TV Club

Fame and Fortune vs. Taut Understatement

Greetings, Sopranalysts:

I feel honored to be able to talk about the almighty EXTENDED final episode—and the entire season with you. One of the pleasures I had in the first three seasons was immediately calling up friends at 10 p.m. to discuss, because the series got to me in some way I couldn’t quite explain, and I needed to talk about it. This hasn’t been true, alas, of this season (someone recently called me a Sopranos “Declinist”) until this last episode, really. I think it has something to do with what Judith Shulevitz, early on in Slate, called the way The Sopranos brought the understatement of the American short story at its best to television, to a gangland genre that had previously been the realm of myth, melodrama, and caricature. This season I felt that the writers had completely lost control of the pacing and were floundering around giving us melodrama and caricature, severed heads, laboriously symbolic dreams, tedious plot repetition, and teases from past episodes. I felt so bad for the writers that I wondered if rather than analyzing Soprano characters we should put the writers on the couch, because I felt they were taking out their creative dissatisfaction in an almost hostile, withholding way on us. I think it has something to do with the way a dramatic structure can’t arbitrarily be extended at the last minute when its arc (as Christopher might say) is built on a different timeline. It would be as if someone told Shakespeare to stretch Macbeth out for three more acts. Maybe Macbeth could have an affair with one of the Witches, Lady M. could flirt with Macduff, etc., etc. 

It was interesting that tonight Johnny Sack expressed his bitter disappointment at the hit on Carmine being called off with a version of the most famous quotation from Macbeth—how he’d have to go back to the routine he hated “tomorrow and tomorrow, creeping in this petty pace,” rather than the dramatic climax he’d longed for. I wonder if here the writers weren’t surfacing their dissatisfaction at the problem of pacing and repacing tomorrow and tomorrow a series that had meant to come to the end of its arc after three seasons—but was extended two more (the much hyped EXTENDED finale an emblem of the arbitrariness of the extension process). I wonder if the writers felt they’d made a kind of Faustian bargain: two more years of fame and fortune at the cost of the beautiful taut understatement that made it so appealing, creative, and original. Turning to the caricature and melodrama they’d previously eschewed because they had to tease out two more seasons. Taking their anger at themselves for this bargain out on us, the audience, by manipulating us so crudely and obviously, withholding any closure on all the subplots, and depending on sensational moments like the severed head. (A symbol of the way they were cutting off the intelligence, i.e. the head, from the body of the show?) Starting up subplots only to discard them, giving Carmela her third extended fantasy affair tease, making Ralphie a second-rate parody of Richie Aprile. Only Janice, I feel, has really grown as a character into something more beautifully, comically diabolical than one could have hoped. She is truly the gangster of love. And there were some sharp moments with Paulie: To me the high point of the season was the weird moment when he was staring at the painting of Tony and Pie-O-My that he’d had altered to put a ridiculous-looking hat on Tony’s head. 

Yes, the writers finally gave Carmela her decisive moment and it was powerfully rendered, and it was deeply affecting to see how much they both could hurt each other. But they’d been withholding this moment for so long, for four seasons, it couldn’t help but get to you. Otherwise, I don’t know. I woke up this morning with a really bad flu and spent most of the day in bed watching tapes of the first 10 episodes from Season One, and I have to say, yes, I am a “Declinist.” It was better. And I’m not sure I care that much about watching a final season all about whether Tony and Carmela get back together. 

But enough about me. Here are a couple questions I’d like to know your thinking about: Cumulatively has the series been a critique of psychotherapy? Remember in Season 1, Melfi’s ex denounces what he calls the “cheesy moral relativism of psychotherapy” in the face of an evil sociopath, as he characterizes Tony. In the long run did Dr. Melfi’s therapy, her talk, her Prozac, her Xanax prescriptions do much more than enable Tony to be a more efficient, well-adjusted, untroubled serial murderer, in effect (add up the bodies his crew killed and he’s in the Manson/Dahmer league)? Yes, he was perhaps more self-aware because of his therapy, perhaps more able to articulate his feelings about the contradictions in his life and his psyche, but is that such a good thing when his real-world behavior didn’t change in any substantial way? 

And then, of course, the obvious question: Can this marriage be saved? Will we even know at the end of the final final episode next year, or will they withhold that, too?