Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been made after days and nights of anguished deliberation. She had known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the right.The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?
—Frank R. Stockton, “ The Lady or the Tiger?”
Dear Brian and Jeffrey,
How you felt about the final episode of The Sopranos may approximate how you felt about Frank R. Stockton’s short story, published in 1882, when it was inflicted on you in high school. (Do teachers still assign it? I hope not.) If you weren’t made to read it, all you need to know is that the king’s daughter has to decide whether her lover will be devoured by a tiger or married to her beautiful rival. No other options allowed. The lines quoted above conclude the story. You don’t get to find out whether the guy gets the lady or the tiger. What a marvelous leaping-off point for discussion, say some people. What a stupid cop-out, say I.
Last week Jeff predicted, “the series will end on some sort of ambivalent note, something that underscores the tension and the physical and emotional dangers in the life Tony has chosen for himself.” I hereby bestow a gold star. The episode, which series creator David Chase wrote and directed, consisted mainly of feints in this or that direction, and the feints accelerated during the final five minutes. A.J. parked his SUV over some dry leaves, turned to the willowy Rhiannon, and made his move. The vehicle caught fire just as he was reaching to unhook her bra. (Tough break, kid.) They got away before the gas tank sent a fireball heavenward. Then A.J. was going to join the Army so he could fight in Afghanistan. Then he wasn’t. Silvio Dante * didn’t die, but he didn’t get any better, either. Tony’s hit man did manage to cap Phil Leotardo, and in the confusion Phil’s own SUV rolled a few feet and we got to hear the sound of Phil’s head being flattened under a wheel. That was kind of creative. Finally Tony sat down with his lawyer and learned that he was likely to be indicted on that bullshit gun charge from way back, and that a passel of wiseguys were suddenly ratting him out on more serious charges to a grand jury. One of the rats, we were encouraged to believe, was Paulie Walnuts, because he turned down a promotion offered by Tony and then made an anguished face as he was leaving the pork store.
Finally, the Soprano nuclear family gathered at a diner. Lots of short takes now. Meadow experienced difficulty parallel parking, and that seemed to auger something. A guy was sitting in the corner of the diner wearing a USA cap. Was he an assassin? An undercover cop? Another guy was sitting at the counter. He got up and walked to the bathroom. We saw the Soprano family sitting at their table. Then the screen went abruptly dark, and stayed dark. At the hotel where I’m staying in the Hudson Valley for a Slate magazine retreat, a customer was overheard running to the front desk to complain that her cable had gone out. I expect we’ll see news stories reporting that phones rang off the hook at cable providers across the country. Then, finally, the credits came up. Your TV wasn’t broken. HBO was just pulling a prank!
I don’t mind Chase ending his series on a note of ambiguity. (Though if he’s going to take that route, he should have the courage of his ambiguity and let Phil live.) I do mind all the pointless manipulation throughout the episode that communicated, something’s about to happen right now—booga-booga!—when in fact nothing was about to happen. Was this meant to be allegorical? This is life after 9/11? Possibly. More likely, I think Chase didn’t know how to end this wonderful series. So he created a lot of fake tension and then pulled the plug of my television set. OK, the plug of Mohonk Mountain House’s television set. The point remains the same.
Yours in Disappointment,