It's been a week since viewers saw the final episode of "The Sopranos." In that time, there's been much discussion, here and elsewhere, about what it all actually meant. The speculations and theories have been endless, and seem to prove, if any such evidence were required, that David Chase is a genius. But after all the hullaballoo, I decided to take a look again for myself.
After looking closely at the final episode, I'm reminded of people who left the film American Beaut y wondering who had actually shot Kevin Spacey, just because the face of the killer was offscreen when the trigger was pulled, despite the fact that his identity couldn't have been clearer. This is a lot like that. Except that American Beauty was a turd, and anyone who found deep meaning in that superficial fuckfest of obvious, cloying fauxmotion is about as deep as a newly-paved pothole.
I should add, incidentally, that I was a TV watcher myself for a while. Not a particularly accomplished one. I tried to catch "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" for most of the third season, but I got tired of all the death, frankly. Also, the vomit-inducing quick pans. Some people might have loved the show, and it's always great to hear a song by The Who, and I still respect the folks watching for being so incredibly patient, but it just wasn't a good fit for me. Anyway, my point: not my own expertise, but during the year of my life that I was too lazy to get the remote from under the couch, I saw first-hand just how meticulously the little details could be fussed over for the cameras - and that was on a show with a breakneck production schedule and no particular auteur nursing his vision through every single shot.
Keeping in mind that Sopranos creator David Chase wrote and directed this episode himself after months of planning - and that he has already told interviewers that "it's all there," let's take him at his word. So, starting with the two most blatant clues and working outward until we stumble into what may be Tony's own weirdly implied funeral rites:
The sensation of imminent death - "you probably don't even hear it when it happens, right?" - was now-famously discussed in an episode called "Soprano Home Movies." This same episode was reportedly repeated, out of sequence, the week before the finale. And the same exact scene - this same discussion of how death would be experienced - was also apparently excerpted in flashback in the second-to-last episode.
This is called hitting the audience in the face with a two-by-four, hoping they notice. We have been instructed as to what to expect from first-person death, as clearly as any self-respecting dramatist would allow.
(Incidentally, you probably would hear the shot from a pistol at short range, but that hardly matters; this is fiction, and the only thing that matters is its own reality.)
Also, Tony got shot once before - in an episode called "Members Only." And sure enough, a guy in a Members Only jacket - an unlikely fashion choice, unless David Chase is showing us how terribly tacky New Jersey prêt-a-porter really is - walks in, looks repeatedly in Tony's direction, and moves to a spot that would give him an unimpeded line of fire. Or proximity to the bathroom, in case he needed to piss.
A few seconds later — and much as described in advance — things suddenly, silently end.
Members Only Guy, incidentally, is listed in the credits not as "Furtive Man Drinking Coffee" or "Guy Who Gets Up To Pee" or "Weak-Bladdered Fellow With Strange Fashion Sense." He's "Man in Members Only Jacket." The chosen wording of the credit itself is a big freakin' arrow.
Another strikingly obvious bit of information: shortly before his death, David Chase very briefly frames Tony in a shot that visually quotes the Last Supper (one-point perspective, special holy light from above (more obvious in the footage than the grab), a long horizontal base supporting triangular composition on both sides of the subject, balding fat guy in tacky tee at center of table, etc.).
We'll get back to this imagery shortly. Hardly surprising, then, that Tony's last conversation with Carm mentions his own personal Judas. And we all know what happened after the Last Supper: the Pharisees have Jesus arrested, he's taken before Pontius Pilate, he's condemned to die, Jesus takes up his cross, the soldiers mock him, Jesus falls the first time, Jesus comforts his afflicted mother, Simon helps him carry his cross, Veronica wipes the face of Jesus, Jesus falls the second time, Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem, Jesus falls the third time, Jesus is stripped of his garments, Jesus is nailed to the cross, Jesus dies on the cross, Jesus is taken down, Jesus is laid in the tomb.
It's almost an exact microcosm of all the major plot points of the series this far. Clear enough yet? We're just getting started.
The episode actually opens with a harbinger of Tony's funeral, plain as day. Remember, David Chase personally directed for the first time since the series premiere. And David Chase's very first shot in eight years is of Tony Soprano lying flat on his back, viewed from above, much as if we are looking down on him in his coffin. And thinking, Dude, this guy REALLY gained weight over the last eight years.
There is a literal moment of silence.
Then, when the clock radio kicks on, the first bars of the song are funereal organ music.
Tony stirs, the music starts to rock, and Tony begins his day. But about five minutes in, Tony's eating an orange. This is a specific reference both to the Godfather series and to earlier Sopranos episodes: in simplest, familiar form, Orange = Death. Even more tellingly, Tony makes a comment about not having had to eat a green vegetable in days. Green vegetables are healthy, and often served alongside other healthy food, such as fish. You'll recall that a fish, wrapped in newspaper, was the coded "Sicilian message" sent to the Corleone family concerning the murder of Luca Brasi in the first Godfather film. Could Chase be any more obvious?
