john November 14th, 2009
I was late to The Sopranos, only starting it this year and finishing it a week or so ago. I started the series with great enthusiasm then continued watching it with slightly less enthusiasm once season 3 finished and it began to seem likely that the following seasons would also be uneven.
Fortunately, “uneven” for The Sopranos meant that the episodes would generally range from good to great, with the occasional clunker thrown in (usually written by Michael Imperioli and featuring some well-meaning but ultimately academic and tiresome treatise on one “big issue” or another).
Where the series succeeded for me most was in its characterization and in its steadfast refusal to meet expectations: each character had his or her own motives, which we could typically understand even though the characters themselves typically couldn’t, and plotlines continued, petered out, or picked up again almost at random.
Tony, for all his bluster and machismo, was afraid of most confrontations, even when (as at the end of Season 6) avoiding them would obviously come back to hurt him; and for all his claims to wanting to change, what Tony really wanted was to grouse a bit and feel justified remaining the same. Janice was flighty and damaged, codependent and abusive, the kind of person who can’t feel good unless she’s making someone else feel bad. Carmela was interested most of all not in morals, spirituality, or any other set of principles, but in living a life of luxury, regardless of its source–in appearing more wealthy than everyone else in her circle of friends.
These three characters–as indeed, almost all of the characters on the show, including the priest–were not as straightforward and consistent as they’d like to seem; almost every character was instead driven by hidden, unrecognized motives. That gap between self-perception and others’ perception remained one of the chief sources of conflict throughout the series.
The plotting was a draw too, especially in its willful digressions, whether into dreams (mostly Tony’s, sometimes Carmela’s) or into secondary and tertiary characters’ lives (such as Kennedy’s and Heidi’s brief exchange after clipping Christopher’s SUV). And then there was the broader approach to plotting, which made it look a lot like everyday life: plot threads were often left dangling, as in the case of the snitch Tony killed in Season One, or in Tracee’s murder, or in the attempted murder of the Russian from “Pine Barrens”). Sometimes the other shoe simply would not drop.
Characters carried out important business along with mundane events: talked percentages and killed rivals between soccer games and ricotta pies. As a whole the series made use of that absurd conjunction so effectively shown at the end of Goodfellas, with Henry Hill coked up, paranoid, and worried about his spaghetti sauce.
For all its willingness to experiment with story, to lay out expectations and sometimes refuse to meet them, the series was largely traditional in its approach to film grammar. New scenes would have establishing shots then move into a series of midshots or closeups in such a way that it reinforced the characters’ physical position relative to each other while the audience was mostly focused on what they were saying. The editors knew about “the line” and rarely crossed it, and while there were some continuity errors, the editors obviously were aware of jump cuts and generally avoided them.
In other words the film grammar was, with very few exceptions, so traditional as to be invisible. The directors and editors had already shown ample knowledge of Shot/Reverse Shot, including several times in that last episode. Here are two examples I jumped to at random:
Tony climbs the stairs, sees Janice outside on the deck:
Phil’s assassin stands over him, shoots him again:
In each case we’re given a shot of someone looking at something, followed by what that person is looking at. Tony’s shots give a first person POV; the assassin’s lean towards first but actually aren’t (his head would have to be to the right of his right arm).
The writers spent much of episode two and three of Season 6 showing us Tony’s dream while in a coma. The dream was both metaphorical and metaphysical and featured such obvious symbolism as Tony, in his Kevin Finnerty persona, arriving at a brilliantly lit house, being told that he can’t take his briefcase inside, and responding that he can’t leave it behind since his whole life is in it.
So the first shots of the final scene seem strange for a number of reasons: there the series’ consistent appreciation for characters’ internal lives, David Chase’s admission that he had the ending in mind since Season One, the long gap between Season 5 and Season 6, and the fact that David Chase both wrote and directed the last episode, as well as the series’ general mastery of traditional film grammar. I was a bit puzzled over what might be just a minor, meaningless edit in that scene where Tony arrives at the restaurant. These are the first four shots:
Is Tony really at a restaurant awaiting his family? Is he dreaming? Is he dying (that is, was Phil’s crew honest in their statement that Tony could have Phil killed without any repercussions)?
I find it hard to believe that, having spent so long planning Season 6 and thinking about the series’ ending, David Chase simply forgot to get ample coverage of the diner scene. Maybe the edit doesn’t mean anything–David Chase could be called any number of things, but subtle about violence is not one of them. Maybe Chase just wanted a jump cut there.
Whatever the reason for this strange edit, I’m sure that, if asked about it, Chase would refuse to explain.