"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Sopranos End and the Closure-Junkies

As the debate about The Sopranos ending continues to rage - with a great piece in the New York Times just this morning, quoting David Chase from an interview he gave Alan Sepinwall in the Newark Star Ledger - I'm beginning to see the main issue that everyone is really talking or arguing about ...

On the one side, we have the closure-junkies. This is a group that at one time or another includes everyone, all of us. Real life often does not have definitive endings. So we crave them in our re-creations, our recreations, our fiction. We may desperately prefer a happy or a sad ending, a villain to get his just desert, a broken heart to find true love, but what we really want even more than that is some kind of ending that we can hang our hat on, wrap our minds around. That's what fiction is supposed to be about, isn't it?

Maybe, but if it is, who says so? Maybe fiction can sometimes satisfy, and satisfy even more deeply, but not resolving much of anything. There are precedents for this - in Frank Stockton's The Lady, or the Tiger, as I mentioned here yesterday. Stockton's ending of course was not just more of the same, life goes on - but it provided no closure, par excellence.

There have been precedents for this in television, too. One of my all-time favorite series was the radically unfinished Coronet Blue in the 1960s. Frank Converse plays a guy who washes up on a New York City shore with amnesia, and mumbling the phrase "coronet blue". The series was a fragment, an unfinished summer replacement, and we never did find out the meaning of that phrase. (A biography of the producer was published a few years ago, if you want to know - I won't provide a link to it here, because I think the series worked better unfinished...)

Now David Chase of course could have done whatever he wanted with The Sopranos, and that's just what he did. He chose to put in a deliberately radically unfinished ending-

And, in so doing, he's in effect issued a challenge to all of us, the closure-junkies: are we ready to kick the habit, and at least consider going to the other side, an overlapping group of who knows how many, who may love closure in some or most of their fiction, but can also enjoy an extraordinarily open ending?

I'm not at all saying that making this challenge was Chase's intention - I never presume to talk about creators' intentions. What I am saying is that this is the net result of The Sopranos' ending.

As I've already mentioned in several posts here and there, I readily admit to being an anti-closure sympathizer. Indeed, at least two of my novels - The Silk Code and The Plot to Save Socrates - have been criticized by the occasional critic (benighted, of course, in my view) for not providing enough closure, for leaving things at the end too close to the way they were at the beginning. In science fiction and mystery, I do admit to always enjoying a story which lets us in on all sorts of crazy goings-on, and leaves us with a view that, to most of the rest of the world, life is just going on as usual. There's a great mise-en-scene sequence in Hitchcock's Frenzy, when the strangler kills a woman with his tie in her London flat, and the camera pulls back and out the door and down the stairs and out the front the door and across the street and just stops there ... and we see cars and people and life going on as usual on this London street in the afternoon, knowing all the time that a vicious murder just took place upstairs in the flat across the street...

So I was already there for Chase's ending, even though I certainly didn't expect it (though I did consistently predict Tony would live).

And I expect that there are many more out there who are kicking the closure-habit, each time they think again about The Sopranos' ending, and realize how much they really like it...

Useful links:

The Sopranos and Hamlet

The Sopranos, or the Tiger?

The Sopranos Ninth of Nine: The Anti-Ending Ending

The Sopranos as a Nuts-and-Bolts Triumph of Non-Network TV my 2002 article

reviews of the first eight episodes this final season: The Sopranos: First of Nine, Second of Nine, Third of Nine, Fourth of Nine, Fifth of Nine, Sixth of Nine, Seventh of Nine, Eighth of Nine

The Sopranos, Lost, and Heroes: A Comparison of Real and Future Endings

Talking about The Sopranos ending on KNX1070 Radio Sunday June 17

Sopranos Symposium at Fordham University, May 22-25, 2008: Final Program

The Sopranos Podcasts - listen to reviews and analyses to your heart's content

A Conversation with Dominic Chianese

An expanded version of this blog post appears in The Essential Sopranos Reader  (University of Kentucky Press, 2011)


dawn said...

PAul, I agree with you 100 percent. It's like NY'ers with weather they are never satisfied. You know I didn't think Tony would die either. it would have been to simple and neat. I love the cat theory being Big Pussy thats fantastic. I actually put your book the Silk COde on request at the Library so I should have it any day now. I'm dying to read you. Be back later

Paul Levinson said...

:) Great - let me know how it you like it!

Anonymous said...


Fantastic post, could not agree with you any more (I think that there is such an interesting aspect and commentary about how invested audience is in popular culture...how one could feel betrayed by the ultimate actions of a fictional character).

Also, I have to say that the ending really (besides how beautifully shot and edited it was, as well as our own psychological expectations) fell into what one should have expected from this series. And to expect a bloodbath type absolute ending would have betrayed what made the show so significant in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Coming full circle (were a viewer comes to terms with the nature of the Sopranos).

This is my third post to your site and my final on the Sopranos ending.

Now that I've watched the final episode again and read a bunch of reviews I'm ready to put the series to rest.

As you or some other review pointed out...the great thing about the Sopranos was that it let us look in on "mob life" and even though I may not have acknowledged it...the selling point of the series was the peaking in.

So considering that the show was never really presented or billed as a large, epic storyline that was "going" somewhere, there is no reason to expect any more of an ending than what we got through out the whole series.

Considering that we are just peaking in...Chase gave us the best ending he could...he gave us a happy MOMENT, where life is good for the Sopranos.

Chase couldn't give us more because the nature of the show is to Peak in...and we can't peak anymore, so he let us stop there at the end of this episodes arc.

We were never promised any story arc larger than a season or even an episode.

I'm good with that now...if ever Chase peaks back in on North Jersey we'll find out what's been going on while we were away.


Paul Levinson said...

adam - welcome to Infinite Regress ... I thought your post on The Sopranos was excellent, too ... it is indeed interesting and good that audiences have so much invested in what they watch, hear, and read...

Bobo - welcome, too - good to have your comments here, and I hope you continue to comment in other threads here about other shows (same to Adam and everyone else)...

And I agree with you completely about Chase and The Sopranos...

Gene said...

Hey Paul, Gene here (formerly Anon1) ... you inspired me to start my own blog. My essay on this subect is at http://gtherapy.blogspot.com/2007/06/why-sopranos-finale-failed.html

Enjoying the discussion, even if you are letting him off the hook.

Paul Levinson said...

Gene - good to see this discussion inspired your blog! (even if I disagree with your conclusion)....

Anonymous said...

WW1 ended. WW2 ended. USSR ended. Rome ended. What the *hell* are you talking about real life doesn't have endings? Heck, everyone dies. Its a question of when and how, and that is unanswered. Note, every great mob movie had an ending.

This just sucked.

Anonymous said...

Maybe someone already said this. I don't assume Tony lived. The series was largely from his perspective. Perhaps the ending represented the first-person experience of a bullet to the head.

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