But by the time Tony was howling in the desert like Jim Morrison, high on peyote and screaming, “I get it! I get it!” we’d had our own revelation. Tony’s life was just a series of empty epiphanies. Sure, he was capable of guilt and anger and sentimentality—of deep emotion and loyalty. But no catharsis resulted in any true action. Instead, he was becoming his real self: the empty golem.
And this was true for all the characters. Each was eager for greater self-esteem, more spiritual mojo, but in their hands, self-knowledge had zero correlation with ethical action. Carmela gazed at cathedrals in Paris, dizzy with spiritual longing, but her capacity for questioning had dwindled to a nub, a carapace of false piety and clichés. (“It’s better to have loved and lost!”) Tony’s sister Janice used yogic wisdom as a cosmic switchblade. In the show’s most remarkable case, Christopher became a sincere AA member while continuing to shoot people in the head—his sobriety impinging barely at all on his livelihood, other than his losing the ability to bond with Paulie Walnuts over sambuca.
Each drama of self-discovery met its shadow version late in the series. Tony’s epic depression was miniaturized in his son—who was at once more pathetic and more swiftly manipulative—then cured by a shiny car and a decent script. (In one bitter little sequence in the show’s finale, A.J.’s therapist is a leggy Melfi doppelgänger; meeting her, Tony goes off on a rant about Livia, now long dead. Carmela’s deadpan gaze is priceless: Her husband is stuck in a time warp, his once-affecting rants now toxic parodies.)
Even Melfi’s first encounter with Tony’s soft side seems in retrospect a red flag, mere manipulative sentimentality about babies and animals—a hallmark (at least according to “The Criminal Personality,” the study that pushed Melfi into her ex-husband’s camp) of a sociopath who can’t be saved.
“You answer me like I’m Jesus Christ himself. And if you fucking lie to me, may your mother dies of cancer of the eyes.”
A friend of mine watched The Sopranos finale, having never seen any of the rest of the series. He was understandably thrown, not so much by the final blackout but by the characters. Who were these people who had fascinated so many devoted viewers? What he couldn’t see, of course, was that each had become a shrunken version of his or her former self: Tony grimly arranging hits, Carmela ogling real estate, a Meadow who had drifted so far from the savvy girl of Season 1 that she could tell her father, with apparent earnestness, that his oppression by the FBI had motivated her to enter law school.
By the final episodes, we seemed to be heading toward the conventional ending for a mob story: a bloodbath. But perhaps it was appropriate that the most brutal rubout was Melfi’s hit on Tony. After enduring endless needling from her smug therapist, Elliot—like her ex-husband, a truth-telling bad guy, hard to listen to but essentially correct—Melfi confronts her own complicity. As she lies alone in bed, the words of that Yochelson and Samenow study flash up at her—and more alarmingly, at us, centered and bold on our screens: “For the criminal, therapy is just another criminal operation.”
Some viewers thought the scene that followed came out of the blue, but I bought it 100 percent: not just the breakup with Tony but Melfi’s incompetence at ending it, the rupture of her emotions through a once-professional wall. Melfi feels exposed as a dupe; her pathetic counter-transference has endured for years (“Toodle-oo!” she told Tony flirtatiously in Season 2, running into him after terminating therapy the first time), and she is humiliated and furious, no brave renegade but the woman who built a more functional evil person. “But we’re making progress!” Tony protests. And he adds a resonant punch line: “As a doctor, I think that what you’re doing is immoral.”
It’s understandable many viewers wish they could go back in time, back to the first season, which ended on a comparably heartwarming note, when the show seemed like it might be just a metaphor about the value of family. A thunderstorm was drenching New Jersey, the electricity was out; Tony and Carmela picked up the kids in their car, and they were wheeling around town, looking for a place to land. They wound up at Artie Bucco’s new restaurant, where Artie, after a moment of hesitation, invited them in. By candlelight, they shared some pasta made on the gas stove in the back.
Tony was surrounded by members of both of his families. At one table, Silvio and Paulie hashed out the revelation that Tony was in therapy, preparing for the new régime now that Junior was in prison. Chris and Adriana canoodled at the bar. And Tony raised his glass: “I’d like to propose a toast, to my family. Someday soon, you’re gonna have families of your own. And if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the little moments, like this. That were good. Cheers!”