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TODAY

Monday, September 16

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Airbags

Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that The Sopranos closed its final season with a controversial ending. As Tony waited for his family to join him at a diner, the mobster chose Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" from the table jukebox as apparent danger loomed on the face of every customer. Who was that guy in the Members Only jacket? And that pair of guys over there? Should Tony keep an eye out for the feds? Why can't Meadow parallel park? (She'd never survive in Chicago.) As the door opened and Tony looked up, Steve Perry sang, "Don't stop—" and the screen went dark. No fade to black here, but a sharp visual and audial slash that lasted for 10 full seconds before the credits rolled. After the initial panic of thinking the cable cut out or the TiVo screwed up again, the audience sat stunned. Two weeks later, people are still discussing the series finale of the lauded HBO show with the intensity and detail of the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy theories and varied interpretations battle for dominance as each side presents vast amounts of minutia to support their viewpoint. And people couldn't decide if it was a brilliant ending or a deliberate "screw you" to the fans.

(Full disclosure: I didn't see the episode. I've watched the first three seasons... maybe four... a few years ago. Some may think I should revoke my Pop Culture Membership Card for not slavishly following this acclaimed series, but keep in mind that I also don't give a hang for American Idol. If you want to read another Gapers Block take, go to Rasmin Canon's love note here.)

Sopranos creator David Chase granted a single post-airing interview in which he said:

I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there. No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God. We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds, or thinking, ‘Wow, this'll (tick) them off.' People get the impression that you're trying to (mess) with them and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them.

He denied that the open-ended scene was groundwork for a movie and insisted, "Anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there."

Chase is hardly the first writer to refuse to clarify his vision. Creepy mastermind David Lynch is notorious for refusing to offer any explanations of his ouevre, preferring to leave all interpretations to the viewer. The mutant baby in Eraserhead, the severed ear in Blue Velvet and that weird-ass dwarf in Twin Peaks could mean anything. Or nothing. Playwright Harold Pinter rarely offers answers, once cheekily commenting that his work was about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet." And Samuel Beckett wrote, "My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them."

So why were so many fans upset by the ending? Some saw it as a slap in the face, others as if they themselves had been whacked. It was an insult to loyal viewers to leave so many strings hanging. Other christened it as brilliant, arguing that real life is messy, not tied up in a bow. Why should The Sopranos, hailed for its realism in family and social dynamics, be different? One vocal supporter was Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore. On his blog, Moore gushed:

Yep, that's it. He really did it. The man has guts. No, that's not enough. The man has balls the size of Volkswagens.... Chase managed to do the unthinkable, the unbelievable and the unprecedented: he yanked us out of their lives without any resolution whatsoever.... The Sopranos are gone from our lives, but their lives go on without resolution, much like ours. None of us have tidy, revelatory endings that are the culmination of our "story arcs" and neither will they.... Oh, I'm sure there are those who will bemoan the lack of resolution to the story or that Chase has somehow "robbed the fans" but I'm a fan and I'm ecstatic. I'm glad he thumbed his nose at the tyranny of the narrative drive to bring things to a tidy conclusion so we can all clap and walk away without another thought about that mob family in Jersey, satisfied that all's well that ends well. Screw that.

So is Tony dead? Did he decide to join witness protection? Or is he still running the crew, cheating on Carmella, and bitchslapping A.J.? Actor James Gandolfini said he had "no idea what happened to Tony. You have to ask David Chase that. Smarter minds than mine know the answer to that. I thought it was a great ending. You decide." Originally, Chase wanted the final pause to be 30 seconds long, and I wonder if the furor over "dead air" would have risen exponentially. Most likely. If I've learned anything from my years online, it's that certain television fans possess a raging sense of entitlement about "their" characters and shows.

My opinion: I certainly agree it was ballsy — maybe even more than Volkswagen-sized ballsy — to not only end a series with a giant question mark but also to refuse to spoon feed a determined outcome to an audience predetermined to nitpick and dissect whatever ending materialized. Chase couldn't please everyone, so in the end he decided to finish the show on his terms. It's the ultimate pop culture Rorschach test: each person interprets it differently by projecting their emotions and expectations against the blank, black screen. Was it a "fuck you" to the fans? Take a closer look at that inky television. What you see is up to you.

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About the Author(s)

As a child, Dee Stiffler was only allowed to watch one hour of television a day. She usually chose Sesame Street. Today, she overcompensates by knowing far too much about the WB's lineup as well as pop culture in general. Email her at pop@gapersblock.com.

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