Monday, June 11, 2007

The Sopranos: 'Made in America' (6x21)

“Made in America” wasn’t exactly an epic conclusion, but, like a lot of series finales, it’s a perfect summation of the series’ message, and as such, we shouldn’t have expected anything else. It’s at times frustrating, but in the end, I was satisfied by the episode, particularly the haunting mix of safety and menace in the final moments. It wasn’t the best episode of the season, in fact, it was one of the weaker ones, but the series ended in a good place and I don’t feel like I need any more.

The central conceit of the series was the idea that Tony is just like you, a family man with a wife and kids living in suburbia, only he’s also in the mafia. An ordinary person plus something special is usually the best way to make a TV show work. You need that other element as a hook, to lend some life and death stakes to the drama, but at the same time, drifting too far into a different world strips the show of relatability. I find this show more true to my life than any other in TV history, it perfectly captures the world of suburban New York in the early twenty-first century, the rhythms of everyday life.

So, in this episode, we retreat from the epic sweep of the recent run of episodes back to a more subdued status quo that’s actually pretty nice for Tony. Looking at the series in light of this episode, it’s clear that the operatic violence of “The Blue Comet” was an anomaly, this kind of war isn’t standard for the mob today. Phil was one of the last remnants of a dying age, something he made explicit in his speech last episode. He is the one who instigates this war by refusing to compromise on the asbestos dumping, and he’s the one who instigates violence by attacking Tony’s crew.

Thematically, it makes sense for him to die because his worldview just isn’t viable anymore. Even his own crew recognizes that what they’re doing doesn’t make business sense, Tony was right in “Kaisha” when he tried to smooth things over with Phil. They have lost all the higher principles of “this thing of ours,” and are left with just another business. Phil endangers the lifestyles they’ve all created, turning them back into soldiers, but even then, Tony leaves the safehouse to check in on his family. Carmela wants to return to their house, not ready to live the fugitive lifestyle. It’s just a matter of removing the threat and getting back to normal.

I think one of the most important scenes of the series was Little Carmine’s speech in “Stage 5,” in which he talked about how he backed off being boss when his wife told him she didn’t want to be the richest widow in Jersey. With so many characters dying over something as trivial as an asbestos dumping, the absurd incongruity of what they’re doing falls into place. The organization has no meaning beyond money, so they’re not really dying for anything. Phil is so frustrated at his prison stay because he gave us twenty years of his life for something he believed in and when he got out, he found out that no one believed in it anymore. What they’re doing is just like any job, would you put your life at risk for a promotion? Here, Carmine seems eager to stay out of the fray, he knows that one wrong word could lead to his death, so he just stays in the back and hopes that things will work themselves out. He has more important things that this war.

Tracking back a little, the episode opens with a lot of foreboding, heavy music on the soundtrack, snow swirling around and Paulie and Tony drive out to meet with Agent Harris. Most people talk about Melfi as the viewers’ stand in, but over the course of the series, and in this episode in particular, Agent Harris serves the same role, infatuated with Tony and secretly helping despite knowing that he’s a bad man. I read one review of the finale that said Harris was in a relationship with a Brooklyn cop, and that brought a lot of things together. The whole arc makes a lot more sense if that woman is the one Phil set up to be beaten and raped, and Harris is now using Tony to get revenge for his girlfriend. I’m not sure where in the series we saw she was a Brooklyn cop, but it works for me, and is a nice counterpoint to Melfi’s rape storyline. There, we saw her refuse to go outside the law to get what was quite justifiable justice. However, the actual law officers feel free to use the mob when it’s to their advantage.

Even without that connection, the arc works. Harris gets vicarious thrills from being in Tony’s world, and after spending so much time observing him, he pays Tony back for the intelligence about the Arabs. On a thematic level, the arc is indicative of the declining power of the mafia. They aren’t a real threat to national security, they’ve been replaced by something much larger. So, the government doesn’t have a big problem working with Tony to help stop the chaos.

