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Made in America

Well, what did you expect—Bonnie and Clyde, with Tony Soprano going down in a slow-motion hail of machine-gun fire? Or maybe The Godfather II, with a close-up of a tormented, morally broken Tony? (Too late for that.)

            Last night’s series finale of The Sopranos ended the only way it could have: with a family gathering, heart-throbbing dramatic suspense and a final reminder—however disappointing in its way—that this show was always about much, much more than organized crime.

            It’s been a long time since The Sopranos had the narrative and dramatic focus of its first couple seasons. Ever since Christopher developed a drug habit, in Season 4, the show often seemed aimless, spinning new storylines that either went nowhere (whatever happened to Elliot’s lesbian daughter? the Esplanade?) or became overdeveloped tangents (gay Vito). And with those insultingly long breaks between seasons, that sense of drift gave me the sinking feeling that the show was going nowhere.

            And in the end, it did just that. We were left hanging on any number of plot points: Will Tony be indicted? Is the war with New York over? Will Sil ever wake up? Are the mysterious Arabs busy commandeering a plane and aiming it straight for the Bada Bing? So much left unanswered—and I couldn’t have been happier.

            Given the show’s brand of narrative realism, a pat ending was always out of the question. And as compelling—and ultimately frustrating—as all the mob intrigue and family dynamics have been, they were always in the service of creating one of the grandest, most incisive portraits of America and what it means to be an American.

            It’s entirely appropriate that this final arc of episodes was promoted with the tagline “Made in America” (also the title of the finale). As The Godfather proved, what’s more American than a tragic saga about the mafia? But while The Godfather had an Old World grandeur, The Sopranos was distinctly New World, even self-consciously living in the shadow of that seminal epic. (Tony often lamented that sense of belatedness, of having arrived late to the party and missed the glory days.)

From the beginning, the show was an incisive critique–and often hilarious satire–of American culture, from the meditations on race, ethnicity, religion, the immigrant experience and, of course, sex and violence to the comments on consumerism—Tony’s appetite (let’s face it, he’s obese), his taste for SUVs, the Sopranos’ garish McMansion, Carmela’s often garish taste (Andrea Bocelli!)–to the way it upended Norman Rockwellesque tableaux of American family life.

But in the second half of the show’s eight year run, a darker post-9/11 reality began to intrude. The conspicuous presence of Ahmed and Mohammed at the Bing recalled those reports of Atta and the 9/11 hijackers indulging in strip clubs while planning their attacks. Tony’s fascination with American military history—via History Channel—was answered by contemporary images of the Iraq war. And A.J.’s belated awakening to the consequences of foreign policy, the sense of impending apocalypse and the suggestion that the Soprano crew may have abetted terrorists gave these final episodes the distinct air of chickens coming home to roost.

If I didn’t already know that Sopranos creator David Chase was a master at thwarting expectations, I would’ve sworn the series was going to end with a catastrophic terrorist event. But it didn’t have to. The way it actually concluded was a far more devastating indictment of contemporary America. And it was perfect.

Just as in the first season finale, when the Sopranos wait out a thunderstorm over a late meal at Nuovo Vesuvio, the family gathers for dinner. The setting is classic Americana: a throwback family diner with those mini jukeboxes at the table. As the family members arrive, one by one, it’s clear that each has reverted to his and her prior state of willful self-delusion.

After the drama of going into hiding—not to mention all the betrayal and torment she’s endured over the past several years—Carmela is a blank, preoccupied and furrowing her brow over what to order. A.J., whose newfound enlightenment had him listening to Dylan and on the verge of enlisting just days earlier, has given all that up to be a D-boy. Meadow, long the show’s conscience and voice of idealism, has taken up with another son of a mobster (albeit a successful lawyer son-of-a-mobster) and explained her decision to abandon medicine for law with a lame rationalization about witnessing her father’s “persecution” as an Italian-American.

The dramatic tension of the scene was brilliant. Journey blaring from the jukebox. The guy at the counter—is he coming to whack Tony? A terrorist? And what’s with Meadow’s parallel parking?

But in the end, the only thing that seems to erupt and spin out of control is the utterly mundane normalcy of the scene: family members stuffing themselves with onion rings while listening to the empty optimism of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Made in America, indeed. 

By Joel Topcik