Columns » John Brummett

It’s not TV; it’s HBO



A little after 9 p.m. Sunday, Central Daylight Time, people across the country exclaimed, “What the?”

Many checked their television sets to see if they’d become unplugged or if the cable had disconnected. But their sets were fine. The abruptly blackened screen would, in about five seconds, roll the closing credits.

The best show on television, “The Sopranos” on HBO, had ended its run, concluding as it had always existed. That is to say ambiguously, which is to explain its genius.

The central character, Tony Soprano, was a New Jersey mob boss, a killer, a brute, a thief and a liar. And we couldn’t help but like him sometimes.

He had serious mother issues. How would you feel if your mother had put out a contract on you?

He was forever insisting to his shrink, to whom he’d started going for anxiety attacks, that he was a good man who loved his family. And, in a way, he was, because he surely did.

In the last episode, he saved and protected a scraggly stray cat. But as a reminder of the whole Tony, the cat sat transfixed by a picture on the wall of the nephew Tony had killed.

From time to time the show would make us look at Tony’s brutality, to remind us of what we might have let slip our minds: This teddy bear was a subhuman thug.

Sometimes we’d have to turn our heads and hit the mute button. Once Tony crushed a guy’s mouth so horribly that, as he sat with his legs crossed at his therapist’s office, pouring out that soft heart, he noticed the victim’s bloody tooth in the cuff of his pants.

Tony’s wife, Carmela, was a devoted mother who had a weakness for new big houses and fine things. So she made her deal and lived not so much in denial as in reality aversion, where she surely had a lot of company.

Their daughter, Meadow, was beautiful and delightful and smart, except that she was a daddy’s girl and wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer because of the way abusive authorities had treated her father — killer and brute that he was.

A son, A.J., was a snot-nosed little idiot, but when your daddy’s a mob boss, it can mess you up.

Near the end, Tony was tipping a cop to help out on the war on terror, and, in exchange, getting vital information about his enemy’s location so that he could have that enemy whacked. Presumably, we were to enjoy the enemy’s whacking. That provided a metaphor — for Iraq and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and domestic wiretapping. People, and the world, are complex. Sometimes you can get right things and wrong things all jumbled up together.

At the end, Tony and Carmela and the two kids gathered happily at an all-American diner, one with a jukebox and onion rings. A suspicious-looking fellow got up from the counter and went into the bathroom. It was just like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

Or was that merely our paranoia, brilliantly manipulated?

Then the screen suddenly went black, and the show was history.

Did the fellow who went into the bathroom return and shoot Tony dead? Was the black screen death, as a character’s comment had portended? Or was it merely an invitation for viewers to ponder yet another ambiguity?

Many viewers got mad that the story didn’t get wrapped up, and they alleged a sinister ploy to set up a profitable big-screen movie. But the viewer always was the story, and no one else could wrap up his story up for him.

Did the viewer want Tony dead, in which case he might be a brute himself? Or did he want Tony to live happily ever after, in which case he’d be kind of an accessory to the crimes?

So many question marks — hadn’t that been the point all along?

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