Wednesday, November 14, 2007

 

Last call at the Bada Bing

By Edward Copeland
Having gone through the last Sopranos DVD set I had to own and then re-watching the final nine episodes, I thought it was time for reflection upon the final shows of one of the greatest TV series of all times. Needless to say, there are spoilers galore, but if you are behind by this point, you are really on your own anyway.


What struck me the most upon re-watching the final nine was how many of those episodes were almost standalones. Sure, storylines were forwarded, but they weren't the main focus. The first episode, "Soprano Home Movies," seemed to be judged harshly by some even when it first aired, but for me it only grows better upon later viewings. It's as if Edward Albee had decided to pen a Sopranos episode and as, what is essentially a four-character play, it's riveting.

The second outing, "Stage 5," was even better as we watch the sad final days of Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola). What's even clearer upon another viewing is the entire focus on image versus reality for everyone. Johnny wants to know how he'll be remembered while Tony wonders if that lead character in Cleaver is how the world will see him (though it takes Carmela, prompted by Rosalie, for the self-absorbed Tony to even spot the parallels.) On the New York side, Phil is more bitter than ever and his brief decision to slow down and let others handle the business is thrown out the window by his perception that no one is living up to his standards.
"Remember When" is another great outing, though it falls off a bit from the first two episodes, mainly because the idea that Tony was going to off Paulie because he annoyed him during their Florida exile never rings true. Fortunately, the bulk of the episode gives Dominic Chianese one last episode for him to shine as Uncle Junior, hospitalized and trying to relive his glory days with poker games and a young apprentice. It is a true shame that Chianese didn't get a last Emmy nomination (or a win). Uncle Junior is one of the many great all-time characters David Chase introduced us to and he deserved more recognition.

The first real pothole (and the only one really) that the series hit in its final nine was "Chasing It." Tony's sudden gambling problem seemed really forced and the ending with Hesh and his girlfriend was rather odd, making it understandable why so many questioned whether Tony had something to do with her death when it still seemed fairly clear that he didn't. As if one weak storyline weren't enough, "Chasing It" also tosses in the plight of the troubled son of the late Vito Spatafore, making the entire episode seem more like it should be called "Stretching It" than "Chasing It."

The next episode though, "Walk Like a Man," more than makes up for it. When I first watched the final nine, I thought "The Blue Comet" might have been the best of the final episodes but seeing them again, it's clear that "Walk Like a Man" truly was the standout, focusing on Christopher's struggles with sobriety and the distrust of his mob associates. This may have been Michael Imperioli's finest hour in the entire series. It also is the episode in which Robert Iler's A.J. truly becomes the focus of the final run of episodes. It's amazing what a fine actor Iler turned into, starting as the chubby-cheeked pre-teen, to a young twentysomething with real acting chops. I hope his career doesn't stop here and he'll find other material at least close to the level he received here. He also provides a commentary track on one of the episodes of the DVD and admits he never really watched the series. He also notes how for years people would say what a great learning experience it must be to work with magnificent talents such as James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, but he didn't really appreciate how great they were until the last couple years when he really got material that made him bring his acting up to their level.

Of course, "Walk Like a Man" perfectly set up "Kennedy and Heidi" in which Christopher went out in a way I can't imagine many anticipated. It also was an exemplary example of showing Tony trying to justify what he does and get tacit approval from others, even when they don't know what he's really talking about.

"The Second Coming" continued the hot streak and was another great showcase for Iler as well as for Edie Falco, finally tiring of the ways the men in her life use depression. Falco seemed underused for most of the last nine episodes, but I think this is the one that allowed her to shine the most.

Then came "The Blue Comet," which not only contained one of the best-directed sequences in the history of the series, but finally showed Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) wising up about her wiseguy and giving Tony the heave-ho. It's a shame that Bracco, finally placed in supporting where she belonged, couldn't overcome the gauntlet of Grey's Anatomy actresses to win her overdue Emmy.

Of course, this leads us to the most talked-about episode (or at least ending): "Made in America." Most of the hour is spent tying up various loose ends (and giving us our final tastes of the bent comic brilliance of Tony Sirico) until we get to that final scene in the diner. Upon first viewing, I was annoyed like many viewers (I didn't think my TV had gone out: I knew what Chase was up to), not because I sought finality or a bloodbath, but because I feared its lack of resolution left open the possibility of some movie version to cash in years down the road. In subsequent airings, the cut to black really began to work for me.

However, what I gained, I've also lost. I realized that when you watch that final scene later, all the suspense that Chase built and viewers experienced the first time evaporates when you know that literally nothing is going to happen. Of course, theories abound, reading symbolism into everything about how it's all supposed to represent Tony's death and David Chase seems to have gone both ways in interviews. I think the true answer may lie in the commentary by Steven Van Zandt (Silvio) and Arthur Nascarella (Carlo) on "The Blue Comet" episode. The actors said that the fade to black was right there in the first table read of the episode. When it was done, Gandolfini asked Chase, "You're really going to end it like that?" and Chase replied that he didn't want to have an ending that said crime pays or one that says it doesn't.

As for the DVD itself, the commentaries (done by Steve Schirripa, Chianese, Iler and the previously mentioned one with Van Zandt and Nascarella) don't offer that much except for the tidbits from the Van Zandt and Nascarella one (I didn't know Nascarella used to be a NY cop).

The other extras include the hilarious Making of Cleaver piece that ran on HBO and another short about David Chase and the music of the show, which I'd never seen but was quite interesting. Still, it's the show itself that is the selling point here. I think it might have gone on too long at times, but when The Sopranos was firing on all cylinders, there was nothing better.


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Comments:
I loved how in the last episode, Janice really has become her mother - joyless, self-pitying, emotionally barren. The final scene between her and Tony is brilliant for precisely that reason - and I love how Turturro imitates Nancy Marchand's inflections and posture - it was a great touch.
 
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