Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Don't stop. . .

(It's another Sopranos finale post, so stay away if you STILL haven't watched it or haven't been spoiled by the attendant media hype. -- ed.)

Far be it from me to provoke SDD's friendly local curmudgeon Wax Banks, but the Sopranos finale has put me in mind of a post he wrote back in March about the end of Angel of all things. The last episode of Angel, as you might recall, ended with the characters about to enter the biggest battle of their lives. Angel and his crew raced toward the camera, toward the demon hordes and the big dragon and. . .the series cut to credits for the last time ever. Fans complained that this was an unbearable cliffhanger (and, indeed, a piece last season on the worst finales of all time listed Angel's as one), since we didn't find out who lived and who died. But creator Joss Whedon had known his show wouldn't go on for long enough in advance to write what he believed would be a satisfactory conclusion. And it was. It expressed one of the series' biggest themes -- the fight (to find redemption, to save the world, to just go on living) always goes on -- succinctly and in one shot. If you've seen The Sopranos finale, you see where I'm going with this.

Wax writes:

So what makes an enjoyable story? That's the thing: tons of stuff. We dig allusion, momentum, rhetorical cleverness, sonority, relatability, simplicity, comfort, thrills, critical insight. The best stories, I think, combine a number of these pleasures and play them off one another. I enjoy the formal wackiness of Ulysses, but I love the story of Leopold and Molly; the formal devices distance the reader from the human reality, for the most part, but it's not like you complain, because you're being taught to want something else, an encyclopedic experience. I want their marriage to work out, but it's not important to find out whether it actually does; what's importance is the reader's gift to Joyce's characters (sympathy) in exchange for Joyce's writerly offering (empathy, relatability), facilitated by the transporting beauty of the form. The reader is brought to that offering by a pattern of frustrated desire. Very simple example: we want to know what happens to Stephen, as well, but the story leaves him behind temporarily after three chapters, and though we trust that Joyce will get to the damn point already, the shift in perspective leaves our expectations confounded somewhat. The 'Telemachiad' climaxes with Stephen's reverie on the beach, and by shifting to comparatively flat narration for the start of Bloom's day, Joyce sets up curiosity, resentment, and (especially) a feeling that his story is prosaic in comparison to the loftiness of Stephen's dialogue with the cosmos - a feeling Joyce slowly does away with, as Bloom's character grows fuller and richer over the course of the day. He wins, you know - after a fashion. And you're happy for him. In part because of where you started.

There's no 'correct' way to desire a story-outcome. Stories offer an opportunity to engage with new desire and the author's work is, in part, to anticipate those desires and deal with them (sometimes by refusing to acknowledge them). But this isn't done consciously. That's why you can't write a novel with a Mad-Libs book.

So now then. . .(oh, and read the rest of Wax's excellent and fascinating post right here -- he'll make a lot of the same points as I will)

One can't say that the ending of The Sopranos wasn't in keeping with the series's themes and concerns. By now, you've either seen it or read a lengthy description of it elsewhere, so I'll just talk about it in brief. Tony sits in a restaurant. He flips through a jukebox, looking for a song to play (a great in-joke). Other patrons file in and sit down. Some look perfectly wholesome (a father and his scouts); others look more suspicious. Tony drops a quarter in the jukebox. As the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" begin to ring out, Carmela enters, then A.J. behind a menacing looking man in a Members Only jacket. More people entered. The song continued to play. The cross-cutting and the rising music suggested something menacing was about to happen, especially as the episode cut away to Meadow parallel parking (or trying to) outside. The Sopranos has so often interrupted the mundane with violence that we seemed primed to see something huge happen. The Members Only guy went to the bathroom (a nod to Godfather?!). Meadow parked the car and rushed across the street, a car rolling past behind her. Tony, Carmela and A.J. ate some onion rings. The door dinged. Tony looked up. "Don't stop. . ."

Cut to black.

This is certainly a frustrating ending. And it completely plays against expectations (like the show itself). I can see where you could argue that the ending let the series out of holding itself to some sort of moral framework (though I would argue the episode preceding the ending made abundantly clear everything Tony has lost from being an evil person) and that that fact kept the ending from succeeding. I would disagree (I think it's one of the best endings to a television show I've ever seen), but I would feel happy to argue that point with you. I think the themes of the show (no one ever changes, life goes on for everyone, even sociopaths, we're all spiraling downward) are perfectly encapsulated in those final moments. It was a bold, brave choice, designed to anger at first, then provoke, then cause understanding. Hell, I thought my cable had gone out, so I was mad at first too -- though not at David Chase. (A clever commenter over at HND said that it was great how Chase made all of America stand up at once and say, "What's wrong with my television?!" What's wrong, indeed.)

