Tony Soprano Did Not Get Whacked

It seems that public opinion is shifting toward the idea that Tony Soprano was whacked in The Sopranos series finale after the screen went black. That possibility can never entirely be ruled out, which is part of the brilliance of the abrupt, unsatisfying final seconds of the series.

I want to suggest, however, that the blank screen signifies something other than Tony’s death.

In fact, the final seconds of a black screen forever hold Tony’s death in abeyance. It can never happen now. But more fundamentally, the sudden disruption of the Journey song, the disconcerting jump cut to the black screen—these remind us that we are watching television, that our visit with Tony has been mediated all along. Think of the the sudden silence and black screen as a kind of Brechtian moment of estrangement, shocking the viewer out of the usual mode of passive consumption.

We might think of the entire episode (called “Made in America”) as a contemplation upon the habits of the television-watching public. Upon a second viewing, this theory seems obvious, as multiple times we either catch characters on The Sopranos watching television themselves or we the viewers are forced to watch a TV within a TV:

What to make of all this, aside from the commonplace grievance that our lives are mediated, that representation has replaced reality? I think Chase is doing something far more politically charged here. Note that the final shot of a television shows President Bush, famously dancing in April 2007. Chase is clearly mocking Bush, who becomes a Nero figure, fiddling while Rome burns to the ground. When you consider the dozens of references to the War in Iraq and the deadly SUVs in this episode (the Ford Expedition smashing Leotardo’s skull and A.J.’s firebomb of an Xterra), it doesn’t take much to imagine that Chase is making some very serious indictments about American arrogance and American hypocrisy, embodied in everyone from President Bush down to Anthony Soprano, Jr.

Add in the fact that the only things the characters watch more intently in this episode than television sets are gas stations (where Leotardo might use a pay phone), and we have an explicit political statement about Bush’s follies abroad:

The juxtaposition of the American flag and the Gulf truck is surely intentional. As is the display of the American flag every other time in the episode a gas station appears.

Chase seems to be proposing an antidote to the Bush administration’s own mediation of itself, which links Bush to patriotism by always placing him near a Stars and Stripes.

By replacing Bush with the gas station, Chase lays bare the nature of the relationship between the United States and the War in Iraq. It is about oil.

But to say this is to say nothing new. So Chase makes it fresh by making it subtle. He again catches us off guard—so focused are we on those 11 seconds of black space where Tony and his family should be at the end of the episode, we do not recognize what’s really going on. Instead of asking what happens to Tony, we should be asking why are there seven flags at this gas station?

Word Clouds for the State of the Union

Pattern Recognition has a word cloud for Bush’s State of the Union address, in which words are weighted according to frequency. So, “terrorism” and “security” appear very, very bold, because Bush mentioned them time and time again in his address. And the word “plan” is much smaller, indicating that it was rarely used in Bush’s speech. And some words that you would think might occur in his national address (say, “New Orleans” or “Katrina”) do not appear at all in the cloud.

While this word cloud is a great visual clue to what we might consider the president’s working vocabulary, I think more can be gleaned by comparing multiple clouds. For example, let’s look at Bush’s 2001 State of the Union, given just months after he lost the popular vote:

additional america americans billion budget care children country debt earn education energy families federal freedom fund government health hope important income increase medicare meet military money nation needs pay people percent plan programs promote rate reading reform relief save schools security social spending support tax test tonight work years yet

created at

Here you can see the top 50 words in Bush’s 2001 State of the Union. The word “terrorism” doesn’t even register. Neither does “oil”–which is one of the top 50 words in this year’s speech. Instead, we have domestically-oriented words, like “schools,” “energy”, and “budget.” Iraq isn’t on the radar screen either. So, what we have is a snapshot of Bush’s pre-9/11 policy, one that betrays no hint of the grievous domestic and foreign blunders Bush is soon to make.

Now look at Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, delivered just months after the 9/11 attacks:

11th afghanistan allies america american best budget camps children citizens congress corps country depend destruction develop evil free freedom health homeland hope increase jobs join lives months nation opportunity people protect regimes retirement security states tax terror terrorist terrorists thousands tonight training united war weapons women work workers world yet

created at

“Terror” and “Terrorism” bump up into the top 50. “Afghanistan” is there, too (note that it’s not in the most recent address, even though the war there still rages on, and bin Laden is still at large). The word “weapon” now makes an appearance too, foreshadowing the rhetoric of “weapons of mass destruction” that will soon be used to justify the war in Iraq. As for “Iraq” itself, the word doesn’t crack the top 50 in 2002, even though we now know that the idea of invading Iraq was already a routine topic of discussion behind closed doors at the White House.

Of course, word clouds on their own provide no context, so the prevalence of any given word doesn’t tell you what the speaker is saying about that word, whether it’s being used with a positive valence or negative valence. But a word cloud certainly does give you an idea of what the limits of any given text are–what it includes and excludes, and therefore, what ideas are on the table and which are not. Funny, the word–and therefore the concept–“peace” never appears on the table. Neither does “diplomacy.” It’s as if both the end and the means to what we really need to accomplish in the world are missing.

Remembering Shock and Awe et al.

I was going through a desk drawer yesterday and I found a wrinkled piece of scrap paper, which goes back to the spring of 2003. It was the early days of the Iraq War, and I had jotted down some phrases which I was hearing over and over again on the radio and tv. Looking at the list now, I think, what an innocent, nostalgic time it was.

The list seems almost quaint now. Who can forget the wonderful poetry of “shock and awe”? — Well, apparently almost everyone. It seems like a hollowed out slogan from some bygone era, like “I like Ike” or “Remember the Maine.”

    secure undisclosed location
    Coalition of the willing
    shock and awe
    target of opportunity
    credible threat
    protective custody
    increased chatter

Oh, those were the days.