Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of the first airing of the final episode of The Sopranos, “Made in America.” The episode’s final scene, with its infamous cut-to-black during a scene in a diner that had built up much tension, has become an iconic part of American pop culture and still inspires debate to this day.
I thought I’d take a break from writing about Mad Men to honor The Sopranos on this anniversary. I consider it a fact that there would have been no Mad Men without The Sopranos. You can argue this in a philosophical way: The Sopranos was the first show of “The Second Golden Age of Television” and paved the way for the prestige cable dramas that followed, Mad Men included. But you can also make the case from a more pragmatic standpoint. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had some television writing jobs before he joined The Sopranos for its final 34 episodes as a writer and executive producer, but it was Mad Men that got him that job––Sopranos creator David Chase read Weiner’s pilot script for Mad Men and immediately hired Weiner. Although HBO (in)famously passed on the opportunity to make Mad Men, I find it unlikely Weiner would have gotten it made anywhere if it weren’t for the boost his career received by working on The Sopranos. One can also make comparisons between the two shows for days, the most obvious of which is how the two shows structured their 13-episode seasons, and how those seasons were like books that make up a giant Great American Novel.
Now, on to “Made in America” and that final scene itself…
I don’t think Tony was killed after the events we see on screen. Although the theory espoused by the Master of Sopranos blog is very convincing, and features a great analysis of not only that final scene but the 86 hours of clues that led up to it, it’s not what I take from the scene.
The most important parts of the scene, to me, are the song “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, and A.J.’s line about remembering the times that were good. Tony at first thinks his son is being sarcastic, but A.J. reminds him that he said it once. Tony doesn’t seem to remember that (“it’s true, I guess”), but he actually did say it in the first season’s finale. The quote was also brought up by Meadow Soprano in the Season 3 finale, who thought that mom Carmela had said it. Carmela corrects her and says that her dad was the one who actually said it.
It’s a reminder that Tony desperately needs at this moment. He’s ostensibly “won” the war that had broken out between his North Jersey crime family and the Lupertazzi family from New York. Both Tony and Lupertazzi acting boss Phil Leotardo had went into hiding at the end of the previous episode. Thanks to a tip from FBI agent Dwight Harris, Tony is able to track down Phil to a gas station where he’s been making payphone calls. Phil gets popped, putting an end to the war.
Yet, Tony is extremely paranoid. Every ring of the bell at the diner, as each new customer enters, sets off his radar. He surveys the rest of the diner, especially a customer at the counter in a Members Only jacket, with suspicion. This is Tony’s life as we’ve known him since the first episode––anxious, never able to relax. He would do well to listen to his own advice about focusing on the times that are good, and to the song: don’t stop believing.
The abrupt cut to 10 seconds of black that closes out the series must mean that Tony died, right? It had to mean something, right?
I think it does mean something important to the story, something ingrained in the show as much as Tony’s much-referenced quote about remembering the good times. Only it comes from the show’s original antagonist, and the original source of Tony’s anxiety: his mother Livia. Her often-espoused philosophy about life is “it’s all a big nothing.”
As The Sopranos slid into its final run, it was clear that Tony not only hadn’t heeded his own advice, he hadn’t listened to anyone else either. He spent seven years in therapy and learned very little, unwilling to examine his self. Although Tony has won yet again, and his family is safe and intact, he can’t stop and enjoy it.
This is the way Tony’s life will continue. Despite his victories, it’s all a big nothing.
Once I get around to the Mad Men finale, 84 episodes or so from now, we’ll see that Chase’s protege, Matthew Weiner, finished his show on an equally cynical final tone.