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?

Irregular around the Margins

I’ve been a devoted follower of The Sopranos ever since I borrowed the entire first and second seasons on VHS from a friend, back in 2000. I’ve managed to see every episode since, even without having HBO, by begging, borrowing, and sometimes just showing up unannounced, uninvited at the right place at the right time. At times my desperation to see the show bordered on mania. Before Season Four began I even had a nightmare in which Tony Soprano came to me, snarling in my face, spit flying everywhere, yelling, Why the f**k don’t you have HBO? You better get it, you sad little freeloading f**k.

Ah, gotta love the sinner and hate the sin.

Now, with the fifth season in full swing, I’ve been thinking, is it really all that? Would the world end if I never saw the show again? Up until last Sunday’s episode I would have said yes.

But the episode–Irregular around the Margins–aired and blew me away. Without a doubt, it was the best episode this season and possibly the best of the past couple seasons.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the show was back to focusing on family rather than crime. After all, The Sopranos is ultimately a family drama. The rest is just window dressing. Too often this season ancillary tensions between ancillary characters have been competing with the more compelling storylines. The brewing war between Johnny Sack and Little Carmine, the sociopath Feech and his territorial piss-posts–these plots are at best distracting and at worse like watching a bunch of local villagers squabble over a goat while outside the village gates the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse silently annihilate entire civilizations.

Face it, Tony and his troubling familial relationships–the civilization of Tony–are what we come to watch: Tony’s disintegrating relationship with his wife, his distant relationship with his children, his antagonistic relationship with his sister and uncle, and now, with this episode, his uneasy reconciliation with his own nephew, Christopher, whose fiancee, Adriana, Tony had nearly slept with.

The writing of this episode was so hewn, the symbolism and allegory so finely wrought, that I think it brings into relief why cultural critics should pay attention to The Sopranos. And this depth and richness is the second reason why the show blew me away. Its incest plot and the struggle between generations–Tony versus Christopher, whom Tony is grooming to be his successor–transforms the show into something reminiscent of a Greek or Roman tragedy.

Saturn Devouring His Son, by Goya (c. 1819-1823)

In fact, I am reminded of Goya‘s disturbing masterpiece Saturn–a haunting painting of the Roman titan Saturn devouring one of his children. According to one myth, Saturn was later thrown from the heavens by Jupiter, another one of his children. No wonder Saturn wanted to devour them. But myth aside, the painting is of course allegorical. It doesn’t seem to be about war in the heavens so much as an awakening of primal savagery, the collapse of civilization and the rise of nothing but rage, revenge, and unrepressed urges.

Tony Soprano embodies this struggle between savagery and civilization–and the rise and fall of one or the other is inextricably linked to the destruction or rejuvenation of his own family. Tony recognizes this at some level and even seeks Dr. Melfi’s help. It’s a “breakthrough,” Melfi tells Tony, to recognize this struggle and even attempt to avert it.

But can he? One aspect of David Chase’s (the creator of The Sopranos) worldview crystalized in this episode, namely that we cannot control our bodies. Our bodies betray us. We see this repeatedly in “Irregular Around the Margins” in the three principle characters of the episode, Tony, Adriana, and Christopher.

Consider each character separately:

Tony has some sort of cancerous cyst removed from his scalp; this melanoma, unpredictable and unsettling, is what makes him feel “irregular around the margins.” It’s as if he cannot trust his body anymore. There’s also Tony’s casual drug use, which he could control if he tried, but he doesn’t. When Adriana offers him a line of cocaine, he smiles and says, “I won’t say no.” And finally, there’s his libidinal urge, his bodily lust for Adriana that he only keeps in check by luck. They’re interrupted right at the moment when they could kiss for the first time.

Like Tony, Adriana is a casual drug user. Well, probably more than casual. The reason she and Tony are in a car accident in the middle of the night in Dover, New Jersey, is because that’s where her dealer is. More significantly, Adriana is diagnosed in the episode with IBS–Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Meaning, she can’t control her bowels and she’s beset with painful diarrhea. Her body, quite literally, is a pile of shit.

Last season Christopher made an admirable recovery from a destructive heroin habit. The first four episodes of the fifth season Christopher had been stone cold sober. On edge and quarrelsome, but sober–no booze, no drugs, nothing but cigarettes. It doesn’t last. Hearing the rumor that Adriana had been out in Dover having sex with Tony when the accident occurred–a false rumor, it turns out, although maybe the car wreck was the only thing that stopped the liaison from happening–hearing this rumor, Christopher throws Adriana out and quickly grabs the nearest alcohol he can find, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka Adriana had hidden in the freezer. Once again, in Christopher’s relapse we find a body that cannot control itself, an urge that cannot bear repression.

Alongside Goya’s Saturn, there is another cultural reference this episode calls to mind. It’s the car wreck–I can’t help but think of the last lines of William Carlos William’s damning critique of American postwar culture, the poem “To Elsie.” The poem begins with the ambiguous line,

The pure products of America
go crazy…

And it ends with these despairing verses:

the stifling heat of September
it seems to destroy us

It is only in isolate flecks that
is given off

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

No one to drive the car, Williams says. No one is in control, The Sopranos says.