“Each Day is a Gift” — Advice from Tony Soprano*

That’s what Tony Soprano said after miraculously surviving a gunshot in the belly as he was leaving the hospital in the third episode of the sixth season of “The Sopranos,” which ended last night. He said that, and then went about proving over the remaining 18 shows that the gifts come with strings attached, and some of them are pretty lousy.

I’ve been leading that one-day-at-a-time lifestyle ever since my 15-month sentence was pronounced back in January — with a surrender date of March 30.

I thought it would be obvious to the judicial system that I should be able to stay out of incarceration while my appeal was being considered, so I didn’t really expect I would go away on that date. Now I know that at the federal district level, asking a judge to grant bail for appeal on a case over which he presided is tantamount to asking him to second-guess his own trial rulings. Others reviewing the record might conclude judicial errors resulted in an unfair trial, but that’s not something one’s trial judge is likely to perceive.

While he considered the bail motion, the judge moved my surrender date back to April 27th. When he turned me down, that became the date I expected to have to report unless the appellate court reversed him quickly.  I started shopping for prison clothes.  But now, while the appellate court considers my request, there is no surrender date. The process has no proscribed ending.  I could find out what’s going to happen five minutes after I post this. Or, in two weeks, maybe longer. The appellate judges who will make this decision have very full plates.

If the decision goes against me, I would head off to Taft within a few weeks after that. If not, I will wait out the appeal while conducting my life — working, supporting my family, living like everyone else. There will still be an anvil over my head, but my time horizon will be a little more expansive. I won’t be a “day-to-day” guy. Maybe a “month-to-month” guy. And, if the court agrees with me, a guy whose conviction gets reversed.

Anyway, you might ask, how does this tie into “The Sopranos?”

First of all, what happened last night was about the last thing I would have expected when this 9-episode conclusion began last April 7. No I’m not talking about the sudden blackout in the middle of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that had much of America screaming their cable had gone out at the worst time. I actually predicted “no final resolution,” like Gilligan’s Island, two months ago.

No, what I mean is the fact that I got to see the final episode at all.

I envisioned my wife or one of my brothers coming to Taft to see me on visiting day, saying, “Do you really want to know? Wouldn’t you rather wait to watch the DVD after you get released?” “Well, yeah, but can you give me a hint?” Within the inmate population, I imagined there would be a no-spoiler omerta. But woe unto him who sang.

Considering that “each day is a gift,” I spent way too much time I’ll never get back this weekend on Television Without Pity’s Sopranos community site, offering up my pre- and post-show perceptions of last night’s episode and the series as a whole. Meanwhile, I’ve neglected this blog, even though lately most of my readers now go to one of my other Sopranos posts.

So here, for your consideration, are a few of the things I wrote last night and early this morning, most of them in response to posters who were furious about the indeterminate final scene. A number of the other posters on this site were expecting a bigger finish; Tony dead, or in the Witness Protection Program, or forced to endure the agony of seeing one of his children die, or his wife. Instead, onion rings, Journey, Meadow trying to parallel park and…over. So you’ll see a lot of back and forth here:

A half hour after the show was over:

OTHER POSTER: 9 Years invested in this? What kind of ending is that????

ME: It’s straight out of Larry David. No hugging. No learning. No getting whacked.

Fifteen minutes later, someone offers the theory that the blackout meant Tony was dead. He was shot by the guy who went into the men’s room. Like Phil Leotardo at the Oyster Bay gas station, Tony never saw it coming. Suddenly, consciousness just stopped and all went dark. But, as was the case with Phil, Tony’s family had to watch. At least according to the theory:

OTHER POSTER: I don’t think there is any ambiguity in the ending and it doesn’t leave the door open for anything further. A faithful viewer should take this to mean Tony is dead.

ME: This is tempting, but I think it’s false. Who ordered the hit and why? Phil’s dead. Butchie is a businessman and made an agreement not just with Tony, but also Lil’ Carmine. Business wins — that’s one of the messages of this ending.

The spoilers suggesting an insane personal revenge motive for Butchie are clearly wrong. He was fed up with Phil.

