Friday, April 06, 2007

The Sopranos: Approaching the Final Season

After a layoff of over a year, The Sopranos is finally returning for its final season, and the press coverage about the return has been very frustrating, for a number of reasons. The main one is the way that nearly every article has a headline like “Who’ll get whacked? Sopranos returns for final season.” It may be a mob drama, but I think treating potential character death as a kind of sweepstakes dilutes the emotion of what’s happening.

I think it’s indicative of the fundamental divide between the show’s two audiences. One is looking for a Scarface style embrace of over the top violence, a glorification of the mob lifestyle, while the other is viewing the show as a character drama, which just happens to take place in the world of the mob. I grew up in a suburb similar to where The Sopranos live, and the episodes focusing on Meadow’s struggle to get into college are as accurate a depiction of contemporary high school life as anything I’ve seen on TV. For me, the genius of the show is the characters feel completely ordinary, despite being in the mafia. Much like with the slaying in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the mob storyline is used to turn ordinary conflicts into massive, life or death drama.

And that’s why the show is so much more than either The Godfather or Scarface, it’s got some of the most complex, challenging characters on TV. Most shows flirt with the idea of moral ambiguity, but exist in a TV universe, where I want them to do bad things because it’ll lead to more interesting stories. When Buffy goes through her dark time in season six, I want to see her go further with Spike because it’s such compelling viewing. Because the characters are fundamentally good, it’s exciting to see them be bad. However, here, the characters are so flawed, I desperately want them to get out of the mob world and find something better. This is the conflict that played out in the first part of season six, with Tony’s struggle to deal with his new morality. It’s also the struggle that defined Christopher’s character in the early days of the show, culminating in the devastating finale of ‘D-Girl.’

That I want them to be better people is a testament to the reality of Chase’s universe. He refuses to play by typical TV rules, and that’s what can make the show frustrating at times. While I love the first half of season six, the second half was frequently frustrating. Not only was he rejecting traditional TV rules, he was rejecting basic storytelling principles, crafting a narrative that’s so loose, drifting over major events and dwelling on smaller things, it’s difficult to understand what he was doing. I’m really curious to see how this season relates to what we saw there. I get the feeling that the final six or so episodes of this season will tighten things up, but not rely too closely on what we saw at the end of last year. Adding the additional episodes was a storytelling experiment, that would allow him to take a more rambling approach to the finale. But, it’s impossible to say, more than any other TV auteur, Chase is completely unpredictable.

So, I’m eager to see the new season, as much out of curiosity as anything. I have no clue what he’s doing to do, and I’m eager to find out. One final gripe I’ve got, I’ve seen a bunch of articles that mention the missing Russian from ‘Pine Barrens’ as some kind of grievous loose end that must be rectified. That is completely missing the point of the episode. First, the Russian is just a macguffin, to get Christopher and Paulie into the woods. Also, the whole point of his fate is the ambiguity, that we don’t know if he’s alive or dead. To answer that definitively would kill the episode. No answer could live up to the mystery. The only reason people care so much is because it’s such a good episode. It’s the equivalent of viewing the Gentlemen from Buffy’s ‘Hush’ as a major loose end. Just because they were in a classic, it doesn’t mean they’re any different from the countless other standalone villains who’ve disappeared from the series. So, please, don’t ask for resolution about the Russian, that conversation Chris and Paulie had about him last season was the closest you’ll get.

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