“It’s the pursuit that’s guaranteed”: Reflections on The Sopranos

Now, I won’t bore you with yet another theory of what I want to prove happened at the ending of The Sopranos and the infamous Cut To Black. I’m fairly sure at this point I won’t be able to offer anything new. So rather than that I’d like to explain my own reflections on the series and how it finished, which have just made some sort of sense in my head nearly a month after finishing it.

Warning: This post will obviously spoil the ending of The Sopranos, so if you’re yet to finish the series, avert your eyes and go watch it instead. You won’t regret it. 

My current thoughts on the ending of The Sopranos hinge on a conversation that happens relatively early on in the series that I’ve never been able to forget. Season 2 Episode 11, entitled “House Arrest”, sees Tony Soprano and Dr Jennifer Melfi in her office, in an exchange about Americanness and the American Dream. The conversation progresses like this:

Tony Soprano: You know we’re the only country in the world where the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in writing? Can you believe that? Huh? A bunch of fucking spoiled brats. Where’s my happiness then?

Dr Jennifer Melfi: It’s the pursuit that’s guaranteed.

Tony Soprano: Yeah, always a fucking loophole, right?

The reason I personally think  this moment is so important, and that it remains one of, if not my favourite quote of the whole series, is not only for the commentary on American society (which would require an entirely separate blog entry, if not book), the fact that the ending takes place within the context of an episode entitled “Made in America”, but also that this conversation takes place in therapy– after all, the whole show revolves around the idea of therapy. Therapy is such an important catalyst for everything that goes on. You could even argue that the show is some kind of therapy for the viewer; a means of experiencing a life so shockingly different from our own in a suitably detached way. Like the guarantee of the pursuit of happiness then, the viewer of Sopranos  is guaranteed certain pursuits of their own.

The Pursuit of the Mobster Life

Okay, so the whole six seasons pretty much satisfy  (to an incredible degree) any curiosity anyone might have for that kind of life. And just as Jennifer Melfi cautions, it’s the pursuit that’s guaranteed, and indeed in the case of The Sopranos, very much achieved. The ‘happiness’ then, in this instance, is experience– to experience a life that most of us will never, through choice or simply remoteness, actually encounter. The fucking loophole? In those final moments of the show, the viewer is given almost everything  they’ve been pursuing at once: Tony Soprano, his family dynamic, the everyday unknown threats he faces, in his day-to-day pursuit of happiness. But ultimately with the cut to black it’s all confirmed: we can spend hours and hours pursuing Tony Soprano, his family, and his life, but we’ll never be fully given it.

The Pursuit of Closure

Closure, to most people, is important in a TV series. At the end of the final episode, I’ll admit I was mortified. I felt hollow, I felt wasted, and I felt unsatisfied– all for about fifteen seconds. And then I began to think: there is always a ‘fucking loophole’. We might feel as viewers that we’re being served  a whole package of a complete story when we first sit down to watch a show, spread over a longer period of time than a Film, with arguably more investment required, and that this start, middle and ending is something we’re entitled to. Maybe we are “a bunch of fucking spoiled brats”, but it’s the nature of most series’. However, the reality of TV is that we’ll never fully achieve closure and total satisfaction, or even a fully-ended-story– unless, as in certain cases, everything ends with death. Nothing is definite, and the monumental existence of fan fiction and conspiracy theories for many shows surely proves that. We can conspiricise all we like about whether or not Tony Soprano is in fact dead after the Cut To Black, as many blogs and articles convincingly do. Or perhaps we could argue that he never actually awoke from the coma. Maybe it’s the case that, as a recent Sight and Sound article by Matt Zoller Seitz has mused, David Chase may have instead intended to symbolise the death of the viewer; the ripping away of this reality we have become used to and gotten to know because –yes, in fact– it is only the pursuit that’s guaranteedAre we, or should we be entitled to some sort of all-encompassing, morally satisfying closure at the end of a show as morally warped and grey as Sopranos? As viewers and somewhat complicity implicated parties that have stood by and watched all these brutal and questionable things happen, probably not.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. To say definitively one way or another what has or will happen isn’t possible, and the fact that ‘closure’ was alluded to in the final few episodes with the arrest and/or death of so many of Tony’s close associates or rivals is irrelevant, and also makes the ‘ending’ all the more bittersweet. We’ve enjoyed and relished in our own personal pursuits during our time with the Sopranos, and now it’s time to accept that, much like Tony Soprano, none of us are guaranteed happiness, and there’s no real reason we should expect wholehearted satisfaction, in the end.

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