Sopranos Finale (Made in America) Part One

Some interpret the infamous final scene of the Sopranos in terms of whether or not Tony gets whacked, others in terms of cherishing the little moments in life. My interpretation will take a different route. It starts with the final shot before the screen goes to black: Tony looking up from his menu. As one writer points out, this shot should be understood in the context of a pattern of “point-of-view” shots present throughout the scene in which every time the bell over the restaurant’s door rings, Tony looks up and the camera shows us who he sees come in, from his point of view. Tony is waiting to meet Carmela, AJ, and Meadow at the restaurant, so as patrons trickle in Tony looks up every time the bell rings, expecting a familiar face. The ringing bell conditions him to expect a fleeting moment of happiness at the sight of a loved one. Given the centrality of psychology to the show it does not seem unreasonable to assume the bell is a reference to Ivan Pavlov. When Tony looks up he expects the psychic nourishment of pleasant company, and when Pavlov’s dog salivates it expects the physical nourishment of food. The connection between the bell and Tony’s happiness is most firmly established by the uncannily precise coincidence of the show’s final iconic musical cue–Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”–with Carmela’s entrance.

Certainly Carmela represents a significant source of happiness for Tony. But what psychic reward does he receive when he looks up and the series ends? Presumably Meadow walks through the door at that moment because the previous shot showed her running to the restaurant after finally having parallel-parked. So when she enters, his nuclear family is complete and the final shot captures his brief experience of joy. However, the episode’s plot developments vis-a-vis the differently promising futures of Meadow and AJ (among other things) seem to suggest Tony’s expression of a profoundly unconscious fixation on Meadow in particular in the final shot, not simply his satisfaction with his family unit.

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A number of the show’s most central themes intertwine throughout the different scenes of “Made in America.” Its opening shot is a closeup of Tony’s sleeping face on a pillow with organ music playing, making it seem like it could be his funeral. The sword of Damocles looms large over his head as he sits up with an assault rifle prominently visible behind him. He has lived through another night of his war with Phil Leotardo.

1. The threat of war. As perceived by Tony, this threat is linked to that of prosecution because both make him fear his family will be taken away from him. As his dream at the beginning of the series about a penis-stealing waterbird demonstrates, the fear of losing family forms the foundation of Tony’s character. For this reason, the threat of war is closely linked to Tony’s depression, and even though the conflict implicitly resolves upon Leotardo’s death, the threat of prosecution quickly replaces it when Tony gets bad news from his lawyer.

2. Brother/sister contrast. The finale features a number of scenes which develop details about the futures of Meadow and AJ, creating a stark contrast between the hypocritical naivety of the latter’s parentally procured fledgling potential and the former’s self-made success. This contrast brings to mind Dr. Melfi’s dismissive assessment of Tony’s sentimentality for his children in the previous episode: “the boy who never cared about anything now cares about too much, and the daughter, like all females, somehow ultimately disappoints.” It also brings to mind when in Season 6 Episode 19, “The Second Coming,” Meadow shares with AJ a platitude about their heritage: “We’re Italian, AJ. You’re their son. Do you have any idea what that means? You’ll always be more important.” This episode is crucial to the brother/sister contrast because it arguably contains the most heinous act of violence we see Tony commit in the whole series, against “Coco” who “pulled some [lewd] crap” with Meadow, as well as one of the most heartfelt acts of heroism we see anyone commit in the whole series when Tony saves AJ from his suicide attempt. Which of these acts responds to a transgression of specifically sexual boundaries will be significant later in my analysis, as will Tony’s jealousy of the attention his father paid to Janice when they were growing up.

3. Tony’s mother. Tony tells AJ’s therapist Livia was “a borderline personality” in the finale. To comprehend what it meant for Tony to see Meadow in the final shot, recall Dr. Melfi’s interpretation in Season 3 Episode 12 of Tony’s relationship with Gloria as an example of his need to try with futility to please a woman and win her love, the archetype for which need was born in his relationship with his mother. His attempts to make Gloria happy are sucked into the black hole of her “incessant self-regard.” Hence Dr. Melfi’s reasoning behind her prediction that Tony will never leave his wife: “You made one good decision in your life vis-a-vis women. You’re not going to throw that over. Your own selfishness is too strong to let that happen.” The contrast between the Gloria/Livia type of woman in Tony’s life and the Carmella type can be transposed onto the brother/sister contrast in the sense that AJ is prone to extreme selfishness whereas Meadow is more like Carmella, despite Tony’s drunken certainty he expresses to Meadow in Season 2 Episode 10 that “you’re all me.”

4. Nihilism. AJ spouts a lot of awkward adolescent social justice rhetoric in the Sopranos finale. At Bobby’s funeral he chews out his table for ignoring life’s harsh realities, preoccupying themselves with Dreamgirls; when his parents threaten not to buy him a new car he counters, “we need to cut our dependence on foreign oil.” But to his therapist he confesses it wasn’t the SUV’s pollution that made him feel cleansed by its incineration. Rather it was something more primal, a kind of death-drive (cf. 6/19 suicide attempt) to imagine being burned alive. AJ reflects his model for nihilism, Tony, whose days are filled with it lately. For example, when confronting Paulie about his superstitious refusal to head Bobby’s old crew (all of whose historical heads “died prematurely”), T ponders the morbid significance of the coincidence that his gambling luck got better after Christopher’s death. Perhaps this episode’s most striking instance of the nihilism that undergirds the show as a whole and is typified by Livia’s phrase, “It’s all a big nothing,” is when Tony’s ability to live up to his father’s reputation is given the “so what” critique by the genuinely vapid child Uncle Junior has become.

