domestic bliss crumbled, there was always a struggle to maintain the illusion. Carmela, who at one point seriously contemplated leaving Tony, made the choice to keep her lifestyle and close her eyes to the morality of it all. Daughter Meadow used to rail at her father for his sins and ends up becoming a defense lawyer because of the perceived injustice of his “persecution” at the hands of the law. Son A.J.was too mentally weak and emotionally fragile to either follow in his father’s criminal path or to build a new life of his own; he finally swore he saw through the whole masquerade of our society, built on lies and blood, but then succumbed to an easy job and a new car.
Even the authorities were no better. A state assemblyman and a former civil rights activist were caught up in the corruption. Tony’s formidable FBI foe Agent Dwight Harris got reassigned to chase the supposedly more important target of terrorists, but it’s never clear that his actions ever added up to any value. When Harris gets the news that Phil Leotardo has been killed, as a direct result of information from Harris obtained while committing adultery, he yells: “Damn, we’re gonna win this thing!”
The Sopranos portrays a world where people lie to others and can’t stop lying to themselves. A world in which people make the most selfish of decisions, while proclaiming the selflessness of their actions. A world filled with people seeking meaning, but ultimately settling to numb themselves with materialistic pleasures. Can we watch this program as mere entertainment, happy in the knowledge that its event are far from our own lives? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Because, God forbid, we might otherwise get that sinking sense of recognition of ourselves.