Carlo is in (Witness Protection.) The Russian’s grudge is with Paulie.

Tony’s only enemy at the moment is the federal government, which is going to grind him down like his mother ground down Johnny-boy, not shoot him in a diner.

Another poster objected that the ending was disappointing because Tony hadn’t been punished for his lifelong crime and murder spree, the proceeds of which sent his daughter to Columbia and decorated his wife with endless bling. I pointed out that his lawyer told him he was almost sure to be indicted.

Other poster: (I don’t) think it is clear that Tony has been punished…

Me: He’s going to prison. He’s going to grow old in prison. Or at least that’s what’s likely to occur. There were three possible endings.

  • Life goes on.
  • Tony gets whacked.
  • Tony gets arrested.

Chase gave us a combination of 1 and 3. What’s the problem?

Then this morning, I just riffed for awhile after reading a few dozen other posts:

ME: After sleeping on it…

Going back to Greek tragedy and Aristotle’s analysis of the structure of drama, on up to the three-act structure taught in every screenwriting class at UCLA, we know how a “play” is supposed to end.

There is no similar body of knowledge about how a TV series is supposed to end. I don’t care what David Chase or Aaron Sorkin or J.J. Abrams says, when they start one of these series, they have no idea if they’re going to get to do even a second episode, and they certainly have no clue if they’re doing 22 or 122. It all depends on factors outside their control — ratings, the actors’ careers, etc. There is no science to this, no successful model of “how to end a TV series” that Chase could consult.

Lots of beloved series from the past had no ending at all. The last episode could have been the third episode. Or they tie up one arc that started in the final season. Or they just stagger to the end, the stories having been drained of any potential long before.

The two best TV endings I can think of were of MASH and Six Feet Under. But both of those series had built-in conclusions that guided their writers. For MASH, we all know the Korean war ended, so an episode about what everybody was going to do next made perfect sense. And the way Six Feet Under focused on death made its last sequence a perfect coda: “You’ve seen Nate die, now let’s see how everyone else is going to die.”

Chase didn’t have an ending like that available to him unless he wanted to kill off Tony. Apparently, he didn’t think that ending made any sense. It would have been too easy, and it wasn’t consistent with Tony’s strengths as a character. He might be a lousy boss, but he’s a survivor, he’s strong in protecting his family, and he’s a good negotiator. All that worked in his favor. Getting (Tony) killed at the end would have felt arbitrary.

(snip)

But a lot got accomplished in this final episode. The Junior v. Tony story that started with episode 1 played out to a beautiful, sad, meaningful and ironic conclusion. Meadow and AJ’s rationalizations for staying in the orbit of their corrupt parents were organic to the story, but also perfect representation’s of Chase’s cynical view of life. That the brilliant Meadow could delude herself that her father was a victim of racism? And yet, ironically, she’s right. The state does have the power to crush the individual, and the individual needs an advocate like Meadow to have any chance. If you see it up close (I have), it’s hard to root for the FBI….

(snip)

The show also closed the loop on Tony/Melfi. Her harsh treatment of him in “Blue Comet” is reflected of course in Tony’s boo-hooing to AJ’s therapist, but I think the real end to that story is near the end, when he’s raking leaves and hears the ducks flying overhead. He seems at peace, for the moment. Maybe Melfi helped him, or maybe it was just the passage of time.

The scene in Holstein’s was a denouement. There was no more story to tell. It was Chase’s opportunity to address the audience directly. Life is dangerous, life is tense, life can be snapped away in a moment, but not necessarily this moment. The onion ring is the perfect symbol — a circle, like the roulette wheel, and an onion — layers.

Someone else pointed out that the family ate the onion rings differently than most people do. They didn’t bite into them, they swallowed them whole. First AJ, then Carmela, then Tony. Putting a piping hot onion ring in your mouth all at once can be painful. But the image of AJ, Tony and Carmela swallowing circles related for me back to the scene a couple episodes ago when Tony is on drugs, watching a roulette wheel, and says to the hooker who gave him peyote: “It works on the same principle as the solar system.”

