It’s been more than 11 years since the landmark TV series The Sopranos cut abruptly to black, but people still talk about the final episode and its significance in television history.
Butler University Professor of Communication Gary Edgerton certainly does. In fact, he’s written about that episode, “Made in America,” in the new book Television Finales: From Howdy Doody to Girls. The book features more than 70 essays by television scholars and critics.
Edgerton, who wrote a 2013 book about the series called The Sopranos, says the final episode in the saga of New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano and his family was “much like the series itself: unconventional, audacious, often incisive, occasionally enigmatic.”
“In the final analysis,” he writes, “(series creator) David Chase refused to let either Tony Soprano or the audience off the hook. He defied generic convention by delivering an open-ended conclusion that closed with a whimper not a bang, dooming Tony to nervously live out whatever time he has left looking over his shoulder for either the FBI (which is closing in on him fast) or one of the many underworld enemies he has made over the years. Right up to the last shot, Chase preserved the rigorous fidelity of the fictional world he had created.”
In an interview, Edgerton talked about The Sopranos and its memorable conclusion.
Q: The final episode of The Sopranos is probably the most controversial of all finales because of its lack of closure. What do you think?
A: If you take the series as a whole, there’s actually lots of closure. It’s just that the closure people are conditioned for—what happens to the gangster going out in a blaze of glory—was upended. David Chase was very influenced by European films, art films from the ’60s and into the ’70s, and it was a very Truffaut kind of move at the end.
There were all kinds of trigger shots in that last scene, like something was going to happen. The 180-degree rule, where you have continuity editing, you don’t break that. You keep the audience comfortable. And he jumped the line multiple times.
If you remember Meadow trying to parallel park in that final scene, it just builds tension. And if you know the guy in the Members Only jacket is like Michael Corleone going to the bathroom (to get a gun in The Godfather), there’s lots of triggers. Then all of a sudden, it’s smash cut to black—like something Fellini would do or some of Chase’s favorite inspirations.
Q: I assume that to write this essay, you watched the finale of The Sopranos again. Did it stand up?
A: I think the whole series still stands up. In my class Television Authorship: The Showrunner I showed it to the students. I showed them four episodes of The Sopranos to show them how television has changed since then. Students this age really don’t know The Sopranos.
Q: When you watched the finale for the first time and the screen went black, what was your reaction?
A: As the episode unfolded, I thought—and this was in the recesses of my mind—God, I hope he doesn’t get killed. There was nothing redeeming about Tony in the second half of the last season, but I thought about how invested we become in this narrative and in these characters. And when it did end, I had a sense of relief. I’m much more invested in character than I am in plot. The fact that it ended the way it did, I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t looking for a Sonny Corleone ending where he would get machine-gunned down.
Q: What is it about characters like Tony Soprano that fascinate us?
A: It’s the gangster narrative. But it’s not that it’s Italians—or Irish or Jewish or African-Americans or Chinese. It’s that it’s outside the WASP establishment. For some of those cohorts, the American dream was just as compelling, but their only path to realizing the American Dream was outside the law.
Q: Where does The Sopranos rank among the best shows of all time?
A: There’s so much good television. I would say the Mount Rushmore of television is The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Mad Men. Those shows set a template that freed up television in a way that had never been done before.