5. Hope for Tony. Tony’s psychological experience in the final shot is presumably happiness at the sight of Meadow. What is left unsaid by the episode’s abrupt end is recoverable through speculation on why she makes him happy at that moment. The earlier heartwarming Tony/Meadow scene in which she tells him why she switched her career path from medicine to law (to protect Italians) comes to mind. The kind of hope instilled in Tony by Meadow’s Italian-heritage-motivated high-yet-feasible aspirations can be understood in terms of how the role Meadow plays in his psychic life is determined by its context in a network consisting of the roles played by Livia, Janice, the type of woman Tony tends to cheat on Carmella with, AJ’s prodigality, and the threat of war replaced by that of prosecution.

To be continued…

Opening Night

Opening Night is a 1977 film written and directed by John Cassavetes. Gena Rowlands, Joan Blondell, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes star in the film, supported by a range of actors playing unique and indispensable roles. Cassavetes consistently brings complex emotions and motivations out of actors who may only appear in a single scene with a few words of dialogue—one of the hallmarks of his style. The film features cinematography by Al Ruban, editing by Tom Cornwell, original music by Bo Harwood, and executive producing by Sam Shaw.

Rowlands’ Myrtle is a stage actor and star in the play within the film, “The Second Woman,” written by Blondell’s Sarah. The film starts as Myrtle is waiting backstage for her entrance cue. We are introduced to one of the film’s central themes—age—when Myrtle’s husband Maurice (played by Cassavetes) shows Myrtle two photographs he has taken, one of an old woman and one of a young child. He ebulliently declares his lines to her, “I love old people. Do you wanna know why? Because they know everything! Look at this old woman’s face. When I look at her face, I see every wrinkle is a year, and every year is a pain, and with every pain there is an understanding, there’s a knowledge, there’s a kindness. But when you look at this kid, he’s not kind!” The idea that to age is to acquire new potentials for kindness—while youth remains, by nature, unkind—is interesting to keep in mind while watching the shape Myrtle’s madness takes.

The seed of her madness is planted at the end of one of the play’s performances. Myrtle and her colleagues are exiting the theater when a young girl approaches Myrtle in hysterics, howling, “I love you! I love you!” The girl’s name is Nancy, she is seventeen, and for her the opportunity to meet Myrtle is enough to send her over the brink, indicating deep-seated admiration and the emotional vibrancy of youth. Myrtle gets into her car, and as her party is about to drive away she sees Nancy standing in the middle of the road in a stupor. In the next instant Myrtle watches as a car hits and kills Nancy. Myrtle’s potent mixture of guilt, jealousy, and hallucinatory denial arising from the encounter gives birth to her obsession with the image of Nancy and threatens to undermine her professionalism.

“The Second Woman” is about a woman (played by Myrtle) who, as she ages, struggles to accept that the girl in her must die in order for the second woman, as it were, to take over. Myrtle’s distaste for what the play expresses feeds and is fed by her madness. I use the word “madness” because her apparent suffering leads her to reject her professional obligations and wantonly endanger her friendships, and the word implies a state of mind bent on sabotaging what one has historically valued in life. For example, the script calls for Maurice to slap Myrtle at one point in the play, and instead of completing the scene one night at rehearsal, she descends into an emotional abyss when slapped, lying on the stage screaming “No! No more!” and refusing to continue. This lapse in professionalism is related to Myrtle’s desire to feel strong emotions like she did when she was young.

Rowlands gives a phenomenal performance of everything from the most subtle flickers of micro-emotions to the deepest self-loathing or the most explosive anger or hilarity. Cassavetes’ films often apparently include improvisation, but “Opening Night” takes it one step further by establishing improvisation as a theme in the sense that Myrtle and Maurice make up their lines at several instances while performing the play. In other words, improvisation is not just something the actors do; it is also something they portray themselves doing. Considering the confusing abstract complexity of this structure, the engagingly immediate quality of Rowlands’ acting is all the more impressive.

The editing is distinctive in its tendency to cut actors off in the middle of a sentence, creating a sense of constant motion and fluidity, of building intensity and diverted release. The cinematography and music serve to accent moments in which the actors are portraying particularly strong emotions. The camera blurs and a mournfully intense piano lick crescendos when Myrtle battles with hallucinations of her dead inner adolescence, or when her director (played by Gazzara) yells at her for making up her own lines and using Maurice’s real name during a performance.

In terms of plot, “Opening Night” is not a story closed off at the ends with clearly delineated moments of introduction, conflict, climax, and resolution. Rather, it is a kind of snapshot of life. It does follow a trajectory, though, in which Myrtle progressively becomes more intractable and inept at rehearsals and performances until she shows up at the big opening night in New York completely drunk. Myrtle’s transformation from so inebriated she can’t stand up, to being able to hold her own in an improvised philosophical conversation about happiness on stage (and having the hand-eye coordination to execute an “athlete’s trick” with Maurice reminiscent of a police sobriety test), represents the aging process as a journey from intoxication to self-control.