There was no good ending, so “The Sopranos” left off without one.
The abrupt finale last night was almost like a prank, a mischievous dig at viewers who had agonized over how television’s most addictive series would come to a close. The suspense of the final scene in the diner was almost cruel. And certainly that last bit of song — “Don’t Stop Believing,” by Journey — had to be a joke.
After eight years and so much frenzied anticipation, any ending would have been a letdown. Viewers are conditioned to seek a resolution, happy or sad, so it was almost fitting that this HBO series that was neither comedy nor tragedy should defy expectations in its very last moments. In that way at least “The Sopranos” delivered a perfectly imperfect finish.
The ending was a reminder of what made David Chase’s series about New Jersey mobsters so distinctive from the beginning. “The Sopranos” was the most unusual and realistic family drama in television history. There have been many good Mafia movies and one legendary trilogy, but fans had to look to literature to find comparable depictions of the complexity and inconsistencies of American family life. It was sometimes hard to bear the encomiums — the saga of the New Jersey mob family has been likened to Cheever, Dickens and Shakespeare; scripts were pored over as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. But its saving grace was that the series was always many different things at once.
The decline and fall of the Sopranos — Tony; his wife, Carmela; and the rest — served as a parable of America in decline, yet week to week the series was also just a gangsters’ tale, with lots of graphic sex, gruesome violence and most of all a sense of humor.
In last night’s episode Meadow Soprano, trying to explain to her father why she wants to be a civil rights lawyer, said earnestly, “The state can crush the individual.” Tony replied, “New Jersey?”
And, as last night’s episode showed one last time, a troubled marriage struggles on, devastating intergenerational conflicts scab over but never quite heal, and power comes and goes. Some things endure, but nothing is permanent in American culture, or in the Soprano family.
Tony remains alive, still in business, his wife and children are safe, but he resumes his criminal enterprise surrounded by ever-darker shadows of prosaic impeding doom: an indictment and most likely a trial.
From the very beginning of the final season, there were myriad hints and red herrings suggesting completely different conclusions. It wasn’t hard to suspect that a cornered Tony would be turned and enter a witness protection program. And that seemed to be where he was headed when he went to the F.B.I. agent named Harris whom he had mocked and dismissed for so many years, and offered information about two Muslim acquaintances, saying, “Can I bank the result in good will?”
Soon both Tony and the F.B.I. learned that Phil Leotardo, a rival mob boss, planned to take down the Sopranos and rub Tony out. Last night when Tony asked for a secret meeting with Harris to seek his help in locating Phil, he was sent away. Later Harris changed his mind, leaking to Tony Phil’s whereabouts, which he learned during postcoital pillow talk with a female agent.
And that breach of F.B.I. ethics led to one of the series’s most revolting death scenes. Phil, who had gotten out of the S.U.V. in which he was riding with his wife and their two grandchildren, was shot dead by a gunman. His wife, horrified, leapt out of the car with the shift still on drive. As the vehicle drifted forward with the two babies strapped in their car seats, the scene seemed headed toward a tragic tableau of innocent children destroyed — the collateral damage of organized crime.
Instead it veered into sick comedy: the wheels slowly crushed Phil’s head with a juicy, crunching sound that made a bystander vomit.
Tony’s troublesome son, A. J., seemed headed for disaster all season, and instead ended pretty much where he began: a spoiled, materialistic layabout. A. J.’s obsession this season with being jilted, as well as with the Iraq war, terrorism and the heedless materialism in American society, led him to a suicide attempt; after a ziti-laden buffet that followed his Uncle Bobby’s funeral in last night’s episode, A. J. lashed out at guests cheerfully discussing “American Idol” and “Dreamgirls.” He quoted a line from Yeats’s famous poem, “The Second Coming,” though he pronounced the poet’s name as if it rhymed with Pete’s.
Tony even made his peace with Uncle Junior, so senile he didn’t recognize his nephew or remember that he had shot him.
Yet Tony’s rift with his longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi — so sudden it seemed hastily added in the show’s final hours to make room for a last-minute dramatic resolution — was not mended. Instead Tony went to see A. J.’s new psychiatrist, an attractive woman, and, perhaps reflexively, began to tell his own family history: loveless mother and miserable childhood. Carmela, at his side, scoffed and sent him dagger looks.
But Mr. Chase’s last joke was on his audience, not his characters. Tony, Carmela and A. J. are gathered at a diner in a rare moment of family content that cried out for violent interruption. A shifty-looking man walks in and eyes them from the counter, then, in a move echoing a scene from “The Godfather,” ominously enters the men’s room. Outside, Meadow is delayed, trying to parallel park, then begins walking toward the restaurant.
Nothing happens. Credits. What?
Mr. Chase wanted to end his tale without melodrama or even a splashy denouement. He succeeded.