Monday, June 11, 2007

Keep me hanging on

This is one series finale that requires a good night's sleep (or two poor ones like I just had.) The ambiguous ending which has Sopranos fans everywhere tied in knots, needs a tiny bit of distance to be appreciated, and in the rear-view mirror, looking at all the conspiracy theory wreckage from viewers, it's hard not to appreciate just what creator David Chase has done. He's essentially given everyone the ending they want, provided they're willing to look. Everyone's beat me to recapping, and dissecting the use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" in the final scene. Thankfully, there's a lot more music to discuss (thunder not stolen!) and Vanilla Fudge's classic take on "You Keep Me Hangin' On" is a key thread in the fabric of the finale.

This song starts the episode off with Tony waking to it (nice that we're back to Tony waking up to start an episode,) and it appears on the radio two more times: Tony rides out to the spec house where Carmela, Meadow and AJ are holed up, and then again as Phil meets his end (the bouncing twin grandkids bundled in their carseats was genius.) Throughout the episode, Chase is saying his goodbyes, with trips to Satriale's, The Bing, Vesuvio's, Johnny Sack's house and especially the Soprano's McMansion. But the whole time, he's keeping us hanging on, like the lover who enjoys toying with our emotions. Set me free, why don't you Chase?

A master at tension, Chase at times seems like a cat toying with a rat (et tu, Paulie?) and nowhere is it more true then the inclusion of a Twilight Zone episode (again) Tony and the boys are watching at the safehouse. The episode, entitled "The Bard", is the story of a struggling TV writer who conjures up Shakespeare from the past to help him write (yes, that's a young Burt Reynolds portraying a Marlon Brando-like actor.) Is Chase giving himself a pat on the back here? I don't think so... the clip used tells a different story, where a television producer is lecturing the writer:
The television industry today is looking for talent, they're looking for quality. They are preoccupied with talent and quality. And the writer is a major commodity.
One has to think Chase is referencing the looming writer's strike that's casting a dark shadow on the upcoming fall season. The TZ episode, written by Rod Serling himself, was satire aimed at the industry at the time, something Chase I imagine identifies with.

Meanwhile, AJ is busy being a satire in and of himself. As he and Rhiannon listen to Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," his SUV catches on fire. (Tony lectures AJ with "It's an SUV... you gotta watch where you park it offroad!" Ha!) At Bobby's wake, he scoffs at everyone "watching these jack-off fantasies on TV," while the world falls apart around them. But in the end, when Tony offers him a job working on a film with Little Carmine, AJ is quick to dump his principles and drive off in a new BMW to The Noisettes' "Scratch Your Name." There's also the promise that AJ could open a nightclub in the future, so Tony is setting AJ up with the life of his mafia son Christopher, whom Tony had imagined taking over the family once upon a time. Too bad AJ's ceiling appears to be about that of Fredo.

Back to the Paulie-as-rat theory. There's apparently something in Tony Sirico's contract that stipulates he can't play a rat, so we can only infer from Chase's visual and auditory clues as to Paulie's secret, but having "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" play in the background while Paulie inexplicably turns down Tony's rich job offer suggests that he's worried about more then just a curse. Add to that his fear of the rat-catching orange cat (who sits near him following the meeting,) and it seems Chase has worked around the clause beautifully.

Meanwhile, it's the meeting with Junior that tells more about Tony's future then the ending does. First, while talking about Junior's situation with Uncle Pat, Sonic Youth's "I Dreamed a Dream" plays muffled in the background with the conflicting lyrics:
All the money's gone / The days we spend, go on and on
Shift / F*cking youth / Working youth
May all your dreams come true
Uncle June's penniless and lost in his own mind, and Tony's the f*cking youth working for his dreams that will ultimately end up with senility and little or no remembrance the glory. Tony sees his future there in the meeting with Junior, and it's an ending far worse then anything else imagined.

And finally, as the series is 86'd, it's fitting it's in the diner-like atmosphere of Holsten's. As Tony runs through the table-top jukebox, we're presented with three different song possibilities. Tony shuffles between Heart's "Who Will You Run To" and Tony Bennett's "A Lonely Place," which both suggest endings that aren't happy. Instead, though, Tony chooses that Journey song, which understandably had some detractors initially from the Sopranos crew. Says Chase in an interview today:
I did something I'd never done before: in the location van, with the crew, I was saying, 'What do you think?' When I said, 'Don't Stop Believin',' people went, 'What? Oh my god!' I said, 'I know, I know, just give a listen,' and little by little, people started coming around.
While many think Chase's ending was a cop-out, I can't imagine a more perfect ending... and it's still being discussed and argued about. If you wanted Tony dead, the 'man in the members-only jacket' killed him. All you have to do is look back at what Bobby told Tony earlier "you probably don't hear it when it happens." And earlier in the episode he's eating an orange, a Godfather harbinger of doom. Tony goes to jail? The baseball caps were pulled low over a few shify eyes in the restaurant, looking like agents waiting for the call to bring in Tony. You want him to live? Look no further then the lyrics to the song - Oh, the movie never ends. It goes on and on and on and on ... and in the end we're left with silence, bringing to mind the ending to Hamlet. (Is Chase conjuring up Shakespeare like in the Twilight Zone episode already referenced?)

If you're looking for answers, you won't get them from Chase, who says "I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there. Anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there." I imagine it is... you just have to get past the red (or is it orange?) herrings. Ultimately, though, in AJ's final words "Focus on the good times. Isn't that what you said one time? Try and remember the things that were good."

Playlist: The Sopranos - Episode 621
1. "You Keep Me Hangin' On" - Vanilla Fudge - Tony wakes up; Dante drives Tony to his family; Phil fills up
2. "Denise" - Randy and the Rainbows - Tony and Paulie wait for Agent Harris at the airport
3. "Four Seasons" - Antonio Vivaldi - Bobby's wake at Vesuvio's
4. "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" - Bob Dylan - AJ & Rhiannon listen to the song in the car
5. "I Dreamed I Dream" - Sonic Youth - Tony and Uncle Pat talk in backroom of The Bing
6. "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" - Curtis Lee - Paulie is spooked by a cat at Satriale's
7. "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" - Creedence Clearwater Revival - Tony offers Paulie a promotion
8. "The Jam" - Larry Graham - Neil bears bad news in The Bing backroom
9. "Scratch Your Name" - The Noisettes - AJ leaves work and picks up Rhiannon from school
10. "The Lifeboat Party" - Kid Creole & the Coconuts - AJ and Rhiannon watch TV<
11. "All That You Dream" - Little Feat - Tony arrives at a diner and waits for his family
12. "Don't Stop Believin'" - Journey - Tony plays Journey on a jukebox

More: The whole episode serves as a reminder for the genius in which The Sopranos has used music in a diegetic manner. By that, I mean, using music purely as it exists in the realm of the characters - songs on the radio, blaring from the Bing or from a restaurant... there have been countless uses of this method. While Chase abhors the use of score, he has never had a whole episode remain diegetic, due (in part) to the fact there's always non-diegetic music playing at the end that rides through the credits. But for the credits here, Chase stays true to the character's world, and since we no longer have a glimpse into the character's world, the music is gone and we're left alone with our thoughts to reflect.

More (last one I promise:) Had to love Paulie's vision of the Virgin Mary, pulling more psychotherapy into the drama with the Madonna/Whore complex. Tony adds to it by suggesting they sell 'jugs' of holy water at The Bing.

Previously: When the Music's Over (Episode 620)

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