I don’t know how The Sopranos will end. I don’t want to know how The Sopranos will end. I want The Sopranos to just … happen.
If we accept Norman Mailer’s formulation that The Sopranos resembles a great novel, which I certainly do, then why treat it like it’s the stock market or the Oscars or the presidential primaries? In these latter instances I understand the sport in trying to predict outcomes. But the reader absorbed by Anna Karenina doesn’t waste time trying to figure out that the heroine will throw herself under a moving train. Even good murder mysteries rely less on how surprising the ending may be than on the skill with which the reader is led from one imperfect understanding of what’s happening to the next. The moment to consider any narrative’s denouement is after that denouement has been revealed. The reader or viewer can then consider the distance he’s traveled and decide whether the destination feels right. If it doesn’t, he may find himself re-evaluating the journey itself. Or he may not. (More than a few indisputably great novels are hobbled with disappointing endings. Huckleberry Finn and Great Expectations come immediately to mind.)
The serial format of most contemporary dramatic TV shows encourages viewers to guess what will happen next. The “next on [Exciting Show]” teasers at the end egg us on. But I think trying to anticipate the narrative arc of a television series in advance makes even less sense than trying to anticipate that poor Anna will scrag herself at the Nizhigorod rail station. That’s because in television, the narrative arc is imposed retrospectively. David Chase began The Sopranos not knowing how his story would end, because he didn’t know how many episodes he’d be called on to create. Each season has its own narrative arc planned in advance, but how Episode 1 leads inexorably to the yet-to-air final Episode 86 is something Chase could work out only after he knew the series was ending. Even if he knew all along how he wanted Tony and the other characters to end up, he had to improvise the pacing from Point A to Point Z. The overarching plotline of even a great TV serial, therefore, isn’t inexorable. It’s … exorable, inasmuch as network suits get to decide which page will be the last.
(Before readers chime in to remind me that Anna Karenina and Great Expectations appeared first in magazine serializations, let me point out that Tolstoy and Dickens got to decide how many installments there would be in the Russian Messengerand in All the Year Round—Dickens actually owned the latter—and if they felt they’d botched anything in the serial they could always fix it when the novel was published in book form.)
Because of the vicissitudes of scheduling, a television series that ends even halfway satisfyingly is something of a miracle. We tend to forget this because it’s rare that any TV series, even a great one, holds its audience’s attention to the end. (If the series had the audience’s full attention, it wouldn’t be cancelled in the first place.) I used to be seriously hooked on E.R., but only recently did I discover, to my slight amazement, that it’s still on the air. The natural life cycle of a hit show usually determines that it end sometime after its most memorable characters have departed (because they were played by memorable actors who received more tempting offers elsewhere) and after its story threads have gotten a little rococo. In other words, after the series becomes tiresome. The Sopranos has not become tiresome, and that invites hope that Chase will end his story as perfectly as F. Scott Fitzgerald ended The Great Gatsby. I’m certainly rooting for that. But if Chase fails, and his ending seems contrived or indifferent or inadequate in some other way, I won’t hold it against him any more than I hold Tom Sawyer’s tedious reappearance toward the end of Huckleberry Finn against Mark Twain. I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll get over it.
I’d forgotten Frank Sinatra Jr. made an earlier Sopranos appearance. The skinny kid from Hoboken must be twirling in his grave.
And yeah, it’d be nice to see more of Artie Bucco before the series ends.
Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past,