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Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos, or the Tiger?

More thoughts on the remarkable ending to The Sopranos last night...

I've seen lots of responses to the ambiguous ending, ranging from disappointment and outrage to satisfaction and joy.

Much like the response to Frank R. Stockton's "The Lady, or the Tiger," when it first was published in 1882. The short story went on to become an all-time classic.

A suitor for the princess of a kingdom is put on trial by the king. He is put in an arena and asked to pick one of two doors. Behind one is a lady, behind the other is a tiger. If he picks the door with the lady, he will be set free, and would live, but would be obliged to marry the lady. If he goes for the door with the tiger, he'll be ripped to shreds. He of course doesn't know which is behind which of the doors. He loves the princess, so choosing the door with the lady may leave him heartbroken, but at least still alive.

The princess knows what is behind each door. She loves the suitor. She gives him a signal - indicating which door the suitor should choose. If he chooses the lady, the princess will have to see the man she loves spend his life with another woman. If he chooses the tiger, the princess will see him die.

He opens the door, and - the story ends right there.

Much like The Sopranos's cut to black last night.

Let's assume, for the moment, as many viewers have argued (including a reader of this blog, "antigone," in a comment entered in my Anti-Ending Ending post here last night) that the blackness plus the conversation with Bobby on the lake about what happens when you get whacked (you never see it coming) mean that Tony is shot in the head by the guy who walked into the bathroom. But ... did he kill just Tony, or Tony and Carmela, Tony and A.J., Tony and Meadow, everyone at the table?

And, if we allow the possibility that maybe the darkness isn't Tony's, then maybe someone else at the table, or everyone else other than Tony, is killed.

And, then, of course, if we allow the possibility that no one was killed, then the guy just went to the bathroom not to take care of business but to do his own business...

So David Chase has given us a Sopranos, or the Tiger ending.

He's the princess - he knows what's behind the door of darkness.

And we're all the suitors in the arena ...

But unlike the princess, Chase is not clearly pointing to any door...

And unlike the suitor, we have many more choices than two ...

But like the suitor, our choice of door depends upon what we think Chase wants us to see beyond it ... and, even more importantly, what we in our hearts most want to see.

PS - One other thing, Frank R. Stockton published a sequel to The Lady, or The Tiger - "The Discourager of Hesitancy: A Continuation of “The Lady, or the Tiger?”" - three years later, in 1885.

Useful links:

The Sopranos' End and the Closure-Junkies

The Sopranos and Hamlet

The Sopranos Ninth of Nine Finale: The Anti-Ending Ending

The Lady, or the Tiger Wikipedia entry

The Lady, or The Tiger, and other Short Stories by Frank R. Stockton

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 Silk Code and The Plot to Save Socrates - two novels by me, which some say have ambiguous endings...

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

And ...  A Conversation with Dominic Chianese  ... complete video and transcript




The Plot to Save Socrates

"challenging fun" - Entertainment Weekly

"a Da Vinci-esque thriller" - New York Daily News

"Sierra Waters is sexy as hell" - curled up with a good book





Enjoy listening to audio books? Get a free audio book copy of The Plot to Save Socrates - or any one of 85,000 other titles - with a 14-day trial membership at Audible.com ...
 
Read the first chapter of The Plot to Save Socrates
.... FREE!

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

I too saw the "Lady or the Tiger" in the final episode, Paul, and posted about it on Topix. But what works for a short story doesn't work as the finale of a long, culuturally-significant television series.

Was the ending clever, artistic, and tense? YES. But what, exactly, was resolved for Tony and his immediate family? Nothing. In essence, the nuclear Sopranos family is back where we first met them. There was no story arc for any of the Sopranos. As such, it ended up being less a drama than a fictional documentary.

I don't begrudge Chase his creative talents and deep layering of cultural and industry references ... but when a filmmaker so intrudes on the story to make his own mark, it takes me out of the moment. The fact that we're talking about the writer/creator/director of the show and not the characters and the plot should tell us something ... that the final episode was really about David Chase showing us how clever he thinks he is. And I resent the hell out of that.

All Chase had to do to tell a story and preserve his artistic vision was to have the final scene show Meadow's face as she entered the diner. Her expression would have told us what the ending was. Then the cut to black/silence. Instead, we're left with Chase's attempt to shoehorn a high-art interpretive ending into a dramatic television series.

And what is the moral of the Sopranos, then? We'll never know. Is it that Tony's a sociopath and got his just desserts, Mafia-style without knowing? Or is it that evil is evil and life just goes on, even for sociopaths? While Chase felt free to put his own "messages" to society in the show over the years, he didn't feel he had to send the most important message at all -- the resolution of the story for his main character and immediate family.

Vanity, thy name is Chase.

Anonymous said...

According to this poster, the credits indicate that Bathroom Guy was Phil's relative:

http://www.topix.net/forum/tv/the-sopranos/TLJREBDR3737LVH0V/p36#lastPost

If so, I think we have pretty compelling proof that Tony was killed and the Sudden Death folks were right. Chase just chose to make us dig for it.

