I’m so excited to be bringing up “The Sopranos” finale again . . . is something I would only say in irony. There really is no point in re-litigating whether The Great Blackout of 2007 signaled a forthcoming mob hit, or whether it indicated that “life goes on” tensely, or whether, as I feel, it was inviting viewers to project their own decision on the fate of this morally bankrupt mobster.
But the ongoing message of The Great Blackout is clear: A lot of people are deeply invested in tidy endings. We like them happy, we like them sad, we like them tied up in a bow like a Charles Dickens denouement or the “Six Feet Under” super-ultra-windup, and we like them categorical. We like endings to be on time and definitive, and when they’re not, we can spend some 13 years and miles of Internet scroll trying to nail them down once and for all. Faced with a void, we become annoyed. Right after the blackout, “Sopranos” fans on HBO’s website were calling it “pathetic” and the “absolute WORST ENDING!!!!” Many who loved the series for years were entirely ready to recant.
The reason I’m thinking about the blackout, along with Alan Ball’s “Six Feet Under” ending-of-all-endings at the other end of the finality spectrum, is the difficulty posed by Nov. 3 — the date some called Election Day, and others called the beginning of the election results period. It was difficult for many Americans to get their heads around the fact that there would not be a definitive ending by Nov. 4, that the vote-counting would continue for days and possibly weeks, in no small part due to record-breaking mail-in and advance voting because of the pandemic. Obviously there were other anxieties in play — about voter intimidation, to name just one — but the lack of a swift, neat result was certainly among them.
In those three long days between the night of Nov. 3 and the morning of Nov. 7, when Joe Biden’s win was called by the networks, the discomfort was palpable. Real life was not cooperating with our natural urge for a punctual endpoint. Even though we’d been prepared by officials and media outlets for a waiting period, even though we knew — as we knew back in 2000 — that there would be a winner by the end of the year, still we longed for the end of the story ASAP. Our instinct for closure reared its head. One of the big reasons novels by the likes of Dickens and Austen feel so comforting, even when they contain themes of poverty and injustice, is they gift us with solid endings, with everything tied up neatly.
In the decades of Golden Age TV, we’ve seen more use of the ambiguous ending, though perhaps not anything quite as conclusively inconclusive as “The Sopranos.” And these ambiguous finales present viewers with their own challenges. I’ve come to embrace them, particularly when they are deployed on shows that consistently aimed for realism, but I usually hear from readers when a show leaves loose ends. I don’t mind when the writers let us imagine what might have happened — on “Parks and Recreation,” for example, where we were led to understand that either Ben or Leslie wound up becoming president. That’s a fun question to explore, and clearly intentional on the part of show creator Mike Schur. Likewise the end of “Mad Men,” where show creator Matthew Weiner left Don’s personal life — which we followed for seven seasons — unresolved, but let us know that his professional life would continue to thrive, as the 1970s arrived, with the famous Coca-Cola commercial.
But many viewers are unsettled when everything is not spelled out for them. My feeling is that we generally crave hard and fast endings in our written stories because we so often don’t get them when it comes to our own life stories. Life is loaded up with ambiguities and interminable uncertainties. It’s incomplete for as long as we live, in a way. These scripted endings allow us to feel the satisfactions of full resolution. We want the conclusions now, they make us feel good. But they don’t always arrive, and they don’t always arrive on time.