From the time the series began, the world has gone through a lot of changes. 9/11 caused a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape, and few shows have engaged with post 9/11 life in the way that this season did. The mob isn’t as much of a threat anymore, and, as a quintessentially American entity, they’ve gained the tacit acceptance of the government. Last episode, Harris told Tony how the mob protected the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Now, Tony is serving the same role, they’re a part of the defense strategy, and are tolerated for that reason.

I would argue that the episode’s central theme is engagement with the American dream, and this is contained most notably in the resolution of AJ’s arc. At Bobby’s funeral, AJ talks about the fact that people still come to America with hope, in search of a better life, but, according to him, you can’t find it here anymore. Disillusioned by his experience with how the other half lives, he has stopped believing in the myth of America and is obsessed with the hypocrisies of the war in Iraq and the way that the American people just go about like sheep when so much is wrong with the world. He says it’s ridiculous to talk about the Oscars when people are dying in Iraq, ignoring the fact that you need some lies to live with the world. Part of coping with problems is just accepting that there’s going to be some bad stuff in the world we can’t deal with, and just letting it go.

AJ felt an inability to change anything in the world, and that’s what drove him to his suicide attempt. However, his growing relationship with Rhiannon, who he would love to love, helps set him on the right path. The car explosion helps jar him out of his funk and make him realize that he does want to live. Ultimately, what happens to him is that he learns to accept the lie again. He seeks to enlist in the army as a way to make a difference in the world, if he did that, then he could feel good about his place in the world. However, soon enough, he doesn’t even need that, moving away from his moment of pain, he buys back fully into the lie. AJ gets a BMW, that has good gas mileage, and takes an entry level job with Carmine because he doesn’t need to change the world anymore, just helping himself is enough.

I think it’s notable that AJ takes over for Christopher as Carmine’s partner. Tony has replaced one surrogate son with the other, ironically the thing he viewed as a distraction for Christopher becomes a salvation for AJ. Christopher does linger in the episode, with the cat, who incarnates all the people they’ve killed over the years. They’re still there, and even after Paulie drowns the cat, he returns. The conscience doesn’t clean that easy. But, it’s possible to live with the guilt, it’s there, but not actively bothering the characters.

I know people are going to talk about all the loose ends left open by the episode, but I think everything was resolved to a satisfactory level, as much as is possible without being contrived. Very few lives reach a real end point, things just go on, you could do a Six Feet Under style hop through time, but other than that, there’s really no ending you can give a TV show other than we’ve reached a momentary stasis point and things will go in the future. In that respect, this reminds me of the end of Buffy, some characters die, others go on to do new stuff, it’s not an ending so much as a stopping point.

To that end, almost all the long running characters get a nice farewell. We see Janice becoming her mother, something that’s made literal in the great scene where Junior calls Janice Livia and her daughter, Janice. Janice already resents Bobby’s children and will likely be so overprotective of her own daughter that Nica will rebel in the same way that Janice did as a child.

Junior is left in a haze, remembering only vaguely the days when he and Johnny Boy were part of “this thing of ours.” The final scene with Tony is the closest you’ll get to a glimpse of Tony’s future, he could one day end up a prisoner of the federal government, out of his mind, staring at some birds on a windowsill. It’s tough to see a character we’ve known for so long, who was once so fierce and lively turned into a vegetable, but that’s what the passage of time does.

The reason TV is such a powerful storytelling medium is that we have watched these people get older in a natural way. Movies usually feel constructed, a story designed to make a specific point, whereas great TV shows are more like just dropping into a world and checking in with the characters every year to see what they’re up to. While the delays between seasons were frustrating, they allowed the cast to age and grow in unexpected ways. If the show had ended in 2005, there’s no way we would have gotten the great stuff with AJ that we did this year. This show is a testament to what TV can do, and while it’s not my favorite show of all time, I think it is the best made.