A lot of posters hated the Journey song. They turn their noses up at Journey as a band from the depths of the 1970s, a mullet-head band. But one poster made a great connection:

OTHER POSTER: “Don’t Stop Believing” was perfect. As Chase has said, and many of us have pointed out, 90 percent of what comes out of the characters’ mouths are lies. I think the song was a nod to that trait in the characters: Don’t stop believing your own lies, because you couldn’t if you tried.

ME: Thank you. I think this is the most satisfying explanation of the final song. It’s the lies we tell ourselves that keep us doing what we’re doing — that keep despair at arm’s length. Mobsters and their families are no different from the rest of us.

It also makes sense for David Chase, the music encyclopedia, that the essence of the show’s ending would be a pop tune. If he wasn’t a TV producer, he’d be a guy who makes personalized mix CDs for everybody he knows.

The only honest character at the end? Junior. Who doesn’t remember anything and thinks he’s being talked to by aliens. But at least he doesn’t lie to Tony, and that reassures Tony that the shooting wasn’t personal.

But the debate about whether Tony was dead or not raged on. I just don’t think he is.

OTHER POSTER: The bathroom guy was at the counter when Tony came in. There is no reason why bathroom guy wouldn’t already have a gun in his pocket and do the job before Tony’s entire family came in either.

ME: I don’t think hit men whack people in crowded family diners in front of Boy Scouts and other children, after they’ve spoken to waitresses who could identify them. Someone with a firmer grasp of Mob lore might correct me, but that would seem like an idiotic place and manner to do the hit, if one was ordered. Tony arrived alone, would probably leave alone, so if it was to happen that night, it could happen while he’s driving. Or any other night, somewhere else. Tony was no longer in hiding.

Because the idea of Tony getting whacked in the diner is so illogical, I disagree that the purpose of the blackout was to make everyone speculate on what happens next. Nothing happens next.

It’s the “life goes on” ending, just edited in a more arty way.

Indeed, life goes on. It feels a little different today, however. After living inside David Chase’s head for all these hours, you start to hear yourself breathe like Tony and you feel your face tighten up into that confused squint at the absurdity of everything that happens.

I envy those, like my son, who have never watched the show. They have 86 hours of the best writing about America of this decade, performed by skilled actors and captured by brilliant cinematographers, still to watch. I’m sure I’ll see them all again sometime, but to see them for the first time…

*UPDATE: One of the finest TV critics on the Sopranos, the Newark Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall, gets the exclusive post-show interview with David Chase:

“I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there,” he says of the final scene.

“No one was trying to be audacious, honest to god,” he adds. “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.”

(snip)

One detail about the final scene that he’ll discuss, however tentatively: the selection of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” as the song on the jukebox.

“It didn’t take much time at all to pick it, but there was a lot of conversation after the fact. I did something I’d never done before: in the location van, with the crew, I was saying, ‘What do you think?’ When I said, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’,’ people went, ‘What? Oh my god!’ I said, ‘I know, I know, just give a listen,’ and little by little, people started coming around.”

Whether viewers will have a similar time-delayed reaction to the finale as a whole, Chase doesn’t know. (“I hear some people were very angry, and others were not, which is what I expected.”) He’s relaxing in France, then he’ll try to make movies.

“It’s been the greatest career experience of my life,” he says. “There’s nothing more in TV that I could say or would want to say.”

5 thoughts on ““Each Day is a Gift” — Advice from Tony Soprano*

  1. Great post and “Every day is a gift” is indeed a great quote. It reminds me of that wonderful, sad last appearance by Warren Zevon on David Letterman shortly before he died. I couldn’t find that actual video of him saying this, but it has been drilled in my soul for many years…Letterman asks something like, “Any last thoughts you have?” to which Zevon thinks for just a moment and says…”Enjoy every sandwich.” God-damn right!

    In my pursuit of this video I did find the actual last performance on that Letterman show (that occured moments after Zevon’s quote)of “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Definitely worth watching (off of YouTube)…

  2. Chase says, There’s nothing more in TV that he could say … indeed! You left the country breathless and hungry for closure. Was this by design? Of course it was. Now let’s get it over with on the big screen.

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