I have a theory. History will be kind to The Sopranos’s series finale—certainly kinder than its fans are being now.
I know; I was frustrated, too. But the ambiguity nudged me to think not of the resolution of Tony’s story, but of what the show has always been about. Family, yes, but also memory, and the strain against how homogenized everything has become.
The Sopranos has illustrated that America's common culture is first a consumer culture. Like many of the hits that have been carried out on The Sopranos, the show's critiques of consumerism rarely came head-on. They were subversive. Scenes of mafia intrigue set at big chain stores like Staples or Home Depot come to mind. As does the moment when Carmela, advised to read Madame Bovary, replies simply, “I’ll stop at Borders on the way home.” More to the point, Phil Leotardo’s gas-station assassination may be memorable for its suddenness and the great visual gag involving the babies in the SUV as it ba-bum-bumps over Phil’s head, but the most intriguing detail is that moments before Phil is shot, he is framed against a Barnes & Noble.
To be sure, the series is littered with many other examples of how the big and soulless are juxtaposed with—nay, how they encroach upon—the individualized. And such loss is a low-grade obsession of The Sopranos. In the pilot, Tony laments how today, no one is old-school, and everyone is willing to be flipped. At home, Tony is unable to excite A.J. about his Italian heritage (the boy rejects his grandmother’s hard Italian candy), and is alone in his semi-comic interest in the History Channel.
Of course, the strongest evidence of the show’s preoccupation with the past is Tony’s “work” with Dr. Melfi (perhaps the longest-running B-plot in television history). After all, what is therapy but—on one level at least—a form of mental and emotional archaeology?
This makes Uncle Junior’s final scene in the series finale. all the more poignant. The man does not even remember that he was part of “this thing of ours.” For everything that tied Tony and Uncle Junior to each other (including murder attempts), and everything that divided them (including murder attempts), Junior filled one vital role in Tony’s life, a role filled by no one else at home or at the Bing: he was the memory. And with the memory gone, so is that which, for Tony, balances the pabulum of the modern world.
This strain is what makes the characters’ gluttony so appealing. Ever since The Godfather, gangster sagas have focused on food—both its familial connotations, and also its raw, sensory appeal. The Sopranos adds an additional charge to this convention: against the backdrop of Staples and Borders and Barnes & Noble, of SUVs and suburban sprawl, when Tony gorges, he is stuffing himself with the world almost faster than its color is disappearing.
Since the days of the Production Code, America's gangster stories have almost all been tragedies. This is certainly true of the genre's more modern classics, including Goodfellas and The Godfathers. What The Sopranos has done is take the gangster saga's requisite ruin and spread it across a vast amount of time. So, while the finale may not have been climactic, it was consistent with a trajectory the show had been plotting since the pilot. Even when lightened by comedy or punctuated by violence, the show was mournful, a stop-motion tragedy.
All of this is why the series ends exactly where it has to: at a diner—and not around the Sopranos’ table. In an almost throwaway reference, A.J. reveals that the family was going to have Carmela’s manicot; instead, they settle for the All-American generic. This is echoed by the soundtrack. The series's final song is Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," instead of the juke box selections on which Tony dwells: two songs by Tony Bennett. Once again, the generically American trumps the specifically Italian.
As for how the series ends, frustrating though the final image is, the show has never been about closure (how many story arcs have been established but never completed?). So rather than critique, interpret, or lambaste it, I focus on what it did: refer me to the past, which is what the show has always been about, rather than the future, which its characters never really had.