Sunday, June 10, 2007

Three Alternate Endings to The Sopranos Shot

Friends of ours: Soprano Crime Family

The HBO series on Sunday night concludes its eight years of mob maneuvering, metaphor-laden dream sequences and mad exclamations of "Marone!"

Questions abound as the series finale nears. (Stop reading here if you're living on DVR or DVD time.) The gathering storm finally touched down in the penultimate episode that aired Sunday, where Phil Leotardo's New York family killed Bobby Bacala (in an instantly classic death scene) and left Silvio Dante clinging to life in the hospital.

Our last image was of Tony Soprano locked away in a barren, upstairs bedroom, drifting off to sleep with an automatic weapon draped across his chest. Everyone -- and it really does feel like everyone -- is wondering what fate lies in store for Tony.

Critics are weighing in, polls have been cast: Will Tony live or die? Other theories revolve around the Feds: Will he turn rat to save himself, or could Tony still be arrested? And what role will his son, A.J. play in the conclusion?

"Sopranos" creator David Chase reportedly filmed three different endings to the finale to help keep the conclusion secret. Chase has always reveled in denying audience expectations (most memorably by never returning to the escaped Russian), and likely delights in foolhardy pundit prognostications. But it's fun to try anyway.

Back in 2001, Chase was illuminating about his approach to the ending while speaking to Rolling Stone magazine: "The paradigm of the traditional gangster film is the rise and fall. You have to ask yourself: Do I want to bother with that paradigm?"

The bloodletting of the second-to-last episode has some -- including unlikely "Sopranos" blogger Brian Williams (whose day job is anchoring NBC's nightly news) -- predicting a finale low on action. "We need to be as prepared for ambiguity as we are prepared for certainty," says Williams, a New Jersey native who has blogged about "The Sopranos" on Slate.com. In his posting Tuesday, he called these days leading up to Sunday's show "the longest week of our lives."

"I have learned in searing fashion never to try to predict what goes on in David Chase's mind," adds Williams.

Nevertheless, the enormous build up (just about everything has gone badly for Tony lately) and the great secrecy of the ending suggest that Chase still views the finale as -- to put it simply -- a big deal.

Most dramas and sitcoms that bid adieu with a much anticipated finale do so without the weight of passing a final judgment on its main character. In this way, the ending of "The Sopranos" might have more in common with the conclusion of "Sex and the City" than it would appear.

In that show, whether Carrie Bradshaw would remain single or get hitched was always the question. Likewise, whether Tony is -- as he claims in therapy -- "basically a good guy," is the perpetual conflict of "The Sopranos."

The way things have gone this final season, it appears Chase has decided Tony is beyond redemption. Tony has essentially given up on his "mama's boy" son and killed Christopher Moltisanti, his virtual son and heir apparent. Just before that harrowing suffocation, Tony and Christopher drove while a version of "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd played: "The child is grown/ The dream is gone."

Dr. Melfi, too, has given up on Tony. She abruptly terminated their therapy sessions after being persuaded by recent psychiatric studies that talk therapy doesn't rehabilitate but emboldens sociopaths. That she could wonder whether it all was worth it might reflect Chase's own doubts in so long humanizing such a violent, corrupt figure.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, James Gandolfini acknowledged that he also has lost faith in his character. Asked whether he likes Tony, Gandolfini said, "I used to. But it's difficult toward the end. I think the thing with Christopher might have turned the corner."

"It's kind of one thing after another," he added. "Let's just say, it was a lot easier to like him before, than in the last few years."

Killing Tony would perhaps restore morality to the series. Can someone who so regularly breaks the law and murders even his closest friends be allowed to walk? Or will a more deeply cynical view pervade, where Tony's crimes are tolerated, or at least unpunished.

Sydney Pollack, the revered filmmaker ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa") who played a one-episode part on "The Sopranos" earlier this season as a disgraced doctor turned hospital orderly, believes the series will end in tragedy.

"Something bad is going to happen," says Pollack, who expects to see Tony die. "I don't know, but I know that David Chase can be counted on to surprise us -- or not -- but at least to do something that's bold and not safe."

A.J. has become a critical character in this, the second leg of the sixth season, which has so largely revolved around themes of legacy and parenthood. He is essentially the wild card in the combustible mix of characters heading into the finale. Will A.J.'s newfound conscience lead him to turn his father into the cops? Will Tony have to make a decision between saving his son or saving himself?

Tony's sporadic interactions with the FBI agent have led to conjecture that Tony might flee to the police. His conversations with the agent have been limited, though, and it seems possible they constitute nothing more than a red herring.

The different possible conclusions for "The Sopranos" could forever color fans' memories of the show. For a series that has always preferred a realistic messiness to tidy plot resolutions, grand fireworks would be against Chase's nature.

"There'll be people who will like the finale and people who won't like it," Chase recently told Entertainment Weekly. "But I think that if people look at what the show was, or could even watch the whole story again, they'll understand what the ending is."

Whatever the outcome, the one thing that is clear, is that "The Sopranos" -- often hailed as the greatest show in the history of television -- will conclude Sunday. As Tony is fond of saying, "End of story."

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