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The Scream of David Chase

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Everyone is going to have an opinion about the startling -- many would say shocking -- unresolved conclusion of The Sopranos. Here's mine.

My initial reaction was that David Chase, hardly queasy about brutal mob killings, could simply not bring himself to murder Tony Soprano -- at least on screen. The odds were high that all of our favorite characters were being marked for death, and with Tony sleeping in a safe house with a shotgun by his side, it was likely that he was going to die, too.

To everybody's surprise, he didn't. To build up such moment-by-moment suspense, both musically and visually in the finale's final scene, and then to leave us staring at a blank screen at the very moment when a mobster may have been preparing to put a bullet into Tony's head (and possibly of those of Carmela and A.J., too), seemed at first like an act of uncharacteristic squeamishness.

Let us reconstruct the sequence. Tony is sitting in Halston's, a greasy spoon restaurant, where, waiting for his family to join him, he is poring over the menu and checking out the jukebox. The restaurant is curiously downscale considering the family's obsession with food and its usual taste in Italian cookery. It's an old-fashioned joint, where even the jukebox and its listings seem to be from another era. (Could this be another of Tony's famous dreams?) Tony chooses to play Journey's 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believin'," an odd choice considering he could have selected Tony Bennett. An entry bell sounds every time someone pushes through the front door, and every time it does Tony looks up suspiciously. It sounds a recurrent note of doom, like that ginger cat that keep staring at Christopher's photograph.

Tony has recently knocked off his arch-enemy Phil Leotardo in a particularly grisly sequence, with the mobster's car slowly rolling over his bloodied head, rocking the twin babes inside, and making one witness puke. This act brings Tony out of hiding, but he may still be a marked man. Outside in the street, Meadow is having a dreadful time parallel parking her car. Her limited driving skills are making her late for the dinner. Will her lateness make her a witness to the slaughter of her immediate family?

While Meadow is punishing her tires against the pavement, Tony is being joined by Carmela and A.J., all chomping on their onion rings with customary relish, while trying to "remember the good times." Enter to the sound of the entry bell several more or less ominous figures -- a man in a cap, two black guys, a working stiff in a jacket. The last-named goes to sit at the counter, then goes to the bathroom. It would not be surprising if he reached in the belt behind his coat and blew a hole in Tony's head. Meadow is moving towards the door of the restaurant, smiling, having finally parked her car. The entry bells rings. Tony looks up expectantly. The screen goes blank just as Journey is singing "Don't stop." Everything stops, particularly nine years of non-stop television.

It is surely the most suspenseful moment in a riveting television series. Still, The Sopranos has never been memorable for its suspense. What has so distinguished this series is its capacity for surprise. Most of these surprises have been caused by unexpected character twists -- bad guys with decent instincts, good guys with hidden vices. But many of them have revolved around violent actions -- Christopher's sudden, senseless murder of his AA mentor and co-writer; Tony's completely unexpected suffocation of Christopher. David Chase does not believe in building towards a climax, but rather in cutting to the shock. That is why the painful moment-by-moment buildup of the final Sopranos episode is itself one of the most shocking things in television history. It does not result in carnage or brutality. It issues in what Keats called "the negative capability" -- the capacity to remain in doubts and ambiguities without any irritable reaching after facts.

One possible explanation for the ending is that, by keeping him alive at the end of the ninth season, David Chase is still hoping to persuade the recalcitrant James Gandolfini to join him in creating a tenth. Another is that Chase is recreating the first post-modernist moment in dramatic literature -- the ending of Ibsen's Ghosts, where the female protagonist, faced with the option of committing euthanasia on her syphilitic son or allowing him to live on in madness, makes no choice at all. She simply screams.

In the final episode of The Sopranos, it is the endlessly risk-taking David Chase who screams. The reverberations will linger a long time in our memories.