It was an ending that, if nothing else, had millions on their feet. In what may be the first case of finalus interruptus, David Chase, faced with deciding between a bang and a whimper, chose neither. Instead the creator of "The Sopranos" decided to fool millions of Americans into believing their cable had gone out for possibly the most important moment in the history of televised drama.
The final scene of the final episode of "The Sopranos" had all the elements of traditional climax down to the benign plate of onion rings Tony "ordered for the table." As the Soprano family gathered in a diner, the light was mellow, the talk was mundane and Tony (James Gandolfini) kept one eye on the door, watching any number of possible assassins or smug federal agents as they poured sugar in their coffee or visited the men's room (possibly to retrieve, a la "The Godfather," their weapons cache). Then, just as Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) joined the group, and the tension became virtually unbearable -- szzzz. Blank screen.
For several agonizing moments, America was united ... in uttering every profanity known to man as millions of hands reached for millions of remotes, while partners and friends yelled, "No, no, don't touch it!"
Then, silently, the credits began to roll and somewhere Chase was, no doubt, having a pretty good laugh.
Not a predictable way to end what is now constantly referred to as the most significant television show ever, but then Chase has reveled in his unpredictability from the start. Certainly the show's setup -- a depressed mob boss seeks solace in psychotherapy -- was a bit off-template. And through the eight years the show has ruled cable, Chase has consistently refused to bend for dramatic convention; the creation of characters and situations that rose to shuddering heights only to disappear two beats before climax has become one of his hallmarks. The Russian mobster simply disappeared into the snow; this season Little Vito seemed primed to "go Columbine" only to vanish from the scene.
In the previous episode, Chase summarily dispensed with the beloved Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) through a rat-a-tat series of ridiculous events that had the psychiatric community in an uproar last week -- no self-respecting shrink would allow herself to be conned, at a stupid dinner party, into believing that all those years were worthless. And fans wondered whether Chase and his writers had forgotten what it was they had loved about the show in the first place.
So after the initial heart palpitations have slowed, the surprise ending does not seem quite so surprising. The episode that led up to it, that alleged final episode ever, was workaday "Sopranos." Or as workaday as it could be with Bobby dead, Sil almost dead, and the Feds apparently working a turncoat. Rapt viewers analyzed every detail, from the look on Paulie's (Tony Sirico) face after Tony asked him to take over Carlo's operation, to the songs on the jukebox in the final scene.
Chase wrote the episode alone, and he was clearly enjoying himself, playing on the fact that people had their own expectations -- odds were Tony would get whacked -- and would bring to these details what they wanted to bring. He even managed to insert a little lecture about the downtrodden scriptwriter through an old "Twilight Zone" episode playing in the background of one scene.
Much of the narrative dealt with the state of that interminable whiner A.J. (Robert Iler). As he prepared to commit statutory rape (his girlfriend is a junior in high school), his car caught fire and he experienced, he told his therapist, the thrill of destruction. Tony, of course, was furious because he had already told A.J. the danger of parking the SUV in leaves -- "you could grill a steak on that converter." The things that haunted Tony for the last eight episodes were suddenly nonexistent. Christopher's death had improved his gambling luck (though he had picked up a stray cat that did nothing but stare at Chris' picture). He even came to some sort of terms with Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), a man bitter even without his memories. "The two of you ran North Jersey," Tony told Junior. "Did we? That's nice," Junior answered before gazing blankly out the window.