Paulie ends pretty much where he began, sitting outside Satriale’s, looking back on some old times and getting ready to move to the future. The final scene with him and Tony is great, they’re the last two members of the old guard, the only ones with memories of Sil and Ralphie and Pussy. Tony’s generation is dying off, replaced by the Jasons and the random members of the crew. The faces change, but things are still basically the same.

Meadow, like her brother, buys into the lies necessary to believe in their family’s version of the American dream. One of the notable things about both kids is the way that they’ve each just accepted what their father does without any questioning or real moral trouble. AJ couldn’t stand the violence in Iraq, but never questioned the fact that everything he has comes from violence. Breaking down that lie would destroy his entire world and that’s why both he and Meadow ultimately choose to embrace their existence rather than run from it. While Tony succeeded in keeping them both out of the “Family” proper, they’re both involved in peripheral ways. AJ is working with Carmine, and if he was to have a club, he would certainly be involved with some of the criminal element.

Meadow’s arc is somewhat implicit. Over the course of the show we see her interrogate her father about his work, in the legendary “College,” move away from the family while dating Noah, then move back towards them when she was with Jackie Jr. At the end of season three, she has an outburst and disrupts the family order, and over the next couple of seasons, moves gradually away from her family. However, starting with last season, she and Finn become divided over her family’s criminal involvement, and ultimately she sides with her family rather than Finn. She could have stayed in California, but instead she moves back to Jersey.

Now, Meadow is a smart girl, she went to Columbia, she knows what her father does, but still, she expresses outrage at the way her father is treated by the government. She has bought into the myth, that they’re being persecuted because they’re Italian Americans, not because they’re criminals. This is absurd, but when you listen to her at the sushi restaurant, she fully believes it, and when Patrick is talking about his case, he says he’s defending a judge involved in some kind of corruption scandal, which Tony seems to be a part of.

By the time we reach the end of the episode, all the chaos of the past few episodes has essentially resolved itself and we’re back to as close to normal as we can get. I think one of the key things to understanding Chase’s work in the later seasons of the series, 6A in particular, is that he works based on the rules of real life, not of TV. So, exciting stuff isn’t always going to be happening to the characters, he’s not going to invent a lot of artificial drama that can resolve itself in a single hour, or give characters simple, easy to resolve arcs. Instead, in the style of real life, people will slip into patterns of trouble that repeat, most notably AJ and Christopher across the course of this two part season.

Christopher’s constant relapses and recoveries from addiction make no sense from a dramatic point of view, shouldn’t his arc lead him somewhere? It does, but in a less obvious way. All that slipping and reversals are critical to bringing him to the place he is in “Walk Like a Man,” where he nearly turns on Tony and the crew. Similarly, AJ’s depression works so well because we saw the seeds of it in 6A then it got fully paid off in 6B. Most TV characters don’t really grow, but face a constantly rotating set of problems. The characters on The Sopranos change, but always have the same core issues, and I think that’s true of real people. I can’t relate to constantly being caught up in love triangles, but I can relate to AJ’s issues with the world or Christopher’s troubles with Tony. The beauty of the show is that the characters aren’t likable in traditional ways, but are always completely relatable.

Anyway, what I’m getting at is that the last few episodes were something of an anomaly. Everybody’s life got thrown into chaos, as it appropriate at the climax of the story, but Chase chose to include this episode to show that this isn’t the status quo. Our lives don’t build to a big ending then stop, big stuff happens and people go on. Bobby dies, Janice moves on. The events echo, but they will gradually fade, and by the end of the episode, everything seems to be back to normal.

This brings us to the simultaneously brilliant and frustrating final scene. When the episode stopped, I, like many viewers, thought the cable had gone out and was incredibly frustrated. But, I realized it was past 10, so we had probably reached the end of things. It was tough to take in that moment, but I think the jarring nature of the cut out was a great choice, and a really bold one.

