Tony Soprano is alone and tired when he arrives at Holsten’s ice cream parlour. With characteristic impatience, the New Jersey crime boss doesn’t wait for his family to turn up before ordering the ‘best onion rings in the state’, then kills time by indulging in his other passion: rock music. His tune of choice is Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, a power ballad as swaggering, macho and tinged with sadness as the man himself.
And what a journey it’s been. Ever since the sweaty, cigar-chomping alpha male first drove through the New Jersey turnpike on his commute home in 1999, he’s endured (and we’ve enjoyed) relentless gangland violence, assassination attempts, tumultuous familial feuds, strenuous womanising, parental attachment issues, endless self-indulgent therapy sessions and far too many bowls of ice cream and bad tracksuits.
In spite of all the upheavals, the preceding 50 minutes before Holsten’s have been surprisingly subdued, leaving a few too many loose narrative threads for any respectable TV finale. Uncertainty and compromise overshadows everything: the impending indictment triggered by Carlo’s decision to testify, the hasty peace treaty cobbled together with the New York crew, Paulie grudgingly accepting the job running the Aprile crew, the idealistic Meadow selling out to a fat corporate salary, AJ settling for a nepotistic gig as a Hollywood runner and Carmela realising her long-cherished grand designs project will have to wait (again).
So it’s no surprise there’s a jaded sense of coming-to-terms with the untidiness of life hanging over the family’s last meal. As Journey’s world-weary lyrics drown out the banal end-of-day chat, AJ tries to lift the mood by suggesting they all ‘focus on the good times’. Yet we’re so fond of the characters by now that it’s easy to forget such good times were funded by crime, and theirs is a world where betrayal, corruption and the threat of sudden, explosive violence are ever-present.
In Holsten’s, the potential threat comes in the shape of an uptight man seemingly watching Tony from the counter. As Journey move through their surging chord progressions, the mystery figure heads to the men’s room. The tension mounts, intercut and intensified by Meadow’s lame attempts at reverse parking outside. Then the restaurant doorbell rings for a final time, Tony looks up, the screen cuts to black and the song is cut short, ironically after the words ‘don’t stop’.
It’s a metaphorical bullet to the head for loyal fans expecting closure. All kinds of weird and wonderful theories have been served up to explain creator David Chase’s bizarre ending. To some, Tony was killed by the shady guy after he emerged from the toilet (a homage to the ‘best veal in the city’ scene in The Godfather), some say it’s the audience themselves who got whacked for enjoying too much of a good thing, while another even stranger theory argues it’s all a coded homage to Leonardo’s The Last Supper.
Such interpretations are purely in our minds of course: the sudden cut to black means we’re effectively free to choose the ending we like. What’s perhaps clearer though is that throughout the 86th and final episode, we’re as tired and conflicted as Tony himself, longing for some grand dramatic pay off, realising there’s no easy answers, forever wanting more, but knowing that all things must end, and that it’s high time the show was put out of its misery before it loses all prestige.
If the last meal has a flavour it’s not one of finality but compromise, a mood that’s fitting for a show in which everyone (including the viewer) is in some way morally compromised. The Sopranos is a deliciously sinful experience: we’ve spent so many hours on the couch revelling in the spectacle of a depressed murderer and his flawed family battling their inner demons, cheering them on as they make their way through life in a country predicated on the pursuit of happiness, even though it’s a land where crime does pay and it’s far too easy to wake up in the morning and get yourself a gun.
The title of the last episode, Made in America, is the clue to appreciating The Sopranos’ artistry, a show that’s spent six seasons satirically dissecting so many areas of US life, from amoral entrepreneurship to the war on terror and elitist college education. Made in America is The Sopranos’ final statement of provenance, an acknowledgment of its true subject matter, and the registered trademark of a product that’s set new standards of quality for a medium that’s surely one of America’s finest exports.
Like a family meal, or the habitual ducks which Tony obsesses over in the show’s first season, television is one of life’s seemingly small rituals that, for good or ill, can make a big difference to our happiness. Stoically optimistic and beautifully open-ended, Made in America is one hour of make-believe that stays with you long after the final bell tolls. Serving up endless interpretations and with the just the right blend of drudgery and drama, it’s a reminder there’s always something to look forward to with your loved ones after a hard day’s work. Don’t stop believin’.
This article originally appeared in the May-June 2016 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.