A collective ‘‘Huh?’’ could be heard in HBO homes across the country last night, as ‘‘The Sopranos’’ left the air with a major fake-out — a nonending ending. The final seconds of the final episode of TV’s best-ever drama series surely confused and angered some fans, while striking others as just exactly perfect.
Essentially, creator David Chase, who wrote and directed the episode, left the ending entirely up to us, the viewers. Before anything conclusive happened — before Tony, Carmela, Meadow, and/or A.J. got shot in retribution for the death of New York mob boss Phil Leotardo, the screen cut to pitch black. The silent dark seemed to last forever, until the credits started to roll, and viewers knew for certain that their TVs were not on the blink.
‘‘Fill in the blank,’’ Chase seemed to be saying to us. ‘‘It’s up to you. If you want Tony Soprano punished for a life of murder, adultery, and narcissism, imagine gunshots and blood spatter. If you want Tony saved, save him.’’
Throughout the series, ‘‘The Sopranos’’ has toyed with viewers’ feelings about whether or not Tony could be redeemed — a mission that his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi gave up on last week when, in an emotionally violent scene, she told Tony to leave her practice. Last night, Chase allowed each of us to make our own decision about the ultimate fate of his controversial antihero.
One strength of ‘‘The Sopranos’’ is the way it forced us to think. The show never spelled out its plot lines, its characters’ motivations, or its moral questions. It never pampered viewers with easy answers; it egged us on to analyze and project. And so the finale, while mysterious, was true to the series as a whole. Rather than an ending that would stop the conversation about Tony Soprano, Chase gave us an ending that will keep us talking.
The last minutes of the episode appeared to be building up to a classic mob hit in a restaurant. As Tony and his family gathered one by one for dinner, strangers in the restaurant began to look suspicious. The suspense accumulated beautifully. The sheer ordinariness at the table — Tony picking out music on the jukebox, A.J. ordering onion rings — became unnerving as we waited for action. As Meadow struggled to park, the tension was unbearable. And then: nothing. Just another Soprano dinner? Or the end of the line?
The entire episode found life returning to something like normal for the Sopranos after last week’s massacre, in which Tony’s brother-in-law Bobby, among others, was killed. Traditionally, Chase has structured his storytelling so that the seasons’ penultimate episodes have tended to be more eventful. Last night, a number of potential big events looked like they might happen, and then didn’t. It was an hour of tension and release.
It looked like the FBI was moving in, as we saw them recording phone calls and filming Bobby’s funeral. But nothing came of that, and Tony’s favorite FBI agent actually helped Tony locate Phil, whose death was classic ‘‘Sopranos’’ comedy as his wife’s SUV rolled uncontrollably over his head. It looked like A.J. was going to join the Army, after thinking too much about that ‘‘rough beast’’ predicted by Yeats — whom he pronounced ‘‘Yeets.’’ Instead, his parents bribed him into a film-related job that could lead to a career running a nightclub. It looked like A.J. was going to die when his SUV exploded, while the dramatic ‘‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’’ played on the car stereo. But then he survived to live another day — and drive a slick BMW.
Indeed, for much of the hour, it looked like the final zing of the show would involve A.J., as the narrative kept returning to him. The scenes with A.J.’s therapist were comic, in the way they mirrored Tony’s sessions with Dr. Melfi. The room was similarly framed by the camera, with A.J.’s therapist’s legs as prominent as Melfi’s were with Tony. Later in the episode, Tony responds to A.J.’s therapist as he did to Melfi, looking for pity: ‘‘I never could please my mudder,’’ he told her, while Carmela rolled her eyes.
And then at other times, it looked as though Paulie might make a move on Tony, given his guilt at Tony’s offer of a promotion. But it all came down to the Sopranos getting together for another meal, as they have so often through so many dramas. And then: Black. Not even fade to black.
Ending a series with such profound ambiguity is not typical for television. It’s the kind of bold, artful touch we usually expect to find at the movies. Indeed, since its 1999 premiere, ‘‘The Sopranos’’ gave series television a boost in stature that put it up there with the quintessential American art form, the movies.
Through the 86 episodes, ‘‘The Sopranos’’ was a drama that could withstand the impassioned scrutiny formerly reserved for film. Thanks to dazzling camerawork, revelatory acting, and psychologically rich scripting, creator Chase’s series earned the respect and analysis generally accorded to works by movie auteurs such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. The show earned breakthrough ratings for a pay-cable network, as well as 18 Emmy awards.
‘‘The Sopranos’’ has never played by the rules of TV, and last night was no exception.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.