The scene directly follows Tony leaving Satriale’s, where he always gathered with the mob family. It used to be a bustling place, now it’s just Paulie left. Tony has lost a lot of friends, but ultimately, he never cared about the mob family as much as he did about his real family. He always claimed that everything he did, he did for them, and sitting there at the table, everything seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

There’s a number of critical things to look at in this scene. Let me start with the setting. This is a restaurant that’s not the cutting edge, sleek place where Tony and Meadow ate sushi, it’s an old style, classic family restaurant. Looking around him, we see a boy scout troop, a couple of teenagers and a guy with a USA hat on. These are ordinary people who seem more Midwest than Jersey, all American people, out enjoying a meal with their families. Putting the Sopranos in this setting reinforces what I’d argue is the central point of the episode, that they are just one more piece of the lie that is America. As AJ makes clear, there’s all this awful stuff happening in the world, and even right next door, but does it matter?

That’s where the music comes in. Again, Chase doesn’t go for what’s cool, instead it’s a track that just says guy sitting in a pickup truck with a mullet, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Music is always carefully chosen on the show and this track sums up the core theme of the episode. America is a dream we all have, it’s built on blood and hate, but if we’re happy, does that matter? In this moment, Tony watches his family come together, AJ’s happy, Carmela is happy, things are good.

But, simmering under the surface are a myriad of threats. He may be indicted for the gun charge, Carlo has flipped and there could still be gunmen out there. He’ll never be completely safe, but they can’t dwell on that. What AJ’s arc is telling us is that it’s not possible to fully engage with our world, there’s too much awful stuff. We just have to accept the lie, and we can’t stop believing in it. I absolutely love the way that song works in the scene, the cheesy, but great build as Carmela sits down. This is the kind of song she’d love, the kind of song they’d have played when they were younger together. They have a dream that they can hold on as long as they believe in it.

Watching the scene, I realized that Tony was going to get a happy ending, everything he really cares about is still there and he’s gotten pretty much everything he wants. Yet, hanging over all this was an inescapable sense of menace. A mysterious guy hovers at the bar, and Meadow struggles to parallel park. Tension is building under the serenity, a device that lets us understand how Tony views the world. Particularly after the hits on Bobby and Sil, everything around him is a potential threat. This is how he’ll always live, trying to believe in the lie, but fearing what’s around him.

The final moment of the show is extremely jarring, and I think that’s the point. Most of the seasons end with some kind of family tableau, and we seemed to be building to that, but just as Meadow is walking in, we cut in what’s probably the most jarring end of a series since the final moment of Twin Peaks. I read this ending as basically saying life goes on. The real world has no fade outs and music over the credits, things just happen and eventually we die. The show died in that moment, but the world carries on.

Will Meadow get to the table? Was the guy in the bathroom a killer? Will Tony be arrested? I think the answer is yes only to one of these questions. People are already talking about the way that Chase screwed them on the ending, but seriously, what do we need to know? Tony might be killed or might be arrested at any moment in the show, we don’t any sort of definitive closure at the ending. It would have been easier to end on Meadow sitting at the table, but he wanted to go out on a moment of tension, and that’s what we got, in a spectacular fashion. The lack of music over the credits was particularly jarring, just silence, no more from these characters. I don’t think we’ll ever see a movie, and I don’t think we need one, I am fully satisfied with how all the characters’ stories were resolved.

The series has always been about lies, the ones Tony tells himself to justify his actions, and the ones Carmela tells herself to justify her marriage. The characters who couldn’t accept the lie anymore, like Christopher, all ended up dead. You can’t challenge the world and you can’t leave the world. Instead, you simply need to believe in the myth that what they’re doing is meaningful and worthwhile, that it’s more than simple extortion and violence.

