"Lately," Tony Soprano mused plaintively to the boys in the backroom at the Bing in the very first episode in 1999, "I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end." Eight years later, a lot of viewers have the feeling that they left The Sopranos in the middle after the startling blackout that ended the series finale Sunday.
Guess what? That was exactly the point. Sopranos producer David Chase reasons that life doesn't come tied up with neat little bows, and neither should a TV show that aspires to a reasonable imitation of life. Did Tony look wary and a little bit anxious in that final moment on screen? Well, that's life as a mobster. You never know what's coming through the door: a hit man with a pistol, a prosecutor with an arrest warrant, or a stupid son with a crackbrain scheme to learn Arabic off DVDs and then head to Afghanistan to win hearts and minds. You want to know what really happened in those blacked out eight seconds? The answer is in the old Journey song that Tony played on the jukebox during the final scene, Don't Stop Believing:
Working hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Paying anything to roll the dice
Just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on...
That's what happened in the final eight seconds-- life went on. We don't know exactly which way, but we got a rough roadmap during the previous hour:
** The grief that ravaged Tony's sister Janice after her husband Bobby Bacala seemed authentic -- she looked wan and wasted when Tony visited her -- but you could already see her conniving Livia-lite soul starting to mend itself. When she turned down Tony's offer of a pastry with a morbid wisecrack -- "Need to watch my weight. Need to snag another husband" -- it didn't seem entirely like a joke.
** A.J.'s fixation on suicide bombers, like his earlier fascination with Nietzsche and flirtation with junior mobsterhood, turned out to be shallow and short-lived. One minute he was ranting that the American dream has been replaced with bling; the next, he's happily wheeling around in the new Beamer with which Mommy and Daddy have bribed him.
** Paulie Walnuts wasn't the traitor I expected, just the same superstitious fool, fretting that he once had a vision of the Virgin Mary at the Bing (and what marvelous restraint Chase showed in not depicting it in a dream sequence with the Blessed Virgin working the pole) and worrying that a stray cat was the reincarnation of Christopher Moltisanti. Though the cat was a little weird, and the vision of Christopher spending an eternity eating mice has a certain attraction.
** Tony had a sort of reincarnation experience of his own during a family-counseling visit with A.J.'s therapist, whose short skirts and shapely but primly crossed legs certainly recalled Dr. Melfi's. Therapy whore Tony quickly refocused the session from A.J. to himself ("I could never please my mother...") while Carmela rolled her eyes.
In short, little has changed in the world of The Sopranos in eight years. People die, of course -- sometimes in immensely satisfying ways, as Phil Leotardo discovered Sunday night -- but everybody and everything else goes on pretty much the same, older, a little worse for the ware, but only rarely much wiser.
Tony did seem to absorb one lesson. In a visit to Uncle Junior, now warehoused in a seedy mental facility, Tony realized for the first time that Junior wasn't faking his senility. Junior literally had forgotten his own life. "This thing of ours?" murmured Tony, prompting Junior with gangster jargon for the Mafia. "I was involved with that?" replied the confused old man. Everything passes and dies, even The Sopranos.
Final scorecard: One shooting and one skull crushed like an egg by a runaway SUV. And they both happened to the same guy, giving Phil Leotardo the undisputed record for most lurid demise ever on The Sopranos, though for a minute it looked like it wouldn't stand long. But A.J. and his new girlfriend Rhiannon barely escaped being cooked to death in an SUV while having sex. Man, A.J. can't do anything right.
Sunday night's biggest loser: Carmela, maybe. Did you see her face tighten at the casual mention that a local political hack had been indicted for construction flim-flammery? That wouldn't have anything to do with those houses Carmela has been rehabbing, would it? Wouldn't it be ironic if, after some future prison conjugal visit, Tony is the spouse who goes home?
Sunday night's biggest winner: A.J. Not only did he not ship out for Afghanistan or become a fornicating french fry, his parents got him a junior executive deal to work on a Carmine Lupertazzi-financed movie about virtual hookers being murdered on the Internet. My prediction: It will turn out to be The Sopranos movie sequel, and David Chase will wind up working for A.J. Talk about bad karma.