We should have seen this coming. For 86 episodes, David Chase has shown us characters absorbed in the picayune little details of life, even as threats of violence and catastrophe lurk around every corner (and jukebox). Had Chase killed off Tony or his family, or shown them riding triumphant in the sunshine, he would have put a limit on that view of the world: "Life is messy and dangerous... and then it kills you in the end," or "Life is messy and dangerous... but things turn out okay in the end." The series has shown too large a spirit to be pinned down that way. After all the tense references to Revelations and the end times this season, the finale is pure Ecclesiastes: The whole point is that there is no end, even when it comes time to say "The End" — or, in this case, "Whaddya gonna do?"
The last two episodes of The Sopranos form what strikes me as the most incisive and disturbing picture yet produced of post-9/11 America. The parallels are too clear to ignore: violence inflicted by a man who "goes to ground," then terror as the early warnings (the tip from Agent Harris) aren't heeded and defenses break down (Bobby forgets his cellphone, Silvio doesn't have his gun), leading to terrible pain both for the intended victim and for innocent bystanders (the utterly gratuitous death of the guy on the motorcycle after Silvio is shot). Next for the family, as for all of us, came militant paranoia. No single image in the series has frightened me as much as the shot of Tony, separated from his family, curling up in an empty bedroom with a machine gun: an instant, nightmarish icon of our time.
The finale brought us to the stage of frantic, clumsy responses to the attack (A.J. wants to learn Arabic, or kill Arabs, or maybe both), followed by the last and most damning stage of all: forgetfulness. At some point in the episode, everybody stopped talking about the war they'd just survived and reverted to their old selfish interests. Tony visits A.J.'s shrink, and ends up obsessing once more about his troubles with his mother, drawing one of the all-time great here-we-go-again looks from Carmela. (And is there any doubt at this point that Edie Falco is giving as intricate, deeply felt, and complete a performance as we'll ever see? She says more with looks like that one than even good actors manage to convey in entire episodes: week after week, a quiet miracle.) A.J. decides that Hollywood and dating a model is better than whatever it was he'd planned to do, and the family goes back to munching onion rings. How else was the series supposed to end? It's shown us exactly what we've become -- as ever, for better and worse. —Jeremy McCarter