But most of the big media criticism today has centered around what David Chase "owed" all of us with his ending. David Chase didn't owe us anything. Outside of season one, the traditional narrative structure that we're all accustomed to became more and more a thing of The Sopranos' past. This was a show with very few conventional payoffs, so expecting one at the end was the sort of thing that might have seemed great in the moment but would have disappointed over time. Ending the series definitively would have been the wrong move and would have contradicted everything that came before. This ending provoked, then caused audiences to think about what it all had to have meant. Sure some people are going to walk away from that angered that there was no traditional denouement, but what show have they been watching? The Sopranos, or the version of the show that exists in their heads?

Criticizing the show for not giving us what we want instead of what the story itself demanded and needed seems to me an implicit kneejerk reaction to a brilliant move by a great series. It's indicative of our buzzword culture, the one Chase has mocked so mercilessly over the years. I think in time this will come to be seen as something brilliant and provocative. But today, it's just another thing for talk show hosts to yell about.

In television, especially, we, the audience, often forget our relationship to the creators of our favorite series. Sure, we can get upset and demand more from them, but when they're obviously following their muse, it seems silly to pursue our own ends over a cliff.

So Tony Soprano forever lies, frozen in time, looking up to see who's coming in the door. Maybe you want to see what happens next (heck, even I want to on that brainstem, narrative-conditioning level), but you don't GET to see what comes next. Maybe this frustrates and angers you. Maybe you can come up with a reason for it and argue that in the comments below. But simply saying that you were owed by David Chase isn't enough. To say that you were owed violence or closure or anything just shows that you haven't been watching the same show as the rest of us.


Edward Copeland said...

I was surprised how many people thought something had gone wrong with their set. I knew immediately what he was doing. I didn't necessarily like it, but I got it. However, watching it a few more times, the ending has begun to grow on me. One thing I meant to mention before which I haven't seen anyone else note: the flip side of the "Don't Stop Believin'" selection on the jukebox was "Any Way You Want It." I of course don't know if that really was the flipside of the original 45, but it seems unlikely since both were big hits for Journey, but you could argue that it was subtle nudge to the viewer that the ending itself could have been any way they wanted it.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I hadn't noticed that about Journey on all of my times through the episode. That's a great, snide joke.

As I *think* I articulated above, I don't have a problem with not liking the ending for any variety of reasons. But the tone of much of the media coverage has been "Chase SHOULDN'T have ended this way." Like it or not, he can sort of do whatever he pleases.

Wax Banks said...

You're too generous, sir. Thanks.

As for 'Made in America,' I loved it - I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion of how goddamn funny it was. For whatever reason, I laughed aloud more times during the finale than at any other episode of the show I can remember ('Pine Barrens,' maybe?). My sense is that among the show's writers Chase is the most overtly critical/sarcastic toward the characters - and the most likely to gleefully send up their vacuity (AJ peeling out of the high school parking lot in that sedan!). That makes his heavier scenes more complex: Tony's visit to Uncle Junior was gorgeous work from all involved, but it also took Tony's cruelty and venality a couple of beats further than other writers might have allowed.

He's got a knack for storytelling through nasty comedy. It's in Chase's hands, I think, that The Sopranos comes closest to satire (and vicious stuff at that). You get the sense that Tony plagues him the way he apparently plagues Gandolfini. To my eyes, the direction in the finale was testament to that feeling: a little more ostentatious, a little more arch than usual (last week's model train catastrophe aside). Something of a joke on Tony as much as about him.

The ending: I (unsurprisingly?!) share your response to it. You're right to link it to Angel's non-cliffhanger. That last cut shocked me, but as the surprise faded, a smile set in. There were those rumours at first about the identities of the people coming into the diner; they never mattered, though I'm not surprised such talk surfaced. The tension in that last scene is extraordinary - and Meadow's parking troubles made for one of the show's cheekiest jokes, this one entirely at the expense of an audience that tends to feel at sea without strong genre clues. I didn't think she'd get hit by a car, but I covered my mouth in fear as she crossed the street: enjoying the joke, enjoying the thrill, mourning the end of the show, loving its audacity, loving that ridiculous (awesome) rock tune - and best of all the way that song is irrevocably linked, for Baby Boomers of a certain stripe, with Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign (it was his theme song). Another man of gross appetites and great shrewdness combined with a self-destructive streak and a complicated marriage: not for nothing did Tony appear at the tail end of the Clinton years. I couldn't stop laughing at 'Made in America.' It was a great sendoff.

A 'retrospectively inevitable destination' indeed!

I think this final season lifted The Sopranos beyond every other TV show in my esteem. In its way it's as ambitious as The Wire and Deadwood - and with the strongest emotional center of those three shows. I don't know if it can ever be my favourite TV story (Joss is my daddy, what can I say?), but if it took fewer formal risks than its two sister HBO classics, The Sopranos stands as the high point of several decades of mainline TV melodrama. I'm really, really gonna miss this show.

Anonymous said...

Clinton's theme song was "Don't Stop" by Fleetwood Mac, not Journey.