Paul Levinson said...

anon1: I appreciate what you're saying, but I don't feel the same way about the ending - in fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm glad that nothing much was resolved.

But, I will make this admission: people have criticized a few of my own novels, because they don't provide the kind of resolution that some readers expected.

In the realm of science fiction, at least, I enjoy having lots of insane action and possibilities percolating, and in the end it all just settles into a world in which no one except a very few can see what happened....

So maybe this makes me more sympathetic to what Chase was trying to do ...

In any case, I think the very fact that the ending has generated so much discussion shows it hit some kind of profound chord.

And I have a feeling, in the future, that the ending, especially that last scene, may come to be regarded as masterful...

anon2: there's no other Leotardo in the credits except Phil's wife ... the man in the diner is identified as just that...

Anonymous said...

Anon1 here. I don't doubt that the final scene will be highly regarded as a triumph of tension, foreshadowing, and misdirection.

The ending has generated so much discussion because of the confusion, frustration, and hyper-analysis that has been experienced over the last 24 hours. Yes, there is something profound in the non-ending, but it still doesn't let Chase off the hook.

And not only were we not given the courtesy of an ending, we have no resolution of Tony's story arc. How has Tony changed as a result of all these years of trauma and mayhem? Not at all. How is this possibly dramatic? A sociopath stays a sociopath? THE END?

Paul Levinson said...

But life is often like that - no real resolution of anything...

It is true that, in our fiction, we've come to expect tidier endings, some sort of change that the character undergoes, some sort of clear place that the arc comes to rest.

But Chase is saying, hey, his story doesn't have to follow those conventions - because, that's all they are, conventions...

dawn said...

Paul, sorry it took so long to get to you had an emergency late sunday night , my son fell and cracked the back of his head. 15 staples. He's okay. Now maybe I saw the show diferently then others. I liked the ending. To me life went on for the Soprano's as usual. Don't stop believeing was brilliant. The song said it all. Phil's death great. The best part was the cat I was laughing my ass off. If T was killed people would have complained about it also. I thought it was a smart ending.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Levinson.

This is going to be a long entry, I hope you'll bear with me. I just finished writing my diploma on The Sopranos a couple of weeks ago and tried to highlight structural elements relating to the specificity of television principles within the show. I'd like to submit an idea concerning the arc of the series as a whole, without rewriting the whole of my diploma but highlighting the main points:

1. In the first season, the dream sequences revolve mainly around Anthony and different concepts of femininity (as also highlighted by Maurice Yacowar in his book "The Sopranos on the couch"), peaking with "Isabella" in an instant of dream becoming inseparable of the digetic reality of the series. Thus we have a specific thematic element and a first instance of dream within reality.

2. After that, the thematic element of the dream sequences becomes more and more centered around the appearance of dead people within the dreams, which peaks in "Funhouse" with an instance of reality becoming inseparable of the dream (when Anthony dreams that he wakes up and goes to Dr. Melfi to retell the first part of his dream - just to be sitting opposite of Annalisa all of a sudden). Thus we have a second specific thematic element and another instance of blurring reality and dream - though this time it is the reality entering the dream.

3. This can lead us to conclude that with those two entities in place, we see a complex entity that has formed itself: Two predominant parts of The Sopranos, dream and reality, have come toghether to form a complex series. They are interwoven and contain each other in at least two instances (I'm always reminded a little of the "Jin-Jang" symbol...). In that light, we can interpret the episode "The Test Dream" as an expression of this complex entity trying to come to terms with its own exterior: through citation, reflexion of the mediality of its own images (Tony B. using his hand as a gun, the images of the dream being shown inside of a TV set, etc) and reflexion of the particular time structure of television in the digital age (images of past, present and future that are shown in the TV sets during the dream sequence - in Melfis office the past dream, in Tony's kitchen the future leaving of the house, in the Vesuvio bathroom the footsteps on the TV of the bathroom clerk)

4. Season 6 starts with that memorable montage and the voice of William Burroughs reading a passage from his book “The Western Lands” entitled “The Seven Souls” and goes on to show us the two episode coma dream. The coma being an expression of dream as well as of reality, I think that the complex entity of the series here becomes itself serial - within the obvious boundaries of always being within the actual series. We see two Tonys (once again) and one Kevin Finnerty - and it comes as no surprise that the voices of the second Tony's family sound so young as to be from the beginning of the actual series development, because they are an alternative rather than a dream. There are also possible interpretations concerning the first three souls of Burroughs text – Ren, Sekem and Khu to second Anthony, Finnerty and Meadow respectively – which undermine this thesis of seriality within seriality.