What this episode brings home is the way that Tony Soprano is no different than you or I. We all buy into this myth of America, the shared past and the uncertain future. We all think that the new generation’s going downhill, but really, things just go on. The generations cycle and people change, that is life in America. Tony has been a success because he’s found his place and he hasn’t challenged the status quo. He may be living in denial about all the bad things he’d one, but it doesn’t matter because all of us are. Sitting in that diner, he’s no different from you or I. We’re all a product of a culture that pushes the bad things below the surface so we can live in the dream. Watching his kids grow and surpass him, he’s living the American dream, going from criminal to lawyer in one generation. And, if you believe this series, there’s no real difference, it’s all a part of this one huge mosaic of lies and dreams that is America.


manynote said...

Paulie didn't actually drown the cat. Tony says "You'D drown it" and Paulie says, "I WOULD, yeah".

Patrick said...

Ah, that makes more sense. There was so much in the episode, that one slipped by me.

Eugene said...

Very good review, I agree with most of it.
It is compelling to see the last scene as a freeze of life in the middle of it. Like you said, life just goes on.

STUGOTZ said...

Patrick-- that was brilliant. thanks for your extensive analysis and views. You brought up some points I had never thought of, and I consider myself a die-hard fan. I feel enlightened! Thank you.

Mike said...

In case you're interested, I've written a detailed analysis of Made In America.

Anonymous said...

Patrick: Well written, sir. Although I disagree with a few things, I respect your intelligent and insightful commentary.

I am on the other bandwagon: Tony was killed instantly, and the photography follows a pattern that illustrates this.

Remember what Bobby said in Soprano Home Movies? Remember what Henry Hill said in Goodfellas? This is Chase's brilliant way of portraying a gangster's sudden death.

On a deeper level, I believe that blindly maintaining the status quo is very dangerous. George Carlin once said it's an "American Dream" because you have to be asleep to believe it.

If we all close our eyes for the sake of "happiness", things won't change. They will get worse. And if you think things always stay the same, you are only partially correct. Just look at history from my perspective.

Our country was founded by radical revolutionaries. We stopped being isolationists and led the charge to eliminate Hitler. We have a black president.

Positive change only happens when people reject the status quo. The alternative is fascism.

So, Tony's dead. People die. Life sucks, but we live it anyway. Money can't buy happiness, although it can distract us from sadness.

We must first understand and embrace our world's imperfections if we are to make progress and eventually fix them.

That's why we are here. Civilization exists for the purpose of progress, both socially and spiritually.

Don't stop believin'.

Once again, I still have to compliment your analysis, as it does expose some of the main themes, just from an opposing viewpoint.

I think the fact that there is such a heated discussion is a testament to Chase's brilliance.

Patrick said...

I don't deny that it's good for people to change, that evolution and progress are making a better world, but I don't think that's consistent with the worldview that Chase espoused through six years of the show. You could argue that Bobby's comment ties in to what was presented in the final episode, but for me, it just doesn't make sense thematically with what we saw previously in the series. For a show about the inability to change, which precludes any sort of final ending, the abrupt cut tells me that the world of the series simply goes on. A fadeout implies closure, the cut to black implies that their world continues as it always has, but we just won't see it any more.

But, I do agree that the fact that there is no definitive answer, and people are still arguing over the series, indicates the effectiveness of the ending. Regardless of what happens to Tony, that final dinner scene has become instantly iconic, one of the most resonant images film has produced this decade.

Anonymous said...

It seems pretty obvios that teh guy is going to kill Tony in the can. I mean what do you think happened? The guy is probobly not attracted to Tony, so why was he following him? Tony died, I assume.

Anonymous said...

I think there is incontrovertible evidence that Tony dies in this moment and it just makes infinitely more sense. This guy gives a very good explanation:

Gatsby42 said...

Phenomenal review. I just found it by chance on Google and having just finished the series for the first time, found it extremely enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Actually, due to the various allusions to the terrorist threat throughout the show and the discussions between Harris & Tony, I had the impression that the man in the final scene may have been a terrorist; and that Meadow may have walked in to the restaurant in time to see the entire building explode. Any thoughts?

Jorgito_Coco said...

anyone think that tony was already dead/killed when he entered the diner? (Notice how Tony sees himself at the table rather than actually walking to it)

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