Speaking of which, there's a lot of fuss about the big orange cat (note the color; to a writer as careful as Chase, this probably would not have been arbitrary). There's really no need to debate its meaning. This is carefully-crafted fiction, so as a rule, things generally mean what the characters anticipate they mean; that's how harbingers and foreboding often work. Otherwise, we'd have only our own prior cultural references to know what to fear. And Paulie could not be clearer that the creature is a Bad Omen. Of what? Through the episode, the cat is literally focused on a reminder of death - specifically, Tony's murder of Christopher, who was almost a surrogate son.
Yeah, sure, but the orange cat doesn't actually show up when Tony supposedly dies, does he? Sure he does - in an almost laughably large way. David Chase chose to shoot the final scene in a dessert shop in Bloomfield, New Jersey, where the actual mascot of the town's real high school football team is the same as that of nearby Princeton University — an orange tiger. In the Last Supper shot, guess what David Chase shows us, beyond Tony's right shoulder?
A bigass orange cat three feet high, that's what. The framing is actually pushed slightly to that side, favoring the cat.
You know who else is a big orange cat? Garfield. What does Garfield like to eat? Lasagna. A food favored by Italians that is loaded with fat and carbohydrates, causing morbid obesity in both Italians and felines, an obesity that, if untreated, can lead to - you guessed it - death.
Not that it matters. Death is already palpable everywhere anyway. By this point, almost everyone in Tony's world outside his immediate family is either emotionally dead to him (Dr. Melfi, Carlo, that kid who took the shit in the shower, the Russian mobster), physically dead (Christopher, Bobby, Nancy Marchand, etc.), or incapacitated (Junior, Silvio, etc.). Even Paulie speaks fearfully of the afterlife and the Virgin Mary... before agreeing to a job he believes will lead to a premature death. Hardly surprising that the entire family is wearing black at the end. So rare in Jersey.
What else stands out about the restaurant? Not tons - but it's orange as hell, right down to the orange neon and the orange vinyl and the orange trim on the jukebox cards. Plus, looking in from the doorway, it sure sets up a subtle Last Supper, and it's got a nice geography for a Godfather-inspired post-piss-break cap job. (Remember, Chase could have stuck Tony in a corner booth with his back to the wall, something we've all seen before. He chose not to. This is a tip-off because, as far as I know, no fictional gangster has ever been whacked while seated with his back to the wall.)
So, finally, Tony enters the restaurant. There is a bell on the door, and the rest of the scene involves Tony (and us) taking note of the occasions that the bell rings. The ringing of bells is not essential to the story in any way, and these characters have met in public places hundreds of times with no bell present, but Chase makes a meal of it here. This might veer into The Walrus Was Paul territory, but the repeated ringing of a bell, in a different context, is meant to remind the viewer of New Jersey Bell, the phone company that was, in 1984, subsumed into a regional branch after having been ruled part of a monopoly. Chase isn't just saying that Tony is dying, he's saying the entire Mafia way of life, the exclusive control over certain operations that the Mafia has historically held, is going the way of Ma Bell. Say that quickly to yourself: It almost sounds like Mob Hell, right? This is where Chase really shines.
But let's talk about the Catholicism of this scene. Tony's swallowing of his greasy orange wafer ring is his last act on this earth (or at least on our TV screens). But do we have any more evidence that this is, indeed, Dead Man Communing? Yup. In the soundtrack.
In Catholicism, administration of the Eucharist in the moments before death is known as Viaticum, derived in part from the Latin for... "Journey."
*Loud throat clearing noise.*
Journey, those balladeering power-pappers who defiled the ears of so many innocent victims throughout the eighties - an era in which Members Only jackets reached their sartorial apex - opened the decade with an album called "Departure." Departures, of course, is the magazine that Tony Soprano defiles in Dr. Melfi's waiting room. Waiting rooms are often considered a sort of limbo. Limbo, of course, is the First Circle of Hell in the Inferno, written by Dante. This could not be a more obvious reference to Silvio Dante, played by Steven Van Zandt, who, in 1985 penned the anti-apartheid tune "Sun City," the chorus of which contained the lines "We're rockers and rappers united and strong/We're here to talk about South Africa, we don't like what's going on." (Which are particularly atrocious.) Also, "I ain't gonna play Sun City." The sun (ORANGE) is a pretty obvious symbol of life; Chase is trying to say that, in the refusal to "play Sun City," Tony Soprano's character has rejected the apartheid that is his divided life between his family and his Family. "Family Guy," an animated comedy on Fox, blows. And there you have it: Tony Soprano is blown away at the end of the episode. This could not be any more clear, right? Look again at what's actually on the screen and in the soundtrack. David Chase did, after all, insist: "Anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there."
And it is. Tomorrow, we'll solve that whole Kennedy assassination thing.