5. To put this enormous post to an end: Television in the digital age is no longer concerned with transmission of images from a to b, but more and more with problems of selection (from the always present infinity of choices) and contingencies. It is no longer spatial but temporal in its nature and this fact is more and more ingrained in the structure of its sophisticated content. Thus the ending comes as no surprise - it affirmes the choice that television always is: it is always that what you see and that what remains unseen on so many other channels at the same time. It is based on selection and redundance and so the ending of the series The Sopranos reflects this in the most uncanny fashion – it is all the possible endings at once! As always we must choose in television but the last sound we hear is also the most important: Don’t Stop! Because even if The Sopranos end – Television won’t.

Sincerely,
Sven Weber, Weimar, Germany.

Paul Levinson said...

Dawn - thank goodness your son is ok!

I was laughing my ass off too about that cat - Paulie always has been the comic relief of The Sopranos ... (I'm going on the theory that the cat is Big Pussy...)

Sven - superb analysis - thanks for posting that here. If you have your complete piece posted anywhere, I'd be happy to put up a link to it - I'm sure fans would be very interested!

Anonymous said...

Anon1 here. Last comment (I promise!).

Sven's analysis is interesting and I'd read the whole thing if you linked it. It is consistent with some of Chase's messages in the show about the business of media and entertainment.

But I'm going to make one last attempt at convincing you Chase is worthy of some contempt, Paul.

David Chase has given one post-finale interview. It's at www.nj.com.

When Chase says that he'd "never say never" to a Sopranos movie, he essentially tells us that he intentionally made a tense, open-ended, non-ending ending. In other words, it's not even an interpretive ending, per se .. it's a "who knows?" ending, full of contradictory information that points to two or more wildly different possibile endings. It was designed for the express purpose of building us up and then leaving us hanging. In that sense, the series finale was, sadly and maddeningly, no different than a season finale.

Do you see the subtle distinction between the "interpretive" (Lady, or the Tiger, the Mona Lisa smile, etc.) and "who knows?" ending? One is high art, the other is creative hucksterism.

Since he's not ruling out anything, how can we possibly have any closure? I get your point that he doesn't have to follow conventions -- he was given incredible latitude and lots of money to follow his own vision, after all. So one has to cynically wonder, at least a little, why he intentionally kept the story options open ...

Chase may have made some brave creative statements in this series, but he was a coward in the final episode. He could have shown some courage and ended it, one way or the other, but instead he chose (despite his own protestations to the contrary) a provacative, fuzzy ending designed to showcase his own talent and keep his foot in the door for a potential future payday.

So don't say this is all about art.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Levinson,

unfortunately I don't have my diploma online yet, since it is still in evaluation. The second problem would probably be that it is in German and not much use to an American public... Maybe with time I'll come around to transating it but that is - as you probably well know - quite a project and not one that'll happen this year. I'd be happy to send a copy via e-mail if you speak German and I also have an abbreviated version in French, although I'd rather send the full version around if I send it at all.

best regards,
Sven Weber.

Paul Levinson said...

anon1 - here's the crux of our difference of opinion on this - I've always liked I. A. Richards' point (for example, in Practical Criticism, in the late 1920s) that the intentions of the creator are irrelevant - what counts are the interpretations we the audience can make of the text (or work of art)...

So, who knows what Leonardo intended? We do know he certainly wasn't allergic to money. I don't care what Chase intended - and, further, I don't even know if we can ever really, fully, find that out ... So, in the end, what counts for me is the ending ... and there's no doubt that, whatever Chase may have intended, he certainly wanted it to be deeply and provocatively ambiguous, and that worked...

Paul Levinson said...

Sven - alas, my German's worthless, and even my French isn't good enough to enjoy what you wrote ...

If you're interested, I cancheck around Fordham University this September - when the Fall term begins - and see if there are any Soprano fans who might be interested in translating your work ...

What subject are getting your diploma in?

Best of luck with your education, and in any case...

Anonymous said...

Mr Levinson,

I'll be finishing my diploma in a subject called "European Media Culture" (Europäische Medienkultur in german) at the media faculty of the Bauhaus University in Weimar this september. If there's anybody at your faculty who would be interested in translating my work into english this fall, I'd be delighted of course but could probably not offer any payment... If not, however, I'll try to get around to doing it myself once I have all my immediate diploma work out of the way. It has been a great encouragement and pleasure to hear that the interest is there for an english version in any case and it'll see the light of day one way or another!

best regards,
Sven.

Paul Levinson said...

If I can find an eager graduate student, the translation would just be for the pleasure and the credit - I'll get back to you on that in a few months...

From what I saw of your paper, I think it makes an excellent contribution to what I'm sure will be an ongoing Sopranos discussion...

By the way, there may be an academic conference on The Sopranos in Spring 08 - going on at the same time in New York City (at Fordham University) and at Brunel University in London - I'll keep you (and everyone here) posted. Look for an announcement soon here on Infinite Regress, with a call for papers, etc...

Anonymous said...

The end is just quantum physics.

Tonys death is not observed so he is both alive and dead.


the cat from earlier scenes represents schrodingers cat, from the famous cat in a box thought experiment.
great last scene either way

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