“He didn’t give you what you expected—instead of a Hollywood ending,” Mr. Bogdanovich said, and so the viewer was left with “any number of imaginings, so you ask, ‘What the fuck happened?’”
“David has been consistent by doing everything with a vengeance he was not allowed to do on network television, so he gave you a very ambiguous ending,” he continued. “Which is not what the American audience is used to.”
The entire business history of American television has been a conspiracy toward two ends:
a) the resolved ending, generally happy;
b) destroying ambiguity.
Life and art weren’t supposed to jibe when it came to commercial entertainment. It’s not that David Chase was the first guy to come up with ambiguity and moral relativism on TV, but he may have done it with the most vengeance of any television writer since Rod Serling.
You may have noticed that the guys in the safe house where Tony was hiding were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s a 1963 episode called “The Bard,” and it was written by Rod Serling, the patron saint of television auteurs. In it, a failed playwright summons William Shakespeare from the dead to write his TV pilot for him. Shakespeare, needless to say, sells it, then is compromised and crushed. On Mr. Chase’s soundtrack, you could hear the agent lecture the writer: “The television industry today … is preoccupied with talent, looking for quality … the television writer is a major commodity.” Television writer … commodity. It is the voice of the network slaughterer.
Now the tabloid writers are mad at him. They wanted the show to splatter. As John Candy and Joe Flaherty used to say on SCTV, they wanted it to blow up real good. Mr. Chase inspired the ire of yahoo nation by bagging and dumping what he wanted to avoid: The dark bedtime-story end of The Sopranos was in great demand, and he provided it—splattt!—under the wheels of the Phil Leotardo’s Ford Expedition.
But he also provided the first really grown-up summation in the history of American television: The subjective shot of Tony experiencing the American influx of diners at Holsten’s restaurant was news, as was his inglorious humanity. The final shot of Tony before the black, if freeze-framed, is a human image more photojournalistic than dramatic. If you have that particular device, take a look at Tony, the woolly mammoth in freeze-frame before the ice age, another human in anxious abatement in the Age of Ambiguity.
“It is the most subversive television series ever because it makes you like the monster,” said Mr. Bogdanovich, who was still mulling the last scene. “You don’t know what you’re waiting for. It’s the perfect use of suspense. You are trapped, not wanting anything to happen, but wanting something to happen. It’s very vicious. You’re left with any number of imaginings. What the fuck happened? Which shows you’re bloodthirsty also.”
We saw the two things that were preoccupying Tony: the one unambivalent relationship of his life, the adoring Meadow, his only true believer—she decided to become a lawyer when she saw her daddy taken away in cuffs!—and the assassins around him.
The Chase Gang gave us all the information we needed in the hour: indictments, threats, business, A.J., Carmela, Janice, it was all wrapped up. I was always certain that someone was going to clue Carmela in on the murder of Ade, but it didn’t happen. When Carmela entered Holsten’s, she entered in long shot, and her friendly, reassuring smile to Tony was casual and loving, but quick. A.J. entered with what looked like a potential assassin, his effective twin. But it was Meadow who received the Hitchcockian treatment of threat: Would she be able to park? Was she about to be locked in by assassins? Would she make it across Broad Street, on which she seemed to be in as much jeopardy as was Janet Leigh in Psycho?