A decade before Game of Thrones rose to prominence as the most popular TV show among fans, HBO had another hit drama series which dominated the cultural consciousness: The Sopranos. This smart nuanced sitcom followed the life and family of Tony Soprano, a New Jersey mob boss who suffered from panic attacks.The show was praised for its rich characters, great writing, and intelligence as it offered an honest look at the Italian mafia. The series finale aired in June of 2007 and is still one of the most controversial episodes in television history. Here are five reasons it’s a masterpiece, and five why it was a total disappointment.
Masterpiece: Tony Sleeping With A Gun
In the first shot, the camera opened tight on Tony’s sleeping face, his mouth slightly open, looking almost corpse-like as his head rested against a white pillow that might as well have been a coffin’s inner lining. Only when he woke was the distinction between death and sleep made clear. Tony sat up, and there beside the bed–right in front of the camera–was an assault rifle.
The symbolism was obvious. Death rested alongside the mob boss, his slumber just a handspan away from eternal rest. It was a great way to set the stakes while reminding audiences this was time to say goodbye to their favorite television mafioso
Junior made two appearances in the episode. The elderly mobster had long since lingered past his prime, reduced to a braindead old cook whose whose memories had faded with his former glory. He had no idea who he was or who his family were.
The first scene with Junior occurred when Tony’s sister Janice came to pay him a visit. She begged Junior for help supporting Bobby’s kids, as Bobby had been killed shortly after marrying her. Later, Tony also came by to ask Junior to give Janice some funds. Junior had no idea who either of them was, but was too proud to admit it
Masterpiece: Paulie and the Cat
Paulie was always a bit of a joke, a guy with more muscles than smarts and a mouth that never stopped running. He was also a mama’s boy in the truest fashion, taking the Italian tradition of familial loyalty to a stereotypical extreme, while he held onto a number of dated superstition beliefs.
His superstitious nature was on full display when a cat came by Tony’s new base of operations and Paulie freaked out, claiming that cats steal breath from the living. It didn’t help that the cat kept staring at a picture of the recently-killed Christopher Moltisanti. The cat was one of the most memorable parts of the whole episode.
Sucked: Meadow Parking
Tony and Carmela’s eldest daughter, Meadow was both the light of their life and a source of consternation to them. She was smarter than either of her parents and did all the things a “good girl” was expected to. She also partied hard and had a progressive worldview that put her into conflict with her parents’ traditional values and casual bigotry.
Meadow had three significant scenes in the series finale. Two of the scenes involved discussions about her career. The third featured her trying to park her car for three straight minutes–a boring ending for such an engaging character.
Masterpiece: AJ’s Poetic Rage
The other Soprano child, AJ was always seen as the problem sibling. Between his getting expelled from school, his physical weakness, his emotional inability to handle violence, and just generally being an idiot, he constantly caused his parents to worry. Then, he began to grow up, studying philosophy, politics, and literature.
The best of his growth as a person was displayed in this episode. He lamented American dependence on foreign oil, critiqued George W. Bush allowing Osama bin Laden to escape, and even quoted the Irish poet W. B. Yeats at a funeral! He also expressed an interest in relying on public transit and critiqued his family’s fascination with the superficiality of pop culture, showing just how much he’d grown up.
Sucked: AJ’s Hypocrisy
AJ’s failures also got a spotlight here, indicating maybe he had not grown up so much after all. For all his supposed intelligence, he also demonstrated shortsightedness, logical contradictions, and hypocrisy.
One notable example occurred when he accidentally set his SUV on fire after he left it running while parked in leaves to make out with a girl. After expressing his interest in switching to public transit, he then got a new car anyway. Furthermore, he optioned joining the armed forces to become a helicopter pilot, just a few scenes after critiquing various recent failures of the US military. His entire portrayal in the episode was as much of a mess as the issues he critiqued.
Family has always been at the very heart of The Sopranos. In the pilot, Tony explained how important the members of his family were to him when speaking to his new therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. This love of family throughout the whole of the series. If the theme wasn’t obvious enough, the show was even named for the family!
The final episode took time to follow the different surviving family members. Beyond Tony, Carmilla, and their kids, there were two scenes with Janice, two scenes with Junior, and a big family funeral. The final scene was even a family dinner.
Sucked: The Monotony
Even to diehard fans who enjoyed this episode, there was just no avoiding this sad fact: the series finale was boring. Entitled “Made in America,” there were some great points addressing American politics in the early parts of the War on Terror and the way Italian-American families were part of a wave of immigrants that comprised the American experience.
For all that, the episode just went nowhere. It was not building to any climactic resolution and it barely resolved any of the existing plot threads, just letting them peter out apathetically. The Sopranos ended not with a bang, but a sleepy yawn.
Masterpiece: Ambiguous Ending
As one of the most popular TV shows around, The Sopranos was going to upset some fans with its ending, no matter what it did. If the show had a happy ending, it would be jarring after years of tragic twists and turns. If it ended in tragedy, that could come off as cliché.
The final scene suggested Tony was about to be assassinated. There were visual cues recalling the assassinations from the past: two men looked reminiscent of the gangbangers who nearly assassinated him in the first season, while the camera followed a stranger into the men’s restroom in a nod to The Godfather‘s toilet scene. However, by not directly showing this, the show also suggested that life continued as it always had, allowing fans to make up their own minds.
Sucked: Ambiguous Ending
Conventional story structures exist for a reason. Building to a big climactic finish is emotionally satisfying. The way The Sopranos ended, with its sharp cutaway to black oblivion followed by the credits, made for the ultimate anticlimax.
While this was artsy, original, and left possibilities that fans still discuss more than a decade later. it was also one of the biggest disappointments imaginable. After six seasons, people wanted something more and were left feeling cheated by this vague final moment that denied them closure. It was a dumb way to terminate such a smart series.